Beyond shock: learning from conflict

Lakshmi Karunakaran

“The fish don’t go no place. They stay right where they are, the fish. Right in the goddam lake,” says Horwitz to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye when asked about what happens when the lake freezes in wintertime.

As an educator, seeing how our society has been imploding for years through communal tensions, riots, and separatist movements, I wonder what happens to our children during such political and social uncertainties. Though the scale and timeframe of conflicts in our society has not been as drastic as the Iran-Iraq war, the longest conventional war of the 20th century, or the three decade long and continuing conflict against occupation in Palestine, we know that in our conflicts it is our children who suffer the most – they become civilian victims, they are displaced, jailed, indoctrinated into becoming child soldiers and/or even forced into sexual or labour exploitations. Worldwide statistics from the last decade show that more than 5,00,000 children were recruited into state and non-state armed groups in over 85 countries. The numbers of active child soldiers currently fighting is 300,000, in government armed forces or armed opposition groups worldwide.

Learning-in-times-of-conflict Recently, I was at an international artist residency program in Germany that brought together artists from different parts of the world. During my time there, I had the opportunity to speak with a few artists who had grown up witnessing these times of wars and revolutions. We spoke about what happens to schools and to learning spaces in these conditions of political uncertainties. Do children just fall prey to propaganda? Or do they find spaces to learn despite these harsh circumstances? How did these events shape their educational journey and what are the lessons that left a lasting impact on them.

Space to learn
Iranian Revolution (1979) and Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988)
Hamed Taheri – Tabriz, Iran

“Three… I was three years old and I participated in all the demonstrations sitting on the shoulder of my mom,” says Hamed Taheri, born in 1975. Hamed is a theatre director and author from Iran, who now lives in Stuttgart, Germany.

“During those days my father was a student and we lived in a very small room – my parents, my brother, and I. The room’s walls had large images of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and so on. And there were pillars of books from the floor to the ceiling – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Engels. For my parents and their friends these were the holy leaders of revolution. Each time I came home from a demonstration, my father felt so proud to have a son who went into the streets with his mama and chanted slogans.”

As a child, Hamed was a part of the civil resistance movement against the regime of the Shah. By 1979, the strikes and demonstrations had paralysed the country and the Shah fled with his family. Ayatollah Khomeini, the conservative leader, was invited back to Iran and he became the supreme leader of the country. “The day after the revolution, my father burnt all his books. I remember helping him carry the books one after the other. This image of my father burning his books has never left me. When I could read, I wanted to discover each of these books my father had burnt.” Soon, owing to their political beliefs, Hamed’s family had to move from one city to another to escape the new fundamentalist government.

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran via air and the Iran-Iraq war started. “There were so many bombings that schools shut down or in school we spent our time in underground shelters.” The glorious days of the revolution were over and the brutality of the war had taken over. More than 144,000 Iranian children were orphaned as a consequence of the war. “Suddenly everything moved to another level – the level of survival.”

I ask him what he learnt at school. “I don’t think my education in school had any effect on me. My father was a teacher. When the schools shut down, he taught me for a few years. But I didn’t learn much from him either.” Why? “Because he always wanted to teach me something. He had an agenda.” Hamed pauses, looks at his fingers, and continues, “My mother was not a very well educated woman but I learnt a lot from her. If I told my father I want to learn something he would ask me to bring a pen and a paper, sit at the table and then teach me. But if I told the same thing to my mother, she would become excited, create a beautiful space in the room for me, and ask me to go inside and try to learn. So she always gave me the ‘space’ to learn…in everything. And this is why I think my mother is the only teacher who has made a huge impact on me.”

Hamed evokes one of the most important aspects of education: creating safe learning spaces – not just a physical space, but a space of openness and trust. It shows how irrespective of the uncertainties in the outside world these spaces can open a child’s mind to independent thinking and growth.

Community charge
First Intefada 1987-1991
Sahar Qawasmi – Jeruselem, Palestine

“Yes, I remember my first day at school,” recollects Sahar Qawasmi, a Palestinian architect, daughter of a civil engineer, whose work is in rehabilitation of historic buildings in rural Palestine. “I went to school and there was no room for me. My father told the principal that he was ready to build a school room for me.”

“Every Palestinian child is a migrant many times over. I was born in Kuwait and I went to a very fancy school. There was a tremendous display of wealth – children came in big American cars, the school building was extravagant and the school playgrounds were massive. Soon we moved to Iraq, I went to a public school that was dilapidated, and children came to class barefoot in their pyjamas. That is all they had. As a child it left me very disturbed. In Kuwait, we studied in English and in Iraq I had to learn Arabic. Once the Iran-Iraq war broke out, we moved back to Kuwait and then to Amman. I joined a considerably modest school which was in a way a normalizing experience. By the time I was in fourth grade, we moved to Palestine.”

Ever since the UN resolution in 1947, the Palestinians have been fighting the Israeli occupation for their land and resources. I ask Sahar about the first Intefada in 1987, the first stone-throwing rebellion against Israeli repression. Stone throwers were largely children and teenagers. “When the first Intefada started there was a very strong community feel to the movement. I was about 10 years old. I remember seeing older girls walking down the street and shouting at Israeli jeeps and throwing maybe a stone and then the Israeli jeeps would rush into them and they would run in all directions.”

“I remember being tear-gassed a lot. If anyone from school had been involved in stone throwing, the entire school would be tear-gassed.” Stone throwing was defined as a felony, with a maximum penalty if convicted of 2 years imprisonment. “My cousin who was four years older than me was put in jail. He must have been one of those kids who wrote on the walls. Something like ‘Free Palestine’. That was a movement too, to write on walls. For many years after he was released he remained ill. His kidneys had collapsed. May be because they did not have enough water or the water was bad or maybe because he was tortured. Everyone was tortured in jails.”


With the civil disobedience movement gaining steam, schools and educational institutes were shut down. The Palestinians started an underground education movement. “Each neighbourhood started organizing their own schools. The community identified an expert on each subject in the neighbourhood and the children would go from house to house to learn. It was very well organized. We had time tables and lesson plans.”

Sahar brings to light the community responsibility of education: to break out of seeing education just as the responsibility of schools and parents. It shows how a community’s sense of ownership towards the education process is redefined when it becomes involved and takes collective responsibility.

Breaking barriers
Township Revolts (1984-1989)
Desiré Davids – Cape Town, South Africa

“In my first ballet class, I was always in the back row. Always,” says dancer-choreographer Desiré Davids as she looks intensely into my eyes. Desiré grew up in South Africa during apartheid. She left that ballet studio and joined another one. “This dance studio was mixed; there were coloured students and white students.”

“The teacher made no distinction about race or colour within the classroom. “But the freedom that her teacher could create remained within the classroom. Desiré soon found out that the world outside was very different. “I had made friends with a white girl from a rich family. One day after class I was walking down the stairs with her and at the door my teacher held me back. I later realized that she did that because she didn’t want the girl’s parents to see me with her when they came to pick her up. My teacher would have got into trouble for letting us be together.”

Desiré’s work today draws inspiration from her experiences of growing up in South Arfica as a coloured person. “The Apartheid system of racial segregation and oppression created a narrow identity – a grey zone between the highly articulated bands of black and white. Occupying this nervous territory of an unimaginative racial identity crisis, are people of mixed race – the Coloureds.” During the 1950s/60s, the government carried out large scale removals of Africans, Indians, and coloured people to implement the Group Areas Act, which mandated residential segregation throughout the country. “If you were coloured and you looked white, you had the right to choose to become white. But if you were coloured and had dark skin, the authorities would tell you that you are black and send you away from your family and friends to the black neighbourhood. You would never see your family and friends again.”

“What pains me is that this created so much discrimination within the coloured community and they still remain divided. There is a huge aspiration to get to the whiter side, for better opportunities, jobs and better standard of living.” The Soweto uprising, which began as a series of protests led by high school students in South Africa, had gained steam by the late 1980s. “During my high school, riots broke out. But my ballet teacher would still come into our community to teach. It was dangerous, she could have been killed. My mother was very concerned. The whole family could get into trouble if we were seen with a white person. Yet, my teacher came, risking her own life. This showed me something very important. That unlike what the slogans outside our homes were saying, not all white people were bad and that one could never put people into boxes.” Till today, Desiré’s dance teacher remains her primary mentor and guide.

Desiré’s story shows that it is those teachers who don’t fall prey to sectarianism and propaganda, who inspire their students. These teachers contribute to not only their student’s pedagogical growth but become a catalyst in changing the way they understand and experience the world. Often these teachers define their student’s life journeys.

Keeping your wits together
Yugoslav Wars
Ivana Ivković – Zagreb, Croatia

“At age 14, I am in Yugoslavia and we have a class called Marxism taught by a crazy wonderful teacher. I still remember his classes on Aristotle and Plato. Age 15, that class does not exist anymore and the country is now called Croatia. Age 16, religious studies is introduced with only Roman Catholicism,” recounts Croatian dramaturge Ivana Ivković.

Through the 1980s, starting from Josip Broz Tito’s death, there were several incidents that pointed to the breakdown of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. “I remember this one clearly. Around 1990, the then Croatian government lined up its own military forces for photo opportunities in Zagreb. That was something that was impossible to understand. While there was a Yugoslavian military in place, the Croatian government was lining up its own military force. It was a show of arms, secessionism.”

As Yugoslavia broke up, children suffered severely. Between 1992 and 1995, Serb militias fighting in Bosnia and Croatia as well as the Bosnian Muslim regular armies used children as young as 10 years old as soldiers. Over 35,000 women and children were held in Serb-run ‘rape camps’. A majority of Croats wanted Croatia to leave Yugoslavia and become a sovereign country, while many ethnic Serbs living in Croatia, supported by Serbia opposed this. In turn the Serbs sought a new Serb state within a Yugoslav federation, including areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and attempted to conquer as much of Croatia as possible.

“There was a great moment of denial. My parents refused to discuss this. They did not want to divide their neighbours, family, and friends along the lines of nationality or religion. This denial grew as the war became more aggressive.” The uncertainty lasted a decade.” In those years, I saw fascism grow. People changing their names. They were overnight baptised and indoctrinated into religious practices they were earlier opposed to. I was the odd one out. I had a Muslim boyfriend and probably the only one who did not attend the religious studies class.”

Ivana’s story showed me how it’s not only the children or the education systems, but even the religious and nationalistic beliefs of people that are vulnerable to propaganda and misrepresentations for political gains and the only way to survive is to keep one’s wits around oneself.

In conclusion, these personal stories show the importance of widening the spaces of learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. Especially in India where often the dominant narrative of violent ‘othering’ negates the simple humanistic impulse to provide a continuum in our pedagogical systems because finally at stake is the lives of young children who will become future citizens. I wish for such open spaces with the hope that they will multiply and reach the children who need them the most.

Illustrations by Natasha Taraporevala

The author is an educationist from Bangalore. She is interested in understanding how children learn and how later as adults they reflect and talk about these experiences. The interviews in the article are part of her under-production film After the Revolution. She can be reached at

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