Saturday, July 25, 2015
This photograph of a sorrowful young refugee holding his missing parents’ wedding photograph has haunted me ever since I first saw it, at the age of five. When in my youthful imagination I could barely just conceive of the idea of being abandoned or losing one’s parents, I would become overwhelmed with fear and cry. Furthermore, this photograph has been responsible for procuring recurring childhood nightmares, nightmares which have even persisted intermittently into adulthood, wherein I am always a five year old boy, wandering aimlessly in a black and white landscape peopled with faceless placard holders, searching in vain for my parents who have inexplicably vanished. I do not know if the young boy was lucky enough to find his parents in the aftermath of the terrible humanitarian tragedy that was the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. If he is hale and hearty, he is probably approaching middle age and has a family of his own. I shudder to think what manner of mental traumas have been inflicted upon him as a result of having to face a calamity that no child should ever be exposed to.
When one considers that forty one years have elapsed since the terrible crime of the Cyprus invasion took place and that since then the international community has not managed to resolve this issue, shifting from a blanket but puny condemnation of the invasion of a ‘sovereign’ state (which it wasn’t since it had guarantor powers looking over its shoulder), to a post-modern no-fault approach whereby there is no longer a sovereign state with 47% of its territory under foreign occupation, but rather two ‘communities,’ that need to engage with each other, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the world has failed the little boy and so many innocent victims of human brutality. Such children, growing up in the aftermath of the Second World War and taught to believe in the United Nations and mankind’s evolution towards a noble and peaceable utopia would have been completely shocked to discover that not only is mankind and its international institutions are largely unable to prevent violent conflicts, they are also generally unable to resolve them.
Exiled from their homes and unable to return to them, bearing the trauma of seeing their parents or loved ones killed, raped or tortured before their very eyes, these children would have shook their heads in disbelief had they been told that by 2015, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees would estimate the number of refugees and internally displaced people at approximately 60 million. Mercifully, they would and could not be told that in the western world at least, there would be a gradual hardening of governmental policy and citizen’s hearts with regard to the plight of refugees for if they had become privy to such knowledge, it is arguable that they would not have been able to find the strength to carry on.
It is for that lost little boy whose identity I have assumed in my nightmares and for the sake of every single other refugee, forcibly torn from everything that they have known and loved that I attend the Justice for Cyprus Rally at the steps of the Parliament of Victoria every year in July. As the number of attendees decreases year after year, I reflect on what a fitting and symbolic spot the Co-ordinating Committee for the Cyprus Campaign (SEKA) has chosen for its demonstration. On the appointed Sunday in freezing July, the streets before Parliament are silent and empty with not even a suspicion of a pedestrian, to be moved by the slogans or the placards. Parliament too is silent, its looming grey edifice with its closed doors bearing down upon the small crowd disconsolately as if to say: “You may cry as you will but there is no one to hear you here, and even if there was, there is no one here who could make the slightest difference to your plight.” Perhaps that is why most of the politicians have stopped coming, because they are ashamed of their own impotence. Or perhaps it is because they know that since 1974, a multitude of other conflicts and priorities have interposed themselves between trauma and memory and the time for lip service is past.
The dignitaries from Cyprus mouth the same platitudes as the crowd looks on mutely and then comes the turn of the representatives from local organisations, making a cameo show of support for the worthwhile endeavours of SEKA, which less and less people, especially those of Cypriot extraction, appreciate. The national anthems of Greece and Australia are sung and everyone scuttles off to seek refuge from the cold, muttering that they are tired of commemorating the invasion in the same way for so many decades and that something ‘new’ must be done to ‘attract’ a crowd. Yet few people have heard, amidst the words, the slogans and the anthems, the heart-rendering sobs of the black-clad ladies perennially at the front, bearing fading photographs of loved ones they have lost and olive branches, lamenting the loss of love, youth and a future. Every time I mount the steps to deliver a message of support from the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, I face them, my childhood nightmares and feel as a fraud and a hypocrite, for I have never suffered so much, or plumbed the depths of the abysmal numbness that comes afterwards, as to offer meaningful consolation or a message of hope. At times like this, dignity properly demands silence. For in such silence alone, does suffering speak.
Chances are, given the parlous state of the world, that the refugees, and all of those who seek justice for Cyprus will never bear witness to a just ‘solution’ to ‘problem’ that was once called a crime. There can be no adequate redress for anguish, fear and loss of life and love. Nor can we or anyone expect that a groundswell of public outrage, four decades on will spur the key power-brokers into just action. What there can be however, is understanding, compassion and a resolve to point out the incongruities and inconsistencies of our self-assured civilization. For after all, a crime ceases to become a crime only if it is forgotten. It is for this reason, that all of us should make the effort to attend the annual Justice for Cyprus demonstration on 26 July 2015 – to stand as mute witnesses to the injustice of a world that allows little boys to lose their parents and then nonchalantly washes its hands of their fate – pointing the finger directly, at those responsible.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 July 2015