Raqqa @NJStanley94

By Nicholas Stanley

What makes a child’s game? What does the line between play and the rest of life look like? Is it crossed with the flick and tremble of an excited eye? Or the sound of laughter?

Sami observed his three boys, trying to pinpoint the moment when their game had started. When the switch from boredom to delight had occurred.

This latest chapter of play saw Ameen, Sami’s eldest, take the role of protagonist. He had found some cardboard boxes and – with the help of his brothers – these were now makeshift guns and body armour. Props for a three-way shoot-out around the burnt shell of a Toyota pick up.

Sami was watching from the first-floor balcony overlooking the grey street where his children played. The scene’s only colour came from the gaiety in the boys’ shrieks.

Their sound effects were disturbingly accurate. They didn’t have to think hard to remember the sound a weapon made. It was jarring to hear alongside their laughter and gleeful cries.

The subject of their game was unsurprising. They were playing from memory. Fighting and war for the children of Raqqa in 2018 had replaced the football and tag of its previous generations.

Did it matter what they played? In that moment they were just as happy as 7-year-old Sami had been when sandaled feet scampered after a punctured ball.

Perhaps this helped them process what was going on around them every day. Perhaps it was good for them to acknowledge their experiences. Perhaps it even preserved a fragment of a normal childhood. A commodity in scarce supply during the boys’ lives so far.

To Sami, though, these thoughts felt like weak attempts to assuage his parental guilt. The game seemed like an accusatory finger, condemning him as the guilty party in the violation of his boys’ innocence.

‘Look’, it appeared to say. ‘Look at the existence you’ve managed to provide them. This is their life in reply. And it’s all on you’.

The game ended, with faulty equipment to blame. The flimsy cardboard lasted barely ten minutes under the exuberant examination the boys had subjected it to.

And with that they crossed back over the line; they left to play and resumed the rest of their life.

Sami was relieved. The game had magnified his guilt and its cessation alleviated that. But only a little.

There was no true escape from it. –

This was inspired by a photo in Saturday’s paper. I’ll bring it into school. It’s fair to say it has stayed with me. It’s worth seeing.

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