You may have forgotten his name but you will never forget the face of five year old Omran Dagneesh as he sat covered with grime and blood, eyes wide but uncomprehending, waiting for medical care in Aleppo, Syria.
Tentatively, his left hand touched his savaged left cheek. There was no life in the child’s eyes as his gaze fell on the blood on his fingers and he hesitated, as though aware he shouldn’t be doing this, before gently wiping his hand on the seat of the ambulance where he sat waiting for a doctor who had more urgent calls to answer.
The news agency bringing that heart-breaking tragedy to my safe, comfortable TV room informed me the pictures had “gone viral” when posted on the Internet. What’s left of a decent world wept for Omran, even though 24 hours later many would not remember his name.
Unfortunately, there is no logical reason why this little victim should ever be singled out for lasting memory. He is but one of the 10,000 or more children smashed or slaughtered in Syria since the current war broke out in March 2011. My numbers from the United Nations are estimates the esteemed organization admits can never be precise and are usually conservatively low.
Susan Bissell, head of UNICEF Child Protection Programs, reported two years ago that far too many children around the world are caught in situations of conflict where they are killed, maimed and subjected to untold horrors: “We are saying at present, though I suspect this is an underestimation, that about one billion children live in countries and territories affected by conflict. It sort of feels like the world is falling apart for children.”
Yes, indeed, but it isn’t news that the world is falling apart. It has been doing that for children – indeed, all civilians – in times of conflict for centuries. It is just that the velocity of disintegration has increased since science and invention made old “battle fields” universal. Once fought as set-pieces, today’s wars have no boundaries and there’s no safe place to hide.
In The New Yorker two years ago Robin Wright wrote of the new ways of war and the killing of children. The killing ground was Rwanda in 1994 where “in less than four months an estimated three hundred thousand children were slashed, hacked, gunned or burned to death. Among the dead were newborns.” He added the sadly true and chilling line: “The Rwandan slaughter was not unique.”
One of the more frightening statistics compiled by the United Nations tells us when military and civilian casualties were tallied for the duration of WW2, civilians accounted for two-thirds of the dead. By the end of the 20th Century the ratio had shifted to 90 per cent. And a large proportion were children 12 years old or younger,
In our advanced state of intelligence we can now boast that when we go to war we lose more civilians than we do soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Since the end of WW2 we have heard endless stories of the Holocaust but we can still be shocked when we try to absorb the fact that six million Jews were executed in a decade of unbelievable madness in Germany. We do not hear so often that the Nazis and their acolytes also killed 1.5 million children. Tens of thousands of them were Romani (gypsy) children. Also on the execution lists were many, many German children with physical and mental problems. They were executed because they consumed food, but contributed nothing to the Nazi war machine.
At the United Nations, past and present brutalities are discussed and condemned and the world is informed that those who commit “war crimes” will be punished. And occasionally when opposing forces collapse as though exhausted by killing, leaders are brought to justice, tried, and sentenced to long terms in jail or to death. But there is no end to the terror.
From our safe places we weep for Omran Dagneesh and the million other children who, every day, are battered, bruised, and killed by malice, intolerance, hatred or religious madness.
We should be weeping for ourselves. Mankind has triumphed over many once incurable diseases and will conquer even more. We have ventured to the edge of the stars and invented miracles beyond belief. But, we have failed to grasp and hold the one quality of life so free to obtain, so hard to hold … the ability to love and respect our neighbours, near and far, as we love ourselves.