I read with great regret a small piece from the Economist that tells of a ‘souring mood’ in the tiny African country, Burundi. It seems that opposition forces have again taken to the hills after around three hundred of their number have been killed since July and dozens arrested. Much of this goes back to the 2010 election which, despite the International community declaring reasonably fair was greeted by anger from the forces opposing President Nkurunziza. I worked several times in Burundi during the last twelve years – assignments ranged from looking at the so-called Regroupment camps where the Tutsi government corralled Hutu peasants ‘for their own safety’ in appalling conditions (as part of a global series called The Politics of Hunger) to looking at the steps to reconciliation with the Bashingantahe councils. I also photographed and wrote about the extraordinary Marguerite Barankitse, The Angel of Burundi who adopted children of all tribes amidst the terrible violence of the Civil War. I fear that her heroism and devotion will be called on again.
On Monday, The Forces for National Liberation (FNL) leader Agathon Rwasa, whom Burundian authorities believe is hiding along with fellow combatants in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, called on Nkurunziza to step down. Reuters are reporting this as a declaration of war. I sincerely hope that they are wrong.
Delighted that at least some justice has been served today for the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia after Charles Taylor was found to have “aided and abetted” war crimes” by a United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague.
It’s been some weeks since the lives of two of the world’s oldest men came to a close. I’ve been out of the country a good deal recently and missed the chance to comment on Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, both veterans of ‘the war to end all wars‘. However, this morning, I noticed that the Hackney Gazette carried a story that Hackney Council is going to name a street after Allingham as he was born, like me, in Clapton.
I never met Allingham but I photographed Patch years ago for a Swiss Magazine whose name I’m afraid escapes me. Without criticism, it was Patch, buried without the military pomp that intrigued me more.
What stuck me about him was that he was a very, very ordinary man that by dint of a genetic fluke had lived on to become, very reluctantly, a living symbol of the Great War. An everyman. The Last Tommy. He seemed to me almost guilty about surviving and I suppose that isn’t uncommon for veterans who have seen their comrades fall. What was extraordinary was that he never spoke about the war until he was 100. When he did speak about it, it was to condemn utterly the futility and cruelty of what he had seen. I remember him, rasping in a soft, slow West country burr, how when he and his comrades were forced to open up on advancing Germans, they’d made a pact to try and shoot for their legs in order to avoid killing them. That to me seemed absurdly brave. His criticism of war (recently enshrined in a tribute by the band Radiohead) was no less telling. ‘Give your leaders each a gun and let them fight it out themselves…”.
nb. The title refers to a line from Carol Anne Duffy‘s poem, ‘The Last Post‘ and is a reference to Wilfred Owen‘s quoting of Horace‘s words, “Dolce et Decorum est pro paria mori” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”).
I write this in Budapest airport after surviving a three hour onslaught of a hangover and my driver’s taste in Hungarian rock classics.
Budapest is one of my favourite cities but I’ve seen nothing of it save for its grim industrial suburbs as I’ve been on a job-ette in Pecs (pronounced ‘Peych’) for the last few days.
Pec is (one of) The European City of Culture 2010 and can rightly claim this title as it has more museums and modern art than can be good for any place this size.
I have to say that despite a couple of days of obligatory rain, Pec was a delight from start to finish. It didn’t even matter that the main square was being dug up and lots of the buildings were being renovated, there was more than enough Baroque and Art Nouveau to spare. The renovations did make establishing shots a little tricky mind you…
As luck (or sublime planning…) would have it there happened to be a cultural festival on during my stay and this seemed to bring out the best in what I’ve found to be quite reserved Hungarians.
The town itself is a bit of a mixture, settled by Romans and invaded by the Ottomans. It has a Mediterranean style to it that I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting it to be so close to Croatia either. It was a little strange on the second day in when the waitress (who doubled as the breakfast cook in my little pension) told me that she was born right on the border and that she spoke both Croat and Hungarian. She also managed a more than passable German and English which was handy as Hungary has the most impenetrable tongue possible, related only it seems to Klingon…
Elena’s heritage suddenly jolted me right back to 1991 and I suddenly realised in one of the moments that make you go cold, that I’d been there before.
That year saw me, barely able to make a picture, ship off to Croatia with a borrowed Vietnam-war flak jacket. My memories of exactly how I got to Zagreb are hazy but I remember crossing the Hungarian border by train and I think that I came through Pec… What I do remember is just how confused I was. I can now, nearly two decades on, hardly believe that I went. I knew precious little about the situation and even less about how to operate. I was there I think for a few weeks and I stayed on in Zagreb with a chap called Paul Jenks, a British photographer, recently graduated from photography school who’d come to make the war his own. A few weeks after I left, Paul was murdered by a sniper. It was a salutary lesson for me. For a start, it could have been me and also, we’d not parted on the best of terms. Paul was as driven as I was to succeed in his new profession but hadn’t taken kindly to me telling him that he was working too hard. There wasn’t an argument exactly but my (genuine) concern seemed to stir something in him and I took it to be a signal to leave the place and come home. I thought about Paul a fair bit in Pecs… memory is a strange thing. Like the town itself that had absorbed so many cultural memories (Hungarian, Croatian, Turkish, German) I suppose that we are a mixture of all of ours simultaneously.
Having talked about my negative memories, I have to say that it’s always lovely to be able to walk around and make pictures without hassle (ie like anywhere in the UK) and a folk festival proved ample opportunity to juggle sausages, beer and cameras whilst trying to frame things.
Pecs is looking forward to an investment of around $220m which will be used to rebuild some of the more run down areas and there are cash incentives for building owners to renovate their properties. Literally hundreds of cultural events are lined up for the next twelve months.
I’m sure it’ll be a great year…
And finally, how can you possibly fail to like a place where they iron their bread?