Flooding Daesh with “love letters”


It is difficult to put into words what I felt when I heard the news on 13th November last around the time when it happened, 10:30. I had just come back from an evening of dancing on the theme of Prayer, and dropped into Martina’s who pulled me into her living room to show me the news…My heart sank, my mind went reeling, how, why, what can we do?

I thought of all the people directly affected by this tragedy: the victims, their families and friends, the medics, the police, the journalists, subeditors, photographers and printing staff throughout the world that had to spend the night re-writing and laying the front pages and copy…, and then us, all of us indirectly thrown into this chaos as our empathy kicks in once more and the shock, the lack of tools to comprehend, to react and somewhat relieve the pain, the suffering…all we have is prayer, community, connection…

The day after, I went back to my dance workshop and danced my anger, my sadness and frustration, and praying all the while…This workshop was also about connection and connecting is key in all this because anger, hatred does precisely the opposite and disconnects you from a mindful, heartfelt response. But it is pretty natural of course to feel anger and hatred at such monstrous acts…President Hollande felt all that too I’m sure but as a Zen buddhist nun writes below, a disconnected reaction may breed just the same and worse.

I heard a French Muslim say that suicide bombings had never happened in France. This form of extreme violence had not hit France yet…and then the following Wednesday a woman blew herself up running across police force and wounding five men. How could a young woman do this to herself, I wondered and why?

The night before, a French journalist was asking a French leading expert on Arabic and Islamic affairs Gilles Kepel(see it on http://www.canalplus.fr/c-emissions/c-le-grand-journal/pid5411-le-grand-journal.html?vid=1331353): Why do you think Daesh is sexier than the Republic? Yes that is the question, how can young French Muslims join the ranks of such an extremist group, that feeds on making subhumans out of men and women and driving them to the most violent acts …

Kepel said that France was badly prepared to deal with the radicalisation of young Muslims and that nothing had been done to prevent their ongoing alienation. He pointed to the absence of a father in many such families and the search for an ideal which lands at Daesh’s door. He also lamented the lack of Arabic studies in France and how key research departments in key universities like Science Po had closed in the last decade. On 15th January last, one week after the Charlie Hebdo bombings, he had handed to the Prime Minister a 330 page report on such a lack of research and he called it a “catastrophe”, he had travelled to 23 countries and interviewed key actors, and the report was “buried”.  He added that as a response to the current crisis there should also be research carried out to understand the underlying causes of such an attraction, such a pull for very young recruits indeed! But so far nothing of the sort has happened, no lessons are being learnt.

Last night I was thinking: why blow yourself up when you could turn deserts into forests?

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his disciples to write “love letters” to leaders at times of shock, turmoil and fear. Here is one such letter to President Hollande posted on 18th November by a French Zen buddhist nun. I hope President Hollande reads it… Here is the link for more:http://plumvillage.org/news/dear-president-hollande/

Deer Park Monastery
2499 Melru Lane
CA 92026

Monsieur le Président de la République
Palais de l’Elysée
55, rue du faubourg Saint-Honoré
75008 Paris

17th November, 2015

Dear Mr. President,

This morning four military planes crossed the sky over our mountains. They made me think of France. I have been in California for a year, but these past days my heart and thoughts go out unceasingly to my native country.

My thoughts also go out to you, Mr. President, father of a country in shock, who must, at this hour, cope with a painful and complex situation under extreme political and media-driven pressure which must cause you, no doubt, stress-filled nights without rest.

Thank you for accepting this difficult task to be captain of the ship and to do it with a great sense of responsibility and necessity.

On the night of the 13th of November many of the members of my French family died. A part of me died with them. And from the vulnerability of my wounded heart, a voice makes itself heard: the echo of my cries in the sobs of my Syrian brothers and sisters, the echo of my despair in the calls for help of all the men and women who suffer, a little bit everywhere, from the loss of their loved ones, from the violence, the terror and the war.

I know from the depths of my wounded soul, today more than yesterday, that I wish no family to have to shed these bitter tears.

As Pope Francis said in his acclaimed speech to the US Congress, “Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Mr. President, we learn in history books that by humiliating the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 we gave a springboard to Hitler in his rise to power, that the bombardment of Cambodia in 1973 served as fodder for the recruitment campaign of the Khmer Rouge, and how the war in Iraq became kindling for the fire of Islamist fanaticism.

In the current world crisis it is easy to get caught up in the urgency (though very real), the agitation and the frenzy around us.

May we all, while responding to the imperative need to protect the population, also take time to remember, to listen and to learn from history and from the memories of those who witnessed it;

May we all, in a world where the past may be brought back to life in a very real and poignant way (as in the recent movie “The Son of Saul”), honour through our responsible, intelligent and awakened actions the remembrance of so many who died and suffered, and not allow any chance that our children may have to re-live such trauma;

May we all together work to build a world where attentive and compassionate listening to the suffering endured by both sides prevails over the unnecessary escalation of violence that no one wishes for, where the desire for deep and genuine understanding triumphs over our prejudices, our fears and our thirst for vengeance or power;

So that together we may, as Gandhi said, not just keep ourselves from making the world blind, but also light a spark of life, of hope and of love in the eyes of its inhabitants.

Mr. President, I am confident that the history books and the generations to come will remember you as someone who knew how to bring quiet strength to a nation that so needed it in a chaos of fear and anger; as a shrewd captain who knew how to bring his ship into calm waters; as the wise and courageous commander of the guardians of real peace; as the shepherd who knew how to take care of his sheep beyond the borders of his fields.

For we all prefer the cheerful chirping of blackbirds to the screaming of missiles, the free and majestic flight of the hawk to the scrambling of jet fighters.

Please know, Mr. President, that in these somber hours you do not walk alone on this arduous path. The thoughts of support and courage of many go with you.

With all my gratitude and confidence,

Your child among others,

Sister Mai Nghiem

And how about writing love letters to the leaders of Daesh? Flooding them with love letters, would that work? We have a duty to stop this endless horror:

Since 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have been forced from their homes in the face of the ongoing war in the country. Roughly half them are children.

Swedish photographer and twice-winner of the World Press Photo awards Magnus Wennman has been photographing Syrian refugees in refugee camps across the Middle East and on journeys across Europe as they flee a conflict that shows no signs of stopping. His photo project Where the Children Sleep captures the suffering that hundreds of thousands of children caught in bloody war have been subjected to. All the captions below are by Wennman.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Walaa, 5, in Dar-El-Ias, Lebanon

Walaa, 5, wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the refugee camp, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa’s mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Ahmed, 6, in Horgos, Serbia

It is after midnight when Ahmed falls asleep in the grass. The adults are still sitting around, formulating plans for how they are going to get out of Hungary without registering themselves with the authorities. Ahmed is 6 years old and carries his own bag over the long stretches that his family walks by foot. “He is brave and only cries sometimes in the evenings,” says his uncle, who has taken care of Ahmed since his father was killed in their hometown, Deir ez-Zor in northern Syria.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13, in Beirut, Lebanon

Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13, live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. Along with their father they have been sleeping rough for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Maram, 8, in Amman, Jordan

Eight-year-old Maram had just come home from school when the rocket hit her house. A piece of the roof landed right on top of her. Her mother took her to a field hospital, and from there she was airlifted across the border to Jordan. Head trauma caused a brain hemorrhage. For the first 11 days, Maram was in a coma. She is now conscious, but has a broken jaw and can’t speak.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Shehd, 7, on the Hungarian border

Shehd loves to draw, but more recently all of her drawings have had the same theme: weapons. “She saw them all the time, they are everywhere,” explains her mother when the little girl sleeps on the ground alongside Hungary’s closed border. Now she does not draw at all. The family brought neither paper nor crayons with them on their flight. Shehd does not play anymore either. The escape has forced children to become adults and share concern for what happens in an hour or a day. The family has had difficulty finding food during their wandering. Some days they have had to make do with apples they were able to pick from trees along the road. If the family had known how hard the journey would be they would have chosen to risk their lives in Syria.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Abdullah, 5, in Belgrade, Serbia

Abdullah has a blood disease. For the last two days he has been sleeping outside of the central station in Belgrade. He saw the killing of his sister in their home in Daraa. He is still in shock and has nightmares every night, says his mother. Abdullah is tired and is not healthy, but his mother does not have any money to buy medicine for him.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Fara, 2, in Azraq, Jordan

Fara, 2, loves soccer. Her dad tries to make balls for her by crumpling up anything he can find, but they don’t last long. Every night he says goodnight to Fara and her big sister Tisam, 9, in the hope that tomorrow will bring them a proper ball to play with. All other dreams seem to be beyond his reach, but he is not giving up on this one.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Ahmad, 7, in Horgos, Hungary

Even sleep is not a free zone; it is then that the terror replays. Ahmad was home when the bomb hit his family’s house in Idlib. Shrapnel hit him in the head, but he survived. His younger brother did not. The family had lived with war as their nearest neighbor for several years, but without a home they had no choice. They were forced to flee. Now Ahmad lies among thousands of other refugees on the asphalt along the highway leading to Hungary’s closed border. This is day 16 of their flight. The family has slept in bus shelters, on the road, and in the forest, explains Ahmad’s father.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Iman, 2, in Azraq, Jordan

Iman, 2, has pneumonia and a chest infection. This is her third day in this hospital bed. “She sleeps most of the time now,” says her mother, Olah, 19. “Normally she’s a happy little girl, but now she’s tired. She runs everywhere when she’s well. She loves playing in the sand.”

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet /REX Shutterstock

Gulistan, 6, in Suruc, Turkey

There’s a difference between closing your eyes and sleeping, as 6-year-old Gulistan knows. She prefers to shut her eyes and just pretend, because every time she really falls asleep, the nightmares start. “I don’t want to sleep here. I want to sleep at home,” she says. She misses the pillow she had in Kobane. Sometimes she lies against her mother and uses her as a pillow.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Mahdi, 1½, in Horgos, Serbia

Mahdi is 1½ years old. He has only experienced war and flight. He sleeps deeply despite the hundreds of refugees climbing around him. They are protesting against not being able to travel further through Hungary. On the other side of the border hundreds of police are standing. They have orders from the prime minister, Viktor Orban, to protect the border at all costs. The situation is becoming more desperate, and the day after the photo is taken, the police use tear gas and water cannons on the refugees.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Mohammed, 13, in a hospital in Nizip, Turkey

Mohammed, 13, loves houses. Back home in Aleppo he used to enjoy walking around the city looking at them. Now many of his favorite buildings are gone, blown to pieces. Lying in his hospital bed he wonders whether he will ever fulfill his dream of becoming an architect. “The strangest thing about war is that you get used to feeling scared. I wouldn’t have believed that,” says Mohammed.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Tamam, 5, in Azraq, Jordan

Five-year-old Tamam is scared of her pillow. She cries every night at bedtime. The air raids on her hometown of Homs usually took place at night, and although she has been sleeping away from home for nearly two years now, she still doesn’t realize that her pillow is not the source of danger.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Lamar, 5, in Horgos, Serbia

Back home in Baghdad the dolls, the toy train, and the ball are left; Lamar often talks about these items when home is mentioned. The bomb changed everything. The family was on its way to buy food when it was dropped close to their house. It was not possible to live there anymore, says Lamar’s grandmother, Sara. After two attempts to cross the sea from Turkey in a small, rubber boat they succeeded in coming here to Hungary’s closed border. Now Lamar sleeps on a blanket in the forest, scared, frozen, and sad.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Shiraz, 9, in Suruc, Turkey

Shiraz, 9, was three months old when she was stricken with a severe fever. The doctor diagnosed polio and advised her parents to not spend too much money on medicine for the girl who didn’t have a chance. Then the war came. Her mother, Leila, starts crying when she describes how she wrapped the girl in a blanket and carried her over the border from Kobane to Turkey. Shiraz, who can’t talk, received a wooden cradle in the refugee camp. She lies there. Day and night.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Juliana, 2, in Horgos, Serbia

It is 34 degrees Celsius. The flies crawl on Juliana’s face and she shifts uneasily in her sleep. Juliana’s family has been walking through Serbia for two days. This is the latest phase of a flee that started three months ago. The girl’s mother lays her thin shawl over her daughter on the ground. Juliana calms down. A few meters away from their resting place feet are tramping by in a never-ending flow of people. It is the end of August and Hungary is about to barricade themselves with barbed wire to shut out this stream of refugees. But for a few more days it is possible to pass through the border city of Horgos. As soon as evening comes, Juliana’s family will go for it.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Fatima, 9, in Norberg, Sweden

Every night Fatima dreams that she’s falling from a ship. Together with her mother, Malaki, and her two siblings Fatima fled from the city of Idlib when the Syrian national army senselessly slaughtered civilians in the city. After two years in a refugee camp in Lebanon the situation became unbearable and they made it to Libya, where they boarded an overcrowded boat. On the deck of the boat a very pregnant woman gave birth to her baby after 12 hours in the scorching sun. The baby was a stillbirth and was thrown overboard. Fatima saw everything. When the refugee’s boat started to take on water they were picked up by the Italian coast guard.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Moyad, 5, in Amman, Jordan

Moyad, 5, and his mother needed to buy flour to make a spinach pie. Hand-in-hand they were on their way to the market. They walked past a taxi in which someone had placed a bomb. Moyad’s mother died instantly. The boy, who has been airlifted to Jordan, has shrapnel lodged in his head, back, and pelvis.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Sham, 1, in Horgos, Serbia

In the very front, just alongside the border between Serbia and Hungary by the 4-meter-high iron gate, Sham is laying in his mother’s arms. Just a few decimeters behind them is the Europe they so desperately are trying to reach. Only one day before the last refugees were allowed through and taken by train to Austria. But Sham and his mother arrived too late, along with thousands of other refugees who now wait outside the closed Hungarian border.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Esra, 11, Esma, 8, and Sidra, 6, in Majdal Anjar, Lebanon

When Selam, 37, puts Esra, 11, Esma, 8, and Sidra, 6, to bed, she takes comfort from the knowledge that her children are safe and won’t come under attack during the night. What saddens her is the fact that they constantly dream about their father, who disappeared after being abducted, and wake up distraught. “I often dream that Daddy is bringing me candy,” says Sidra.

Magnus Wennman / Aftonbladet / REX Shutterstock

Abdul Karim, 17, in Athens, Greece

Abdul Karim Addo has no money left. He bought a ferry ticket to Athens with his last euros. Now he spends the night in Omonoia Square, where hundreds of refugees are arriving every day. Here smugglers are making big money arranging false passports as well as bus and plane tickets to people in flight — but Abdul Karin is not going anywhere. He is able to borrow a telephone and call home to his mother in Syria, but he is not able to tell her how bad things are. “She cries and is scared for my sake and I don’t want to worry her more,” he says. He unfolds his blanket in the middle of the square and curls up in the fetal position. “I dream of two things: to sleep in a bed again and to hug my younger sister.”


Lynzy Billing is the UK assistant picture editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.’
Contact Lynzy Billing at Lynzy.Billing@BuzzFeed.com.