Lest…

Capt. Matthew Dawe.  Killed in Afghanistan in 2007.

Capt. Matthew Dawe. Killed in Afghanistan in 2007.

I did not know Capt. Matthew Dawe. I do not know his family. But the death of this Kingston soldier in Afghanistan in 2007 touched me, just as the recent deaths of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent did last month. The collective outpouring of grief we felt as Canadians reminded me of the debt we have to people who provided support and protection and care to our society. This includes members of the Forces but also firefighters and policemen and nurses and …

Several friends on Facebook are posting a photo of Matthew Dawe, both to remember him and his family but also as a representative of all those other people, alive and dead, we need to remember and acknowledge.

In July 2007, I wrote an article for the Kingston Whig Standard about this event. Here are some updated excerpts.

When I go to an NHL hockey game I’m always astounded and delighted when the whole arena erupts simultaneously with a response to a near-goal or a spectacular play. It feels like all twenty thousand people are experiencing the same emotion or reaction at exactly the same instant and are expressing it as a whole rather than individually. I never get tired of that experience. It momentarily bonds the entire crowd and is what makes seeing the game live so much more exciting than watching it on television, no matter how big the screen.

This past week, I experienced a similar feeling of oneness with a crowd but the link was found in solemn silence and not a cheer.

I’m not in any way a “military” person and I have absolutely no connection with the family of Captain Matthew Dawe or his family; however, I felt an intense draw to attend his funeral service.

I read with interest and concern the reports from Afghanistan and elsewhere of the lives of Canadian soldiers lost in a conflicts that are complex but ones to which our Canadian military presence has been committed. I had not had the opportunity to show my respect and gratitude to any of these fallen individuals or their families. So the death of this young Kingston man with strong local connections drew me to participate in the grief that accompanies such a tragedy.

Several hundred people from all walks of life gathered for the funeral as a brass ensemble played brief muted selections prior to the ceremony and images of an ordinary young man and his family appeared on large screens at the front of the hall. Between the selections, despite the large crowd, there was an absolute and intense silence. Like the cheers at a hockey game, this sober silence, a spontaneous and collective reverence, had a dramatic and unifying effect.

No doubt we were all thinking the same thing. How difficult it must be for the family to experience this loss. How sad it seems that there is such hatred and tension throughout the world. Is it really worth it? Is anything being accomplished or is the whole exercise futile?

How many similar ceremonies have been held for many young Canadian soldiers? Slowly my thoughts moved to a wider perspective to include the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or, every bit as tragic, to the thousands of military and civilian families who have suffered painful losses as a result of wars around the world, including Kurds and Palestinians and Somalis.

Canada’s role as a stabilization force and facilitator of reconstruction in states like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq is an important one. We have trained and skilled military personnel who, like it or not, we must share with the rest of the world. Repeatedly we hear how young soldiers are anxious to serve in these areas. It is their profession and they are convinced that they can make a contribution. We have to believe them. From a distance we are overwhelmed and perhaps biased by images of slain youth. They, however, can see first hand the positive effect that they are having and that is what motivates them.

The Dawe family gave us a great gift, not only in their contribution to Canada’s military force (Matthew was not the only soldier in the family) but also in allowing us to participate in some small way. Their dignified, yet personal response to this tragedy and their generous invitation to the public to share in this time of mourning allowed us to express the sadness that we feel as a result of losses we know are occurring and also to reflect on the forces that have brought this conflict about and our country’s role and responsibility to attempt to bring about a some resolution.

The spontaneous, respectful, dead silence of that arena said more than loud cheers or protests could. The service of our Canadian Forces personnel touches us all in one way or another. Collectively we pay a price but we must not lose sight of the reason that our troops are caught up in these conflicts or focus only on the losses and not on the gains that happen as a result of their work.

Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent

Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent

Corporal Nathan Cirillo

Corporal Nathan Cirillo

Bosnia reflections – Part 1 … Rebuilding after a war

A government office building in 1999 and after reconstruction in 2009.

A government office building in 1999 and after reconstruction in 2009.

Actually this is probably more like part 1000 for Bosnia itself. But it is part one of three blogs I am going to post this week reflecting on my experience in Bosnia in the past several years. The opening of the Winter Olympics in Russia may have spurred some of this thought since the Olympics in 1984 were in Sarajevo.  So much has happened there since then.

I first went to Bosnia in March 1998. I remember flying into the airport in Sarajevo and looking down at rooftops of houses blown off by war. Others were new and bright orange tile. You could see where things had been somewhat repaired.  But the view told the story of a country torn apart by war.

The photos of Syria which have circulated on the internet this past week have reminded me of what I saw in Bosnia. And I was there about 18 months after the war had officially ended.  There were still some tanks on the streets and roads and bridges were broken down. Some cities looked like…a war zone.

I took some photos in 1998 and sent them back to the Kingston Whig Standard with an article, one of my first for the newspaper. They suggested that I get some people in the photo for “interest”. The photos were of bombed out houses and deserted desecrated neighbourhoods where no people now lived.  They missed the point.

Zetra - the Olympic arena in 1984

Zetra – the Olympic arena in 1984

The stadium in the centre of Sarajevo that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics was in ruins. The fields surrounding it turned into graveyards.

So many of my photos of those early trips to Bosnia were of war damage. And it was everywhere.

Digital photography was quite new then and my camera

1984 Olympic fields transformed into graveyards after the Bosnian war.

1984 Olympic fields transformed into graveyards after the Bosnian war.

was a state-of-the-art point and shoot 1 megapixel camera. You likely have 5 times that on your phone now.  So the photos are grainy.  But I think they make the point.

Over the 11 years I worked and lived in Bosnia I saw a lot of change.  It took a while but new buildings sprang up – mosques tended to be the first to appear.  The people in Sarajevo, who all wore black and looked very sad on my first few visits, gradually became more animated and even smiled.  Some of the buildings that stood as monuments to war were refurbished into shiny new buildings, the windows replaced and the pock-marks on the walls from grenades gradually filled in.

The appearance was that Bosnia was slowly recovering.  Unfortunately, underlying ethnic tensions were not too far below the surface and often led to problems of governance.  It is hard to forget war.

My last trip to Bosnia was in 2009.  New buildings were springing up along the main thoroughfare in Sarajevo.  Glass and escalators, clothes from Italy and flat-screen TV’s.  On the surface it looked like things were recovering.

Looks can be deceiving. It takes more than new buildings to recover from war.

In March '98 I stayed in an apartment near the centre of Sarajevo. There were bullet holes in the wood floor and on the walls. The view out the street was of a hill, most buildings damaged.  By 2008, these had been restored.

In March ’98 I stayed in an apartment near the centre of Sarajevo. There were bullet holes in the wood floor and on the walls. The view out the street was of a hill, most buildings damaged. By 2008, these had been restored.

Later we stayed in a house on the west side of town. At the bottom of the hill was the "front line" during the war.  I was always intrigued by this house which was eventually torn down and replaced.

Later we stayed in a house on the east side of town. At the bottom of the hill was the “front line” during the war. I was always intrigued by this house which was eventually torn down and replaced.

This neighbourhood was particularly hard hit. It was uninhabitable in 1998 but by 2006, the buildings had been restored and it appeared like a "normal" neighbourhood street.

This neighbourhood was particularly hard hit. It was uninhabitable in 1998 but by 2006, the buildings had been restored and it appeared like a “normal” neighbourhood street.

The Newspaper office on the main street was demolished (although it continued to operate out of the basement throughout the war.  Eventually the frame was used to construct an office tower..with a revolving restaurant on the top.

The Newspaper office on the main street was demolished (although it continued to operate out of the basement throughout the war). Eventually the frame was used to construct an office tower..with a revolving restaurant on the top.

Bosnia reflections, Part 2 … People

Earlier this week I posted photos of how the buildings and streetscapes changed during the time I worked in Bosnia from 1998 to 2009. Over those years I also got to know and become friends with many people, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks alike – Muslims and Catholics and Orthodox and agnostics.

I watched them recover slowly from the trauma of war.

I heard horrendous stories and visited places that made me weep.

I shared lots of smiles, laughs and good food Bosnian beer with the people I worked with, Bosnians and Canadians and other internationals.

But I also got to know some of the people in the neighborhood. There was a bakery at the base of the hill where we lived and every Saturday morning I looked forward to walking down the hill and buying a freshly baked apple (jabuka) turnover to eat with my coffee and the Globe and Mail crossword I could download onto my laptop. The young man who was behind the counter was always there. Always. He spoke little English and I knew only enough Bosnian to say good morning and ask for my bread. Over the years I watched him grow up, covered in flour and serving up bread at the bakery. We exchanged greetings in the store. He, no doubt, was watching me age as well.

hljeb then and now

There were also two little waifs who lived in a house just below ours. My understanding was that their family were refugees, squatting in a house that had been abandoned by people who fled during the war.

Semir and Kiko with toques that I brought for them from Canada.

Semir and Kiko with toques that I brought for them from Canada.

I am proud to say that kids generally like me. And these two little fellows were no exception. They would come together early in the morning and ring the buzzer at my door. I would take them to the market and sometimes buy them something small. Once I took them to a restaurant and bought them each a slice of pizza and a coke. I remember them sitting there like they were princes and thinking that they may never have eaten in a restaurant like this.

Once I was cooking on our barbecue and realized that I and no flipper for the burgers. The kids were hanging around and they saw that I had no utensil to turn the burgers.  They disappeared and within about five minutes returned with a nice new barbecue spatula. I suspect that they swiped it from somewhere. They reminded me of the Artful Dodger.

One of the neighbourhood photos that the kids took with my camera.

One of the neighbourhood photos that the kids took with my camera.

One winter I loaned them my digital camera to take a few photos. I would see the neighborhood through their eyes. When I got the camera back I found they had taken it inside their house. There was their mother sitting under a blanket in bed beside an oven door open for heat, and smoking a cigarette with an ashtray of butts on the floor beside the bed. Out of respect for her privacy I have never printed that photo but I look at it and smile.

One year when I returned the family had moved away. Occasionally I would see the mother at a bus stop or the kids in the schoolyard. A few years later I chanced upon one of them, a teenager now, working in a local garden.

I wonder what became of those kids. I hope they are doing OK but they may be part of the large proportion of young Bosnians who are unemployed, disgruntled and fed up with their lot.  There is growing unrest among the unemployed and disadvantaged in Bosnia and last week it boiled over into anti-government protests in several Bosnian cities.

Semir grown up. Where is he now. He would be about 21 now.

Semir grows up. Where is he now? He would be about 21 now.

Forgiveness…

I didn’t know when I booked the movies I would see at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this past weekend that there would be a common theme.  Basically the ticket-buying process is a bit of a crap-shoot.  I had a large list of movies that I thought would be interesting but there were time conflicts and availability issues to negotiate.  In the end I got seven of the movies on my list so I was happy.

IT_IS_NOT_A_“NAIROBI_HALF_LIFE”_BUT_IT_IS_“SOMETHING_NECESSARY”!31

I knew that the film Something Necessary, shot in Kenya was a fictional story but based on the post-election violence there in early 2008.  I also realized that the film shot in Bosnia – FOR_THOSE_WHO_CAN_TELL_NO_TALES_Trailer_109306676_thumbnailFor Those Who Can Tell No Tales – would have a post-war theme.  I knew very little about The Railway Man,  the Dallas Buyers Club or Philomena other than that they had great acting performances by well-known actors. And I threw in two comedies to break the tension – The Grand Seduction (Directed by Don McKellar) and Bad Words (Directed and starring Jason Bateman of Arrested Development fame}.images-1

It was somewhat surprising to me that all the dramas were based on real events.

The characters were fictional in some, but the events were real.  In three of the movies,  the main characters were people who had actually existed and struggled with torture, illness or were horribly mistreated in other ways.

In all the films – even the comedies – someone was wronged. The wrongs varied from being lied to or manipulated to having their child taken away from them but they all revolved around people who  suffered some badwordsrepercussions of having been wronged by someone else.

The dilemma for all the protagonists, that was the force that became central to the film,  was how to deal with the past.  How do you interact with your abuser?  How do you overcome being a victim? Do you look colin-firth-the-railway-manfor revenge or do you give in? Ultimately,  do you forgive?

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It all came together for me in the last five minutes of those seven movies when Philomena elects forgiveness.  Without giving away the story, she confronts someone who has wronged her badly, ruined her life, in fact. Her companion is angry and wants an apology or some sort of revenge.  But Philomena quietly says something like this. “Yes I have something to say to you. I forgive you for what you have done to me.”

Her angry friend is astounded and asks “Is that all you are going to say? Is that it? Just that simple?

Philomena responds with (and I paraphrase – the screenwriter found just the right words to make it powerful)  “It was not simple. It was very difficult. But ultimately i could live with hate in my heart and be miserable. Or I could forgive.

QUAD_PHILOMENA-1024x768In the other films, the victims responded with everything from trying to get even, to exposing the others for their evil ways, to forgiving in one way or another.

Is this a choice we all have to make at some point?  Will we burn ourselves up with anger, rage and the need for revenge or can we honestly forgive on some level and move on.

The movies I saw at TIFF 2013 not only entertained me last weekend, they gave me lots to think about. I just may have also learned some valuable life lessons.