A cartoon from some years ago has lingered in my mind. It shows two adults chatting in a supermarket. One, pushing a trolley laden to the brim with booze, is saying: “Christmas. We only do it for the kids.” Yet if this celebration of the birth of one baby is a time for children, it can be so in a disturbing way.
Our modern Christmas celebrations tend to overlook the odd religious festival which the church commemorates on Monday. For all the cosy crib images of Christmas, there is one grim element to the story. The child born in the stable so affrights a man born in a palace that he orders mass murder. King Herod instructs his men to slaughter all boys under the age of two, in an attempt to eliminate the child whom wise men from the East say will become the King of the Jews. The day set aside to mark it is called the Massacre of the Innocents.
The story is in the present rather than the past tense because, when we look around the world, we see that it continues. All across the globe, innocent children are today paying the price of adult folly.
One of the most shocking images of 2015 reminds us of that. The body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi – in his blue shorts and red shirt and new shoes – was washed up on a beach in Turkey in September, as his family tried desperately to flee the war in Syria. It was one photograph of one child. But it startled the world into an acknowledgement of the many other children who perish, caught up on the tide of adult events.
Children today live in two worlds. In one there has been unbelievable progress. Only half the number of children today die from malaria or diarrhoea than was the case a decade ago. But progress against natural disasters has been offset by those created by people. That other world is becoming more brutal for children, who pay a terrible price for the behaviour of the adults around them. Some of that comes from indifference and neglect.
Syria is a classic case. Of the 12 million people either killed or displaced, half are children – and yet the West has let the issue of Syria drift for more than four years with no serious diplomatic effort to address it until now. In Africa, the extent of the deaths from Ebola owed much to the West’s broken promises on building up healthcare in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea; by contrast, in neighbouring Nigeria health systems were just strong enough to contain the spread.
But the hubris and ambition of grown-ups is a key curse. Look at South Sudan, where two men (the President and his one-time deputy) have pushed a new-born nation into two years of ruinous conflict – with a cycle of retaliatory killings that have split the country along ethnic lines between Dinka and Nuer, piling up atrocities, massacres and gang rape. A million are displaced and four million are suffering from hunger.
Or take Yemen. The charity Save the Children recently issued a report on the forgotten crisis and forgotten children there. Similarly, escalating violence has left an already impoverished country in a state of freefall. Some 1.3 million children under five years old now suffer from acute malnutrition. Six times that number go without enough to eat on a daily basis and do not know where their next meal is coming from. Adult unwillingness to conduct meaningful peace talks, or even to lift restrictions on the distribution of food aid, is creating a man-made famine.
In one way, none of this is new. Where wars are about identity – as in Bosnia/Serbia or the Hutu/Tutsi extermination in Rwanda – children, in particular, have always suffered. Sometimes the adults fear that when the children grow up they will seek out and take revenge on those who killed their fathers. Sometimes they become victims of a genocidal mania, as with the attempts by the fanatics of Islamic State (Isis) to wipe out Yazidi and Christian children. Sometimes the hatred is almost metaphysical; one Syrian boy was told he was being tortured “because you are the future”.
But there are new dimensions to the mistreatment of children. Modern high explosives in built-up areas invariably hit the most vulnerable disproportionately, including babies and children. Bombardments in Gaza and barrel bombs in Syria kill without discrimination. Child slavery is another grim extension of this adult abuse, with massive trafficking of children on the back of the refugee crisis.
A further twist comes from the growth in child soldiery. Aid agencies now estimate that there are around 300,000 children involved with armed groups worldwide – bearing arms, acting as porters or cooks, or as sex slaves. The reality of that was exposed by a chilling report from the brave BBC-man Mike Thomson, who won the Foreign Press Association “story of the year” award for his travels inside Iraq to uncover chilling details about the “Caliphate Cubs” – children as young as 10 brainwashed by Isis into executing their prisoners.
The year ended with the unbearably sad story of the seven children of Ali Alsaho who all drowned in the sea off Turkey. They were trapped below deck in what he thought was a sturdy wooden boat, which he had been told by people smugglers would reach Greece in 15 minutes – until its engine failed. For more than an hour he swam around in the dark, freezing water, diving beneath the waves, hoping to feel their touch.
The Christmas story is about a family seeking shelter. Mary and Joseph got their refugee child to safety in a neighbouring country. But the Massacre of the Innocents reminds us that, for many families, there is no happy ending. And asks what will we do about that.
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester
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