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 …

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.