Although never a soldier, my work over many years has taken me up close and very personal with the sights, sounds and smells of war. Today, my experience of conflict is limited to what I see in the media or which comes to me via the internet — and both are awash with man’s inhumanity to man in these dreadful days.
There are many places I could focus, but choose this week to gaze upon the butchery of Gaza. No, there will be no dissection or analysis of the underlying reasons for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but I am well and truly off the fence with my condemnation of the consistent and deadly targeting of women and children by the Israelis. Their targeting of safe havens and the day on day growing pile of bodies, most of them civilian, is, as was said by the head of the United Nations — a disgrace to humanity.
The people of Gaza live in the world’s largest open prison. There is a wall surrounding them and a vast military machine that has every house and factory and office pre-targeted into a range of weaponry both ground-based and airborne. Gaza is quite literally defenceless and the rockets fired by Hamas present no threat to the Israeli state militarily. Certainly, no existential threat. They inspire fear and kill few.
The tunnels that Hamas have built to insert its fighters into Israel present no threat in proportional terms either. The numbers of Israeli soldiers they have managed to kill are tiny, almost infinitesimal compared with the Gazan casualty list.
A humanitarian ceasefire is holding as this is typed, and John Kerry is trying to build bridges in Cairo. But the ramshackle ‘ceasefires’ are honoured more in the breach than the observance — and here is the armoured underbelly of why that is
The reality of the battle is that neither side can countenance the existence of the other, and both sides, if they are talking at all, are talking past, rather than to, each other. A dialogue of the deaf.
What neither side is saying is the fundamental truth. Hamas (but not necessarily all Gazans) want to bring down Israel, and if it ever did, would probably kill as many of its inhabitants as it could before the rest of the world intervened. Israel, though diplomatic politesse demands silence in this respect, would like nothing better than to see Gaza, indeed every Palestinian, either dead or gone. Those two positions have barely altered for decades. There is no suggestion that they are going to change in the foreseeable future.
But back to sights, sounds and smells. Especially smells. This type of warfare has a stink to it, a distinctive reek. It comes of body parts and whole bodies rotting under the sun. Pieces of people that were missed when the rest of them was gathered up in a body bag and taken for burial. Bodies suppurating beneath the rubble, unfound and leaving their fingerprint in the nasal cavities of anybody in smelling range. And that is everybody. It lingers in the nose for days and can hang over whole areas for weeks or even months. I know.
My olfactory memory is triggered by the reports from the correspondents, who struggle to say something broadcastable, and images that are unbroadcastable are carefully avoided by the cameramen and women picking their way through the butcher’s shop.
The reality of all this horror is censored and unseen by a world that would rather not look, and it is the images that I know are there based on past experience, and although some memories may dim with time, many are as sharp as broken glass.
It is the children. The bodies of the children. Infants. These small, broken creatures are now potent engines of hatred, crushed flowers robbed of their fragrance. Whatever else will come out of this conflict, we may be assured that there are going to be generations of unforgiveness. Generations where the folktales are blood-boltered and told through the dead mouths of the generation that never grew up. Dead children will march for years to come, their shades more potent than any gun or bomb, never to sit at any negotiating table.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 7th, 2014.
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