Daniel Pelka’s murder shames Britain

Guilt lies with those who could have prevented it.

I cannot stop thinking about the suffering of Daniel Pelka, the four year old boy from Coventry who was abused, tortured and then murdered by his mother and her lover.

There is CCTV footage of Daniel on the final day of his life. His mother has arrived to collect him from primary school yet she dismissively walks ahead of the boy, her back turned to him. Daniel trails after her, a frail, emaciated figure, lost and bewildered. He hurries to catch up; he is hurrying towards death.

The Times today has published some of the texts about her son that Daniel’s mother, Magdelena Luczak, sent to her monstrous lover, Mariusz Krezolek. They provide a narrative of abuse:

"One of his hands is livid blue [because it has been repeatedly beaten] and what am I supposed to do now [sic]."

"Well now he’s unconscious because I nearly drowned him. He’s already in bed covered with the duvet and asleep and I am having some quiet."

"We’ll deal with Rudy [Daniel] after school, he won’t see grub at all."

Daniel’s mother delighted in starving her son – and then feeding him salt. At school he was seen scavenging in bins for food because he was so hungry. He would try to eat whatever scraps he could find. And he kept on losing weight. "He was disappearing in front of people’s eyes," Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC said. 

And yet no one intervened.

Luczak was devious and manipulative. Her son a few weeks before his death weighed little more than 2st, the weight of a toddler - but, said detective Superintendent Tim Bacon: "We are dealing with someone who was so plausible that she managed to convince paediatricians at the hospital that Daniel had an eating disorder."

Were we meant to believe that the broken bones, the bruised hands and black eyes were the result of the same eating disorder? How did his mother account for these and why was she believed? We will know more when the serious case review is published in September.

Daniel came from a Polish-speaking family and his English was poor. This terrified, humiliated boy was in effect voiceless. He could not speak of what he suffered. Nor could he trust anyone. But his suffering was written all over his body. His teachers and the authorities should have been able to read the signs of his suffering, read what his body was telling them. He should not have been allowed to suffer and to die alone, starved for at least six months.

Cases such as Daniel’s are mercifully rare, and all the more shocking because of their extremity. But children are being abused and beaten all the time by those who should be protecting them. For some children the home is a kind of medieval prison – and the torturers are the parents.

Teachers, doctors and nursery and care workers are on the frontline but so are relatives, friends and acquaintances. What is it that they refuse to see? "Clearly people must have seen something was wrong with this boy,” Nick Clegg said today. “I think his death should be on all of our consciences."

He’s right about that, up to a point. Those who should be feeling most guilt and regret are the friends of his mother, the teachers at the school he attended, the health workers who visited him at home in Coventry and the doctors who treated his injuries. His mother, after "nearly drowning" her son, spoke of how she could now get "some quiet".

Let us hope that, like Macbeth, she has murdered sleep and that she will never know peace or quiet again.

Jesus said: Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Pity Daniel, and pray for him – and curse those who were not there when he needed them or chose to look away or believe the wretched lies of his mother.

Daniel Pelka. Photograph: Press Association

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Getty
Show Hide image

The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle