There are worse things stolen from children than the colour of the sea

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The morning brought the first hint of summer. The sea, flattened beneath a breezeless sky, was translucent. There seemed no horizon.

My granddaughter padded into my room, sat on my bed and solemnly studied the view beyond the window.

Relatives and friends of Israeli citizens taken hostage by Hamas call for their return.Credit: AP

“Pa,” she said in the voice that tells me she is about to reveal something that only the unfiltered mind of a four-year-old might conjure. “Somebody stole the sea.”

How could I respond?

My granddaughter’s perception of an optical illusion was profound. The weeks of wind and waves and white-caps had been stolen away by a perfectly still morning.

There are much worse things being snatched from children than the mood of the sea.

Israelis choke with grief, their children killed, orphaned or stolen as hostages by the pitiless terrorists of Hamas two months ago.

In the subsequent invasion of Gaza by the relentless Israeli Defence Forces, Palestinian children are being killed, orphaned, rendered homeless and mutilated, their agony compounded by a cruel lack of medical supplies.

The TV at home is tuned to Bluey instead of the news when my granddaughter is around.

How might anyone explain the horror to a four-year-old child?

I have taken to avoiding it myself. The thought of what happens to other four-year-olds, left homeless in ruined, dangerous streets, their parents killed, is almost too overwhelming.

A child injured in Israeli airstrikes arrives at Nasser Medical Hospital in Khan Younis, Gaza.Credit: Getty Images

I have seen the misery of such things before, close up. It always left me helpless.

Other images – of the civil war and famine in Yemen, for instance, where more than 1.7 million children have been driven from their homes by violence, according to UNICEF, or the broken Syria – have simply disappeared from our vision.

There has barely been room lately for even fleeting references to Ukraine and its war against Russian invaders, which reached its 650th day this week.

The UN reports that 545 children have been killed and more than 1150 injured so far. And what sins have these children committed to be punished so mercilessly?

None at all.

Theirs is the oldest story.

The children have simply had the misfortune of being born into a vicious cycle of old wrongs flaring into new hatreds through generational misery.

In Australia, there was the bitter irony that 19th-century massacres of Indigenous people were often the work of Scottish immigrants who had been expelled from their own ancestral lands by merciless landlords who wanted their little crofts to make way for sheep grazing. Trauma travelled far.

The death of US diplomat Henry Kissinger last week is a reminder of the cascade of consequences that can begin with damnable decisions.

Bogged in the Vietnam War, Kissinger and president Richard Nixon ordered a massive escalation in illegal clandestine bombing raids on Cambodia, which Kissinger covered up.

Kissinger was also involved in the so-called “secret war” on Laos. For many years, Laos was considered the most bombed country in history. From 1964 to early 1973, the US dropped 260 million bombs on the little country – a planeload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.

Data from the US Air Force, published in 2000, suggests the secret US bombing of Cambodia was even more shocking: from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the US dropped at least 2,756,941 tons of bombs in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites.

The resulting devastation mutated into powerful recruitment propaganda for a previously little-known communist group called the Khmer Rouge.

Portraits of Khmer Rouge victims paper the walls of the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.Credit: Getty Images

In time, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia, leading to the genocidal killings and starvation deaths of about 1.7 million Cambodian people.

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” the late American chef, author and star of travel documentaries Anthony Bourdain once wrote, a touch theatrically.

Having spent time in that grim nation long ago, surrounded by limbless children who had stepped on landmines laid by generations of factions that prosecuted war on each other after Kissinger authorised bombing the country, the sentiment loses much of its theatre.

In 1994, while reporting in Rwanda on a genocide so brutal it thwarts description, only a little digging revealed to me the genesis of hatred built among Hutus for Tutsis.

It cascaded down the years from an arrogant decision by Rwanda’s former colonial masters, Belgium, to elevate Tutsis to superior social and administrative positions over Hutus. Tutsi children were victims in the first post-colonial massacre of 1959, when Hutus hacked off their feet to “bring them back to size”.

And on and on.

If we had space for many thousands of extra words to describe the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 (which followed the slaughter of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust of World War II), the creation born in violence when five Arab states unsuccessfully waged war on Israeli forces, followed by the expulsion and exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and their land, we might be able to begin to explore a little of the sources of the current horror.

But we do not. Besides, much of it, drastically abbreviated here, would be disputed.

Would any of it matter, anyway, to the children suffering now, their trauma being stored away for potential future acts of that most basic consequence of torment, revenge?

There are worse things stolen from children than the colour of the sea, I could tell my grandchild.

But I won’t.

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