Like a flock of migrating birds, the world’s foreign correspondents move en masse and intrepidly from one trouble spot to another, leaving us with stories and pictures of unimaginable misery that are hard to forget. I dream of those hungry families huddled in the ruins of their homes in the shattered cities of Aleppo, Donetsk, Gaza. What’s happened to those families we saw? How can they even begin to rebuild their lives and their houses? But the reporters have moved on. They have another fish to fry, and so, of course, have we.
It’s been a long, hot summer in London this year, the hottest since 2006. Postcards arrived from parts of Europe that were for once no hotter than we were. Far from envying my travelling, holidaying friends, I’ve felt grateful for the peace of an emptied London. (Emptied of Londoners, that is. There have never been more visitors from abroad.) But how are we to think of the differences that exist between our peaceful lives, which are coming to seem like a luxury, and the intolerable ones of thousands and thousands of people in the broken cities we glimpse on the television?
I thought I was getting closer to some kind of answer when I met Maria, who arrived in London on July 19, the day after the MH17 Malaysian plane was shot to the ground in Ukraine. Maria is 21. She grew up in Donetsk, and has come here on a six-month visa to live with her aunt’s family and perhaps to stay. Her parents left a demolished flat in the centre of the city for a small dacha 20 kilometers or so outside it. They have no water or electricity and are living in a cellar, deafened by the sound of planes and bombs and guns above. They risk being shot if they venture into the garden to find something to eat. They have no way of knowing whose planes and bombs are overhead or even which side destroyed the block of flats they used to live in: the rebels or the Kiev government army. Maria says her father would describe himself as a Russian Ukrainian, while her mother’s family is simply Ukrainian. Until recently, such things were barely at issue. None of them is fond of their own government, but they regard the pro-Russian rebels claiming the Donetsk region as crazy, dangerous people. They wonder too about their local oligarchs, who own arms factories and mines in Donetsk, as well as sports stadia, some of which have been destroyed by one side or the other.
Donetsk made way in the news for the horrors of Gaza and the grey ruins of Gaza City, which looks as if it could never be reassembled. And as I write this in mid-August, the reporters and their cameramen are grappling with the refugees stranded on a mountaintop in Northern Iraq and the bombs the United States is dropping on the Islamic State fighters who are massacring them.
Woven into this summer of catastrophes is a constant stream of programmes about the First World War, the “Great War,” the war that was supposed to end them all. As I sit here in my comfortable kitchen, waiting for the next bulletin from some torn and ravaged place I shall never visit, and then the ceremonial surveying by elderly dignitaries of graveyards in Belgium and France, interspersed with shots of trenches, mud-caked boots, stretcher bearers, dead bodies, war memorials — the images become both unbearable and incomprehensible, and my part in it just a guilty kind of voyeurism. It seems difficult to believe that we all inhabit the same world.
I’ve just learned that FWP stands for “First World Problem,” and it was introduced to me in response to my wailing that yet another curtain cord had disappeared behind the radiator in my kitchen. Briefly back from a stint working in Nigeria, my mocking son swiftly applied a “Third World Solution” to my problem, taking a metal coat hanger and hooking out the recalcitrant cords. I mention this trivial incident in the hope of making some sense of the shocking contrast between my daily preoccupations and the lives and concerns of thousands and thousands of desperate people who are simply trying to stay alive, but are prevented from doing so by other people, who seem not to know what they’re doing or why.