It's pretty safe to say that most mornings you're gonna wake up to the news that something horrible has happened in either the MENA region or in Sub-Saharan Africa. The reports of coups, photographs of people crying and shaky videos of things exploding seem to come so thick and fast that it's not just possible to feel a little desensitised to it, it's pretty much impossible not to. But in the neverending churn of 24-hour news war porn, the individual we're least likely to remember is the returned soldier, the player in anonymous fatigues now pulled away from and out of the action.
Theatre Témoin’s Artistic Director Ailin Conant is three quarters of her way through a year spent hanging out with ex-combatants from some of history's most insane wars. As part of the Return venture, Ailin is conducting theatre projects centred around the theme of homecoming with and about veterans in Lebanon, Israel, Rwanda and India. The aim is to incorporate the entire experience into one play in 2013.
We persuaded Ailin to share some of the stories and testimonials that the veterans allowed her to be privy to on her travels. LEBANON
Khiam Detention Centre in South Lebanon, where Southern Lebanese were tortured by the SLA and the IDF, has since been converted into a museum by Hezbollah Interview: Former Commander, Communist Party (transcribed from English)
"In 1975, I was in Nabaa in Beirut for the Lebanese Civil War. And it happened every day there, some of these incidents which I'm gonna tell you about. They kidnapped people, killed some. I was just 16 years old and my friend disappeared. We saw him again after searching, in an area called Dahr el Jamal. And they killed him. He was tortured with irons, and they'd cut out his tongue, eyes, nose, ears and even his dick. Until now, it'd been stuck in my… But it's not this that makes trauma for me.
"We call it 'Black Saturday'. I was responsible for a group of youths at the time, and two of them were brothers. Something like 300 people got killed that day, in Nabaa and Bourj Hammoud, mainly. From my team, there was 15, 20, and two of them, the two brothers, I was particularly friendly with. When they got killed by [right-wing Christian militia] the Phalange, I decided that, as a reaction, I'd plan an operation against them.
"I went by myself to where they were based in Dawra, I went to the bank as a civilian, to plot something. We didn't end up doing it, but I'm telling you what we… [deep breath] what I decided – that if we catch the fighters, we will bring them to these deep holes, and we will keep them alive as we pour cement on them. OK?
"Somehow my commander realised what I was thinking. Someone spoke to him, and he told us to attack Sin el Fil on the same day we were planning the revenge attack on the Phalange. If we refused to go, they would have said that we were cowards, but when we got there, the place was empty. After, the commander told us that he knew what we were planning, so he stopped us doing it.
"Later, they caught the commander in Nabaa and we set up a hostage exchange. We sent forward the guy we'd caught, but as our commander was coming towards us, a sniper killed him. When someone's in a war, how will he react? Sometimes in a stupid way, in a not human way. Until now I am afraid of myself and how I think. You lose your humanity. All. You lose all of your humanity."
View of disused army vehicles from Ailin's room in Beirut
Interview: Former Intelligence Officer, Lebanese Forces (translated from Arabic) "From time to time, this highly-ranked religious person would come and visit us (me and another person, who I will not name). He would ask us if we wanted to confess. So one time I went to see him, I don’t know why. And casually he asked me, 'What sins do you have, my dear?' So I told him that this week I had had to decide the fate of a few people. And I took the decision to kill them. And he said, 'What? Didier, what are you talking about?' So I thought, 'No, no, no, oh my god.' I got scared.
"He said: 'You? I know how you make your decisions, and I know you're not going to kill anyone just like that. And plus, you are on a mission. You are in charge of a mission on behalf of the Christians. Let's not discuss this any more during confession, because I am going to give you absolution for the next 500 kills you make. Finish them, and then come back to me.'
"So I left. I could not hide that I was perplexed. But I thought, 'If someone like him is giving away pardons so easily, then maybe I see things bigger than they are, maybe they're not important, these decisions I have to take.' Later, though, I changed, and I saw everything that I’d done differently. Now I say, 'Poor him, and poor society that I lived in.' The whole society was sick." ISRAEL
Interview: Friend of Former Security Forces Officer, IDF (translated from Hebrew)
"One day he said to me: 'Listen, I want you to do me a favour. Do you love me?' I told him I did. He said, 'Look, I know I am dealing with a man here. I've learned to know you. Yossi, we've been through everything together. But blood, I haven't seen yet. And blood puts me in a panic. I want you to hit me. I want you to hit me so that I have blood pouring out of me to see how I react.'
"I said to him, 'I can't do that.' He started crying, just crying and crying. He said, 'Yossi, you have to do this to me.' We sat there for two hours, both crying. I said, 'How can I hit you? It's impossible. And woe to me if my daughters come out and see us playing this game. Or my wife. That would be the end of the world for me.' But he wouldn't give up, and started twisting my hand back trying to get me to slap him. Eventually he convinced me. I told myself it's really going to help him.
"So we sat for about an hour and a half and I’m hitting him, I’m slapping him on the face. I started out gentle, but he's telling me 'harder, harder' because he wants to see blood. And I could see that I was talking to a man who is basically not there. He's not even moving his eyes. He doesn't blink at all. So I started to hit him harder and harder and harder and harder, and he said to me, 'Yossi, more and more and more.' Until eventually, by mistake, my hand slipped and hit his nose, and his nose bled a bit, and he started hugging and kissing me. He said, 'Yossi, you don't know what you've just done for me.'
"Later that night, at 1AM, we started up the car and drove to a maket in Hadera. He'd not been there in 16 years, and I told myself, 'This is the final test. If I get through this test with him, his life is opened up.' We got there half an hour later and no one else was around. He started pointing out to me where each bullet had been fired 16 years earlier, where each head of every terrorist fell, where he picked up the child that had been playing with its toys, when…
"He said there was one more thing he wanted to do. We went to a store and bought two candles. We lit one for the child and one for the mother. And when we were finished with that, Oalac and I sat there on the bench, and I saw that he was sighing like all the pain came out."
Israeli actors' interpretion of veteran interviews: Gil Desiano, Orna Salinger, Yehuda Nehari. Performed for veterans. Interview: Former Arrow Unit Officer, IDF (transcribed from English)
"I remember talking about it with people who were in my unit. It doesn't matter how you ranked – I spoke to the people who were my commanders, and those who'd been my subordinates, and everyone felt the same. It was difficult to say, but the most fun I had during my service was the second Lebanese war. And the way I justify that is simply because during the second Lebanese war, as opposed to what I had been used to before, it was like war by remote control. Because we just saw, you know, pictures on a screen – we knew they were missiles that were headed towards a civilian population, and everything was very serious, but there was no trauma there.
"I'm sure if you asked someone in the infantry, they wouldn't use the word 'fun'. I'm sure it wouldn't be part of their jargon. But I remember when I moved out of the field and into the Arrow Unit operation centre, it just looked like something out of Star Wars. There's just a command centre with this huge screen, and it's all very… what's the word? Sterile. Very sterile. And it really looked just like a computer game. Like, there's the screen, and there's the good guys and the bad guys, and our missiles our blue and it's good, and their missiles are red and they're bad.
"In order to get into the operation centre, which was underground, you had to go through all these heavy doors. It was one of the most well-protected rooms in Israel, and it just feels really out of context. When you train, all you run through are these catastrophic doomsday scenarios – you know, Iran has launched seven chemical missiles, Syria has launched eight more at the same time, the Israeli airforce has been destroyed and the US has, like, been invaded by China.
"It really, really feels like a video game. They're just absurd scenarios."
Boys from the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission’s child rehab centre in Musanze, dancing.
Workshop exercise with demobilised child soldiers (aged 12 -18) recently returned from refuge in the Congo: “I remember, in the forest.” (translated from Kinyarwanda) "I remember the time when I went to steal from a farmer and attacked him. I remember how they beat me during the military training. I remember trying to escape from the training camp. Being caught and taken back. I remember sleeping three nights in the forest before they caught me. "I remember being chased from our camp. Or how they came after us to kill us. "I remember well the time I was separated from my parents. That’s when I began living a difficult life. They made me transport gear that was too heavy for me, and en route we inflicted a lot of violence on civilian farmers, and forced them to give us their things. "I remember when we fought. I remember my close friend who died. "I remember consuming ganja. I would pass whole days smoking non-stop, and then all night I would participate in ambushes. "I remember fighting, shooting enemies, killing people because I had been ordered to. "I remember being separated from my parents and having spent five days without eating. I ate like livestock, grazing on plants. "I remember being shot at for entire days." Workshop exercise: “Phone Call” (translated from Kinyarwanda). Various ex-child soldiers. "Hello it’s Bebejo. Do you remember me, Dad? Because you left me when I was very little. One day, when we find each other again, I’ll love it if I find out that you still have my baby pictures with you." "Hello. It’s Jean Pierre. Mum, we’ve lost track of one another. And the only ambition that I have today is that we meet again one day. I would hug you hard." "Hello? I am here at Ruhengeri. And I want you to hurry to make the car come because I don’t have any way to get to you." "It’s me, Innocent. I wanted to know, that thing that I asked you, and that we had finished speaking about… will you do it?" "Hello, it’s Sore. I greet you, big bro, because we lost sight of one another when we were very small. I wanted to tell you that I am coming to visit you." "Hello, it’s me, Jean Damascène. We had said that once I arrived to Rwandan soil, that you would call me. Why don’t you call me? Why don’t you keep your promise?"