Regarding War completed [repost]

Originally posted23.09.08

Amended during repost 19.02.11

In early 2008, the Lancaster University Centre for Transcultural Writing and Research commissioned me to produce five images entitled ‘Regarding War’. I have interviewed three people who have come to Sheffield because of conflict in their own country, and two people who campaign about war-related issues, all of whom live or work within a mile or so of where I live. The final image has taken a long time to complete, but this week I interviewed Mr Nay Htoo, a Karen Burmese refugee, who spent twenty years teaching in the jungle with the Karen National Liberation Army, who are fighting for independence from the oppressive Burmese government.
The five people I interviewed are:
Jeremie from DRCongo
Jangez Khan an Iranian Kurd
Pat, a peace activist from Sheffield
Deacon Dave who has campaigned for and been involved with struggles for peace for most of his life,
and finally Nay Htoo.

All of their stories have been inspiring for me, and have challenged my own ideas and ideals about conflict. Particularly sitting with Nay, and another man, L, who I’ve not featured because of fears about his safety, and hearing about their people’s struggles for independence and freedom against very aggressive and oppressive governments has made me think long and hard about my beliefs. Pat summed up some of her own struggle by quoting the singer Christy Moore, who says ‘Only the very safe can talk about wrong and right’. In addition, Deacon Dave has a lot to say about a non-violent response to aggression, and is very personal and challenging in his response.

Please note that some names have been changed.

Jeremie, Congo

Jeremie

I met Jeremie through J, a friend who works with destitute asylum seekers, refugees and ‘alternative’ communities. He’s been involved in setting up squats and a night shelter for asylum seekers, and helped Jeremie find his home in this caravan on the outskirts of Sheffield City Centre, in the middle of a hidden community of other people who live outside mainstream society.

To reach his home, you have to walk down a road with a chain across it, marked ‘no entry’, and through a collection of fairly wild-looking dogs.

The caravan is low-tech – Jeremie has a tiny portable b&w tv, a woodburning stove, and a few clothes. But he’s known and respected in the community he’s living in. He’s fixing up a couple of bikes, and is an electrician by trade.

Jeremie is from Kinshasa in the DRC. He fled to the UK after being thrown in to jail, because of his involvement with the daughter of a general in the Congolese army. She became pregnant, and died during an attempted abortion. The general sent his men to arrest Jeremie, who was taken to jail and beaten.

With help from a cousin, he managed to escape, and came to the UK for safety, three and a half years ago. He’s lived across the country, from Birmingham to Dover, but has been in this caravan for nearly a year.

The one item that Jeremie has managed to bring with him was the shirt he’s wearing here. It was given to him by his wife, just before he left – she’d made the shirt for him.

This is Jeremie’s description of his last meeting with his wife. He hasn’t heard from her or his two children since:

‘I [went] with him, [the next] morning I see my wife coming, I see her, just small time, she takes these clothes. If I see these clothes I remember to my wife, I say why why… my wife she takes these clothes she give me, I put on the clothes – she put the clothes on me, I go with my cousin’s friend, I don’t know the arrangement – give him the money, I see her friend start the arrangements, take me with him inside the plane, pulled me with the hand, don’t tell, don’t talk, I have to go with you any place. I say OK, I’m just here … I see just Heathrow. I took the train, the traffic, I had … one friend here, he speaks a little French, I speak to him, I go with the friend here, I go to the house.’

J Kan, Kurdish Iran

J Khan

Down at the bottom of my hill, opposite the library is a small religious community that houses a few destitute asylum seekers. I met Jangez (not his real name), a 36 year old Iranian Kurd at a recent meal to welcome asylum seekers to Sheffield. We’d talked about the Kurdish situation, and he’d agreed to talk more with me.

His room overlooks the main road, and is bare but warm. He’s been in Sheffield for the past four years, after arriving in the UK after a mammoth journey from northern Iran through Turkey, Greece, Italy and France to Dover. For the previous 24 years or so he’d been a prisoner, held by Saddam’s troops in a prison camp in northern Iran with 20000 other people, after his family were captured. His parents died in the camp.

When the Americans deposed Saddam, the UN came and took a lot of the camp residents to Sweden, Finland and Norway, but not Jangez. So he began his epic journey.

‘The Americans came, Saddam’s troops went, the police and government were gone, all the people were gone. The camp closed, finished, but I had no home to go to.

‘The people said England was better, they weren’t staying in Turkey, France, they said England is better, so I go there.

‘I just have my clothes and a small bag. I was in a lorry. It was closed, then stopped with five people inside. I banged on the door, I had a small hole to see out. I saw three children outside, they called the police, they came, opened the door, wrote my name and said go there to the police station. I went to Dover, Ashford, Leicester, Leeds, then Darnall [Sheffield].

‘The Home Office refused me. What proof can I give? I have no nationality, I was in the camp for a long time. Kurds have a big problem in lots of countries, Iran, Turkey, Arab countries. All Arab countries have a problem with Kurds.’

Guantanamo protest, Sheffield

Pat

I also wanted to look at people from Sheffield who are campaigning against war. I met up with Pat outside Sheffield Town Hall. Once a month, generally on the 11th, as an anniversary of the first inmates entering the prison, there is a vigil to remember Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

The vigil consists of a square marked out on the pavement to represent the area of a prisoners cell. A volunteer sits in the ‘cell’, dressed in an orange boiler suit. There is information about prisoners displayed, but essentially it’s a silent protest.

‘The idea of marking out a square was to show … a representation of the space people are held in at Guantanamo Bay, and the orange boiler suit is obviously the uniform of Guantanamo Bay. The information on the placards we change quite regularly depending on what’s going on.

‘We don’t get many arguments against what we’re doing, its more a kind of blank response. But we have had some quite positive responses from young people who want to know more about the situation, and they want to know things that young people want to know, like, is she really a prisoner, how does she go to the toilet, how long does she have to be there, all sorts of things.

‘Sometimes you get people who poke you or try to get a response from you, or ask you what you’re doing but mostly people will just read the placards. There’s usually somebody handing out leaflets and talking to people if they want. In the early days we did have a table with petitions for people to sign, but we found that it went better just with the vigil and not try to do too much.

‘When I was younger I would have said I was a pacifist, my mother’s a Quaker, which might have had something to do with it, though she wasn’t very active. There was the whole Vietnam stuff during the 60s and 70s … and I guess that was quite attractive, so it was the sort of thing I would identify with and its just grown from there I suppose, something I never grew out of. A lot of people do, grow out of it, get real and wear suits and become part of the establishment.

‘I think when you’re young you tend to have very black and white views on things, and I can see now why people take up arms. I’m not sure, if I was in the position of some people who did take up arms, I don’t know, I can’t really say … until I’m in that position I don’t think I can really say. I campaign against war and the idea of war as an abstract concept, but…

‘While you are safe you’re not threatened at all, you can say this is wrong this is right, but when you’re in that situation you see it from a different angle, its not that straightforward.’

Finally Pat quotes a line from Christy Moore: ‘Only the very safe can talk about wrong and right’

Deacon Dave, Sheffield

Deacon Dave

One of the people I’d been most interested in photographing for this piece was Deacon Dave. He lives in the same building as Jangez, but was away in Palestine for most of the past three months. He returned a couple of weeks ago.

‘I see peace and justice as part of my vocation, a crucial part of my vocation as a deacon so I’ve been involved in stuff for a long time in that way, I was with CND and I’ve done a lot of global justice things, in N America mostly.

‘I trained as a priest, but didn’t feel called to the priesthood when it came to that point, but when I looked at the service for a deacon I thought this is what I do, its someone who cares for the poor and the needy, and serves as a bridge between the church and the world. St Paul talks about ministers being ambassadors of reconciliation, which is a phrase that resonated with me so I’ve worked for various organisations in that capacity, not usually paid directly by the church but usually connected with churches in some way.’

Dave tried to go to Iraq in the first Gulf war, but didn’t make it until 2003. While on the way, he met up with some Christian Peacemaker’s who were working in Palestine, and after the Lebanon war, ended up working in Hebron for International Solidarity Campaign (ISM).

‘In Hebron it’s a unique situation because we’ve got the settlers living right in the middle of the town – it’s the only place that this happens. You’re sort of living right next to each other so you’re having to deal with the army face to face all day every day. One of the key things we do there is the school run, watching the children coming and going to school. There had been a lot of stone throwing… Before the internationals arrived the children were being attacked regularly on their way back and forward to school, and they couldn’t play on the street or in front of their houses, and that’s changed – I don’t think there’s been an attack [in the last nine months]..

Dave has been back for extended visits five times – he has married Arwa, a Palestinian woman from Hebron, who he met through the campaign, and he now prays at the mosque five times a day.

‘I would consider myself a vocational pacifist, I’m not going to get involved in violence pretty much for any reason. I can understand why other people do choose violence, I’m familiar with the just war theory, though I would say there are actually very few instances where violence can be justified, but I can see why people would want to do that. When I’m talking to Palestinians [someone] said, well its all very well, but negotiations haven’t achieved anything for us, we are now worse off since the Oslo agreement than we were before it, so suicide bombers is the only thing that we’ve got left, and I didn’t have a strong answer for that. That’s partly why I think we have to create and show that we can achieve things by non-violent means. We have to demonstrate that – not just us, it’s the obligation that the Israeli government and the US have as well if they want to talk about peace, they have to demonstrate that things can be achieved by peaceful means, and at this point that isn’t obvious to anybody on the ground.

‘What peacemaking for me is about me overcoming my own fears primarily in order to be peaceful in a violent situation. Second thing is to listen and try to understand the stories fo the various people involved. I think understanding another persons suffering is the key step the beginning step in order to move towards peace.

‘I don’t think this is a conflict about faith, you could argue its about religion, but I don’t think that’s true either, in the same way that northern Ireland wasn’t about faith, it was a nationalist issue and that’s how I would interperet what’s happening.

‘My belief is that we’re all talking about the same thing using different words, different stories, and so I don’t see, I would prefer to look at what the major religions have in common rather than spending a lot of time on what we disagree on, and I think we are agreed on what I think should be important about religion, which is loving God and loving our neighbour. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all say that really strongly.

‘Suicide bombing is not what the Koran teaches, and stealing people’s land is not what the Torah is promoting, racism is not part of Judaism.

‘So my story is when I was in Amman waiting to get into Baghdad I was praying and I heard like a voice, David you should pray in the mosques for peace.

‘It comes to that point where you go, I’ve got more in common with some Muslims than I have with some Christians frankly, so to have the experience of being with people at 4 o’clock in the morning every morning, and seeing these old men who have done this five times a day all their life, I feel peaceful when I’m with those men. So I think this is working for them. This practise has brought them closer to God. And they are peaceful people, and I want some of that.

‘I wear a kuffir almost every day now. A lot have been given to me by my wife, so they’re like a security blanket, it is a statement, in the places I wear it. I’ve never seen anything as a rejection – that’s my journey. I don’t see the need to reject anything to affirm what’s good and from God.

‘I wear a kuffir in Britain primarily so that people in Britian are aware of what Palestinians are suffering and so it’s a way of opening conversations. And it says I’m in solidarity with the Palestinians, in fact I am a Palestinians, I’m married to a Palestinian, I’m entitled to a Palestinian passport if I want one.’

Nay Htoo, Karen

Nay Htoo

I wanted to conclude this body of work with an interview with someone with full refugee status.  Sheffield is the only English city which has accepted Karen refugees from camps in Thailand, and since 2005 there have a been a few dozen families who have moved into our area of Sheffield.

I met one of my Karen friends on the bus back from the city, and she suggested Nay Htoo (his name’s been changed), who arrived here in November 2007.

We met at his home, at the top of the hill leading into the town centre.

Nay Htoo is fifty years old, and is married with three children.  He trained as a civil engineer in Burma, but because he is Karen, wasn’t able to get a professional job. He was working on a road building programme, and in 1983 had to go into Rangoon one day for work. That same evening, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) attacked the television station. The man who carried out the attack had a similar family name to Nay Htoo, and when he returned to his job, his boss made a joke about it being Nay Htoo who’d carried out the attack.  This joke became rumour, and by 1984 he was being followed by the secret police, and had to flee into the jungle, where he joined up with the KNLA and Karen National Union (KNU), working as a teacher.

The Karen were based in Marnerplaw, and had a complete government-in-waiting – ‘an education department, financial department, mining department, ministry of the interior, all departments like a real government, because the Karen people are trying to establish their own country’.

The area was under repeated attack by the Burmese government, but was protected by the mountains around it, and the difficulty of fighting in the jungle.  However, after 12 years, the area fell, and Nay Htoo left to join Number 3 Brigade, a mobile group, again living and fighting in the jungle.

Altogether, he and his family spent twenty years in the jungle, before deciding, in 2004, to leave the country for the refugee camps in Thailand, hoping for a better future for his children.

‘Being a teacher, even though Marnerplaw was occupied I kept on teaching, but one thought was in my mind that it wasn’t good for the future of my children to keep on living like that.  So finally I heard that in the camps [in Thailand] rights were available, we could obtain education, and there were many NGOs working there in medical care, education and so on.  So I was thinking that it was better to go back to the camp because if I stay in the jungle I’m thinking about education for my children, and for their future. So we settled in the camp, and when we arrived in the camp, I had no idea we would come to the UK because when we arrived none of the refugees had the right to travel to other countries. But in 2005-6 the situation changed, various countries started looking at humanitarian grounds and had a policy to accept refugees – the United States was first.’

Seven months after his first interview with the British Embassy, Nay Htoo and his family arrived in the UK in November 2007.

Nay Htoo has been able to receive healthcare here, his children are at school and he has started an engineering course at college.

‘My intention is to achieve if possible another degree here. But sometimes I think I’m getting old, I’m 50 already, I’m not sure that even if I get a degree, if I’ll be able to get a job.  Maybe it will be a benefit for my people back in the Karen state.

‘Unless Burma gains democracy we can’t go back at all, because the situation is getting worse.

‘I am extremely grateful to be here. I want to say thank you to the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Government of Sheffield and the benefit centre.  We have been given every opportunity – freedom, medical care and education.  Thank them. I will pray that God will pour out tremendous blessing on the UK and that it will be a great nation.’

Nay Htoo asked for his face not to be shown, as he still has family in Burma who he is afraid for.

This photograph shows his Karen-English dictionary, that he used to teach in the jungles.

Post below was written before speaking at Lancaster about the project (originally posted 15.06.09):

The Regarding War project, which was commissioned by the Centre for Transcultural Writing and Research at Lancaster University, is holding a one day conference on Thursday to debate the issues raised by the project. I’m doing a short talk as part of the day, as well as hopefully arriving in time to see the exhibition open, and to take part in the panel discussion at the close of the day. For more information, contact Dr Lee Horsley (address on the poster below).

I’m really looking forward to talking about this project – I was commissioned to produce five images, three of people who had come to Sheffield because of war, two of people from Sheffield who had a taken a pro-active stand for peace. The work is on my site, as well as on the Regarding War site itself. The process of finding subjects, interviewing them and telling their stories through an image was intensely personal for me, and forced me into thinking about the relationship between the people I photograph, and the reality of their lives.

I’ll write some more about it after I’ve spoken. Here’s the poster:

A useful book in my thinking about this whole subject has been Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ – it pulls together a lot of the questions that I’ve been asking myself, not necessarily answering them, but enhancing the thinking at least.