I was not fully aware of what I was going to attend. The briefing had been just that – brief! “It’s something to do with children at a memorial” is the sum total of what I understood as I journeyed to Westminster Abbey along with my wife, Marianne, and another colleague.
The small group – a smattering of school-teens and small children with about twice as many adults, including some clergy, a politician and two reporters – assembled outside the west entrance of the Abbey at approximately 3 pm and, without much ado and certainly with no pomp and pageantry, held a ceremony, culminating in the laying of seven wreaths and a bunch of flowers. The organiser, Professor Martin Parsons, told us that similar ceremonies were being held today in Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo.
Attended by 32 people (double the number they had managed to assemble last year), the ceremony commemorates the children who are the innocent victims of war and humankind’s continued and continual violent inhumanity to humankind – the ones frequently forgotten.
They’re forgotten as the conflicts rage, as the violence erupts. They’re forgotten as the clean-up starts. They’re forgotten when “normality” is restored and the adults shake hands and sign documents and move on. And, ironically, they’re forgotten when the victims of conflicts are remembered.
Please do not misunderstand me. This is not a diatribe deprecating the amazing, deeply moving Remembrance Day services held all over the United Kingdom. It is honourable that we pay tribute to those who died in defence of the country. It is courteous to make every preparation for the ceremony. It is wonderful that such respect is deeply embedded in the consciousness of the people so that the entire nation joins in remembrance. It is right to remember.
But, there’s the rub. I knew that 11 November is Armistice Day; I did not know that 20 November is Universal Children’s Day! I knew every detail of my participation at the Cenotaph two Sundays ago – down to where I would hang my coat before and after the ceremony; I did not know what I was attending on 20 November!
Dr Peter Heinl, the world’s leading expert on war-related trauma in children, says:
“Sadly there is no end in sight for wars on this planet. The childhood sufferers of today will be the suffering adults of tomorrow. Peace stands by helplessly. There is one conclusion which can be drawn firmly with respect to children in war time, be it victory or defeat: children tend to be the great losers overlooked by history.” As I stood in that small group – a group unnoticed by London as it bustled by, the irony is painful: The forgotten continue to be forgotten, even when we’re remembering them.
• To find out more about Professor Parsons’ work to commemorate the children affected by war, visit this site. • Professor Parsons is the author of War Child: Children Caught in Conflict (The History Press Ltd, 2008) and is a researcher at the University of Reading.