It’s that time of year when British citizens get a chance to come together to mourn the country’s human losses and remember those who sacrificed their lives in time of war. Some of those remembered were volunteers but the majority were probably conscripts.
For me the colour of the poppy you wear, red or white, doesn’t matter. It is a time for reflection but not celebration and triumphalism; my view on this hasn’t altered this year even though it is the 100th anniversary of the start of what became known as the Great War; it was the first of two great world wars.
Paying the blood price for your country has always been highly regarded in the West, although war poet Wilfred Owen — who was killed in 1918 — called “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (it is sweet and right to die for your country”) “the old Lie” in perhaps the most famous of his poems.
As I remember my grandfather Charles Richard Mills, who was gassed in the trenches by the Germans in the First World War, and my late father Allan Ridley who did his bit as a youth in the Royal Navy in the Second, and lived to tell the tale, I am also going to set aside some time for those Brits who have more recently sacrificed their lives, not for their country but for the plight of the oppressed.
I really can’t think of anything nobler than such a self-sacrifice which is made not in the name of nationalism or patriotism but out of compassion. That is not to minimise in any way the efforts of those who will be remembered by Queen Elizabeth (herself a WWII veteran) at The Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday alongside other key members of the British Establishment.
The sacrifice I’m talking about is that made by Brighton teenagers Abdullah Deghayes, 18, and his brother Jaffer who was 16 when he went off to fight against the dictator Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. Neither boys were seduced or radicalised by the exciting images on YouTube of the gun toting recruits from ISIS; they were simply moved by the pain and suffering of ordinary Syrian people as shown on Sky TV, the BBC and other mainstream channels. It didn’t take a radical preacher to fire them up and send them off overseas on jihad; it took a few graphic images and outpourings from distraught men, women and children fleeing a brutal dictator. It wouldn’t surprise me if the final straw which prompted their departure was the sight of children writhing around in agony, foaming at the mouth after becoming the victims of the nerve agent Sarin used in a chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces on the outskirts of Damascus in August 2013.
If I was younger and thought I could do something positive to help I might also have headed for Syria. The pictures of those suffering women and children shown on the BBC made me feel angry and helpless as world leaders huffed and puffed about red lines being crossed and then did absolutely nothing to help Assad’s victims.
There was no Lord Kitchener figure rallying would-be soldiers and telling them that they were needed in Syria, just ominous warnings from senior British police officers telling the Brighton lads and many like them not to go. Indeed, the police have a point and, personally, I would urge youngsters not to venture into the complex and confused killing fields of Syria but to invest their time in helping the aid convoys and raising awareness of the atrocities being carried out by the Assad regime.
The Deghayes family still have one son in the conflict area. Amer, aged 20, travelled to Syria with Jaffar in October 2013; he has already survived being shot in the stomach. He told a Vice News documentary filmed earlier this year: “My work here is not done. I came here to give victory to the people and make sure that they receive justice, and we still haven’t reached the goal yet.”
In another interview Amer said that he “couldn’t care less” if he was labelled a terrorist but insisted that jihadists fighting Bashar al-Assad’s forces are not a threat to the West. I believe him, as those on a humanitarian mission moved by the plight of the Syrian women and children would do their cause no good by returning to Britain in order to wreak havoc.
Of course there will be no war memorial carved in white Portland marble in Brighton for the Deghayes boys but their noble efforts and intentions should not be dismissed as those of misguided youths. Many of those who volunteered to go to Flanders 100 years ago were the same age and full of the same sort of idealistic optimism that they were going to make a real change for good. Like them, the Deghayes lads died as heroes and, like those long-gone young men in another conflict, we should remember them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.