How does war affect communities? Artist reveals people’s stories

Thursday, 27 June 2013 09:50 GMT

War Child sculpture by Clare Abbatt, June 24, 2013. Photo taken by RICHARD ABBATT

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Artist portrays the individuals behind the war statistics

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Congolese rape surgeon Denis Mukwege was attacked at his home and his bodyguard killed in October 2012, he and his family fled the country.

But soon afterwards the award-winning doctor, who has treated tens of thousands of women damaged by sexual violence in Congo’s east, was encouraged by a group of local women to go back. The women - who live on less than a dollar a day - clubbed together to pay for his return ticket in January this year. They now take turns to guard him day and night, 20 at a time.

“They don't have any weapons – they don't have anything. But it is a form of security to feel so close to the people you are working with. Their enthusiasm gives me the confidence to continue my work as usual,” he told the BBC World Service earlier this year.

His is one of many stories portrayed in an art exhibition on war and communities, which opens in London on June 27 as part of the annual Waterloo Festival.

Artist Clare Abbatt interviewed survivors of conflicts in Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone, and gathered the stories of others like Mukwege and Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for campaigning for girls’ education.

“War often shows us the worst aspects of humanity but people’s courage and determination to heal and establish new lives and communities show us the best of ourselves. This is what we must build on,” she wrote in the exhibition.


One woman from Sierra Leone, who wished to remain anonymous, described how she grew close to the people she was hiding with during the 11-year civil war which ended in 2002. Christians and Muslims hid together in churches, mosques and people’s homes, and depended on each other for food, safety and support. “We were all praying together,” she told Abbatt.

No one was safe from the rebels or soldiers, and rape was common. “At first they started with young girls. Then we started hiding these young girls, disguising them using old women’s clothes, but once they knew we were using that tactic they started raping everybody.”

She lost her husband and children in the war and, after a friend of her husband helped her flee to Britain in 2002, she found herself alone in a new country.

During her immigration process she was taken to a detention centre “not once, not twice but three times. After all that trauma! They had no reason to take me to a detention centre.”

She’s still not allowed to work in Britain, but she volunteers and studies, and has found a new community in her church. She has lost touch with her husband’s friend. “I don’t know what has happened, which I am really frightened about. He was the only source of support at that time.”


Dolores O’Connor, former headmistress of a large Catholic primary school in Belfast, recalled her memories of Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence, which lasted for decades and ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

“Some days the children would be very traumatised having been up all night. Soldiers and police would come to search the houses and they would have to stand out in the street in their pyjamas,” she told Abbatt.

“By the time they got into school they would be really very tired … and mid-morning wee heads would go down and they’d be fast asleep in no time, and we’d just let them.” Her school became a haven for both children and parents.

“Some children disappeared and their bodies were never found. They have searched for them but ... they can’t even remember. I suppose they killed that many they don’t know where they dumped them.”

“There’s still a lot of hurt on both sides (Catholics and Protestants),” she said. “People are doing their best and trying to move on. Then something erupts … and it brings it all back.”

Danny Deveney is one of Belfast’s best-known mural artists, and a Catholic. As a young man he did time in Long Kesh prison, and now works with Protestant artist Mark Ervine.

“I think the main force we have at the moment is the consensus from the community, we don’t want to go back to where we came from,” he is quoted as saying in the exhibition.


War correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s phrase, ‘War happens to people, one by one’, struck a deep chord with Abbatt as she was interviewing war survivors.

“Wars are summed up in terms of statistics – how many people have been killed or injured and so on – but each one of those is an individual person,” Abbatt said on Wednesday.

Alongside people’s stories, Abbatt has sculpted groups of heads out of clay, each head placed on a tall tree trunk. They represent fighters, mourners, survivors, the disappeared and the dead.

Each head was raku-fired, baked at 1,000 degrees Celsius and then immersed in sawdust. The heat from the heads set light to the sawdust, which in turn cracked the glaze on the heads, and left deposits of soot and ash.

“The pieces literally go through fire. And the results are unpredictable,” Abbatt said.

*Clare Abbatt’s exhibition is at St John’s Church, Waterloo, London. The Waterloo Festival runs from June 27 to July 2, 2013.

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