Were You There | A Poem by Ken Saro-Wiwa

Were you there to see white balls of fire
Ascend the sky at dusk
Then fall into the thick copses
Where the youthful enemy lay,

Were you there to see the stump
Of the sergeant’s leg borne dutifully
Into the young doctor's room,

Were you there to see sticking out
Of the shallow sandy grave
As though in supplication
The bony palms of the bombed soldier,

You would not smile at the radio account
Of victories and smashed battalions.

— Ken Saro-Wiwa


War has different effects on different people. To a non-participant, it is just about figures of casualties in a war. He sees war as a field where scores of men kill scores of men. It is an unaffective estimation of war and its effects in terms of war. Here, one on the warring side is bound to jubilate when his side is reported to have won in an encounter. To him, the tragedies of the battlefield are as a matter of fact non-existent.

There is the other person who sees war in a different way. It is the tragic extermination of human lives by fellow human beings. This other person is an active participant. Even when he kills the perceived enemy in the battlefield, no matter how impervious he is, he still feels the impact of the destruction, because he has witnessed first-hand the human angle of war.

To this effect, “Were You There” by Ken Saro-Wiwa depicts the human side of war and the tragedies that meet men in the battlefield which figures, however huge, can not portray accurately.


The poem seems to idolize the idea that one’s proximity to a war decides one’s reaction to it. The poetic persona in a rather conversational and confrontational manner engages his audience using second person pronoun, “you”, with images of “white balls of fires” (bombs), “thick corpses”, “the stump/Of the sergeant’s leg”, “the bony palms of the bombed soldier sticking out of the shallow grave” to convey in effect the accompanying tragedies of war on humanity.

The poetic persona seeks to intimate his reader of what war entails, that what in effect the poetic persona’s “you” celebrate is not the “radio account of victories and smashed battalions” but the extermination of fellow human beings, of youth whose life was snuffed out like a candle lamp, of the “bombed soldier” whose leg was amputated, of mass and shallow graves of enemy soldiers.

The poetic persona concludes that no sane man would witness this or consider all of these and still smile over a “radio account of victories and smashed battalions”. Using the “were you there …” conditional statement, the poetic persona draws on his audience the human side of war and why of course no sane man should celebrate the killings of fellow human beings. For winning a war more often than not involves too many sacrifices, deaths and killings, not of fowls, goats, or dogs but of fellow human beings.

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