Terrorist outrage followed by aggressive reaction in the form of a new invasion/war or the stepping up of one already in progress and more surveillance at home. The same pattern has been repeated so many times: 9/11 in New York, 11-M in Madrid (the one exception to the above in that Spanish troops were withdrawn after the election that followed), 7/7 in London, this November in Paris. Secrets of the Pomegranate focused on one of these events (the Madrid train bombings) and its consequences – for an individual family and in the wider political context. One of these consequences was the paranoia about Muslims – now whipped up to new extremes by Donald Trump, a serious contender for next US President.
The “war on terror” clearly hasn’t worked. As many people predicted, it has just created more hatred, more divisions, more radicalisation, as well as countless unnecessary deaths. The demonisation of all Muslims, supposedly ‘justified’ by the terror attacks, has made life even more difficult for the thousands of refugees fleeing wars created or sponsored by western countries.
When I first emigrated to Spain, people told me I was brave. Admittedly it was daunting to leave my family, job and home and head alone for a country where I knew nobody and had to start from scratch finding work and somewhere to live. However, I had a safety net; I knew I could go back if necessary; my journey wasn’t dangerous. I did not consider myself brave. The refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Eritrea, among other countries, are the brave ones, the ones who take incredible risks to secure a peaceful life for their families. After gruelling journeys, which a considerable number don’t survive, those who do may face intolerable conditions in camps and detention centres when they arrive. While some more humane communities – from the tiny Isle of Bute in Scotland to large countries like Canada – are welcoming them, others are treating them as a scourge and building fences to keep them out.
A major part of my next novel, The Red Gene, is set in the years after the Spanish Civil War, another war that created hundreds of thousands of refugees. When Franco’s troops marched into Málaga in early 1937, two thirds of the population fled – on foot or on donkeys, carrying what possessions they could – men, women and children, young and old on a sixty-mile trek to Almería, still held by the government. As they trudged along the road, they were machine-gunned and bombed from air and sea.
Two years later, with the defeat of the Republic imminent, 400,000 sought exile abroad, most heading over the border to France. There they were put in internment camps where, due to lack of sanitation and shelter, many died. Given the stark choices offered, some agreed to ‘voluntary’ repatriation, others were conscripted into the Foreign Legion or sent to military-style work camps. About 100,000 remained in the camps. Of those Republican soldiers or sympathisers trapped in Spain, vast numbers were executed, tortured, imprisoned or used as slave labour. Half the population lived in fear. Some hid for decades, separated from their families, too afraid to return home.
I recently read Dulce Chacón’s excellent but grim novel, La Voz Dormida (The Sleeping Voice), set in the same period just after the end of the Civil War. Like Secrets of the Pomegranate, it tells the story of two sisters and a baby. The pregnant sister is an inmate of Ventas, the women’s prison in Madrid, where she is awaiting her death by firing squad once the baby has been born. The ‘peace’ after Franco’s victory was not peace for all.
Christmas is supposed to be the season of peace and goodwill and we fortunate ones are busy sending cards and singing carols about just that, while celebrating the birth of a baby in a manger (there was no room at the inn for this family of Middle Eastern refugees). Unfortunately, for some the Christmas season just means more of the same: bombing and destruction; desperate journeys; miserable conditions in refugee camps.
Dare we hope for a more peaceful and tolerant 2016? I’d like to believe so. The spontaneous acts of generosity, kindness and empathy towards refugees from individuals, families and communities suggest that a better world is still possible. To quote the Dalai Lama, “Great changes always begin with individuals; the basis for peace in the world is that inner calm and peace found in the heart of every one of us. Each of us can make a contribution.”