Where are all young men going?

Dr. Manuel Carballo

History has a tragic habit of repeating itself. Besieging civilian populations has always been a weapon of war. In 1940 the Nazis forced over 400,000 Jews into a 3.4 km2 area of Warsaw and subjugated them to horrific social and health deprivation. With no free movement in or out of the ghetto and no industry officially allowed, only creativity and courage helped some to survive. Illegal workshops sprang up to manufacture goods that were used in the ghetto and could also be smuggled out and sold in the surrounding town that gladly turned a blind eye on what was happening to the 400,000 Jews caught in the ghetto. Raw materials were smuggled in through tunnels, sewer systems and by young children who managed to get in and out of the perimeter. The underground resistance groups that emerged built rudimentary hospitals, food kitchens, schools, orphanages and shelters. They also set up paramilitary posts and saw that Jews suspected of collaborating with the Nazis were caught and executed. Then in 1943 German troops entered the ghetto, burning and destroying buildings block by block. Children, women, the elderly and men were all defined as the enemy and killable. Under different circumstances, but with similar aims, the population of Sarajevo was subjected to a terrifying siege in the 1990’s.

Today in 2014 we find ourselves in Gaza and a heart chilling reminder that we have learned little as a species and have certainly not grown morally. In an area no more than 40km long 10km wide, 1.8 million women, men, children, the elderly , the disabled and the dying are being forced to eke out a survival where all industrial activity is systematically curtailed by the occupying forces and where more than 50% of the work-age population is unemployed. Just as in the Warsaw ghetto, there is no free movement in and out of this tiny strip of land, and access to food, water and other essentials is strictly controlled by Israel.

Just like the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto and besieged Sarajevo, the people of Gaza have resorted to a vast network of tunnels through which food and materials are brought in and goods taken out. The occupying force defines these tunnels as illegal and  part of a terrorist plot. It says, that just like was said about the ones in the Warsaw ghetto and Sarajevo, these tunnels too are used to bring in weapons. This may well be true. Like the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto and Sarajevo, people who are defined as less than human, collectively denied all their rights, treated like prisoners and humiliated on a daily basis, eventually stand up and resist. If they did not we might say they deserved what they got.

Does history really have to repeat itself or can we intervene to avert humanitarian disasters of this depth and magnitude? There are people in Israel who say that what is being done in and to the people of Gaza is wrong. There are people in Gaza who say that they want nothing more than to be able to move freely, find jobs, be creative, be able to invest in the future, see their daughters and sons benefit from the science and knowledge the world has accrued. Surely there must also be people and countries outside the region that also believe this and are willing to call an end to this humanitarian crisis, to say enough is enough

The alternative  is a grim one. Every day children in Gaza lose a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a grandparent, new committed and dedicated warriors are created. This is a historical fact. What makes the situation different now is that there are millions of young people all over the world looking on at what is being carried out in Gaza and saying they too are being symbolically wronged by this. No attempts at whitewashing what is happening will overcome this reality. If the world has not grown morally it has certainly grown in terms of its ability to share news. When Christine Amamanpour sent out day by day reports from the frontlines of Sarajevo twenty years ago she helped revolutionize war reporting and make conscience a global media issue. What could at one time be hidden and denied through press releases replete with what Winston Churchill would have politely called “terminological in-exactitudes”, has been overtaken by real-time news systems that project to a global audience that includes hundreds of thousands of would-be warriors in distant lands. As they see the people of Gaza in that 40km long 10km wide ghetto being abused, they  interpret this as a threat to their own rights and  see it is as their duty to take up the cause of Gaza. When they do, they may see the people and countries that did not say enough is enough, as being just as much their enemies as the forces occupying Gaza.

When in 1914 Archduke Ferdinand was shot by a young fanatic representing no more than a handful of people, over 100 countries were drawn into a war that went on for four long years and claimed the lives of 16 million people and laid the foundation for yet a second global war and a holocaust two decades later. Is this what we want? Do we simply believe that because the actors have changed and the region is further away that it could not happen again? If we do, then history may well indeed repeat itself. And if it does the result this time around may be worse than it was in 1914 with a conflict that at that time became utopianly called the “war to end all wars”. Today the world has become smaller and is being split up in new and frightening ways. Enemies are being created where there were none. Geo-political and religious lines are being drawn just at a time when the opportunities for globalisation and a symbiotic world were never better.

A few weeks ago the US Secretary of State, John Kerry announced that the USA would allocate 47 million dollars in humanitarian aid to Gaza. In passing he also referred to the need to address the underlying causes of the crisis. And while he chose not to spell out what those underlying causes were, we all know that history has proven time and time again that it is not only morally wrong to subjugate people, deny them their rights and treat them as prisoners, it is also ultimately impossible. Trying to do so comes with a colossal price that we all end up paying. Maybe the time has come for the world to say enough is enough and hope it is not too late.

Manuel Carballo is the Executive Director of the International Centre for Migration, Health and Development, Geneva Switzerland.

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