Children of war

How can I speak about something that is bigger than me, bigger than all of us in this room and do it justice?

This is the text of a talk that I gave on ‘Children of War’. Having had my own experience of war, I thought this would be an easy gig and it turned out to be massively difficult.

It has been difficult. I didn’t know where to start: if it were easy it would not be worth doing, I tell myself.

I confess, from the outset, that this speech is not light. When I was  invited to do the speech I was delighted to have been asked and then, when it came to prepare a talk on children in war and children as soldiers, I got stuck.

How can I speak about something that is bigger than me, bigger than all of us in this room and do it justice? How can I speak about something for which I have no qualification at all?

I have no ground underneath me. It is impossible to capture the pain and suffering of children in war. We tolerate a double standard. We protect our own children, we have elaborate systems to do so. But not all children are protected.

I have no recourse but to begin with gratitude – a deep sense of gratefulness that there is no war where I live. There are no shells dropping on our heads. There is no gunfire keeping us awake all night. There are no planes carrying the luggage of death in the sky above us. We are as safe as we can possibly be. I am grateful.

I have experienced violent conflict as a child but do not remember it. The Mau Mau – the Kenyan rebels – used the bottom of our garden as a route to move to meetings. This was reported to me by my father when I was older.

I have been in the proximity of a war. I have been in a war. I have dressed in the uniform of a soldier. I have handled the weapon of war.

The war I was in was to be on the wrong side.

I am grateful that I never had to kill anyone.

I am lucky.

I remember this war, half a life time ago ….

The Puma stutters out of the sky, black-metallic against the winter thorn trees, African sun-browned. The dust is parched, lifted by the swish, swish of the helicopter blades. Inside, I hold on to the rifle that consummates with the lethal machinery, alien to the haunting beauty of a land of deep-blue-sky, rocky-treed outlines.

We sit-tight for the fifteen minute helicopter hop. This is no joy-ride. I am not sure how to feel and the roar of the blades become my thoughts. Then we drop in on the red-splash-buds of musasa, awakening on the late August morning. An opening appears and the swirl-dust rises below. We make for the radio station , Oscar Alpha 3. We are about to hear the war on the radio.

This was Rhodesia in the midst of a civil war, August, 1979. Rhodesia was a white settler state that rebelled against the British and took independence unilaterally. An illegal act, an act of massive self harm, an act that led to a war of liberation by the dispossessed. African nationalists called it the Chimurenga. White Rhodesians called it the Bush War, the war against communist terrorists. Charlie Tangos in military radio language. Terrorists, freedom fighters, guerrillas.

That was August 1979. The new Zimbabwe, although we did not know it, was nine months away.

October, 1979. The ceasefire was three months away, although we did not know it.
I remember … in that wide-awake moment, pulled out of that trance between the dream and consciousness, I became aware that the thunder was too regular to be natural. And then, as if to make a point, a shell flew above the building in a shrill screech and I jetted out of bed not waiting for the coming explosion.

We knew the drill. Get to the safest place in the building. Sleepy schoolboys staggered from their dormitories and quietly and efficiently hauled themselves into the sanctuary. The wheeze of the shells a couple of hundred yards above our heads signalled that there was a major night fight but fortunately we were not the target. Adams Barracks, just down the road, was returning fire with a ferociousness that equalled the attackers.

Leaf-shaking legs somehow got me to have a sneak-look towards the sound of the mortar fire on the hill overlooking the boarding house. And there it was, in the night, a burst of a red flash, followed by the awful sound of iron and steel in friction with the air and then, not too long afterwards, the explosion.

A life-time later it was over and the guns were quiet. A stiff brandy infused the blood-stream in lightning speed and the pulse returned to a more pastoral beat. Then, a hush descended lightly on the night as if nothing had happened.

Durban, South Africa, 1974 …  Forty three years ago next August – so I was hellava young, three school boys – Grant, a fiend, John – my brother – and I – roamed the beaches and prowled the arcades, gawking at the bikinied girls darkening in the Durban sun.

The Indian Ocean roar is unchanged from then.

– only the strip of Golden Mile – the endless mile of sun kissed beaches- is now re-cultivated – no more Cuban Hat – a fast food joint – and the awful whites only signs have also (thank God) gone.

Grant, our companion, is gone too – silent now these thirty six years cut down in his prime in a senseless war.

The ghosts of the three of us sun-waltz down that same mile
Carefree, life-loving expecting something different.

All three of us experienced war. I was the lucky one. I was in it but not the thick of it. I carried a weapon, wore the camouflage, flew in a helicopter but I heard the war through the radio.

Like Grant, my brother was in the thick of it too, in the heat and dust of war.

Often, I have been down that road in memories that usually catch me out.

I went to visit John when he had R and R, the military language for Rest and Recuperation.

I wrote this remembering when I said goodbye at the end of the weekend…

Often, I have been down that road in memories that usually catch me out. If I were to go back again, I am sure it would look different. Then – a dirt, rutted road that made its way from the barracks into the village of Inyanga. Pastoral almost.

It had been the Rhodes and Founders weekend – commemorating the British pioneers – what a memorial to a joke that we no longer believed in – and I was walking away from the barracks in a cold, biting wind.

I looked back and waved to him – camouflaged-trousers, the shock of blond hair and youthfulness strikes me now all these years later. I wept for him as I turned down the road.

An army truck threw up dust, signposting its journey, and I simply cried. They were tears in the wells of a terror that had no name. (People die in wars). And I was thinking that this would be the last time I would ever see him again on that cold winter’s morning.

Since then – in recent months – we have talked in snatches about the time he saw things that in a sentence make me weep again for the innocence that was lost to protect something – white rule – we no longer gave a damn for. I weep still for my brother and me.

I am grateful for my brother who survived that war. Grant, and countless others did not. Thousands of people were to die in a war that had the single purpose of protecting a way of life that was unjust and unfair and intolerable to millions of people. People died to gain freedom from white settler rule. People died to protect it.

I have written about these times to make sense of things. You have to write out the pain. WG Sebald who wrote Ring of Saturn said … “Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.”

Strange how a memory lurks and without warning jumps out to scare us. This is …about how sometimes I go back to the loneliest road I have ever been on. It was October 1979.

The war is everywhere. My skin is drenched in fear. I hide it even from myself.

I simply only remember that the context was madness, foolhardy even – the loneliest road on the planet.

The war is everywhere. My skin is drenched in fear. I hide it even from myself.

We drive through a valley, washed in an intoxicating beauty.

Any moment, the cadres might appear on the road, bristling with their weapons – AK47s, barking out a cry of freedom. Their blood is up.

The wind strangles our voices and we shout above the engine din of the buggy, miles away from any beach. (Off-road dune ramping is left long ago in the innocence of youth.)

The sound accelerates into the silence of the hills from which eyes watch, startled in the watercolour of a blue sky painted in an African October.

Not one car passes us and I know this is the craziest thing I have ever done.

The arrival at the destination – fortunately no deaths were reported – comes briefly in a whisper.

We had diced with something that was way beyond us.

I often ride back into that time in a yellow buggy that has taken up residency in my memory and I am still unsure quite what to make of it.

It was like yesterday I was there …

I want, this evening, to revisit that road and what I spoke about with you of this experience.

I want to re-read a line: Preparing for this has caught my breath.

‘The sound accelerates into the silence of the hills from which eyes watch, startled in the watercolour of a blue sky painted in an African October’.

Notice how, when I wrote this, I capture the feeling what it was like in that beach buggy. We knew we were being watched. But look – look at how I have not given the people any form.

I see them rather as threatening, menacing. I say clearly – from which eyes watch. I have stripped away their humanity.

I know there were women and children watching from those hills but I gave them no form in my writing. I have turned them into ‘eyes watching’.

Is this what happens when we are in the middle of danger? Do we lose our humanity?

What is equally shocking is that the driver has no form either.

He was an 18 year old school boy whose parents I knew and we were travelling to Juliasdale for the weekend – this was through country that was over run with Robert Mugabe’s cadres. A pretty dangerous place.

What I think comes across the most is the madness and fear and the danger but not the humanity. That’s what war does. It distils everything to survival.

When I wrote about this experience I admitted that I was unsure what to make of it.

This evening I can say that for, the first time, I am seeing ‘the eyes watching’ as flesh and blood, as humanity and the driver is more than a voice where we are both shouting above the din of the engine. We too have humanity.

This is my only qualification in speaking to you tonight. I have been there. Ultimately though, looking back, I seemed to be on the periphery. Yes, it affected me – but I am an adult, able to attempt to make sense of it.

What disqualifies me from speaking this evening is that I was not a child going through this. The only experience I have of what it feels like to be a child has been filtered through television. I can only imagine what it must feel like to be a child terrified out of their wits. Sure I have felt terror but let’s accept that the only thing that terrified me when I was a child … all my blankets were fished out of the window when I was sleeping or I had bad dreams; I was definitely scared of a grumpy father and certain teachers who did not like children. That’s the sum total … I am not diminishing my fears. I am just putting them into perspective.

All I can say is that no child – no child should have to go through hells created by adults.

But they do.

No child should be harmed. But they are.

I could offer you testimony tonight directly from war children or child soldiers. Their experiences are harrowing and, hearing what they have been through, is heart-breaking. I do not feel qualified enough to say it this way. War Child, Human Rights Watch and many organisations have a website that will be better able to give you a wider insight.

I will offer you a reminder from correspondents in the field about what happens to children … this is from Chris Hedges who writes for TruthDig.

“I saw small boys baited and killed by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis. The soldiers swore at the boys in Arabic over the loudspeakers of their armored jeep. The boys, about 10 years old, then threw stones at an Israeli vehicle and the soldiers opened fire, killing some, wounding others. I was present more than once as Israeli troops drew out and shot Palestinian children in this way. Such incidents, in the Israeli lexicon, become children caught in crossfire. I was in Gaza when F-16 attack jets dropped 1,000-pound iron fragmentation bombs on overcrowded hovels in Gaza City. I saw the corpses of the victims, including children.”

All I can say is that no child – no child should have to go through hells created by adults.

But they do.

No child should be harmed. But they are.

The picture of the dead child on the beach in Turkey – his name was Aylan Kurdi – is an awful reminder of what does happen to children but, even if that image shocks and moves us to action, to donate money, to demand of the British Government that they do something – for God’s sake do something – nothing really gets done – so we have to tolerate a double standard ensuring our own children are as safe as possible in a world that is pretty unsafe for children. Even in Britain some children have to be protected from some adults.

That is the reality and that’s why a charity like War Child calls us to arms to do something, to give something even when it seems so overwhelming.

War Child states categorically: “No child should be part of war. Ever.” They empower children to claim their rights and the charity and children and young people are in a partnership to make their voices heard.

I hope tonight I have done that in part. It has been difficult – pretty raw even – but why do things if they are easy?

I am grateful to you all for bearing with me this evening. I am sure it wasn’t easy for you either.

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