Creation and Destruction

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Jordi Bernabeu Syrian girls on their way home from school

 

After my interview last week with a Syrian refugee, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books I could find on Syria. One of the books I borrowed was The morning they came for us by Janine Di Giovanni.

A seasoned war correspondent, Di Giovanni, first visited Syria in May 2012, as the country teetered on a precipice. Having described the hotel Dama Rose where she and many other  UN workers lived, she moves on, in Chapter Two, to the story of young Nada, who used Facebook and Twitter to broadcast messages from the opposition. One morning, the police came for her. Her parents watch on, horrified.

Nada’s prison experience, and more broadly, the sexual violation of women in the Syrian war, is heart-rending to read. I feel my body bracing itself for the next sentence, and the next. It is as if I am holding my breath. It is as if I cannot breathe normally. What are the men going to do next?

It is so nauseating that I stop reading after Chapter Two and try to forget what I have read. I try to focus instead on onions sizzling in the pot.  I look out of my kitchen window and admire the vegetable garden I have planted. I take pleasure in the way the tomatoes have been staked, the way the beans peep out from beneath heart-shaped leaves, and the bright orange marigolds in this riot of green.

It is human to create, and the work of creation takes skill, effort, concentration, time. What has been created takes only an instant to destroy. War destroys, decimates, dehumanises.

Di Giovanni writes, ‘The lowest depth that a human being can reach is to perform or to receive torture. The goal of the torturer is to inflict horrific pain and dehumanise another being…How does someone return to the human race after having been so brutalised?’

What is it like to try to return from that place of war, to try to rebuild a life? That is the question I am trying to answer. After three years interviewing refugees and writing their stories, I am not even sure it is ethical to ask about war experiences because the question so often causes pain. My focus is increasingly on how refugees rebuild their lives and on the people who help them. I hope it is a gentler and more productive approach.

Di Giovanni will be speaking at the Adelaide Writers’ Week on 8 March 2017.

 

 

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Mothers and Sons

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By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work)  via Wikimedia Commons

Tomorrow morning, I shall bid my seventeen-year-old son farewell as he travels to another city to begin his undergraduate studies. These past weeks, as friends have learnt of his move, many have peered me and asked, ‘How are you doing?’

‘I’m fine,’ I bravely reply. ‘I feel that this is the best opportunity for his future.’

There are moments when nostalgia seizes me and tears threaten, but intellectually, rationally, I believe the time is right for him to leave home and experience the wider world.

It made me reflect on a vastly different farewell that I have been writing about. Remember the Sri Lankan asylum seeker I wrote about previously? Let’s call him Suthan. His father was killed in 1989 and his older brother disappeared in 1995.

In Suthan’s words, this is how it happened: My mother was very sad so she decided to send me away. She knew very well that I wouldn’t join the Tamil Tigers because I am not interested at all; I was a frightened boy. But my mother wanted to keep me safe, so she decided to send me to another country. I didn’t want to go; I really felt like shit. For one month I couldn’t cope.

What, you may ask, compelled Suthan’s mother to surrender her only remaining son, and an exorbitant sum of money, to people smugglers? The only answer, in my mind, is that the alternative was worse.

Indeed, in 1995, in Sri Lanka, it was very dangerous to be a young Tamil male – a potential recruit to the Tamil Tigers and a deadly threat to the predominantly Singhalese army. Therefore, Suthan’s mother sent him away even though he was only nineteen and there were no guarantees, no certainties. She was buying hope and the chance, however tenuous, that her son will survive.

I used to see migrants as different to refugees. I am writing a story about them, not about me. But more and more, I see it as a spectrum, with the forced migration of refugees on one end and my voluntary migration on the other.

But the commonality is that we move because we hope for better things. It is only human to act on hope.

The Little Man Counts

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Emerald Bay, Pangkor Laut, Malaysia

Earlier this year, I stopped to read a commemorative board by a sandy footpath leading to Chapman’s Bar at Emerald Bay on Pangkor Laut. I learnt that the bar was named after Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British soldier who remained in Malaya and led a resistance force against the Japanese during World War II. Chapman recounted his experience in the book, The Jungle is Neutral.

With a jolt of excitement, I remember the book. I particularly remember Chapman’s description of laying explosives on a train line, running back into cover (rubber plantation or jungle I cannot recall), and watching the bomb tear apart a trainload of Japanese soldiers.

Toward the end of 1941, Chapman had travelled against the flow of retreating British soldiers in order to train a small group of locals in guerrilla tactics. It is said that Chapman and his men were so effective that the Japanese thought they were facing a British resistance army of 200 men.

Three and a half years later, in May 1945, it was from this same island, Pangkor Laut, that a much weakened Chapman swam out and escaped into a waiting submarine. He made it safely to Ceylon. For the rest of his life, however, Chapman suffered from illnesses picked up from the jungle and was tormented by what he had witnessed during the war.

Endurance Challenge held every year in Chapman's honour
Chapman’s Challenge held on the island every year in his honour. In 2016, his descendants participated in the challenge and are listed in placing 4 and 5.

I have previously written that the British deserted Malaya when the Japanese invaded but now realise that not all the British left. Some chose to stay. Freddy Chapman stayed.

This realisation prompts me to reflect on the conscience that drives the individual. When people disagree with the actions of their elected government, they can choose to act differently. One of the stories in my book is about a family that opens their home to asylum seekers released from Baxter  Immigration Detention Facility in South Australia. Their actions bring healing, not only to a young Sri Lankan asylum seeker, but also to themselves.

Politicians and all manner of people in authority purport to speak and act on our behalf. But that doesn’t remove from us the ability to think as individuals, and to choose to act in what we believe is the right spirit.

 

Seeing life through the lens of death

Since moving away in 2001, I have returned to Malaysia and Singapore each year to spend time with family. As the years passed, I have noticed loved ones growing old, often witnessing one year’s worth of ageing in a single visit. Chinese New Year celebrations this year were tinged with sadness. My uncle and cousins were still in black, mourning the recent passing of their beloved wife and mother.

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Rees Leo Tolstoy

While I was in Singapore, I read Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Ilyich. Without sentimentality, Tolstoy describes the various stages of pain, panic and depression that beset Ivan as his unnamed disease progresses. It is painful to read, but the most wretched moment is when Ivan realises that he has spent his whole life on things of inconsequence: societal approval, salary increase, house decor. Why had he not instead sought out those rare moments of genuine human connection he had experienced early in life?

So, 2017 has arrived. I have been working on this book for more than three years. I’d like to think that it is very nearly complete. In fact, I printed out all 168 pages today. I am usually miserly with my printer toner; it’s a big step for me. Having given myself the last two and a half weeks off for travel, I will, starting tomorrow, read it through from beginning to end and mark the places where the prose and logic are found wanting. So I continue working toward the hope of publication.

But if I regard my interviews with refugees and migrants primarily as a means to writing a book, would I, like Ivan Ilyich, have focused on professional competence and missed the moments that truly mattered? So I recalibrate my mindset: the journey is about the people first; the book is a by-product. People before projects. Always.