Politics

Refugees: The fallout of all wars


In 1972, my history teacher, Mr Khan, gave me an A for a project that had taken me months to complete: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, by a Bosnian Serb nationalist. 

I’d devoted an excessive number of painstaking hours to the Arch and Mrs F, drawn out the assignment for as long as possible — mostly to spend one-on-one time with my lovely dad. You had to fight hard for airtime in my family with four garrulous, opinionated siblings determined to grab attention from my slightly distant father.

My mother used to say that he was a little absent-minded because he had so much to think about, him being the headmaster of a large high school. It was like being the mayor of a small town, she’d say in an attempt to make my dad’s detachment less forbidding.

She called him naturally reserved but I think we children bored him, rousing his interest only when we challenged him intellectually.

Getting dad-time was a hard fought for, highly sought after prize and that year, 1972, I won.

Nostalgia oozed this week as I delved into a suitcase filled with my treasures and found the dusty reminder of a man I’ve loved most in my life; a relic from my distant youth. 

From these faded annals came the reminder that war is, and always has been, with us.

My history project dealt with the 28 June 1914 killings that sparked a chain of events that led to World War I. The reason the Arch and Mrs F were murdered traced back to the annexation by Austria-Hungary of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. An 18th century land-grab. (Sounds familiar?)

There he was in the pages of my history project; the puffed-up Archduke in his ridiculous plumed helmet seated next to his resplendent feather-hatted wife in their topless, black 1910 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton.

Desperate to find a local connection (spurred on, no doubt, by my lovely dad whose one rule was Question Everything) the teenage me had scribbled in the margin: ostrich feathers from Oudtshoorn? The mystery remains.

There were 40 million casualties in World War I: half wounded, half dead.

By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed, five years to the day after the assassination, 10 million civilians had died.

August 1914 saw a million Germans flee from their homes after the Russian occupation of East Prussia. More were displaced when Germany occupied Belgium, northern France, Poland and Lithuania.

The fallout of war: refugees. 

According to the United Nations, more than 600 000 civilians have already fled Ukraine since the Russians invaded their country on 24  February. 

But the estimates are that an astonishing four million people will try to leave the country as the war rages on.

That, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says, brings to 82 million the number of forcibly displaced people in the world and takes the number of refugees around the globe up to 30 million.

These people had homes, jobs, stores where they shopped, schools where they sent their children, churches, mosques, temples where they worshipped. All gone in the blink of an eye.

Inconceivable.

It’s being called the TikTok war, and not because oldies like me think it’s a reminder that the clock is ticking.

The Ukrainians have used social media to show the brutality of the conflict.

There was a morale boosting Instagram video of a teenage Russian soldier weeping as he is fed a cup of tea by a Ukrainian woman. Around them the gathered crowd urges him to “desert”.

Then there’s footage of a mother describing her daughter’s trauma after seeing their home destroyed … the child has not uttered a word since the building came crashing down. 

You’d think that in 2022 we’d have learnt a lesson or two. While we’re now doing “modern warfare” not much has changed in how war affects people. 

The men stay to fight; the women leave their homes with their children and head off into the unknown to try to find safe places.

At the turn of last century, suitcases were lugged; children carried; possessions strapped to makeshift carts.

Luggage in 2022 has wheels; unbearably heavy trench coats have made way for puffer jackets; heavy leather lace-up boots have been replaced by trainers and sneakers. 

More comfort. Cold comfort. 

Guns still kill, bombs still shatter and splinter and annihilate.

But there are new flavours of

bombs, thermobaric weapons like the aerosol or vacuum bombs that use oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion. Apparently the blast wave lasts longer than that of a conventional condensed explosive.

It’s little wonder that people — then, now — want to escape the effects of this new improved way to hurt, kill, damage, destroy.

What do you pack if you’re not sure you’re ever coming home again? What do you take that will squeeze into a suitcase or a backpack and be appropriate for your new life?

Social media has inspected the car boots of women waiting at the border hoping to be allowed entry into Ukraine’s neighbour, Poland. Winter clothes, toys, digital equipment …

Two decades ago, my Zimbabwean helper and her husband were given advance warning — an hour — that a xenophobic mob was approaching their small shack, intent on destroying everything in sight.

When I asked her what she chose to rescue, she reached into the recesses under her dress and showed me a St Christopher (the patron saint of travellers) medal, a gift from her devout Catholic mother to guarantee her safety.

And a box of important documents — no foreigner wants to be caught without documentation in a country where people do not have your best interests at heart.

She took, too, precious baby pictures of her son and the only picture she had of her long dead father.

They lost everything as a crazed mob torched their home with all their possessions in it. And the senselessness of it still makes her shake her head.

This new Russia vs Ukraine conflagration joins the more than 40 wars and conflicts waged in more than three dozen countries at the moment. Wikipedia puts most of them in the Middle East, North West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. 

Turn on any television network and you will hear political analysts give grievance timelines that have ended in Russian aggression and a large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The New York Times columnist, Thomas L Friedman, bemoaning the fact that “the world will never be the same”, called it a “raw 18th-century-styled land grab by a superpower — but in a 21st century globalised world”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the giant Cyclops, Goliath; the Ukraine president, the comedic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is David with a stone and a sling.

In 21st century digital style, it’s all unfolding before our very eyes in real time.

Most people are obsessed; most of us are channel surfing, moving across all the regular networks — BBC World, CNN, Al Jazeera, Sky.

RT, the Russian state-funded international TV network, is now blocked, but at the start of the war it was reminiscent of watching Fox TV during the Trump era — all fake news and “truth-adjacent facts”.

The New York Times offered me the option of having “The War” delivered to my inbox every morning. I said yes. 

But I keep abreast of The War on a host of other platforms: YouTube, TikTok, FaceBook, Twitter and Instagram, Economist podcasts, early morning briefings …

The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, the Mail Online

On top of that are unsolicited WhatsApp forwarded messages. I got one that shows an image of a cloud shaped Archangel Michael — patron saint of the besieged Ukraine capital, Kyiv — hovering over the city, wings wide spread in protective stance.

I fear that war fatigue will set in and we will stop being appalled by videos of mayhem, destruction and carnage.

Mostly I find myself saying a prayer for those young gun-toting men who, until a few weeks ago, were playing war games on Playstation. 

As Russians take to the streets to protest against their country waging war on its neighbour, the philosopher Plato’s words come to mind: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

Charmain Naidoo is a journalist and regular Thought Leader contributor





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