That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone is a collection of personal essays from adults who survived childhood in various warzones around the globe. As much as this is a collection of stories about the atrocities of war, it is also, and maybe even more so, a collection of stories of hope for peace. Alia Yunis, in his examination of the Israel-Palestine conflict, comments: “A child can flee the war . . . or the war can stop. But in most cases, children become the adult voices in the background soundtrack of a new generation’s war.”
The adult contributors to this collection escaped the fate of becoming that soundtrack. Instead of being exiled, as editor J.L. Powers notes is the common thread among warzone children, these people find a shared identification and belonging that will become a part of the new story that “allows children to belong someplace new” and to “be a part of healing from war.”
Of the seventeen essays in this collection, most are singular in cultural/country origin, though few make geographical connections. In “A Separate Escape: The Chin of Burma & the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program,” the connections are physically traveled. Author Rebecca Henderson relates the stories of four minor-aged refugees as they escape Burma for Malaysia, with some able to seek refuge in the U.S. In “Symphony No. 1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945),” David Griffith recollects his perspective as a fourteen-year-old in the U.S. watching the bombing of Iraq (1990) on television, while he learned about the bombing of Dresden in 1945 by playing Symphony No. 1 in his school orchestra. Only as an adult does Griffith make the ideological connection he missed before: how we justify our wars to make the resulting atrocities acceptable.
This is a collection steeped in global history. In her introduction, Powers recounts living with a family in South Africa in 2006. She explains their economic struggles, the challenges to create futures of hope, and she asks: “What does this have to do with war?” Her answer: “On the surface, nothing.” But then she looks back through South African history: apartheid, further back to colonialism, further still to war—back some 300 years. Every story shared in this book reflects a historical time of political upheaval. In addition to brief introductions for each essay that provide this historical context, each author relates this history as a part of their narrative. For some, they saw war change the world around them; for others, they were born into the aftermath and only know their world is the way it is because of a war that happened before.
Qais Akbar Omar’s “A Talib in Love” centers on the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan and the changes he witnessed in the ensuing years. High-school-aged Kabul boys found themselves facing Taliban of the same age but from completely different worlds of understanding. Omar recounts one Talib in particular, Mallah Ghafar, with whom he bonded. Being daring young teens, the Kabul boys eventually risk sharing their views with the young Talib, questioning the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law, their treatment of people, and exposing Mallah Ghafar to western culture: movies. Omar reflects:
We had first seen Mullah Ghafar as a Talib with a whip, but now we knew he was just a young guy from a village who had never had a chance to learn many things about the world. We were slowly coming to understand that many of the other Taliban were the same. Some did wicked things because that made them happy. But many of them just did not seem to know any better. Though it did not make me like the Taliban, at least it helped me understand them a little better.
The book provides this insight in every essay. Can you understand how someone might end up the way they are given how they have grown up from childhood? This doesn’t mean accepting or condoning their behavior, but understanding it is the first step to peaceable solutions, to creating change, just as Omar did with Mallah Ghafar, who left his post with the Taliban to return to his family.
That Mad Game stresses how important it is that we acknowledge the impact of war on children. Powers cites the 1996 U.N./UNICEF report, “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children,” which recognizes the transformation of war tactics, bringing armed conflict “to the core of civilian life” and including children: as targets, as actors (suicide bombers), and as aggressors (soldiers). Powers includes data from Charles London (One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War), “that there have been 14,000 wars in the last 5,600 years, and at least 160 wars since 1945. Children are far more likely to experience war at some point during their childhood than they are to grow up without it.”
Having grown up during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), Xiaomei Lucas (through writer Becky Cerling Powers) tells how Chinese government harnessed the vulnerability of children: “Fortunately, the violent stage of the Revolution was over by the time I became a Red Guard in middle school. I never saw people being beaten to death like my older brother did. I attended meetings and wrote slogans. Being a Red Guard was expected. If you wanted to be considered a good child, you joined. We knew nothing. We were just kids.”
In “A Separate Escape,” the teens are no longer just kids, and sixteen-year-old Lian and his friends resist being conscripted yet again by the Burmese army to porter supplies through the mountains. Having heard the cargo would be live ammunition, they decide they will risk an escape attempt. Two of the boys tackle a guard while Lian and the others flee. After finding himself separated from his friends, Lian realizes “that he hadn’t thought ahead to what he would do if their escape were successful. He wept on the banks of the river while the reality of this situation set in.” He later learns that two of the boys had been captured; one was beaten to death, while the other remained missing.
Lian’s story, with that of Chum and Mang as told by Rebecca Henderson, details the desperate situation of many young Burmese, abducted (drafted), tortured, abused, forced into labor for the army. Of those who can escape to Malaysia, there is no refuge. Living tens to one apartment, they cannot receive proper papers, are abused as slave labor in the city, thrown in prison, and often deported to the Malaysia-Thailand border where they are further detained, trafficked, or deported back to Burma. Organizations exist to help, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but even their work is thwarted by the government. Resettlement in the U.S. is made possible by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement working with the UNHRC, but the needs of tens of thousands of unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs) worldwide is overwhelming.
For some, while leaving is an option, their choice instead is to stay. In Fito Avitia’s “From Fear to Hope,” he explains the challenges he and his wife face raising their two young daughters in Juárez, Mexico—the deadliest city in the world. “We try to be very careful with what they see and hear so as not to disrupt their innocence. . . . It’s a risk, but we want them to be normal kids. Our girls are children, and they need to feel the sun and experience the world outside. We treasure the joy we see on their faces, even more so in a city at war.” When criticized by those who think he should leave Juárez, Avitia defends his choice to stay: “We moved from fear to hope. We sense change coming to Juárez now—good change—and we want to be a part of it . . . people began to realize, If we don’t do anything, it will get worse and become hopeless.”
In many of these stories, it’s not a matter of staying or leaving, but of returning home. For Mutassem Abu Karsh in Alia Yunis’s essay “My War and His War,” the Shriners Children’s Hospital brought him to Los Angeles to re-do a botched amputation after his leg and fingers were blown off in an Israeli bombing in Gaza (2005). While he appreciated his new surroundings, when asked if he wanted to stay in L.A., he declined without hesitation. The day he boarded the plane to return home, Yunis recounts: “If he wasn’t worried that we’d think him rude, he probably would have run to that plane, back to his soundtrack, his home—come war, come peace, come sun, come rain.”
It’s impossible to read these essays and not feel a changed perception of the world around us, to have a deeper and more connected understanding to the news we hear on the radio and see on television. That Mad Game includes the very stories that need to be told and heard—over and over again—and louder than the political media soundtrack playing so prominently in our daily lives. Instead of talking about the need for war, we must shift the narrative to the effects of war—on ourselves, on children, on our futures. Pick this book up, read it, share it with others, start the conversation now, today, and do whatever it takes to keep it going, keep the soundtrack playing over and over. Loudly.
Ed. note: J.L. Powers is a NewPages contributor.