Until silence

Children and babies—whether born or unborn—suffer immensely in any armed conflict. Mental trauma from witnessing human wasting, which no person should really be exposed to anymore. Physical injuries that scar the young ones for the rest of their lives, even if a sense of normalcy could ever be recaptured. And death, often considered the worst possible outcome, but nonetheless a fortuitous escape from a lifelong suffering inflicted by a senseless war ripping apart the early stages of their far too many young lives. For the survivors—bereft parents and mothers of the stillborn one—deep-reaching psychological wounds far beyond consolation.

Until the silence says goodbye

Addressing her companion after a mutual acquaintance, a British naval officer who had served in World War 1, suddenly passed away in 1923, Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth, Chapter XXII, 4) wrote:

I don’t think victory over death is anything so superficial as a person fulfilling their normal span of life. It can be twofold; a victory over death by the man who faces it for himself without fear, and the victory by those who, loving him, know that death is but a little thing compared with the fact that he lived and was the kind of person he was … That’s why those war victories with which I was especially associated are still incomplete. That the people faced their own deaths without fear I have no doubt. It is through me that the victory is incomplete, because I cannot always quite feel that their deaths matter less to me than the fact that they lived, nor reconcile their departure, with all their aspirations unfulfilled, with my own scheme of life.

Having lost her fiancé, two brothers and a close friend in the Great war, she was still struggling make sense of death, despite a self-induced mental numbness to cope in a post-war British society that had no time or space to embrace its many scarred veterans with the human carnage she saw firsthand as a voluntary nurse.

No pantomime of time to heal…

For the unborn child or infant physically or psychologically mauled by detonating bombs or shells, there is no victory for having lived that parents could savour. Chemical weapons add to that despair: a person living under their threat has no sense of being able to escape them. There is simply no place to run (to paraphrase Tim Cook’s magnificent book on Canadian soldiers’ adaptation to survive under a perpetual gas blanket during World War 1).

Hurt and fear are overwhelming emotions. Children and gas, when combined, allow for easy, but powerful manipulation of public opinion beyond the battlefield, often for purposes that have little bearing on relieving the plight of those actually facing the threats. Add a couple of graphic pictures; throw in one or two names to make the suffering tangible and direct public emotions to these few foci in order to momentarily blur out the 150,000 fatalities and millions of other casualties shared by all sides in the Syrian civil war. Can a policy maker or shaper fail to respond to such concentrated emotion? This is why I reacted strongly to the unsubstantiated claims that sarin exposure was causing the deformed babies in ‘Must the Belgian babies be bayoneted all over again?

Today, a week or so after The Telegraph (London) and The Daily Star (Beirut) ran their respective ‘scoops’, no additional claims, no new names of children from the Ghouta area, have surfaced. A few media outlets reported on the original stories, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody seems to have delved further into the matter. Claims of sarin’s mutagenic properties appear to have vanished into thin air.

Survive to die alive

In contrast, other factors that may explain the incidence of miscarriages and malformed babies have come to the fore: prolonged extreme stress, concussion, exposure to high levels of dust, malnourishment, unsanitary conditions (at home, in shelters or in hospitals), etc.

Last December, many months before the sarin claims, a trained paediatrician with 20 years experience working Médecins sans frontières attributed the malformations in Syrian infants she was treating to possible deprivation of folic acids. No or insufficient intake during especially the first four weeks of a pregnancy profoundly compromises the neurulation process, which in turn leads to severe congenital deformity.

If this doctor’s surmise is correct, then the rising incidence of stillborn or malformed babies testifies to the dreadful state of Syria’s health system more than anything else.

She also described the wrenching plight of two pregnant women caught up in aerial bombing on their way to the market one sunny day. One lost her baby in her struggle to survive …

No hint of sarin or chemical warfare in her accounts.

There is simply no need to add gas to feel the pain of Syrian mothers …


[Cross-posted from The Trench]


2 Comments on “Until silence”

  1. Dawn says:

    Thank you, Dr Zanders, for your poignant article.

    I came across a portrait series titled ‘Will it ever end?’ captured by photojournalist Brian Driscoll (http://goo.gl/oGtymj), which serves as a haunting reminder of the long-term effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam decades after the Americans left the country and its people completely destroyed. The devastation was catastrophic, with the McClatchy Foreign Press, citing statistics from the Vietnam Red Cross estimates that Agent Orange has affected three million people spanning three generations; “at least 150,000 of these cases have been children born with severe birth defects since the war’s end in 1975.” (http://goo.gl/BCtWlp) Marjorie Cohn further notes that Agent Orange “has caused birth defects in hundreds of thousands of children in Vietnam and the United States — that is, the second and third generations of those who were exposed to Agent Orange decades ago. Medical evidence indicates that certain cancers (for example, soft tissue non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma), diabetes (type II) and in children spina bifida and other serious birth defects, are attributable to the exposure,” with the chemical in Agent Orange containing the “impurity of dioxin — the most toxic chemical known to science.” (http://goo.gl/kZ8ZNI) Despite medical evidence, the USA has continued to argue that there is no proof that Agent Orange is the cause for the diseases and birth defects in Vietnam. “Few independent studies have been conducted in Vietnam to assess possible health effects on the local population,” said Chris Hodges, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. “The lack of validated data and scientific review makes it difficult to estimate accurately the number of actual or potentially affected people or the extent of related health effects.” (http://goo.gl/qMNRhR) I can quote all the medical evidence and the denials by politicians but it just really comes down to the insurmountable human suffering that is still part of these peoples’ everyday lives; appearing in a news article one day and completely forgotten right after.

    Hope you have a wonderful day today.

    • JP Zanders says:

      Dear Dawn,

      Thank you for your comment. People working in the field of chemical and biological disarmament, like myself, are all too aware of the the long-term consequences of Agent Orange, and other chemical warfare agents, such as mustard gas.

      The issue of trans-generational consequences of chemical warfare requires enhanced public attention, similar to the study of the consequences of exposure to nuclear radiation in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the many open air nuclear tests caried out for many years.

      Long-term studies in Halabja (Iraqi Kurdistan) and Iranian cities such as Sardasht, which were blanketed under chemical warfare agents, will give us a better appreciation of of the consequences of chemical warfare on future generations.

      Meanwhile, I will have a wonderful day today, because it is the believe in tomorrow that helps us today to preserve a decent future for our children and grandchildren.

      Jean Pascal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s