Friday, August 1, 2014

Pat Barker - Why have we ignored the hard-learned lessons of the first world war?

War does not end on the battlefield. Poems by traumatised children in Syria are a reminder that the horror will haunt them forever

The soldier poets of the first world war brought the raw horror of the battlefield into the consciousness of the nation. Siegfried Sassoon (whose diaries have just been published online), Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and others did not flinch from describing the realities of life and death in that war, the fetid trenches and deaths from gas, bullets and bayonets.
Today, reading poems by Syrian children who are living through their own brutal war, I am reminded of that first world war poetry. Their young voices describe the overwhelming sadness at seeing their once-beautiful homeland destroyed, their homes flattened and their families killed. Although they are children, they write with the weary voices of adults who have seen too much. Their poems are a window into the appalling humanitarian tragedy that has befallen Syria’s youngest citizens.
Children have always suffered in conflict, but in Syria they are paying a particularly heavy price. They called the first world war the “war to end all wars”, eclipsing all others with the sheer scale of its death and destruction. But we know that many more were to follow, with Syria the latest grim addition.
After the deadly poison gas attacks of the first world war, which left thousands of soldiers gasping for breath on the battlefield, the main powers signed the Geneva Protocol in 1925 outlawing the use of chemical weapons. Yet only last year in Syria, almost 90 years on from that moment, more than 100 children were killed in a nerve gas attack in a suburb of Damascus.
And while in 1914 it was young soldiers who acted as cannon fodder, today, with the advent of the fighter jet and other modern machinery of war, it is often children who are the victims. More than 10,000 children have been killed so far in Syria’s three-year war, many as a result of the use of explosive weapons in built-up areas. The conflicts of the past were often conducted in muddy fields and deserts but today, war is increasingly fought in towns and cities. It attacks families in their homes, markets, schools and hospitals as we have seen this week in Gaza.
The effect on the young is apparent in the poems they have written as part of a Save the Children programme, which helps children overcome the horrors they have witnessed. One child, now living in a refugee camp, writes: “Oh Damascus, the city of sorrow / Large teardrop overwhelming the eyelids / I wonder who could stop the aggression / Or who would sweep the bloodshed off the stones and walls?”
Another describes how their “heart catches fire” knowing that Syrians die every day, while one child writes that all he sees when he closes his eyes are shootings and arrests. The loss of innocence in these poems, written by children aged between six and 14, is palpable and unbearably sad.
What we know from the first world war and from subsequent conflicts is that it does not end on the battlefield. The trauma stays with people, shaping the rest of their lives. The shell-shocked and disfigured men who returned from the Somme and Ypres often struggled to adapt to civilian life and deal with what they had experienced. My fear is that, without help, Syria’s young people may suffer the same fate. We are calling for all parties to cease using explosive weapons in populated areas to stop the terrible toll of child casualties.
The world must do everything it can to stop their suffering now. Otherwise, a whole generation of children will see their lives torn apart.
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