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When Poetry Mirrors War

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I am returning home from a memorial to an old and dear friend, Marijke Velzeboer Salcedo. Marijke was a remarkable woman on many counts: a wonderful mother, wife and friend. She was a talented and energetic woman whose work on behalf of women for United Nations agencies contributed to the improvement in the lives of thousands of women worldwide.

Among the many tributes to her talents one of them remains with me: Marijke was a determined pacifist. When her children’s new friends came to her house she told them: in this house you can say any word you want except one. In this house you are not allowed to say the word “kill.” This apparently simple conduct, if widespread, would do marvels for the cause of peace.

I come home and find the poem “Report from the Besieged City,” by the late Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, in a translation by John Carpenter and Bogdona Carpenter. As stated in the translation the speaker in the poem is designated a chronicler “Because he is too old to bear arms.”

I read the following lines,

I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write
about the facts
only they it seems are appreciated in foreign markets
yet with a certain pride I would like to inform the world
that thanks to the war we have raised a new species of children
our children don’t like fairy tales they play at killing
awake and asleep they dream of soup of bread and bones
just like dogs and cats

I am thinking about this when I see the carnage going on in Gaza where, as of this writing, over 1800 Palestinians have been killed, among them 296 children and almost 200 women. Thousands of children suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as the bombs relentlessly fall on them. Undaunted, the monster of war continues his demolition task. On July 31st Gideon Levy reported that around 50 families had been obliterated, their homes bombed with them inside.

Jorge Hernandez, an Argentine priest in charge of a refuge for 29 disabled children, mothers with their children and several nuns, says that the lack of potable water is terrifying, since people are drinking water contaminated with blood and sewage. “This is a bloody war, directed against women and children,” he tells his family in Argentina. “We have nowhere to go, all of Gaza is dangerous now,” he says.

According to the United Nations, a third of the hospitals in Gaza have been damaged, and 270,000 people have been crammed into 90 UN shelters. One such shelter in Rafah was struck by a missile that killed 10 people and injured 35. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General declared that the strike “is a moral outrage and criminal act and yet another gross violation of humanitarian law.”

The UN warns that medical facilities are ‘on the verge of collapse’ and almost half of medical personnel are unable to go to work. Half a million Gazans are now homeless and medical supplies are running out. Gaza morgue facilities are overflowing and dead children have to be kept in ice cream freezers.

I come back to the poem,

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defense continues it will continue to the end
and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.

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