When war touches home

When I was a kid, we went to a wartime exhibition which included a WWII air raid shelter. I stepped inside and proclaimed loudly that it didn’t seem so bad. There were blankets, light, food and enough room to comfortably house everyone I loved. Then the air raid sirens started to blare. Flashes, plane propellers and thundering vibrations designed to simulate bombs dropping altered my perspective. It occurred to me then that I probably had no clue what my grandparents had gone through during the War. Where every tiny clatter might indicate your sudden demise. It’s the kind of terror I’m thankful to have never experienced.

In the West we’re very rarely touched by war these days. Several generations have passed since it was something we had to realistically fear. If you have a relative in the Armed Forces it’s probably on your mind every day they’re not at your side. On their return they may relay some of what they’ve seen, but we can never see it through their eyes. If you have a vested interest in a faraway war-torn country you’ll feel the news reports harder than those who don’t. And, of course, there have been devastating acts of terrorism on the West that have shaken our trust in our own security.

The part of war I’m referring to, though, is the sense that every second of your existence is influenced by it. I say ‘existence’ because nobody is fully living when trapped inside a warzone. You keep breathing and get through the day. When your family leave the house in the morning, there is a genuine risk that they may not all return in the evening. You maybe don’t sleep that well through worry. You’re afraid to let your children be outside. Every day is about surviving until the next, with the hope that one day it’ll all just stop.

It’s hard to put ourselves in those people’s positions because we don’t live it. My faith in human nature suggests that when a mother is sobbing over the fact that her child has been blown up in the street, we’ll all feel her excruciating pain ourselves. But Israel and Palestine have been at loggerheads and have fought over the Gaza Strip for centuries. There’s a part of us that knows it’s too big for any of us to influence individually. When the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were at their most ferocious, the daily death toll became just a number on the news. It became almost normal to hear that 40 people had lost their lives travelling on a bus across Baghdad. There are customs, locations and traditions that seem so unfamiliar and alien to us, it’s hard to grasp what their lives must be like. We shake our heads at the devastation displayed on the six o’clock news, but it’s difficult to stay in that moment when we’re cooking a chicken dinner and flicking on to a piece about the pitfalls of car insurance small-print on The One Show. War is filtered for us by TV screens. We think about it briefly and then go on with our everyday lives. War, while heartbreaking, is something that happens to other people. Until this week.

It is increasingly looking as if the bringing down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, on which almost 300 people perished this week, was a very deliberate act. The politics of how and why a passenger plane was taken out of the sky with a missile over Ukraine is still worryingly vague. The reason this event has disturbed us, far more than when a plane crashes through mechanical failure, human error or bad weather, is because war has come to us. We know the people on that plane. They are us. They are people whose lives are like ours. They’re the football fans we sing along with, the students we share a beer with, the doctor we saw when we were feeling poorly and the children our kids play with at school.  They are our parents, brothers and sisters, children, friends, colleagues. It could have been any of us on that flight out of Amsterdam. The randomness of it is chilling. War kills thousands of innocent people around the world every day, but it’s only when we recognise ourselves in those who found themselves caught in the crossfire that it hurts this much. Sympathy becomes empathy.

TV news reporters and picture editors have been, quite rightly, cautious in what they’ve shown us of the crash site. The purpose of news reporting is to be honest, but it should never be gratuitous. If you go beyond the filter and flick through the banks of press photos available, as I have, it becomes even more apparent just how familiar the people who’ve lost their lives are. Looking wasn’t the morbid fascination of rubbernecking a car accident on the motorway. It was just wanting to understand the reality of what had happened. The word ‘harrowing’ is thrown around a lot as part of hyperbole, but some of those pictures churned my stomach.

The juxtaposition of death and burnt out mechanics against the luggage contents strewn across the site is distressing. There are travel guides, broken laptops, children’s games and toiletries piled in corners. You can’t help but wonder about where the passengers were going and what they were going to do when they got there. The giddy excitement of seeing new places and relaxing is intoxicating. The anticipation in getting on a plane heading off somewhere exotic or knowing you’re on your way home bubbles throughout the cabin of every flight. You think about how happy so many of them were to be going on family holidays or sharing their work; it’s been reported that several of the passengers were doctors and academics travelling to a conference on AIDS research in Melbourne.

There are images of bodies, ripped, mangled and sometimes bloated, lying naked for all to see. Their presence noted by sticks with scraps of white fabric attached to them. They must have lost their clothing during the fall or the fire. Most chilling are the pictures of people still strapped to their seats. Locals suggested that following the explosion people started falling from the sky. It makes you wonder how aware they were of what was happening to them. Were they just falling, terrified, attached to a plane seat? There is an image I’m struggling to describe sensitively because it was so graphic, but there is a picture of a child lying still attached to their seat. You can only hope that he or she was gone before they felt any suffering. The images are a gut-wrenching reminder of how fragile human beings really are.

By far the most upsetting thing about the entire scene is the abstract indignity of it all. We have such intense respect for the dead, it’s customary not to speak ill of even our worst enemies. Funerals and memorials celebrate lives and send our loved ones off into whatever comes next with quiet care and ultimate discretion. We have a cultural understanding and a trust that we all have a right to a dignified end to our lives. The sight of innocent, broken holidaymakers dropped into baking hot wheat fields challenges all our beliefs about what death looks like.

To add to the injustice, it’s been suggested that belongings have been looted, bodies have been moved without permission and vital forensic evidence has been spirited away. As if knowing where your loved one is lying isn’t awful enough, the idea that efforts to repatriate them and explain their loss are being sabotaged because of a war they played no part in is doubly painful.

This is the reality we rarely get exposed to in the West. War does not discriminate. It is cruel. You could come up with countless theories on why the young family who changed airlines at the last minute and weren’t on that flight were spared over those who stepped aboard. But war isn’t that discerning. It doesn’t care whether you’ve contributed significantly to medical research or if you’re travelling to do charity work. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are. It’s not important if you’re a good person or even whether you have any interest in either side’s plight. All we can really do is hope that those we elected into political power will band with the rest of the international community and demand answers.

As individuals we can try to live as fulfilled a life as possible. Giving love, holding on tight to the people who make us feel good and making every day count, even in the smallest ways. We argue over whether life is long or short, but potentially life can be stolen from us when we least expect it. We owe it to those casualties of war who didn’t have the opportunity to reach their final destination to make the best of it.

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2 Comments on “When war touches home

  1. I think that at that altitude, as soon as the plane was depressurized everyone would have lost consciousness. You know how they make you learn to wear a mask? That’s why. So without the mask, they’d have all passed out pretty quickly. This somehow makes me feel less icky about it.

    • I think the same. It wasn’t just that they fell from that height, the plane was blown apart. So the blast alone would have been enough to knock them unconscious enough that they knew nothing about what was happening. It helps me a little to think that too.

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