"Men are not awake; they resemble those who are in deep sleep, or they may be likened to the drunken or to the beasts." Heraclitus
June 2019 - An outstanding, horrific and heartbreaking film called For Sama, made by a 26-year-old Syrian woman called Waad al-Kateab, has been shown at Cannes in 2019 and won the Festival's Golden Eye award. The film was made in a hospital in Aleppo over a period of five years, telling the story of the Syrian and Russian assault on Aleppo and the effect these had on its trapped citizens. Kateab's role, as she saw it, was simply to bear witness to what was happening before her eyes in the hospital where her husband, Hamza, worked and where they were trying to survive with their baby daughter. They managed to escape in 2016 and now live in London with their two daughters. The film will be shown to the UN Security Council and on Channel 4 in the autumn.
Last night in the UK (16/12/16) I watched a Channel 4 Television news report from Aleppo that showed a teen-age boy cradling the tiny dead body of his baby brother in his arms, silent tears coursing down his cheeks. The boy had survived the destruction of his home that may have left him an orphan as there was no sign of his parents in the hospital corridors. It was like watching a crucifixion, impotent spectators of an atrocity unfolding before our eyes. The only redeeming feature are the exhausted doctors working day and night in impossible conditions, often operating with only the light of mobile phones; and the empathic nobility and courage of the White Helmets whose rescue of the injured and the dead has merited them the award of a Nobel Prize. Their fate when the city finally falls may be arrest, torture and execution.
The world is witness to a pitiless barbarism, enacted, not only by the Jihadists of so-called Islamic State but by three leaders, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Khamenei, the ruler of Iran. These three determined to impose their will by force on the eastern part of this ancient city held by the rebel group (later joined by others) which originally protested against the oppressive rule of Bashar al-Assad. Syrian and Russian planes have attacked this area of the city with a constant barrage of barrel bombs and worse that have reduced the buildings of the city to rubble, killing an unknown number of civilians, bombing hospitals, schools and homes to grind down opposition and induce surrender. Now this obscene onslaught has reached its end but its traumatised civilians have nowhere to go except Idlib, one of ten remaining rebel strongholds now holding some 750,000 people, which can only be a temporary haven before it too is attacked.
The feared Iranian Shia militias and Revolutionary Guards working with the Syrian government forces have purportedly blocked the evacuation of civilians several times and the rebels have also blocked ambulances trying to removed the injured and set some on fire. All attempts since early November to intervene or send in convoys of food and medicine by the United Nations have been rejected. Russia has claimed that the evacuation is complete (17/12/16) and that all women and children have left the city but this has been denied by those within the city, saying that thousands were still waiting for buses to take them out. Evidence of women and children huddled around fires in the freezing nights belie these claims. Reports have come through of summary executions of men, women and children carried out by the Iranian militia and of young men and boys roughly separated from their families for interrogation as they try to leave the city, possibly never to be seen again.
The backdrop to this whole ghastly scenario is the struggle for power in the Middle East between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi-Arabia with Russia, following its own agenda of replacing the US in that area, entering the conflict in support of Assad. It beggars belief that after some 1200 years of bitter enmity between the two branches of Islam, neither side is apparently capable of moving towards reconciliation and healing ancient traumas. What we are witnessing in this struggle are the death throes of an outworn patriarchy.
Assad claims that victory is his but what victory can be claimed on the bodies of those sacrificed to the horror of this war? He presides over the Wasteland that is Syria and the ruins of a once great city and all because he was unwilling to listen to those who asked for more justice and less oppression for the Sunni majority within Syria. What is the point of victory if you have lost your soul?
I, like thousands of others all over the world, have been revolted by these scenes of unimaginable suffering and destruction inflicted on civilians who have no defence and no opportunity to escape; revolted also by leaders whose pursuit of total control has reached insane proportions. I think I would name this pattern of behaviour 'pathological narcissism' which describes the inability to feel empathy for those you are intent on destroying. It is a pattern that has been demonstrated throughout the history of patriarchy. Religions have not diminished its hold over leaders; in the present case, they have strengthened it.
These sacrificial rituals seem to be a re-enactment of what happened in earlier eras, even eras as old as Assyria's conquest of the northern province of Samaria in 722 BC when the Assyrians fell, as a chronicler described them, "like a wolf on the fold". They behaved towards those they conquered in exactly the same way the forces of Putin and Assad (with Iran's assistance) are behaving today — without mercy or compassion for the defenceless civilians who were slaughtered, taken into captivity and removed forcibly from their homes. Those who suffer most in this terrible situation are the mothers of young children, the old and infirm and the traumatised children and adolescent boys like the one I saw on the programme whose eyes have been opened to the brutality of the tribal warfare in which they find themselves.
Elsewhere in the freezing conditions in Greece and Central Europe, refugees from the disastrous war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan struggle to survive in the bitter cold, clinging to the hope that they will be accepted by one country or another. They are largely without proper shelter, food or clothing and there are many unaccompanied children among them yet very little seems to be done to help them get through this winter.
Two thousand, seven hundred years have made no difference to human behaviour: only our weapons are more lethal and more devastating; our power to destroy more comprehensive. Our propensity for cruelty on a massive scale has not changed. We really need to ask why this should be so?
Extra-terrestrial inhabitants of other planetary systems in the universe observing our planet might be astounded to see that we have apparently made no moral progress in all this time, despite progress in other directions. They might ask, "What has held them back in a state of virtual unconsciousness? Why have they not learned to respect life?"
Those leaders who see war as a legitimate means of achieving territorial aims have no moral compass, no insight into the psyche, their own or anyone else's, no awareness of how, when threatened, they can be taken over by the archaic predatory instincts we all carry within us and can be driven by those instincts as they pursue their prey. In ancient Greek mythology, this pattern was described by the image of the Minotaur, the Dragon or the Gorgon, the sight of which could turn men to stone. These leaders are not aware that the traumas they are inflicting will take centuries to overcome, that they are inviting revenge in an endless cycle of conflict. They do not know the meaning of the words 'empathy', 'relationship' and 'compassion'. When under the spell of attacking an enemy, they are virtually unconscious of the values humanity has fought so hard and so long to establish and has still not managed to establish. Above all, they are unconscious of the fact that we are all connected, that to inflict injury on a part, injures the whole.
They are not aware that contemporary science has realised the universe can no longer be seen as a machine composed of elementary building blocks but that we live within an inconceivably vast Web of Life which underlies and connects all life forms in our universe and sustains not only our world but the entire Cosmos. Every atom of life interacts with every other atom. None of us is truly separate from others, nor from the greater life of the universe in which our lives are embedded. We are part of this stupendous organization of energy, part of that consciousness. The old oppositional paradigm of having to defeat an enemy by force of arms is no longer viable as a pattern of behaviour, deeply entrenched though it is. We are called to live our brief lives with reverence, compassion and the service of life in whatever form we encounter it and with whatever gifts we have because we are all participants in this greater Ground.
The American philosopher, Ken Wilber, has compiled a chart which shows eight levels of cultural development in the evolution of human consciousness. Those individuals who have grown beyond the fourth level (the level that still prevails for most of humanity today) and are reaching the sixth and seventh levels of this evolutionary process, find it difficult to communicate with those who are living at the fourth level and vice-versa. The values and the understanding of life at Level 4 are totally different from those prevailing at the higher levels. Those who have reached Levels 6 and 7 have compassion for other people and concern for the well-being of the planet as a whole. Their aim is to serve and protect rather than to injure and destroy. Those who are living at Level 4 – where they are fixated in the dualistic paradigm of conflict, conquest and the pursuit of power – cannot comprehend the values which are recognised and honoured by those living at the higher levels of cultural development. Institutions such as the Security Council and the United Nations which might have helped to lift whole sections of humanity into a more mature level of consciousness are unable to fulfil their desired function because they are blocked by members who are functioning at Level 4. Such is the dilemma of our times: how to demonstrate to those functioning at Level 4 that we have to advance or grow beyond this level if we are to survive as a species.
I think it is absolutely vital that the voice of women is heard. Women are one half of humanity. Women suffer atrociously in these conflicts but their suffering goes unnoticed. Their voice is unheard because it is not listened to. It is not listened to because it is not valued. They see their children's lives destroyed before their eyes. They are utterly unable to protect the precious lives they have nurtured. How many women are invited to sit at the tables negotiating the resolution of conflicts of this nature?
If I had the financial means, I would set up an Alternative Security Council that would be served mainly by women but would include men such as the brilliant surgeon David Nott who has saved so many lives in Aleppo and men who work for organizations like Médecins sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Avaaz, to name a few and perhaps a few outstanding woman journalists whose reporting on war zones has enabled us to witness the atrocities inflicted by men on their fellow human beings. This Council would not be financed by any government nor have delegates from any. It would be run by women and men on behalf of the people and life forms on this planet. It would act as a kind of Guardian and moral conscience for the world and for the protection of the planet because our own survival as a species depends on the well being of the planet. It could form the nucleus of a new kind of World Government.
This may be a dream but it is worth articulating because some new understanding has to come into being that is capable of lifting humanity out of the state of unconsciousness that currently prevails — where leaders of governments and tribal groups compete for power with each other even to the point of threatening each other with demonic weapons whose very existence denies them the title of 'human'.