Children of War: It Hurts!
LUCKNOW: As a fresh undergraduate student, tragedy suddenly became ultra-consumable to me through my newly-acquired Sony Ericson Walkman phone with 2G internet, an article that attracted envy and admiration, but mostly, made me horribly self-aware of my position at the periphery of an imploding universe.
How was I supposed to fight the groovy invention I was suddenly in possession of, a narcotic cleverly designed to capture my fancy by delivering an endless torrent of pain and pleasure?
The BA in English Literature I was pursuing at the time had, perhaps, fomented my compassion to accommodate a flurry of emotions inspired by whatever was currently trending, over-analyze it to death, feel every headline slice through my skull and breed overnight like a tumor, manifesting its fangs into my subconscious, conjuring lucid images of groaning bellies and pushcart babies, sweaty camos, some scattered limbs – an eyesore in a breathtaking valley. It was a terrible inconvenience, a beautiful coming-of-age.
After a while, I could swallow a fist-sized portion of over-cooked chicken breast, one bite at a time, cocooned in paper-thin chapatti and dripping in garam masala gravy while perusing a particularly bloody account of a suicide bombing. It wasn’t like I was so heavily engrossed in reading that I continued masticating like an automaton, unaware of the salivating fusion of spices on my palette, the rhythmic cracking of my jaw. If truth be told, I no longer felt compelled to put down my phone while eating, no longer the amateur unable to disaffiliate the blood on my screen with the blood on my plate.
My personal experiences with digital technology spoke to the larger movement for the democratization of said technology that interlinked diverse populations through a global exchange of information, propelled trans-national communication to promote inclusiveness, and became a significant tool for political and social activism.
However, it also put the collective feelings of the entire human race, and our ability to contemplate, on a fast-paced conveyor belt. Whatever semblance of emotion was perceived was cursorily acknowledged, mechanically processed, and rapidly checked-out. And so, “feeling”, paradoxically, became a perfunctory process, and soon, human tragedies became products. However, the world continued to react differently to stories of grief-stricken children.
Last month, the picture of a five-year-old Syrian boy inundated the newsfeed of millions of Facebook users the world over. Omar Daqneesh, or The Aleppo Boy as he has come to be known, sits alone in the back of an ambulance, stunned to silence, lightly touching his bloodied face, looking at his tiny palms, his face covered in dirt, his incomprehension stark on his face. The image is heartbreaking, to say the least, but it is just one among the countless pictures of dead children that have become allegories of a remorseless war.
I often think how the overturned body of Aylan Kurdi that washed up on a Turkish beach almost a year ago could easily have been, in another context, the image of a precious little baby sleeping soundly, strange to the mechanical chop of a military helicopter, ignorant of the supremacy of an ocean.
When I remember Hamza Al-Khateeb, the boy whose brutal torture at the hands of the Syrian government sparked international outrage, I distinctly recall his cousin’s statement to Al-Jazeera, chronicling his compassion for the poor, his love for watching homing pigeons fly.
Recently, Insha, a fourteen-year-old girl blinded by over a hundred pellets by the Indian security forces, has become the emblem of Kashmiri resistance. Her face resembles a sieve. Her family laments the loss of her sight, but mostly, they lament the violent obliteration of her childhood, her ambitions.
All these narratives about children in the midst of war, though grounded in caustic facts, are cushioned by heart-rending sketches, reflections and back-stories to compensate for the innocence lost, to force the feeding populace to confront its anesthesia.
It is understandable that in a war, when a child suffers, our collective conscience is stirred significantly more than hearing of the suffering of an adult. Parents immediately personalize the tragedy, placing their own selves in the situation. Those without children are overcome with horror at the thought of a world that doesn’t spare its most vulnerable.
When a child is hurt, we all pause, reflect, and attempt to run our fingers over the texture of a personal cataclysm that could have been our own. And yet, we do not feel morally perturbed when we associate our children, who rouse the deepest humanity in us, with the most potent manifestations of human barbarity.
For as long as they can, parents try to protect their children from images of violence. Television channels are kept locked, mobile phones and tablets are protected with filters and language, too, is highly censored. We all know our children will learn the black heart of the world they have come to inhabit sooner or later, that they will know violence, and how it feels to knock another kid’s teeth out because he mocked your father’s paunch, or slander a girl because she managed to win the essay competition and the much-coveted Highlights subscription you had your eyes on.
They will know it, they may even develop an appetite for it, and they may secretly revel in it before they grow out of it. But as parents do, they shield their children from the monstrosity as long as they can manage to, maybe in a desperate attempt to preserve their childhood while it lasts.
But we don’t extend the same protection to our war children. In fact, we use them as accessories to salvage our own sensibilities while we grope in the dark, pushed further and further away as we are doused in a cloudburst of bulletins, raining on us like dead birds on a windscreen.
Maybe, these stories about children and their suffering keep us humane. Children remind us of our ability to empathize in the face of our terribly self-involved lives. When children endure hell, we are able to, if only fleetingly, remove the film of indoctrination over our eyes and witness, or rather acknowledge, the collapse of our inherent moral roadmap to living.
In those moments, our fierce allegiance to religions, nation-states, cultures and ethnicities are eclipsed by crushing despair. Many of us ask – did we really torpedo so deep into our own ideological persuasions that we banished our children to ground zero?
In October 2015, two Dalit siblings, three years old Vaibhav and nine months old Divya, were burnt to death in Rajasthan, India by upper-caste Rajput men. In a country mired by class and caste divide, a complacency had long engulfed the comfortable upper and upper-middle class, but this incident jolted many social media activists out of their slumber.
By January 2016, a large portion of the country, previously distant from anti-caste activism, was beginning to take stock of one of its oldest, most intrinsic and dangerous social ills: caste-based discrimination and caste-based violence.
By January 2016, when Rohith Vemula – a Dalit PhD scholar and activist for Dalit rights – took his own life in the wake of persistent caste-based discrimination at the hands of the elite administration at the casteist Hyderabad Central University, backed by the right-wing ruling Bharatiya Janta Party, the debate on caste had transpired into a full-blown movement – from the screens to the streets.
Right now, the country is witnessing a phase of activism that is certainly not new to the Indian landscape, but certainly uniquely characteristic to it. Students, minorities and liberals have joined hands to demolish the intellectual and social bigotry of the Indian right-wing.
From the back-alleys to the mainstream, the caste-question has solidified its ground, the movement has gained steam, and it all began with our children. It’s not just missiles, rockets, bombs and transnational bombardments that constitute a bloodbath, for the motive of every war, in essence, is a violent declaration of one’s supremacy over the other.
By burning Vaibhav and Divya, the men asserted their caste-dominion, and made two unsuspecting children human insignias of a strife they inherited against their own will, a strife they hadn’t even begun to understand.
To lend this trend a compassionate analysis, perhaps then, it isn’t so bad that we continue to associate every bloody offensive with the picture of a child to soldier-on on the path of commiseration, forgiveness and cross-cultural solidarity. But the question that begs to be addressed is that of our own moral deterioration, and our reluctance to admit the truth that we damn those who use children as human shields in wars, not realizing we use them as metaphorical shields against our own apathy. It’s a conundrum both poignant and pitiable, and perhaps, one that is inevitable.