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Column Those Syrian children are dead because the world didn't try to save them

Using chemical weapons and targeting innocent civilians are war crimes. But so is silence – and every day we sit back while this slaughter continues is another day that we have facilitated the killing of innocent people, writes Maurice McQuillan.

THE IMAGES EMERGING from Syria this week have shocked the world. The photographs of dead children seen on the front pages of our newspapers brought home the horrific reality of Syria’s war.

These were not combatants. These were not rebels or fighters or soldiers – these were innocent children butchered by a war that has lost any sense of humanity.

The world abandoned these children

Who was responsible and what killed them remain disputed, but in many ways the answers to those questions are irrelevant. Like 100,000 other Syrians, those children are dead and no UN investigation is going to bring them back to life.

The photographs present us with an uncomfortable truth: those children are dead because the world did not try to save them.

The use of chemical weapons is a war crime, as is the targeted of innocent civilians. But silence is also a war crime, and every day that we sit silently while this slaughter continues is another day that we have facilitated the killing of innocent people.

Guns do not bring peace: they kill

Two years into this war, the UN Security Council remains hopelessly split. Once again, politics and self-interest have taken precedence over human life. Once again, we see the tragic consequences of placing global peace into the hands of the world’s largest arms dealers.

Instead of discussing peace, members of the UN Security Council have flooded the region with weapons. The horrific scenes of this week will no doubt increase calls to arm the opposition in Syria. These calls must be resisted. Guns do not bring peace; they kill, they terrorise and they bring misery and suffering to people who just want to live ordinary lives.

I have recently returned from the Lebanon/Syria border where I met people who have fled the war. I asked every Syrian refugee I met what they wanted to happen next. None of them said guns. None of them said they wanted anybody armed. Each and every one of them told me the same thing: they want peace so as they can go home.

The threat of the war spilling over borders

As well as inflaming the war inside Syria, arming opposition groups could have explosive consequences for the entire region. In Lebanon I saw first hand how real the threat of the war spilling over borders is.

I served in the Irish Army in Lebanon during the 1980s when religious tensions tore that country apart in much the same way as they have done to Syria today. Lebanon is a tinderbox. It is a country held together by a fragile peace.

Today, up to one million Syrians have crossed into Lebanon. To understand that figure fully, remember that Lebanon is half the size of Munster. The response of the Lebanese people to this crisis has been incredible – they have, quite literally, opened their homes to their neighbours. But the religious and political tensions in that country are simmering close to boiling point.

The worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide

The entire region is struggling to cope with the refugee crisis caused by this war. The UN says the conflict in Syria has caused the world’s worst refugee crisis for 20 years, with numbers not seen since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Three million children are displaced – two million inside Syria’s borders and a further one million in neighbouring countries. These children are deeply traumatised by what they have witnessed. I met one Syrian child who had fled her home after her neighbours were killed in a rocket attack – the last thing she remembers from home is seeing her parents pick body parts up off the street. Many of the children I met have difficulty sleeping; they are haunted by what they have seen.

The world must shout stop now

The long term damage being done to children is enormous. Through our Caritas partners, we are providing safe spaces for some of these children, but rebuilding their lives is an enormous challenge.

Unless the world shouts stop now, the entire region could become engulfed in war. The UN Security Council must put politics and bickering aside and do everything in its power to bring this senseless war to a close.

Failure to do so is a death sentence for people who want nothing more than to live in peace.

How many more photographs of dead children will it take for the world to act?

How many more days will we remain silent while this slaughter continues?

Maurice McQuillan is Trócaire’s Head of Humanitarian Programmes

To support Trócaire’s Syria emergency appeal, please visit

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