Last night I did something both of the moment and strangely nostalgic. My young cousin Victor organized the Jasmine Ball, in aid of Unicef's Syrian Children's Appeal. Graham Greene said you always fall in love with your first foreign posting and - sent to Damascus to learn Arabic after University - 22 year old Victor Lamarque was no exception. Then the war came, two years ago. Forced to leave, Victor moved to Beirut, but he stayed in touch with his Syrian friends just over the border.
Two years later, the war is still raging and Victor is back in London. He can't stop the war - in which the UN estimates 70,000 have died so far. He can't change the regime, but he wanted to do something. So, with some of the friends - some Syrian, some British - Victor had made in Damascus, he and his sister Francesca galvanized 230 people to raise money for Syria's children. The party was held in a beautiful converted church in Mayfair, central London. As we ate a Middle Eastern feast - orange salad, lamb, pistachio cake - Getty Images' photo montage of men with guns, families cowering in shattered houses, mothers mourning their dead children, played on a screen.
Martin Bell, former BBC foreign correspondent, now Unicef Ambassador, and famous as the Man in the White suit, gave a speech, as did Janine di Giovanni, another distinguished war correspondent - who matter of factly informed the room that her Syrian fixer and friend had been killed last weekend by government forces. The BBC's Lyse Doucet showed us a photograph of a little boy she had met in a Syrian refugee camp a few weeks ago. Four or five years old, he stood in the snow; he had no coat, hat covering his tufts of dark hair; no gloves and only little slippers on his feet. Back to the camera, he is facing the mountains skimming the horizon. He was, Lyse told us, looking towards his old home. But his home -Homs, heart of some of the worst fighting in Syria - no longer exists. Even if his own house is actually intact, the stodgey, totalitarian Syria he was born into, described three years ago by the comedian Alexis Sayle as "East Germany with Houmus", is no more.
Martin Bell and I have hardly seen each other since the days when, as the Balkans Correspondent of the perennially impoverished Observer, I used to hitch lifts in his armoured land rover. We'd try to solve the war over whisky and marmite in the little house the BBC rented by the British Army UN base in the tiny Bosnian village of Vitez. Sitting next to Martin was Michael Williams, now Lord Williams, the Jasmine Ball's chairman, trustee of the BBC, Fellow of Chatham House. Back during the Bosnian war, he was the senior UN spokesman in Bosnia. Janine di Giovanni is also an old friend from Sarajevo days. And of course my husband, the writer William Stirling, who with his cousin Orlando Fraser, twenty one years ago organized a similar ball, the Bosnia Winter Appeal. Nicknamed Sloanes for Bosnia, the party raised £100,000 for a food convoy. Willy and Orlando then drove their lorries 1,500 miles from Dover into t the snowy depths of a Balkan December. Their destination was Tuzla, a town famously hard to reach: not because it was besieged, but because the Bosnian Serbs had captured all the main roads. The main aid artery to Central Bosnia was a two-day skid over tiny, ice-bound, mountain tracks.
For Victor's generation - too young to get the joke of "East Germany with Homous" - and for many of the guests, this was an evening purely about Syria. And particularly Syria's children - for however confusing Syria's civil war appears to outsiders, the children indisputably need our help. According to UNICEF, over half a million children have been forced from their homes by the fighting, and hundreds of thousands more are now living in towns ragged with shell and gunfire.
But there was also a bass riff playing through the evening: Bosnia - or more correctly the former Yugoslavia - another raging conflict, close to home, where the flakey forces of Western Civilisation stood by for many years. Both the Balkans and Syria are offsprings of the old Ottoman Empire, still struggling to find their feet, nearly a century after the parent Empire's final, fatal heart attack.
Also bringing several tables to the Jasmine ball were some Croatian emigree friends, the Frankopans. They had been brought up in London, where their father settled; he had fled communism as a boy after World War Two. But twenty two years ago, his Kensington basement-office walls covered with maps, it was Prince Louis, my friend Paola Frankopan's father, who in 1991 first made me aware of this - then little-reported - war raging in Europe. I returned to my job at the Daily Mail the next day and literally stamped my foot at my editor, saying: "We must make people care!" As for Paola, twenty two years ago, she too organized a huge party - in her case in aid of Croatia, at Claridges; then left her comfortable London life and moved to Croatia. She worked in orphanages during the war, before returning to marry a member of our own Royal Family. As Lady Nicholas Windsor, she was a patron of the Jasmine Ball, along with Janine di Giovanni, Orlando Fraser's wife, Clemmie, and myself.
For a generation of us, perhaps, this Jasmine ball was also a debt paid to our youth. Willy and Orlando were starry-eyed - both at Victor's courage and determination at getting the project off the ground, but also at their own long ago idealism and adventure. Paola too remembered her 21 year old self - who trawled through Hansard, tracking down Members of Parliament who said anything in favour of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Lassoo-ed by Paola, some at least, came to her dinner back then. Looking back, Paola says, that perhaps only the naivete and vigour of youth could have made her do so...but we should be inspired by the younger generation to remember our former selves and agitate for, at the least, a cease-fire.
How will we feel about Syria, in two decades time? Twenty two years ago, I was outraged that the world would not intervene to solve Bosnia's problems. People ask me now if there are parallels, should we intervene in Syria, the way we finally did in Bosnia? Would it help? For, however botched the 1995 Dayton peace accord for former Yugoslavia may have been, it did actually stop people killing each other after nearly five years of war. And the peace there grinds on, despite obvious animosity.
I don't think it's just that I've got older, or that, sitting in London rather than hunkered down in Homs, I am undoubtedly more ignorant, but the solution seems much less clear. In the former Yugoslavia, there were obvious sides to the conflict. And what is more, the separatist movements had their own governments, even recognized by the UN. More importantly, perhaps, those governments spoke - at least publicly - all the great western watchwords - democracy, capitalism, no ethnic discrimination.
But in Syria, the Opposition is disparate and fractured. And the great fear is that, in this age of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, that if they win - whoever 'They' maybe - they may not actually be pro-western in their thinking, or even thank us for the help; possibly turn on us the very guns we gave them to do the job. Intervention has got a bit discredited over the last 12 years. As one Middle East correspondent friend said, "there are some really nasty people in Syria with black Al Qaeda banners who want to chop our heads off and show it on the internet."
But you can't blame Syria's children for that. Last night Victor and his friends raised over £70,000 for UNICEF - not bad for a bunch of kids in these cash-strapped times. And anyone who wants to donate still can - either directly to UNICEF, or on the Jasmine Ball website - whether they are also paying a debt to their youth or not.
Charlotte Eagar's novel about the Bosnian war - The Girl in the film - is available on Amazon kindle