There is an interesting "Cold War" season running on the BBC right now. I was born in 1960, and grew up with the Stones on the radio and Vietnam on the TV - and undoubtedly in the shadow of the bomb. Vulcan nuclear bombers roared overhead from the nearby airbase in my childhood, and all I ever wanted to do was fly one. Later, as a student, I protested against the infernal things in Trafalgar square (primarily in pursuit of a girl I'm sorry to say). But we '60s kids - the tail end of the baby boomers - also grew up under another very different cloud - a thunderclap in the western mind that has and will have a much deeper legacy than the cold war - we all grew up in the shadow of Auschwitz.
Of course, the Second World War touched us in many ways, my father's older brother was killed flying a bomber, and another uncle was wounded on the Normandy beaches. When my parents showed us photographs of their wartime childhoods it appeared as if they had inhabited a familiar and yet alien monochrome planet. Yet there was another dimension to all this nostalgia. My aunt Edith is Jewish. She grew up in Prague and came to Britain as a refugee in 1938, where she met my late, lovely uncle Francis or "Fran", as we knew him (an architect who was always ready to 'freshen up" your drinks). Edith is an expert cook - and we Fennell kids loved to spend holidays with their family and eat the fabled Wiener Schnitzel . Her melodious and still-accented voice remains full of warmth and humour to this day. Yet apart from her "moma", who gained sanctuary in Brtiain with her, all her family were murdered at Auschwitz.
There is a debate going on in academia about humanitarian action. It concerns application of the ideas of an Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. Put simply, Agamben suggests that we emphasise different human identities to separate out people into those who are cultured and deserve life, and a form of basic uncultured human (a "savage" maybe) who is less deserving and can be treated as a second class citizen, or even killed without guilt. Agamben goes on to suggest that throughout much of history the city (or 'polis') was a technology of separation employed by politicians to achieve this end - urban people were more cultured and therefore deserved more of the benefits of society than the rural 'noble savage'. His big idea is that from Auschwitz onwards that technology has evolved to become the "camp" - a technology that could continue to separate people into the deserving and undeserving in an increasingly urbanised world.
When applied to humanitarian action this theoretical framework is increasingly being used as a critique of the refugee or IDP camp - suggesting that these camps are used by politicians and operated by humanitarians as technologies for creating a new class of global citizen - one less deserving of the benefits of society. Given the political imperatives that have created long term refugee camps in places like northern Kenya, Iran and Pakistan, they may well have a point. However, blaming the humanitarian movement for this state of affairs is misguided. Humanitarianism is essentially a civilizing force. Humanitarians attempt to ensure that the inmates of these camps are recognised and treated with equality and dignity; and ensure that these structures are temporary and people returned to normal life as quickly as possible. While Agamben's analysis helps to make us aware of the political ramifications of supporting the concept of long-term refugee or IDP camps, it must not be used as an excuse to deny people on the edge of society vital humanitarian refuge. Without it my aunt Edith, and her children and grandchildren in England, Wales and the USA, would not be with us today.
Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown under a wave
of pride and knives
In 1947 the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda published a poem he'd written during the Spanish Civil War, when he was Ambassador to Spain: "I'm Explaining a Few Things". It was a political poem, Neruda was a passionate supporter of the Republicans, but it was also a profoundly humanitarian poem, about loss, and about the terrible impact of callous violence upon innocent people.
Many years ago, I worked in Mogadishu up to the moment when the city fell to the rebel militias of General Aideed. Yusuf, one of my Somali colleagues had told me "Somalia is like a mirror - once broken, it can never be put back together". To me, Mogadishu of the late '80s had been a beautiful city. As I awoke I could hear the ocean breathing, vervet monkeys played in the fig trees on our small veranda and there was always laughter and melodrama in the office. And then it was gone; burned, blasted, stamped on and crushed until it was dead. And unlike Yusuf, I was whisked away on a UN evacuation flight to leave Somalia and its torment behind me.
Six months later, hunkered down in a hotel room in Cairo, I remembered that poem as I watched Somalia implode on CNN, destroying my old neighbourhood in the process. In turmoil, I picked up my battered copy of Neruda and tried to rewrite "I'm Explaining a Few Things" for Somalia; to express my anger at how so few could damn so many, how so many in the world couldn't give a damn.
Spain in 1936 resembles Syria in 2013. This is not a European war of course, and the political tides of the Islamic world may appear mysterious and disconnected from everyday lives in Europe and North America. But like the Spanish civil war, Syria's battleground is laden with foreboding. For - as was the case in Spain - it is the extremes of political ideology which are thirsting for blood. We know now that Spain was a mild aperitif for a much more bitter, humourless and deadly expression of violence in Europe - which rode roughshod over communities, families and friends on the principle that "many must die if our ideas are to live". But ideas don't live, people do. And without people there are no ideas.
Behind the struggle for freedom from Assad's tyranny (and that of other dictators), Syria, Iraq, Egypt and perhaps the entire Islamic world are are being rallied to the banners of ideas - ideas of ethnonationallism and of sectarianism. We know what lies at the end of these roads. Murder, and more murder. Until there is no-one left to kill. Our interest in Syria should not be fundamentally about stopping the killing that is occurring now, but about preventing the slaughter that is to come.
If there is one passage from Neruda's famous poem which is worth repeating here, it is this:
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain:
From every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every corner of Spain
a new Spain emerges
and from every dead child, a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.
And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets
Come and see the blood
in the streets!
I worked for CARE in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994, and in the refugee camps in Zaire (as it was) and Tanzania. I had the privilege of providing meagre succour to the last brave survivors on the top of Bisesero mountain. Resistance to the madness, gore and pure absurdity of "racism" taken to logical ends has been fixed in my DNA ever since.
Looking back, 1994 marked a cusp in international understandings of humanitarian crisis. Of course the lack of an international response is understandable: Western foreign policy was still in the cold war era, when you supported 'our" dictators to keep the Soviets out. French policy in Rwanda was little different from that of the US in Zaire, and the British in Uganda. The moment when geopolitics were replaced by humanitarian intervention as the modus operandi for international relations was undoubtedly April 6, 1994 - when it became no longer acceptable to support a dictator because he was on 'our side'. I rang up the Foreign Office on April 6 (we had an office in Kigali and were receiving alarming reports about killings) and was told "its a Belgian problem". How times change.
Since 1994, what used to be called "the developing world" has grown immeasurably in strategic importance. Yet, interestingly, we are in a similar moment now. Some argue that the humanitarian impulse was corrupted, and ultimately destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan (by everyone - humanitarian agencies and western governments). The recent less robust responses to real humanitarian crisis in Somalia and Syria perhaps demonstrate this. We have tended to conflate crisis of government with crisis of people. Iraq, Afghanistan and the global financial crisis have also dampened the zeal of interventionists. There is perhaps more realism now - the hubris of nation-building is less apparent. But also the possibility that the international community will standby when genocide occurs becomes more likely. Both Cold War thinking and the legacy of the doomed Somalia experiment of 1992 hindered action to prevent genocide in 1994. Have we also consigned the victims of the Syrian crisis, and maybe the next genocide, to a half-hearted international response?