Three days ago marked the 70th Anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Japan by US forces. Today, 9th August 2015, marks 70 years since the city of Nagasaki suffered the same fate. When you write it down, it seems like such a nice big number denoting that a lot of time has passed since then, and that the world’s citizens are no longer under the sway of such grave threats to their livelihood. For many world citizens, viewing grainy, decades-old images of whole scale destruction and civilians suffering from the most unthinkable of wounds would understandably leave an indelible imprint. They would surely be silently humbled after their witnessing that, whatever problems, political and economic instabilities we may suffer from today, we have, at the very least, come a long way since then. Even during those rare occasions we do choose to go to war, we are at least ‘selective’ and humane in how we wage them, right?
Anyone who is Syrian now – no, let’s be a little more inclusive here – anyone who is Syrian, is from one of the surrounding countries, or who happens to know someone who is Syrian, would most definitely have a starkly contrasting reaction in pouring over aftermath images of Hiroshima having endured the explosion of America’s deadly atomic parcel.
I was one of those Syrians on a visit to Hiroshima on a day trip in July, where I spent some time at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the surrounding park with its A-Bomb Dome relic and Memorial Cenotaph. Upon experiencing the sombre, eternally enshrined vigil of these memorials, I was exposed to dozens of images, displays, descriptions, artefacts, replica displays of human suffering, and other media related to the state of post-blast Hiroshima. While I’m sure reactions would vary quite a lot among Syrians, one version or another of ‘oh, that looks like Homs, or, Daraya, or Aleppo in 2015’ would surely be the reflexive association. They are the same. There is no difference. You cannot beat around the bush or mince your words in talking about it. The victims of Hiroshima were the victims of Homs in another space and time. Homs is Hiroshima in another space and time. Ghouta today is Nagasaki in 1945. It is simply impossible to avoid. And then, as inevitably happens, you cannot read any of the memorial tributes the same way that everyone else does. You know that human empathetic pain, sure, but you also know a much deeper one, and that is, the desecration of a formative part of yourself, your culture, your language, your upbringing, your community.
All around me in the museum lay tributes from world leaders, a framed peace declaration, and remains of children’s clothing in glass displays. I could only stand being in the museum for an hour, after that time I simply had to leave; I was so overcome with tears that I could not keep to myself a moment longer. I left as quickly as I could and walked past the Dome ruins; I had trouble calming myself down.
Strolling around, trying to deal with all that I was absorbing and sensing, I got to see the ghost-laden rumblings of a stately and prosperous city, all the way in the west of the country. Streetcars abounded, and a sprawling cityscape, lush green parks, a lively town centre, and a rich economy are all subsumed under a bustling, powerful, and fully-functioning society in 2015 Hiroshima. I felt the retrospective pain as a Syrian reliving what a relative of Hiroshima victims surely experienced – an undercurrent of pain unlike anything I had ever felt – but something far greater emerged as a result, a glimpse into the future. Having had the rare privilege of getting to see what a city entirely decimated by a nuclear warhead looks like after all its amazing people put it back together in a tremendous effort of renewal, I felt an immensely powerful glimpse into the truly unquenchable, and infinite, yes, infinite, capacity of human beings to constantly rewrite their own story. To constantly put that semicolon at the end of their sentence, even when they know full well that a full stop would suffice. I saw it. Syrians are no different from the citizens of Japan; all around them was pain, loss, and memory, not only in the instant but for many decades into the future.
But if our trials are the same, then so must be our triumphs. Syria as we and the older generations knew it before the destruction, deaths, and displacement was not an immemorial society graciously bestowed on us from above; it was the visual manifestation of what started out as mere ideas, dreams, and unrealised symptoms from ordinary people who, being so inspired by a fleeting thought, would then go on to build towns, start trends, customs, religions, and spaces of art, expression, community, and love, all holistically weaved into that wonderfully complex set of interactions we knew as Syria.
If it happened before, it can happen again. We will come back stronger than ever because if the diligent souls of Hiroshima can do it, then so can we, and because having endured so much pain, death, destruction, and displacement, we understand more than ever how precious life is and how irreplaceable the power of community is. We understand how absolutely indispensable the empowerment of our community is, especially my own generation and those immediately below, because more and more, as the country is torn up by fundamentalists, both in the form of secular capitalists in Assad on one hand and doctrinal fanatics in the form of ISIS on the other (with all their various allies and colleagues), we realise we are being left with a blank slate and whatever comes next in Syria will have to be a realisation of that infinite well of creation and persistence that lies in each of us.
Syrians’ roles as victims and survivors are only the current iterations of an on-going process of healing, recovery, and rejuvenation. They are powerful beyond measure. Hiroshima is a testament to the astonishing fact that people who have endured similarly unthinkable atrocities do not only hold onto that infinite creativity central to their organism, their hopes and dreams, but they make the best out of the worst, make it real before our eyes and in spite of everything – with enough love, imagination, and mutual support – they come back far stronger than ever before.