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The human cost of war

Every two years one of the world's largest arms fairs comes to London. Rosie Horsley from Quaker Roots reflects on what inspires her to take action against it.

Lives are being torn apart by the industry of war. Image: Michael Preston for BYM
Lives are being torn apart by the industry of war. Image: Michael Preston for BYM

The Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair – one of the world's largest – takes place every two years at the ExCel Centre in East London. Of the 67 countries that were invited to attend in 2019, 55 are named by Human Rights Watch as having committed abuses.

Arms fairs like DSEI are an opportunity for governments to browse and buy a plethora of weapons and services, for use on their own people or on other countries. It's also a terrifying chance for arms dealers to network and forge relationships in order to cultivate customers.

I could fill this blog with facts about the atrocities of arms fairs and those who attend them. But, to be blunt, they aren't the people who inspire me to act. Those who do are the everyday people who go about their lives, much like me. The difference between us is that their lives are being torn apart by the industry of war – by a profit-making machine with millionaires at one end and devastated lives at the other.

Small gestures of solidarity

One such person occupied my thoughts during the 2019 Quaker Roots action at DSEI. At the time, I was working as an employment trainer at a refugee service in Bradford. While helping a man to fill in a job application form, I asked what his last job had been. “Truck driver", he said. I then asked the routine follow-up question: “Why did you leave that job?" His answer: “War came."

Something in his answer shook me, and it surged up again months later as Quakers occupied the road at the No Faith in War day. A beautiful witness occurred, with hundreds taking over the road for a meeting for worship. As I sat there, my mind and heart returned to the truck driver… “War came."

He and his family's life had been catapulted into chaos and violence, which could be traced back to the lethal trade happening inside the ExCel Centre. As a small gesture of solidarity, I sat in the road for the truck driver. It was something I could do.

As Quakers, we're fortunate to have our faith bound to these small gestures, as expressed in our bold peace testimony:

“All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world."

For me, these words come alive when we hold in the Light those who experience war firsthand – those whose lives are destroyed by the weapons manufactured for profit in our homeland.

The hope and the strength

At the DSEI peace vigil in 2021, I had the honour of speaking the words of Sukaina, who is a humanitarian, activist and young mother from Yemen. I felt guided to bring her words into this space:

“I found out I was pregnant just before the war started. I was excited to have my firstborn child, but little did I know what would happen just two weeks later. On the first night there were more than 1,000 airstrikes in Yemen. That's when I wished I had not got pregnant at that time. What kind of life would my child have? How would he survive? Would I even survive?

“Every day on TV I saw images of neighbours I had known, friends I had known, killed in their homes by airstrikes. We know for a fact that most of the casualties and deaths are caused by weapons. Now there is famine and malnutrition in children, and the economy is collapsing, which makes every day worse.

“So, just as I got pregnant, I spent many nights under the staircase. I would call my parents to say our last goodbyes, not knowing if we would wake up alive. I was in the fifth month of pregnancy when I realised my son was the hope and the strength. Now that I would soon be a mother, I had a cause – something to fight for and protest."

Witness with us

Yemen is in a fragile state. Nine years of civil war have led to a humanitarian crisis, with hunger, disease and attacks on civilians. Ceasefires have so far failed to last.

The arms trade is making peace unsustainable. There will be no peace in Yemen, no peace in Sudan, no peace in Ukraine as long as the industry profits from these conflicts. We continue to offer small gestures of solidarity and invite you all to join us in witness at this month's DSEI.

“The essence of nonviolence is love. Out of love and the willingness to act selflessly, strategies, tactics and techniques for a nonviolent struggle arise naturally. Nonviolence is not a dogma; it is a process." – Thich Nhat Hanh

To hear more voices of people with lived experience of war, and to join us in resisting the arms trade, go to www.quaker-roots.org.uk/blog.

Join the Quaker DSEI actions