Kids’ drawings of Darfur are evidence only of idiocy

Mar 9, 2009
Tim Willis

Darfuri children’s drawings of Janjaweed violence are to be used as evidence of war crimes. But haven’t children always drawn pictures of war?

It remains doubtful that Omar al-Bashir, indicted on Wednesday, will ever face trial for war crimes. But if his prosecutors do catch up, and the Sudanese president finds himself in the dock of the International Criminal Court at the Hague, he will have to challenge a remarkable new type of evidence: children's pictures.

In support of the prosecution case, the court has accepted depictions of Janjaweed militiamen behaving atrociously: bombing, raping, pillaging and torturing Darfurians, and torching their villages. Carefully coloured - poignantly at odds with their subject matter - they were made by child refugees, and collected by the human rights group Waging Peace, after one of the charity's volunteers distributed crayons and paper in a camp, as part of a counselling exercise.

Now, for all one knows, al-Bashir is guilty as hell of directing a Janjaweed campaign of terror. (For what they're worth, the media reports concur.) But even if one believed that the camera never lies - and who does in the Photoshop age? - one surely wouldn't think that imaginative representations by minors have any legal standing? Next time you're nicked for something, produce as an alibi a painting of  'Daddy/Mummy at Home' on the night of the alleged incident, and see how far it gets you.

There are other concerns, too. Were the children coached, for example, or more subtly conditioned? Seeing these pictures from Sudan, I was reminded of meeting some Palestinian children a few years back. A group of about 20, the most deserving cases, had been plucked from the squalor of Bethlehem for a fortnight's break in the Cotswolds, and I was invited to a lunch that a friend gave for them.

So there we were, with their English minders and Palestinian teacher, and we could tell they were delightful kids. But since the language barrier made communication difficult, our hostess decided to distribute crayons and paper, and asked them (through their teacher) to draw where they came from. Many of the resulting pictures were depressing - helicopter gunships, soldiers and tanks, bulldozers and blood - but not all, which suggests they weren't briefed when their teacher gave them instructions.

Maybe the children think they’re expected to deliver such grim pictures

Now maybe the exercise spoke for itself: isn't it awful that these children's lives have been so blighted, they associate violence with the idea of 'home', and use the innocent instruments of play to render a constant, waking nightmare? But since then, a thought has begun to nag.

Maybe, when do-gooding Westerners hand out the Lakelands, their little clients think they're expected to deliver such grim goods? And a memory pricks, too: when we were little bourgeois in the suburbs, a million miles from any conflict, all my friends and I ever drew were battles and shoot-outs.

This is not to deny the Darfurian children's experiences, nor to imply that Waging Peace counsellors are in the same bracket as Orcadian social workers. (Remember that paedophile scandal?) But if these innocents have relevant testimony, it would be best delivered from a witness box, in answer to specific questions. Otherwise, you may as well take my infant doodlings - a daily diet of Tommies slaughtering Nazis - as proof that World War Two was still being waged in 1966.

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