Friday 21 October 2016

We can't turn our faces away from victims of war

30th September is Red T-shirt Day. Sarah Carey is taking part because bearing witness is the least we can do.

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

Aylan Kurdi
Aylan Kurdi

When awful pictures of war and famine and death appear on the news, I have to turn off the telly straight away. I can't cope with it. My husband says I'm wrong. He says even if it's upsetting, the least you can do is bear witness. I plead that my precious feelings won't relieve the pain and misery of a victim one iota. In fact, wallowing in sympathy for victims, whilst doing nothing constructive to relieve their suffering, is self-indulgent. But he usually has the remote control and I end up leaving the room.

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But he is working away at the moment and I have the remote control. So when the pictures of Aylan Kurdi being carried out of the sea were shown on the news, I could turn it off. My youngest son is three and that poor, limp little body looked too much like him. But my 11-year old son who was watching the news with me complained.

Why did I turn it off? I told him it was too sad. But he's cut out of his father and he insisted. When we turned back on the telly, Aylan was gone but the refugees behind barbed wire in Hungary were there instead. "It looks like a concentration camp," he said. "Why are they doing that?"

He inundated me with questions. We ended up having a very rare kind of conversation. For once, it wasn't an argument about his consumerist demands or homework or housework.

Why can't someone stop the war? Should we take a refugee? Where would they sleep? Would they stay forever or until they found their family? If we were prepared to take a Syrian child, why not take an Irish child whose parents were dead or sick?

For the first time, he seemed to appreciate that rather than having terrible parents who existed merely to police his screentime and deny him sugar, he was lucky to live in our blessed little island, which some people ignorantly refer to as "third world" when they have to wait a few hours to see a doctor.

He was thinking through a political issue and I was impressed. Maybe my husband was right after all.

Nevertheless, when I heard that my friend Bernard Dunleavy had sent his children to school in red t-shirts, like the one Aylan was wearing, my previous instincts kicked in.

What was the point? Bernard said he felt just as helpless as everyone else, but thought there had to be a way to explain the tragedy to his children without making them feel as powerless and miserable as the adults. Wearing the t-shirts helped them connect with the fact that this child had died trying to escape a war, that there were hundreds of thousands of children like him and this was just a small expression of solidarity with them. At the very least, it was something, which was better than nothing.

A lot of people liked the idea, so he decided to pick a day, September 30, and make it a national thing. Or even international, since via Facebook, friends in Scotland and Spain brought the idea to their schools. I interviewed him on my Newstalk show and asked him about the other doubt I had. Wearing a t-shirt might make us feel better, but was that it? Why not call for government action? Something concrete.

He argued that if it's in a school, you can't start getting involved in rows about numbers of refugees and who should take how many. But he did enlist the support of GOAL and people can text GOAL4 to 50300 to donate €4 to help their amazing work in Syria, which is the biggest aid effort in its history. So there's no need to panic about refugees coming here. You can help them there.

I thought it was a brilliant idea but was disappointed at the reaction when I mentioned it to a few people.

One pal ranted on about how the whole thing was Tony Blair's fault and people traffickers were benefiting and it was alright for Germany because they needed people.

I said: "But if a child is drowning in the sea, you don't ask who pushed him in. You just save the child. That's it. You save the child." He took the point, but I thought it was interesting that I had to make it at all.

Another friend, a mother, rejected the idea because it might upset some of the younger children. But my children get upset about not having the right runners for school. If they got upset about children running from a war, at least it's something worth getting upset about.

Anyway, maybe my boys were different, but they hadn't been deeply affected. They were concerned and wildly curious - but it didn't get to them. Maybe another child would be upset, but presumably not as upset as the child suffering from the effects of chemical weapons. Would it really do them any harm to think about someone else?

Anyway, schools have done fundraisers for earthquakes and famines. Why turn away from simply acknowledging the existence of this heinous war? Or is man-made evil rather than blameless natural disaster too uncomfortable for adults, rather than children, to think about?

But my mother, who is wise, saw the point and took it further. "Do you think if we all wore red t-shirts on one day - all of us, all over the world - would Assad or ISIS or the Americans or Russians - accept that they had to stop?"

Now I was the objector. "No", I said. "Sure we all marched against the war in the first place and they went ahead. They don't care what people think. It was pointless."

But afterwards I realised I was wrong. It wasn't pointless.

Because when that sleeveen Blair or idiot Bush try to pretend that they couldn't have known there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the war would turn out so badly, we have the answer.

By marching back in 2003, we have visible proof that people in their millions told them the truth. We knew the evidence was flimsy and we knew that the war would be a disaster and they can't say that they weren't told. That they chose not to listen is the moral crime they will have to carry to their graves.

And now that the consequences of their disgusting little venture have been visited upon the millions of innocent people of Iraq and Syria, this is our opportunity to make the same statement - if making statements is the only power left to us.

You can be as cynical as you want about people emoting over injustice, but this is an opportunity, as 2003 was, to make it clear to the people of the Middle East that we won't turn our faces away from their suffering and that we want our leaders to make it stop.

They won't make it stop, of course. But if we make it clear how we feel, they can't say they weren't told. Turning this one off is not an option.

Twitter: @redTshirtday #redTshirt

Sunday Independent

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