Kids obsessed with Call of Duty? Cure them with a trip to a real war zone
Think of it as the antithesis of a trip to Disneyland – a powerful puncturing of fantasy, and certainly not a usual family holiday. Earlier this year, Swedish journalist Carl-Magnus Helgegren took his two sons to Israeli-occupied territories.
Helgegren had been sitting around the table with Leo, 10, and Frank, 11, last year, when they started talking about the new Call of Duty video game they wanted to get. He told them they could play the game, but only if they understood the reality of what it showed – which meant witnessing the real fall out of war and occupation.
He looked into taking them to Iraq or Afghanistan, before deciding that Israel would be a safer option – this being in April, before the latest conflict in Gaza. They went to the Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem, and visited the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. They were shocked by what they saw at Shuafat, he says. “Outside the school, there is more or less an open drugs market; people are burning trash in the street; and, at the clinic, the manager told them: ‘We’re stitching up kids every day who get beaten in the head with the butt of a gun.'”
At Majdal Shams, in the Golan Heights, he reminded the boys of the story of the chemical weapons attack in Damascus, barely 40 miles away in neighbouring Syria, that they had seen on the front pages of the newspapers. “They looked into the distance and thought: ‘Wow, this is for real.'”
The “holiday” wasn’t intended to “traumatise them,” says Helgegren, pointing out that there were nicer experiences, such as staying with an Israeli family, and visits to museums and the zoo. But he acknowledges the visit to the refugee camp, particularly affected them. “They were very sad. My younger son wanted to bring his air gun and defend the children of Shuafat. I said: ‘You really have to think about that because the reason they are there in the first place is because someone brought a gun, so bringing another gun wouldn’t solve the situation.'”
And once back home? “They didn’t want to play the games because it didn’t feel right.” It also led to other conversations – talking about asylum seekers coming to Sweden, one of his sons said he could now imagine the types of situation people were fleeing. “He said ‘I understand why people want to come to our country and I don’t blame them’.”
As a freelance writer, Helgegren had been to the occupied territories before, but he says many parents could take their children on such a trip. “It’s no different to rent a car in Jerusalem than to rent a car in London, and if you want to get in touch with organisations to show you around, there are tons of them.
“I hear a lot of parents saying: ‘My children are playing these games and I don’t know how to get them out of their room.’ The next time I hear someone say that I’m going to say: ‘Take responsibility for what your children are playing, and either stop it or buy a ticket and go somewhere and show them war.’ Or buy a book and educate them.
“I just think we owe this to our children. If we keep them ignorant, we cannot say that we really believe that the world is going to change. If they don’t know, how can they take a stand for change?”
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