I returned to my London home late on Wednesday night after a long day in the Cabinet Office and, as I have got accustomed to doing, put the red box on the kitchen table and set to work on the papers that needed to be done for the next morning. Mug of tea on the table, Newsnight on television. Syria was the lead item. Syria again – but you can’t have Syria as background – it is too serious for that. There is something wrong, it feels to me, to work or talk or cook whilst pictures of what Assad is doing to his own people pass across the screen. So you need to make a decision – turn it off or turn it up. It is so painful to watch that I don’t mind admitting that the temptation to turn it off is very great. But on Wednesday night I felt the same as I have done since this terrible war began: if it is painful to view, it is unbearable for those poor souls affected to endure. The least I can do is watch their plight, attempt to understand, and try to do something, no matter how small, about it.
We have all felt sick seeing what is on our screens and I feel it especially so. Not just because I have a son who could – as anyone with children knows – be in the place of one of those brave little heroes dragged from the rubble left by Putin’s bombs. Not just because of that but because I went to Syria just as the war broke out and to see what has happened to it now can only break one’s heart. What a beautiful country, with such kind and decent people – wrecked by hubris and greed and cynicism and weakness and fanaticism and all the mortal failings in this mortal world brought down on one nation in a torrent of wretchedness and despair.
And so we in the West watch, continue to watch, having failed signally to stop it happening. It is an appalling prospect and one which – although not of our making – causes us still no little shame. Yet even after all this, the pictures and the stories have the power to shock even more than the last horrors that appeared on our screens. So it was on Wednesday night. A little three year old boy, bravely held bottom lip taught but still wobbling for fear of what was to come, lying on a bloody hospital bed with the debris of a Russian cluster bomb in his spleen. Even though every part of me wants to turn away, I had to watch – it was the least I could do given what these poor courageous people are going through. And so I choked up and cried, not that it does a jot of good. Work was impossible and so I went to bed, miserable but so so lucky.
Amongst this hell there is some hope – and I sat amongst it on Thursday morning. In St Matthew’s Church, in the sanctuary of the medieval nave, I met twenty men and women just arrived in Ipswich under your country’s Syrian vulnerable person’s humanitarian scheme. They are here to start to rebuild their lives but so traumatised are they that only a few, and of those few the men, were willing to have their photograph taken with me to show you in the Star today. We have much to blame ourselves for but we must also be proud – that we are contributing so much in aid and now providing a haven for several thousand of those most who have escaped the slaughterhouse that their country has become.
They have seen with their own eyes what we can only glimpse from the safety of our British homes. Now that they are safely here with us, let us embrace them. It is the very least we can do.