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On a Cloud

April 13, 2017

[…] into the east buildings, where the sick children were. The mothers were always there. Sitting on stools, they rested their upper torso and head on the child’s bed and slept holding the small hands.


[…] He watched the children, who were unaware of their parents’ arms. Fifty yards away in Emergency he had heard grown men scream for their mothers as they were dying. ‘Wait for me!’ 'I know you are here!’


-Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost



‘No odour, no smoke, not even a whistle to indicate the release of a toxic gas,’ wrote Jean-Philippe Remy, from the suburbs of Jobar, Syria, in May 2013. ‘And then the symptoms appear.’


‘The men cough violently. Their eyes burn, their pupils shrink, their vision blurs. Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme; they begin to vomit or lose consciousness. The fighters worst affected need to be evacuated before they suffocate.’


This scene was first played in World War I, on the 22nd of April, 1915. By the end of the war more than 90,000 soldiers had died in a cloud of chlorine gas.


Since then it has been replayed in Poland, France, Belgium, Turkey, Russia, Morocco, Manchuria, Sinkiang, Ethiopia, China, Germany, Austria, Italy, Vietnam, Yemen, Laos, Kampuchea, Guyana, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the United States, India, the Philippines, Japan, Syria,


Syria, Syria, Syria, Syria. One hundred and nearly two years later, in 2017.


The scene today differs little from the first, except perhaps for the fact that among those coughing and vomiting, suffocating, losing consciousness, dying are little children. They need to be hosed clean and evacuated. They need ventilators. They need media coverage, but first they need their mothers.


Even the grownups foaming at the mouth, convulsing, eyes open, scared on the ground. The victims are the same, whichever side they are on. They were someone’s children once.


This was when he stopped believing in man’s rule on earth. He turned away from any person who stood up for a war. Or the principle of one’s land, or pride of ownership, or even personal rights. […] One was no worse and no better than the enemy.


Not everything gets blurred in a cloud of gas; priorities emerge quite clear. Our leaders are shouting in assembly halls, throwing blame at each other through TV screens, but there are more important, pressing things to be done; the children need comforting.


Lullabies are sung in triple or 6/8 time. The rhythm makes the song rock and sway, like the movements of the fetus in the womb. The experience is comforting. The beat also matches the heartbeat closely, so as soon as the lullaby begins, ‘a soothing sense of order infuses infantile consciousness.’ The belief that everything will be ok.


'He believed only in the mothers sleeping against their children.'


I believe in the mothers too. I believe that no country, religion, cause, belief, interest justifies chemical warfare.


My mother’s repertoire of lullabies, among songs by Cat Stevens and Chris de Burgh, included Cosette’s ‘Castle on a Cloud’ from Les Misérables. There is no suffering on  that cloud. No noise, no hate, no war.


There is a room that’s full of toys. There are a hundred boys and girls,


If only the children in Syria could hear it, if only their mothers could. And those shouting blindly, aimlessly in a cloud of sarin gas.


A century and two years is too long a time in history for chemical wars. We have work to do, a world to change, but first, children to rock to sleep. For those who are scared and suffering tonight, we have to make tonight safe.


I know a place where no one's lost,

I know a place where no one cries,


not in my castle. Not on my cloud.


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