Autumn 1998
Peace Matters index ONLINE contents
Crossing the ness

Remembering the killing fields
First World War Diary
Children and violence
Child soldiers
De-coding the image
Lifting the dead weight of habit


remembering the killing fields

Part 2

Margaret Melicharova
‘Yes. The pictures,’ says their photographer, ‘get cooler as they go back in time’. The final images are intended to be of ‘beauty and quietness’, not as a sign of reconciliation to the terrible deaths they recall, but as a metaphor for the way our memories function. The shock recedes, the scars fade, nature softens the hard edges. ‘People ask me What happened in Namibia? and then look rueful.... I feel OK about that. They’ve had to stop and think, and then they remember.’
Whether his photographs stir recollections of forgotten history, or startle with images of recent horrors, Simon Norfolk is glad if they disturb: ‘All I can do is unnerve.’
He has unnerved himself, too. ‘I used to be a pacifist totally against the death penalty. After four years of this, I think the death penalty is a damn fine thing. Those killers were bastards. They weren’t victims or mentally ill: they chose what they did. Like Hannah Arendt, I don’t want to share this earth with them. But it hurts me to say this, to have reached this point.’
So what about reprisals?
In 1918 Germany was stripped of colonies and the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The men who regarded the Hereros as apes, the men who cut out (and kept) the tongues of Armenians for daring to speak their own language, are long dead. Stalin, responsible not only for the Ukrainian famine but also for the ‘purging’ of 50 million Russians, died at 74, still in office. (Air Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris went off to civilian employment in 1946; he got a knighthood in 1953, and, in 1992, a statue about which there was some controversy.)
After 1945: the Nuremberg Trials, and a still-active pursuit of death camp managers. Some executions, some suicides, some imprisonments; many natural deaths; some private vengeance. ‘The Nazi disaster still has not run its course. No closure is in sight: the contradictory imperatives of remembering and forgetting are no less strong than before,’ a refugee from the Third Reich wrote recently.
The Vietnam War, like the Holocaust, still reverberates punishingly in personal, family, social and political memory, and as variously; there are damaged hearts, minds, and bodies on both sides.
Long after the Terror in Cambodia, Pol Pot lived on, in protective imprisonment among the Khmer Rouge remnant, until his recent undramatic death.
And Rwanda? This September the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda sentenced the former prime minister to life imprisonment – the maximum sentence – for genocide. Also convicted was a Hutu commune mayor and former schools inspector, who had ordered and participated in numerous killings, rapes and tortures. Simon Norfolk photographed the courtroom at Arusha. ‘I’m saying – look at what’s happened here: so where were YOU sitting?’ Genocide is everyone’s responsibility, because genocides have demonstrated that anyone is capable of participating in them.

Part 3

It’s true: no-one seems to know quite how to address ‘the crime of crimes’ or find a way of dealing with its perpetrators. When you start saying ‘I want them dead!’ whom do you come to resemble? What punishment, even death, might be appropriate, or do any good? Death comes to all, in any case; and the remaining lifetimes of some may well have been deeply troubled.
So what can pacifists say and do in the face of ‘the most horrible crime’? (Churchill’s phrase; it was Churchill who sent Hitler the question ‘What is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth?’ He received no reply.)
There is something pacifists can do. A respected historian says: ‘No society so far has shown itself to be completely invulnerable to the political encouragement of racial or social enmities within the body politic; that is the lesson of this century.’ Pacifists can turn their baffled anger into a positive pedagogic passion. They can work to keep awareness of genocide (and massacre and ethnic scouring) constantly alive. They can circulate information about such horrors; and open discussion on how they might have been stopped. (The desperate efforts to publicise what was happening in the Nazi death camps, for example, are now well documented.)
Simon Norfolk’s journey of remembrance is a good starting place. In the open country spaces round Auschwitz, where people bring their children for picnics, or in the vastness of the Syrian desert, can one tell that something terrible had happened there? Does one feel the ‘sense of evil’ Fergal Keane felt in Rwanda’s villages? ‘No. If you hadn’t known, you’d have walked past. Lots of people do.’
Walk past Simon Norfolk’s pictures, in the gallery or through the book, and you have to stop, to look, to think, to focus. You have to start working out how genocides can still happen; how people go on carrying them out; and how they might be stopped. You also have soberly to remember the dead, who haunt these images of crowded emptiness, of a silence full of voices.

‘For Most Of It I Have No Words’: visual essay, with Introduction by Michael Ignatieff, published by Dewi Lewis, £30
Some of Simon Norfolk’s photographs, with Michael Ignatieff’s introduction, appear in the magazine Granta, issue 63, Autumn 1998, £7.99
Alain Destexhe: ‘Rwanda and Genocide in the 20th Century’. Pluto £7.99
Fergal Keane: ‘Season of Blood’. Penguin £6.99
Jon Swain: ‘River of Time’. Reed Consumer Books £7.99
David Wright: ‘Vietnam War’. Evans £11.99
Martin Gilbert: ‘The Holocaust’. HarperCollins £14.99
Alexander McKee: ‘Dresden 1945’. Souvenir Press £14.95
Robert Conquest: ‘Stalin: Breaker of Nations’. Phoenix £14.99
G S Graber: ‘Caravans to Oblivion’. John Wiley & Sons Ltd £22.50
Helmut Bley: ‘Namibia Under German Rule’. Transaction Books US $32
ed. G J Andreopoulos: ‘Genocide’. Pennsylvania University Press £14.95

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