This time twelve years ago I was serving as a peacekeeper with the Irish Defence Forces in Kosovo as part of the multi-national forces deployed there in the aftermath of the war. In the very early days and throughout the rest of my six month tour I regularly found myself, as part of small military groupings, in some very remote places delivering humanitarian aid and building supplies to villages that had very recently been the victim of ethnic cleansing and other war crimes. The raw emotions that hit you in these situations is hard to comprehend and even deal with on a personal level at the time, even now it’s hard to write about sometimes…so how do I get those images, those feelings that are in my mind, that are part of me now down onto paper. It’s only in the last few years that I have allowed myself to go back there and this, I think, is the only way that a writer can write about things from the past that he or she was a part of. A writer has to go back to those events and see the landscapes again in memory, search for those emotions and somehow pick out threads of who he was back then, threads of the events and how they impacted on him. Guilt can be one of those things that jumps back, seldom in my case a sense of doing any great or wonderful things but all a writer can do in these situations then is write what he remembers, what he sees again out of all the jumble and mishmash of memory and describe it as best he can so that it means something tangible. I had served as a peackeeper in South Lebanon a few year previous and there are parts of that experience that are still with me too and so for me this is a difficult thing as I am always drawn back to certain moments and find myself looking at the same scene from many different angles. They are like ghosts, like specters tapping me on the shoulder now, calling me back. It’s like a conversation with my younger self except my older self is only now trying to make sense of it!This is one of the events I have written about repeatedly in poems. This piece refers to a number of different villages and events, the names of which or where exactly in Kosovo they are located I cannot remember too well. What I do remember is that they were in the mountains and very remote. The journey to reach them in the height of a very bad winter took many hours and the villages themselves seemed like they had been forgotten by history until the war came to them….and until we came too I suppose. I had never heard of Kosovo before I was deployed there, before that conflict……now I will never forget it!
This is an attempt at meeting an old ghost!
It’s raining, always is,
that sticky hazy rain that gets down your neck,
behind your ears and saturates your face, your hair
as soon as you step from the vehicle
even though the uniform is multilayered,
your boots get soggy straight away
and the pistol grip on the rifle resting in your arms
slips in your fist.
You’re not really afraid – for yourself,
though your heart is racing approaching
the recently finished mass grave- their hurting ground
covered in fresh clay, flags and wreaths,
you’ve just driven over the ancient village cemetery as you entered
like it was a cross country speed test on rough ground,
the old grave markers are long gone.
No, you’re not afraid for yourself,
the fear comes when no adult arrives to greet you
or check out your party as a possible threat
save for the elderly ones corralling young children
behind hedges and outhouses on the high ground,
who watch you as you watch them
barefoot and half dressed in the rain
and you taking photographs of yourselves
at the place of their parents.
You – the uniforms that stormed into their hurting place
feeling like liberators but to them resembling conquerors,
you who come to help but instead bring memories of terror
and usher a fear they keep from the last time
soldiers conquered this place,
you who tread softly then when you realize what you have done,
when you see the muddied feet of innocence and the future in their eyes
peering down at you.
Michael J. Whelan
24 January 2013