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Brian McCarty is an internationally exhibited artist and toy industry veteran based in West Hollywood, California. His most recent project, War Toys, has involved working with children living in areas affected by war and conflict.

Under the guidance of art therapists, the children are encouraged to draw images of their experiences of war in order to begin a healing process as a starting point to therapy. McCarty sources inexpensive toys from local markets and shops and recreates the children’s often disturbing drawn images in situ, interpreting them into photographic works, often with direction from the children on setting up the shots.

This photographic essay explores McCarty’s most recent work with children from the Gaza Strip, Israel and the West Bank. All images were taken between 2011-2013.

In August of 1977, noted peace activist Abie Nathan began a disarmament campaign against war toys. From his pirate radio station operating off the coast of Tel Aviv, he invited Israeli children and their parents to a mass demonstration where military toys would be destroyed and symbolically buried. In return for decommissioning their toys, the children would receive special scrolls with a quote from Isaiah, “And they shall not learn war anymore.” Thousands attended.

Over thirty-five years later, war toys still occupy Israel and Palestine. They’re found equally at up-market stores inside Jerusalem’s Malha Mall and down-market shops in Gaza’s Old City. Children assemble cheap, Chinese-plastic arsenals that mirror what they see everyday – in the news and on the streets.

While their toys reflect a culture of war, the children’s play reveals the day-to-day reality they face. The fears and traumas of girls and boys living in a war zone are expressed through the life they give to their toys. These surrogates take on emotions too difficult to process directly. Their observed actions uncover witnessed events from the children’s perspective.

As Plato said, you can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. For the children, some of whom are too traumatised to speak, play can become a purposeful means for communication and a mechanism for healing. The work seen here seeks to contextualise this play and give voice to the boys and girls who’ve had to learn war firsthand.

Resilience, copyright Brian McCarty

Children in areas affected by conflict essentially became art directors for these photographs. To safely gather their accounts, specialised therapists and caregivers conducted art-based interviews with girls and boys in schools, community centers, therapeutic settings, and even bomb shelters. “I’m new here, but I know that there is sometimes violence. Draw me a story of your life.” Similar questions, crafted with the help of art and play-therapy experts, were asked to children in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel. Locally found toys were placed and posed in the actual locations described by the children to recreate shared fears and witnessed events.

At the Spafford Children’s Center in East Jerusalem, Palestinian boys and girls rushed to grab large sheets of paper and carve out spaces on the floor to work. Most lived in outlying areas, past the checkpoints and separation barrier.

Checkpoint drawing Checkpoint, copyright Brian McCarty

Their drawings reflected the things they had seen under occupation – soldiers, protestors, the injured and the dead, often mixed together with nationalistic themes. A little girl sat quietly, intensely coloring in pools of blood around a boy who had been shot near the wall.

Shooting drawing Shooting, copyright Brian McCarty

Children at the Ibdaa Cultural Center inside the Dheisheh Refugee Camp created similar drawings. Their artwork often included recurring images of keys – keys to their real homes that would someday be reclaimed as their birthright. Alongside these shared beliefs were accounts of youth resistance against incursions into the camp. One little boy drew an elaborate scene of teenagers rallying their younger siblings to rise up and fight.

Youth resistance drawing Youth resistance, copyright Brian McCarty

Inside the Gaza Strip, while fighting intensified between Israel and Hamas, children under the care of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) shared intensely personal accounts of their lives during wartime. Each had witnessed a great deal of violence. The area in which they live has been the site of countless attacks and counterattacks over the last several years.

Through their drawings, some of the boys at the Al-Fakhura Preparatory School inside the Jabalya Refugee Camp portrayed militants as heroic defenders of Gaza. They created scenes showing homemade mortars and missiles holding the Israeli army at bay.

Mortar fire drawing Mortar fire, copyright Brian McCarty

However, most created artwork about the things they had seen and feared – death and destruction from airstrikes, people fired upon and family members killed.

House bombing drawing House bombing, copyright Brian McCarty

Football game, copyright Brian McCartyFootball game drawing

The son of Mahmoud Khalil Al-Kurd drew the moment of his father’s death – 11:30am on 27 December, 2008. The civilian telecom worker was killed in the first moments of “Operation Cast Lead” as IDF (Israeli Defense League) forces took out command and control centres in the first 220 seconds of the conflict.

Telecom airstrike drawing Telecom airstrike, copyright Brian McCarty

Young girls at the Asma Elementary School in Gaza City created extremely telling drawings that, while similar to the boys’ accounts, were very unique. Many incorporated mothers and babies alongside scenes of extreme violence and devastation, while others told of the fears and anxiety that they experience on a daily basis. Several girls drew about the memories they have of dead bodies, triggered by sirens and the sight of ambulances.

Witnessed, copyright Brian McCarty Witnessed drawing

Reflecting the ongoing embargo and the severe poverty it has caused, the toys found in Gaza are very low quality. Most are bootlegs or remains from factories in China. Rather than discard mistakes in a production run or products with a limited shelf life, they’re sold for pennies to local retailers. A plastic sailboat left over from the London 2012 Olympics came to symbolise civilian fishermen, many of whom are parents and brothers of the children interviewed. These family members and neighbors are often fired upon by IDF soldiers enforcing strict territorial boundaries.

Fishermen drawing Fishermen, copyright Brian McCarty

The toys found to recreate the children’s accounts were taken around Gaza and photographed at the remains of governmental buildings, resort hotels, apartment blocks, and single family homes. Throughout, the all-too-familiar sounds of incoming airstrikes and outbound rockets grew in intensity.

Gaza Cinderella drawing  Gaza Cinderella, copyright Brian McCarty

In the eight days that followed, over 1500 sites within Gaza were targeted by aircraft, tank artillery, and coastal bombardment, while 1456 primitive rockets and mortars were fired into Israel. Called “Operation Pillar of Defense” by the Israeli government and “Operation Stones of Baked Clay” by Hamas, the fighting left over a thousand people dead and wounded. Psychological trauma related to the violence affected tens of thousands, children most profoundly.

A few short kilometers over the border into Israel, even in times of relative calm, it’s rare for more than a few days to pass without an automated alert system blaring “Tzeva Adom” (Color Red) across the town of Sderot. Boys and girls know that they have just 15 seconds on average to reach cover before a rocket or mortar hits somewhere nearby. It’s why every playground and school has at least one bomb shelter – some made pretty with murals and others made to look like smiling animals you can crawl inside and be safe.

Color Red drawing Color Red, copyright Brian McCarty

In the eight days of escalated conflict, the warning system in Sderot sounded every few minutes. Those that couldn’t evacuate moved into a network of underground bunkers and listened.

On the first morning of the ceasefire, most families were too scared to return home. Inside Sderot Community Shelters #36 and #28, the children who remained were interviewed with the support of the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC). Despite some severe cabin fever and frayed nerves, the girls and boys were eager to share their perspectives. Having lived day-and-night for the past week inside a bunker, the artwork the children created focused largely on the terror they felt at the “Qassam” rockets falling outside. One boy wished he had arms long enough to catch the missiles before they could hit his home.

Arms long enough drawing Arms long enough, copyright Brian McCarty

Sderot house, copyright Brian McCarty Sderot house drawing

With the ceasefire continuing to hold, schools reopened a few days later and children returned to classes. With further support from the ITC, a group of 3rd and 4th grade students were interviewed at the AMIT Torani Mada’i School. A few familiar faces from the community bomb shelters were there. However, most of the children had just returned from being evacuated. They created drawings that not only focused on the events of the past week, but also on their ongoing fears and anxieties living in a place so often targeted. Several showed the panic they felt at the sound of sirens, of playing too far away from a shelter to survive an incoming attack.

Sderocket drawing Sderocket, copyright Brian McCarty

Other children made drawings about the Iron Dome defense system, successfully deployed to shoot down incoming rockets that targeted populated areas. One boy decided to show how unsafe he felt despite the protection from above. In his drawing, he included rockets from Gaza, interceptor missiles from Iron Dome, yet people being blown up on a bus. The week before, in the hours immediately preceding the ceasefire, a bomb was remotely detonated on a public bus in Tel Aviv. It was the first such bombing since 2006, and likely the first of which the boy would know directly. It left a big impact on him.

Bus bombing drawing Bus bombing, copyright Brian McCarty

To show his fear, a burning Playmobil bus was photographed at the actual intersection. Glass from the explosion was still on the ground, not far from where military toys had been symbolically buried thirty-five years before.

As organisations like the Israel Trauma Coalition and United Nations Relief and Works Agency have seen, fears cannot be buried. The traumas that these children experience, if left unconfronted and untreated, contribute to cycles of violence. A scared child is more likely to become an angry adult.

For as much as war toys can be seen as tools of indoctrination into a culture of warfare, they can just as easily be viewed as mechanisms for healing and gaining perspective. What we teach determines which.

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