The recent events to commemorate the beginning of the First World War in 1914 have been very moving, despite the fact that – given the nature of the society we live in – they have been exploited by not only a wide range of political groups, but also by corporations that appear to be able to commodify everything and sell it back to us. I think that the Tesco commemorative pizza probably takes the prize for the most tasteless of all, perhaps literally.
Given the emotion, much of it sentimental but often genuine and heartfelt, that people have expressed about grandfathers and great-grandfathers who died or were injured or traumatised forever by the events of 1914-1918, it strikes me that we find it easier to mourn people who are long gone than to recognise the suffering that is going on around the world right now. That’s true of all kinds of suffering, from people dying in Palestine and Syria to those lives destroyed by poverty, disease, or slavery. We may not share a common culture with many of those people – although I think we’d be surprised how little we have in common with those early twentieth-century war dead too – but what we do share is a common humanity. Sometimes, with all the terrible things that are going on in the world, it’s hard to hold on to that.
One thing in particular has struck me today with all the discussion about alleged corruption at FIFA connected with the next two World Cup final tournaments, particularly in Qatar. Many people who are better qualified and more knowledgeable than I am will be able to discuss the machinations at high levels in football administration, so I’d like to put a word in for the people who really matter. They have not been completely forgotten, and they are often mentioned in reports or newspaper articles about what’s wrong with football at a global level but they mainly feature as statistics, nameless and about as recognisable as a pile of spent matches. Not, as they should be, as individuals, as human beings, as real people, with real lives and families who loved them and grieve for them.
These are the people who have been killed in Qatar, building the infrastructure necessary for the World Cup tournament in 2022. Dozens of articles and blogs have been written about the inhuman treatment these workers receive, the appalling conditions they have to endure, and the rape and sexual abuse of women that resulted in the Nepal government banning women under 30 from even travelling to work in Doha. I think what disturbs me the most is that many of these articles and reports include the information that “an estimated 4,000 workers will die” on the Qatari World Cup project. So we can predict their deaths and still we do nothing.
FIFA has investigated itself and pronounced that it’s all ethical. Some vague promises have been made by the Qatari government that conditions will improve. No-one believes either of those things, probably not even the people who have written them. There has been, and there will continue to be, a great deal of hand-wringing, but people will continue to suffer and die. Perhaps it’s easier to think of these deaths, and all the other concomitant suffering, in terms of figures. It’s easy, for example, to say how good it is that only eight workers died building the stadia for this year’s World Cup in Brazil. Eight certainly sounds better than 4,000. Only eight bereaved families. Good on us.
It is simply easier to turn our faces away. After all, how are we responsible? How can we change things? It’s not in our power, is it? What have we to do with the 1,200 odd labourers who have died already, or the 4,000 plus who will lose their lives making those fantastical arenas in which football matches will be played to thrill and entertain people the world over?
In 2000/2001, I was privileged to work on a project that put photographs of all Norfolk’s dead from the First World War online. I read the brief biographical notes on the back of each photograph and looked into the eyes of the young soldiers, their open, honest gaze so much more compelling than the ubiquitous, vacuous-but-knowing, selfies of today. Learning about those young men, looking at their faces, reading about their parents, their brothers and sisters, their children, made more of an impression on me than all the statistics, documentaries and history books that I’ve ever read, and it has stayed with me. I wonder if, perhaps, we could humanise the suffering that is going on in Doha in the same way, if we knew about the people who are dying, knew their names, how old they were, where they were from, what they looked like. If we could do that, would we be more inclined to try to do something to stop it going on? The death toll, and the suffering is not on the scale of the First World War, of course, but across the world the same iniquities mean that we can multiply the Qatar statistics many times over.
The naming of the dead, after all, is fundamental to our acts of remembrance from those recorded on the Menin Gate to the names of those who died at Hillsbrough in 1989 or at the World Trade Centre in 2001. I thought it might be a good and even a useful idea to try to include the names of those who had died working on the 2022 World Cup here. The Pravasi Nepali Coordination Commmittee (PNCC) has published a list of all the 138 Nepali workers who have died in Qatar, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to find it anywhere, and there are so few newspaper articles that include any information about the people involved – this piece in the Daily Record is an exception – that I can only offer this one example, from an article in the Guardian, – about Ganesh Bishwakarma, who died at the age of 16, of cardiac arrest while working in Qatar – as a kind of symbolic representative, like an unknown soldier in the battle against global, corporate greed, of loss, and a reminder of our indifference.
I don’t think what I have written, or the fact that a few more people will know that Ganesh Bishwakarma lived on this planet for 16 years, will make any difference or change anyone’s mind. Ultimately, we want to be entertained more than anything else, and like debauched Romans watching slave gladiators fighting to the death, we will inevitably give Ganesh’s successors the thumbs down.