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Contrast - Winter - Kosovo, 2001, Photo: Michael J. Whelan

Contrast – Winter – Kosovo, 2001, Photo: (c)Michael J. Whelan

BROKEN SPADE

 

You lay in your frozen field, slack-jawed at how you

came to be there, your mouth caked in last year’s mud,

limbs twisted about your body as if in the midst of some

remembered dance or tempered at your rotting crops,

bent over in disgust, yielding in the half light and startled

at the cold – they have never felt.

This harvest, un-reaped and yet reaped upon you

hides the stale shoe and crushed spectacles,

the broken spade that hastily covered you in the soft

clay you loved, now steeled hard against the sharp sky.

 

I imagine the fears of your kin as they searched the high

golden horizon that summer day.

They might have felt the distant calamity that took you

following the bullet casings along the beaten track,

and I wonder if they found you,

then I see the scars of cluster bombs and scorched

stalks of your petrified labours and there, there in the shrapnel

of this bitter harvest I behold  your seed,

torn apart but reaching out to the one who bore them.

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

Grave 2 001

Street Grave – Kosovo 2001 (c)Michael J. Whelan

 

featured in the new anthology  And Agamemnon Dead: An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry,  Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann is published by Muavaise Graine (Paris 2015) –

see https://www.facebook.com/mgversion2datura

The official launch of the Anthology will be taking place in Skerries as part of Donkey Shots , Skerries First International Avant Garde Poetry Fest, which will be held on the 23rd of May.

 

And Agamemnon Dead An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry Edited by Peter O'Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

And Agamemnon Dead
An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry
Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

And Agamemnon Dead: An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry – Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

You can purchase your copy by clicking on the link here  http://www.lulu.com/shop/peter-oneill-and-rosita-sweetman-and-michael-mcaloran-and-amos-greig/and-agamemnon-dead/paperback/product-22087100.html

 

 

 

 

Kosovo (c)Michael J. Whelan 2001

Kosovo (c)Michael J. Whelan 2001

CHOCOLATE

 

Her face worn and haggard,

she lay across the muddy floor

next to a filthy child,

protecting a barren door,

her weak hands smashing nuts

with a broken hammer.

Dark clouds hung inside

the shattered house,

her silent eyes screaming at us

while our trucks dropped supplies

to her guilty neighbours.

With cold despair

clinging to our uniforms

we spilled mountains of chocolate

at her feet.

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

 

featured in the new anthology  And Agamemnon Dead: An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry,  Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann is published by Muavaise Graine (Paris 2015) –

see https://www.facebook.com/mgversion2datura

The official launch of the Anthology will be taking place in Skerries as part of Donkey Shots , Skerries First International Avant Garde Poetry Fest, which will be held on the 23rd of May.

 

And Agamemnon Dead An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry Edited by Peter O'Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

And Agamemnon Dead
An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry
Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

And Agamemnon Dead

An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry
Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

 

You can purchase your copy by clicking on the link here  http://www.lulu.com/shop/peter-oneill-and-rosita-sweetman-and-michael-mcaloran-and-amos-greig/and-agamemnon-dead/paperback/product-22087100.html

 

Michael J. Whelan - poet, Tibnine Castle, South Lebanon 1994

Michael J. Whelan – poet, Tibnine Castle, South Lebanon 1994

WILD JUICE

 

I search but you’re not there,

only this veil of darkness that hides

all the world and you from me.

 

Far away you’re waiting and I am

there, for a moment,

free of gunfire and threat of violence.

I hear your singing and I am drawn

to your touch, watching you eat round

strawberries, resting in long grass

on a summer day, your lips are red

with wild juice and I long to kiss them.

But I close my eyes as the scent of dates

fills my brain, you are hidden again

and I cannot breath under this black veil.

 

White stars are like pinholes without air

as night rises over my observation post

and I scan the rooftops through my rifle scope.

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

 

featured in the new anthology  And Agamemnon Dead: An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry,  Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann is published by Muavaise Graine (Paris 2015) –

see https://www.facebook.com/mgversion2datura

The official launch of the Anthology will be taking place in Skerries as part of Donkey Shots , Skerries First International Avant Garde Poetry Fest, which will be held on the 23rd of May.

 

And Agamemnon Dead An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry Edited by Peter O'Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

And Agamemnon Dead
An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry
Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

 

And Agamemnon Dead

An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry
Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

 

You can purchase your copy by clicking on the link here  http://www.lulu.com/shop/peter-oneill-and-rosita-sweetman-and-michael-mcaloran-and-amos-greig/and-agamemnon-dead/paperback/product-22087100.html

 

                                Humanitarian mission - Kosovo, 2001. (c)Michael J. Whelan

Humanitarian mission – Kosovo, 2001. (c)Michael J. Whelan (Mass-grave in background)

 

 

LIBERATORS

 

Sometimes (in Kosovo), you can drive into villages

feeling like a liberator.

Though at first the children are standoff-ish,

weary of uniforms, they learn why

the Irish K.FOR have come and slowly

trickle down from high ground

and surround you.

It gets difficult to work then, unloading sand

and cement, building blocks and slates

from giant trucks,

so the drivers organise races, throwing chocolates

and sweets from our pack-rations as prizes.

 

On other days you can enter ancient villages

stopping close to mass graves – their hurting ground.

It takes a lot of persuasion for children

to come down, there aren’t many parents around

to tell them they ‘re safe.

It is then you feel enfeebled.

 

 

Michael J. Whelan

K.FOR = Kosovo peacekeeping Force

 

featured in the new anthology  And Agamemnon Dead: An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry,  Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann is published by Muavaise Graine (Paris 2015) –

see https://www.facebook.com/mgversion2datura

The official launch of the Anthology will be taking place in Skerries as part of Donkey Shots , Skerries First International Avant Garde Poetry Fest, which will be held on the 23rd of May.

And Agamemnon Dead An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry Edited by Peter O'Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

And Agamemnon Dead
An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry
Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

 

You can purchase your copy by clicking on the link here  http://www.lulu.com/shop/peter-oneill-and-rosita-sweetman-and-michael-mcaloran-and-amos-greig/and-agamemnon-dead/paperback/product-22087100.html

And Agamemnon Dead An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry Edited by Peter O'Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

And Agamemnon Dead
An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry
Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann

Hi everyone, I’m really happy to announce that a brand new anthology of contemporary Irish poetry has been published today (St Patrick’s Day) in Paris and I am also delighted to say that I have five poems included in the collection alongside a number of exciting and interesting new voices coming out of Ireland in the these early years of the 21st Century.

And Agamemnon Dead An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry, Edited by Peter O’Neill & Walter Ruhlmann is published by Muavaise Graine (Paris 2015) –

see https://www.facebook.com/mgversion2datura

and among its 187 pages you will find poetry from

Michael McAloran — Amos Greig — Dylan Brennan — Christine Murray — Arthur Broomfield — Peter O’ Neill — Rosita Sweetman — Michael J. Whelan — Anamaría Crowe Serrano — Peadar O’ Donoghue — Strider Marcus Jones — Colm Kearns — John Saunders — Kevin Higgins — Paul Casey — Sarah Brown Weitzman — Eithne Lannon — Maighread Medbh — Jack Grady — Bob Shakeshaft 

“…there does indeed exist a whole world of writing out there which seems to live in a parallel universe alongside the more familiar voices which appear in the mainstream media, here in Ireland. There is nothing remarkable being said here, is it not always the case in every period, no matter what society? There will always be the majority, who somehow would appear to expound the specific values and criteria which that particular society holds up.” Peter O’Neill (extract from the Preface)

The official launch of the anthology will be take place in Skerries, Ireland on the 23rd May during the Donkey Shots, Skerries First International Avant Garde Poetry Festival (Donkey Shots pronounced Don Quichote) – and all are welcome to come along.

And Agamemnon Dead is a really beautiful collective body of work so please share with as many friends as you can, and if you know any writers who would be willing to review it please pass it on.

You can purchase your copy by clicking on the link here   http://www.lulu.com/shop/peter-oneill-and-rosita-sweetman-and-michael-mcaloran-and-amos-greig/and-agamemnon-dead/paperback/product-22087100.html

Best wishes for St Patrick’s Day, where ever you are in the world, and always

Michael

Michael J. Whelan  - Kosovo 2001

Michael J. Whelan – Kosovo 2001

LANDSCAPES OF CONFLICT – CONFLICTED LANDSCAPES

Once you were off base (outside camp) and no matter where in the province the convoy, or for that matter the vehicle you might be in, was heading the landscapes were truly amazing and told a multitude of stories and histories if you were willing to open your eyes, read the features and listen. The country was/ is beautiful and in that beauty there were echoes of the centuries of violence passed and of the most recent scars of wars to encapsulate Kosovo and the greater Balkans region not least in the amount of International peacekeeping soldiers guarding hundreds of churches, mosques, cemeteries and schools. Many, many of these had been damage or destroyed in ethnic violence since the war ended. But absorbing all that magnificent landscape and history against the sufferings of the local Kosovar people in the height of a cold, wet and for the most part grey winter could leave a dark and lasting impression on you.

Being very interested in history I was able to pick out man-made features around the border areas with Macedonia such as pillboxes and bunkers, which were constructed during the World War Two and later periods of the Partisan wars. There were very deep ravines and high mountain ridges in these areas with unused railway bridges linking the country through those historic landscapes, which would have been ideal for ambushes and guerrilla warfare against occupying forces. These same mountains were the routes for the refugees fleeing the war in the year before I arrived in Kosovo. They were the same hills also that were shelled by Serbian forces, while those refugees trekked through the winter forests to find safety. Many people were lost in those mountains to artillery bursting above and amongst them and often times I could see the yellow tape trailing off up into the high ground were un-exploded ordnance or mines had been discovered or were suspected to be.

K.FOR troops would be busy, all year round and still are to this day, trying to clear these areas and make them safe again, a very strenuous and dangerous task in the deep forests and foliage which blanketed the peaks and valleys. The remains of human victims of the Kosovo war were sometimes discovered and from a wise experience the peacekeepers would approach carefully in case bodies or graves were booby trapped. I remember a few years after I came home from Kosovo, watching a TV documentary on the problems with mines in the province and how they were being detected with the use of ground penetrating radar being fired or scanning the landscape from a flying balloon, rather like the famous  Zeppelins of WWI although much smaller in scale.

Driving along the roads in rural areas and in the hills it was easy to spot deserted or destroyed villages, many burnt and without roofs. Some of these had been cordoned off and had signs posted warning the former owners of mines and booby-traps left by Serbian military forces.  During the war Serbian troops had positioned themselves on the strategic heights of Mount Golez, a missive feature in the hills rising up over the landscape near Pristina and the airport. These positions had been bombed by NATO aircraft and the trenches that remained on the upper slopes as we approached were still littered with  un-exploded cluster-bombs, (large capsules containing hundreds of small bomb-lets designed to be dropped on infantry over a wide area), making this a dangerous environment to be operating in. At the top of the mountain there was a massive K.FOR signals-communications compound, within which the Irish units had a re-broadcasting station and radio masts. The compound had to be maintained regularly and this meant negotiating the climb up by vehicle was hazardous, you didn’t dare drive off the road even if you had to manoeuvre or turn a truck on the narrow roads.

In Kosovo, in the early days of the K.FOR peacekeeping/peace enforcement mission, it was common to see clusters of graves in farmland and these were sometimes visible where crops had not been harvested by the owners. I never discovered if any of these were the result of ethnic cleansing, murder, reprisal killings or from un-exploded ordnance going off, while farmers worked the land. There was also a number of graves, some unmarked, on the center island of the main road artery of one of the main cities. Un-exploded mines or booby-traps whether left in the ground from the war or recently deposited by armed factions in acts of revenge or reprisal were an almost daily occurrence and very dangerous. In the center of Lipjan, the large town near to where the Irish Company Headquarters was located there was a major K.FOR presence of mostly Finnish peacekeeping troops. Members of this battalion were regularly tasked with escorting children to school to avoid them being attacked. It was common to see dozens of children under the protection of armed peacekeepers as they walked along safe zones marked out on the streets with tape and protected by a tank or a couple of armoured personnel carriers. The armed escorts were essential protection because of hand grenades and improvised explosive devices being thrown at the children and into the school playing yards. I have a memory of hearing about shots being fired at school children too.

I remember one day the vehicle I was travelling in was driving through Pristina city; we had just turned left into what seemed like a raging river of cars travelling in both directions.  I spotted a suspicious looking rusted orange coloured car pulling up beside us on our side of the road near the center island. The car looked like it hadn’t been on the road in many years and was violently starting and stopping as if the driver was having trouble. As the vehicle I was sitting in the back off slowly drove past the orange car I looked in and saw that the driver and front passenger were under severe pressure and were shouting at each other. I then looked into the rear and saw a man laid out on the back seat. He seemed to be in a lot of pain, I could see his face and he could see mine. The man sat up for a moment and I saw then that he was clutching his upper right leg and what seemed to be a white shirt drenched in blood wrapped around his knee. He was moaning in agony, I couldn’t hear him but I could see his eyes. The shirt came away and I could see that his leg was gone from the knee joint, which was hanging loose like a ball onto his thigh. Our eyes caught each others for a split second and I knew he was at the mercy of the driver.  I presumed afterwards that the man had stood on a mine or booby-trap and his friends had bundled him into an un-roadworthy car and were frantically trying to get him to a hospital. He might have been a farmer working his land and tripped the mine laid the night before my an enemy was may once have been a neighbour, such things were reported regularly in the newspapers. I have wondered many times since if he survived or was I looking onto the eyes of a dead man.

 

Mass Grave Kosovo 2001: Michael J. Whelan

Mass Grave Kosovo 2001: Michael J. Whelan

Part of the humanitarian work the Irish troops carried out entailed providing aid to remote or isolated villages way up in the hills along the borders and I have distinct memories of our vehicles driving for many hours to reach them as some of the more direct routes had not been cleared of munitions and mines or were just too dangerous. I remember we drove into villages over very rough terrain, the vehicles bouncing all over the place, only to discover that we had driven over an ancient cemetery or some other hurting ground belonging to the story of that particular place. I remember the very steep mountain climbs in heavily laden trucks in severe snow blizzards on narrow tracks and some of the materials shifting and falling off the trucks and tumbling down the side. When we pulled into the center of a village the building materials and other humanitarian aid would be unloaded onto the ground and the locals would come out from their homes and take what they needed. Many times we unloaded material onto the ground beside a recently made mass grave, landscaped and covered in KLA flags (Kosovo Liberation Army) and floral wreaths. The graves would be filled with the victims of ethnic cleansing from the recent war, mostly the parents of the young children who gathered around our work parties. There would be the older generation, parents and grandparents of those buried in the graves, and the orphans. Imagine driving into a village that seemed to have been forgotten by the advance of time except for the 21st century to come visiting violence on its inhabitants; and you seeing, feeling and absorbing the emotion of the place. The children walking around half dressed and barefoot in the winter weather, the older people just staring at you, afraid to speak, most likely afraid of our weapons. I imagined and still do that the last uniform they say saw in their village was probably the one that brought death and destruction so who was I to think they would appreciate another uniform coming into their midst like some kind of liberators and saviours, not that we were doing such and I Have never felt that way since either.

The children who were brave enough to come down from the high ground in the village would gather round us as we worked and as the others followed them down it became quite dangerous for them so some of us would chat and play with them, dance and generally act the maggot. We gave them chocolate and drinks from our own rations to keep them occupied and safely away from the vehicles but I think that in many ways this was our attempt, although we didn’t realise it back then, of atoning for what had occurred to them and their families.

Sometimes we had an interpreter or member of one of the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) like CONCERN or GOAL (Irish charities operating in the province) with us who would help the locals and the peacekeepers to communicate and we would be able then to listen to the stories of the people who had been killed or were still missing and what had happened in that particular village. This really brought home to us what war was like for the civilian populations and in a way, for a while, we felt good about the job we were doing but if you had small kids at home like I did then absorbing these scenes was quite upsetting and for the most part they have stayed with me ever since. I have written and published a number of poems that were inspired by these moments on the hurting landscapes of Kosovo fifteen years ago that still resonate in my memories and my consciousness as if it were only yesterday that I witnessed them. Those children, who would be in their twenties and thirties if they are still alive most likely wouldn’t remember me or the Irish troops but it is always place and what happens in a place that keeps the stories that stay with you. Kosovo, to me, is not just a place; it is an event, a time, a thing, a tangible world in my mind, in me, who I am. Those children’s memories too are landscapes of conflict on a conflicted landscape – a landscape of those violent times before we arrived and I hope that our brief encounters with them planted seeds of a peaceful, friendly future in their minds.

 Michael J Whelan

March 2015

Michael J. Whelan  - Kosovo 2001

Michael J. Whelan – Kosovo 2001

KILLER ROADS

Being involved in the convoys was a very real eye-opener to conditions on the ground in Kosovo as landscapes were revealed to us and we discovered the country. But, when off base (outside camp), it was important to be alert and careful, not just for the threat of violence, mines and roadblocks etc in an unfamiliar landscape but also of the roads themselves.

On the Main Supply Route (MSR), the only real main road or highway through the entire province that could take heavy vehicles (and had two lanes for most of its length but without proper crash barriers, hard shoulders and signage), you took your life in your hands or rather you left your life in the hands of the driver of the car or truck you were travelling in. The outfit I was serving in was a transport unit so all the drivers were well trained military drivers with military licences and were good at their jobs. They had to be as the roads, especially the off road conditions were deplorable. But it wasn’t only the road surfaces etc that the drivers had to contend with – the local drivers whether Albanian or Serbian or whatever were absolutely nuts for the most part. There seemed to be no rules of the road or regulations that they conformed to and they were a very real danger to themselves, other drivers and K.FOR international peacekeeping soldiers serving within the environs of the province. Many peacekeepers became casualties of the K.FOR mission through road accidents sometimes due to their own individual actions but mostly, if I remember correctly, through contact with civilian drivers or bad road surfaces.

I remember when I arrived in Kosovo in September 2000 that there weren’t many vehicles on the roads in general, I could count cars passing the camp at one every five minutes, but by the time my tour ended in April 2001 the amount had increased to resemble something like the main artery roads in and out of city in Ireland. This was especially noticeable in the harsh winter conditions, which didn’t seem to alter the local driver’s behaviour for the most part.

I remember also that a police officer from the Royal Ulster Constabulary RUC, later to be designated as the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI), who was serving in Kosovo with the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) paid a visit to the Irish troops at Camp Clarke sometime in the weeks after our arrival to brief us on the civil authority that was in effect in the province and also the road conditions as it wouldn’t be long before the winter set in. He informed us that prior to and during the recent conflict there had been very few privately owned vehicles in Kosovo but this had changed as many of the refugees who had been forced to flee the province had since returned from their host countries who had allowed them safety. Those former refugees, mostly Albanian I think, had come back home sporting cars, which they had brought back with them.  Only a few of these cars were in actual fact road worthy, the drivers could not drive very well and they had no tax or insurance details for the vehicles. What made it worse for UNMIK and its police officers and the local force in training was that at that time there was no real way of policing this, there was no systems within the interim government to regulate it, not even to issue licences. Many of those Kosovars who returned from Ireland, the policeman told us, had also brought their temporary Irish driving licences and insurance policies etc with them and some of them were very bad copies of these documents.

There were many scenes of carnage on the roads in Kosovo, while I was there, many crashed vehicles on the sides of the MSR and far into the surrounding fields where they must have left the road at high speed. For the life of me I can recollect only one set of traffic lights in the whole of the province of Kosovo outside of a city and this was located directly outside the main entrance to the UK Multi-National Brigade Headquarters (MNB) on the outskirts of the city of Pristina. If I remember correctly this was only situated there to facilitate the slowing of traffic to allow K.FOR vehicles to enter and exit the base safely, and there always seemed to be pile-ups and accidents in the vicinity.

There was also another area on the MSR, I can’t remember where exactly, but I think it was somewhere in the centre of the country,  north of Pristina, where the road rose up and turned sharp right and carried onto the other to the border. This, I think, was the only sharp turn on the entire MSR and caused all sorts of mayhem. The turn was a bout thirty feet above the ground (might be wrong here) and there was always a pile of rusting and newer cars in the surrounding fields beneath where the drivers had spun out or careered off the road at great speed. Some of these cars were way out into the fields and many people must have been killed at that location.

The locals would over take long military convoys sometimes ten cars at a time on the two lanes of the MSR – crazy stuff! During the winter the conditions deteriorated and I remember a number of occasions when we got caught by the weather the visibility was so bad that you couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face. On these occasions a member or members of our convoys or individual vehicles had to literally get out and walk very slowly in front of the truck or car on the side of the road so that the drivers knew their position on the road itself. Often times we would hear cars speeding in these conditions. In one particular incident an Irish peacekeeper, who I knew pretty well, was walking in front of a truck to indicate the edge of the road, the driver could barely see the chap’s legs when all of a sudden they heard the engine of a car approaching very fast. The chap managed to throw himself clear of the car just before it slammed into the front of the truck he was guiding along the road, and if I remember correctly, clipping his feet in the process. The front of the truck beneath the cab was damaged but the driver was not hurt in the collision nor was the soldier lying next to the road in the ditch. The civilian passengers in the car were not badly injured either and the car was a right-off, every one though was pretty badly shaken. I heard a few day later that the two civilians in the car arrived at the Irish Headquarters in Camp Clarke demanding compensation but were told where they could go (in polite terminology I’m sure) and the peacekeepers the collided with might have had a few choice words for then too if they had been there to meet them. I remember thinking many times that the morgues must be filled with the victims of the roads as much as those of the conflict and ethnic cleansing, which were being discovered regularly and those of the daily violence in the province.

 

Michael J. Whelan

March 2015

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