I was two months short of being 12. I went to bed quite late, only to be startled shortly afterwards by my mother. She was attempting to wake my father. She was yelling, "The war has started!" Years later I can still clearly recall the fright with which I got up. The haunting sound of the sirens still rings in my ears.
Driving towards Madaya in a convoy that snaked along the Damascus highway for hundreds of metres, a huge knot formed in the pit of my stomach. Not knowing what we would find there, and remembering the harrowing images of emaciated children pleading with their eyes for some respite from this siege, it was hard not to be worried.
In the five years since the uprising-turned-civil-war, the Syrian conflict has become the "biggest humanitarian crisis of our time." The United Nations estimates more than 250,000 people have been killed (this figure is widely disputed among various international organizations), while another 6.6. million have been internally displaced.
Last week, Canadians came together to celebrate their country's 149th birthday. This week, South Sudan marks five years as an independent nation. Yet for many there is little to celebrate. For half of its brief life, the world's youngest nation has been ripped apart by war, leaving tens of thousands dead.
In our data driven world, numbers are key in terms of conveying the size of a problem or the intensity that we should pay attention to it. However, many of the world's most intractable problems continue to defy any systemic approaches to be easily counted. This is particularly accurate when assessing the effects of war on children.
The dark fear of living with cancer is like living with death on your horizon. For a long time I let myself feel like that was a certainty. First, before chemotherapy I took a stance of come what may. Since then, I've taken a more active line in trying to move away, and pursue a better, longer life. The truth was that until the appointments of this month I still had no long term vision. I was constantly repeating in my subconscious that radiation therapy was coming, to not be irrational and look into the future,but to stick in this moment and deal with it.
A desperate Syrian mother in a refugee camp tried to give me her sick little girl on my last visit to the region's conflict zones and neighbouring countries filled with fleeing people. She wanted me to take her child back to Canada for medical care. That day, I saw misery and despair that no one should bear.
The lessons of Afghanistan were purchased at a bitter cost: the war claimed more lives, more years, and more money than any other campaign in NATO's history. Unless the alliance takes those lessons to heart, a war in Syria and Iraq to extinguish Daesh -- the self-styled "Islamic State" -- will be worse. In any military campaign against Daesh, how will we identify effective allies on the ground, who are less pernicious than our common enemy? How will we ensure that neither chaos nor tyranny fill the vacuum left after a successful campaign? Whom will Syrians be able to trust to rebuild their country?
Like all westerners, I watched in horror at the terror that was unleashed across Paris. But my horror quickly turned to frustration when, immediately in the aftermath, western leaders took advantage of the situation to reinforce a false narrative, and to justify the very policies that have brought us to such a crisis. Our governments do not want us to understand that wittingly or unwittingly (the jury is still out on what role they have really played) they created the conditions for the rise of ISIS, and they did so through exactly the same disastrous policies that they now claim are the only way to destroy it.
I couldn't help but ache for the families that do not have a warm home to come home to. The families who have had to leave their entire lives behind to be shelled to oblivion while they risk their own lives to give their children a future. These people are human beings struggling to simply stay alive and are risking everything they have ever known in order to do so.
As is usually the case in the rush to war, this chorus of angry voices ignores the messy and uncomfortable reality of the situation. They propose a course of action that would put Canada in greater danger, strengthen its geopolitical foes, involve a far greater sacrifice than Canadians are willing to make, and fail to improve the situation in Syria or Iraq.
To honour Canada's diversity, how about this year we remember some of the victims of that empire? Our racist and colonial past, as well as Canada's role in exploiting people of colour all over the world, must also be included in our remembrance if we are to build a nation of respect for all people -- the essence of real diversity.
All the posts and articles about the current refugee crisis and the little boys found washed up on the beach have been very difficult for me to follow. In late spring of 1991, I remember sitting in a cramped office as we solemnly watched footage of tanks rolling into Djakovo, Crotia (then still former Yugoslavia).
I feel very proud to say that I had an ancestor who fought in the war and returned to Canada as a veteran. I am sometimes astounded at how many Canadians don't know about their family's military contributions. In fact, a recent Ancestry.ca survey revealed one in three Canadians has no idea whether they had an ancestor who fought in the First World War.
There is simply no compatibility between humanitarian action and the use of military force in combat. One has as its singular objective the alleviation of human suffering, regardless of the sufferer's identity or affiliation; the other, by definition, involves taking the side of one group against the other. That's also why it is very worrying to hear that humanitarian assistance is being used as strategic tactic in military action.
On balance, however, this was not a good year for world peace. Russian aggression in Crimea and the Ukraine, and the West's response, pushed the world closer to a new Cold War. Revelations about the CIA's use of torture were enough to shake anyone's faith in the goodness of humanity. Meanwhile, the Middle East spiralled downward with greater violence in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. At home we are still not on track to meet our emissions targets. And the strongest praise environmentalists could muster for the climate change deal reached in Lima, Peru, last week was to wince and say it is "better than nothing."
Massive military egos, political conniving, and Western dilly-dallying have resulted in a potent brew. And now has come famine on a vast scale, in what the United Nations has described as perhaps the worst humanitarian disaster of this recent era. Two million people are now on the move, displaced by conflict and lack of resources.
Today's conflicts are smaller in scale than the world wars on which we normally focus come Remembrance Day. But tragically, so are many of the soldiers. There are some 250,000 child soldiers in the world today, mostly in Africa. Children the age of my school-aged sons are shoved headlong into a hell that's unimaginable for most adults, let alone a child.
Taking this time to reflect on the dedication of our armed forces is not the same as blindly supporting war. Remembrance Day is really about being present to the experiences of those who sacrificed their mental and emotional well-being in the name of our country. It's about expressing gratitude to those who gave up their dreams so that the rest of us can pursue ours. After all, while the poppy historically symbolizes the blood of fallen soldiers, it also represents a flower that was able to grow in land too infertile for much else; transforming from a mere community of poppy seeds while simultaneously converting the land into fertile and beautiful possibility.