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When Trauma Happens, Children Draw, Part II

Children's art and the visual vocabulary of war tell the truth.

Words tell our stories, but art makes it possible to bear witness to them. For the children of Darfur, art became the unexpected vehicle for exposing the atrocities of violence, oppression, and genocide, breaking the silence through a visual vocabulary of war.

In Part I of “When Trauma Happens, Children Draw,” I described how children’s art and play provide a window into the experience of trauma, revealing its neuropsychological nature. Because trauma affects mind and body, creative expression may be an important piece in trauma intervention, including the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. But in response to the crisis that results from war and acts of violence, art serves yet another purpose—breaking the silence about unspeakable acts of personal violation and human degradation.

In 2005, peace campaigners from Human Rights Watch provided crayons and paper to children in Darfur while on a humanitarian trip to the region. What happened next was not expected: the children communicated what they had seen with their own eyes through their drawings. They drew, often with frightening accuracy, pictures of murder, torture, and destruction, images few photojournalists had ever been able to capture on film. The images were so precise that

they were submitted to the International Criminal Court last year to corroborate the attacks by Janjaweed militia against the Dafuri people. [Note: To learn more about the collection of drawings, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at].

Not that long ago it was regularly suggested that it was better to forget than remember traumatic events and that children who witnessed violence would eventually stop thinking about their nightmarish memories. Fortunately, we now know the importance of acknowledging, validating, and, when needed, providing mental health intervention to help the smallest witnesses tell their stories. Creative acts, as simple as drawings, give young survivors a voice when silence is self-imposed or imposed by others.

While many famous artists have painted the horrors of war, the art expressions of these children are some of the most compelling, raw, and honest images about the terror inherent to human conflict. The drawings demonstrate our innate creative drive to communicate the experience of trauma and to restore homeostasis in the face of intolerable and unconscionable situations. But most of all, these children’s drawings convey what is nearly impossible to say with words and underscore our responsibility to bear witness to human suffering, honoring those voices that might otherwise have been silenced.

Click here for Part III, "When Trauma Happens, Children Draw"

More from Cathy Malchiodi PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT
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