Contact: to connect; the state of physical touching. In military terminology: meeting the enemy; armed conflict with an opposing force.
After hours and hours of driving, I had finally arrived at the small village at the far end of the country. A girl, wearing camouflage, was waiting for me and we continued together towards the depths of the surrounding forest. Commands echoed among the trees as we reached a small clearing. There, between military tents, primary school-aged children in uniform were lining up silently. One of them struggled with push-ups with an officer counting on him. I was escorted to the canteen tent, where another team was preparing the tables for dinner.
The leaders of the NGO Honvédsuli [Home Defense School] – a family-support expert and a former French Legion soldier – believe they provide nature-oriented, group experience-based education. While the phenomenon of military education for adolescents has been nearly unknown in Hungary, it has a long tradition in many countries around the world. The Latin term ‘iuvenes’ or ‘iuventus’ – youth – was used for 14-year-old Roman boys who were old enough to start their first military training.
Waking up at dawn, running in the morning cold, followed by a simple breakfast. The officers – kids themselves – control the community of 40-50 children with confidence: they teach them to line up, or to march on order, and that there’s a punishment for littering or bad language. They learn to use replicas of real guns and acquire knowledge about survival in nature. The week-long camps culminate in a war-game where teams fight against each other in the surrounding wilderness. The ban on phone usage or camping itself puts heavy physical and mental strain on many of them. Motivational trainings, aimed at pushing their boundaries, are sometimes frightening: children crawl in mud or sweat under the sun while being shouted at. Some quit underway, others decide not to take part at all. But as they sit together around the evening campfire, they are all proud of themselves. As they are about to arrive at the peak of their adolescence, they are facing freedom, boundaries, pain, and love, perhaps for the first time.
Honvédsuli’s leaders state that the challenges they impose demonstrate the value of effort and the importance of warm food, or a comfortable bed, in a society becoming ever so slothful. Many kids are sent by desperate parents who feel they have failed at raising their children. Children regularly say that they receive more attention in the camp than they do at home in a year. Some come from deep cultural and material poverty. For them, this is not only an adventurous game, but it is also the strongest force shaping their identity, something, they can be truly proud of.
It was all too easy to think of them as mere symptoms of militarization sweeping through Europe. I genuinely fear war and the thought of weapons and death in a kids’ camp made me feel very uncomfortable. At the same time, it was an unexpectedly liberating experience to hear them talk about the importance and uniqueness of life in the very same context. What I at first would have labeled as ’conservative’ or ’nationalistic’, later seemed hard to place in the coordinate system of today’s popular ideologies. With images of violence surrounding us in the photographs, films, toys, and video games, I have come to realize that despite, or precisely because of this proliferation, my stand on weapons, war, or home defense is one-sided and vague. Similarly to the 13-year-old trying hard to climb to the top of a muddy rope but falling back on the ground over and over again, I myself am trying to refine my approach.