The following is Dr. Geoff Hodgetts’ reflections on his time spent in Bosnia and Afghanistan. The presentation was part of PeaceQuest’s Evening for Peace concert on Saturday November 11th, 2017.
Remembrance Day 2017
As a family doctor from peaceful Kingston, my experience of war was unplanned and unexpected. Officially, I travelled into war zones as a physician, to help countries rebuild their war-torn health care systems, and thus regain some sense of stability.
War, in our time, has come to mean the displacement of peoples from their rightful homes—by last count, there were 66 million refugees and displaced people globally. The impact of such displacement is profound: our sense of place, our homes, neighborhoods, the familiar symbols of our culture are of critical importance to our well-being. In my experience, the loss of these attachments results in a whole spectrum of responses, from illness, to anger and depression, to the need to lament and commemorate, to resilience and moving on with life.
But removing my physician’s hat and speaking as an individual who lived in places where war was right outside the door, who shared that experience with the people who had no choice but to endure it, I have come to know War as something impersonal, malevolent, and profoundly not human. Something that not only takes away life, but also works to take away our “human-ness.”
This evening I want to share with you a few stories – some personal remembrances of people who struggled to retain their “human-ness” in the midst of war.
10 years ago, almost to the day, I went to Afghanistan as an adviser to the rebuilding of their health care system, the first of several visits on behalf of the Canadian government. 2007 was a difficult year for Canadians in Afghanistan. Our country was charged with stabilizing Kandahar Province—the heartland of the Taliban—and Canadian news was full of stories of the toll this was taking on our soldiers, many losing their lives.
Up until then, Remembrance Day—for me, as for many Canadians— meant a school assembly, a moment of silence at work, a pause in the day, the symbolic wearing of a red poppy. Not casual or insincere, but somewhat distant.
2007 was different.
I was asked to assess the needs of the overburdened hospital in Kandahar City. This was not a simple task. The entire province was an unpredictable battleground against a seemingly invisible enemy.
I was escorted to the hospital in a convoy of three armoured vehicles, each carrying several well-armed soldiers. The young men in my vehicle were upbeat but palpably nervous as we made our way from the base towards the hospital. We distracted ourselves by trying to recall the theme songs from old TV shows, tossing out snippets of tunes to each other.
The mission went well. A few days later, in the capital city, Kabul, I attended a Remembrance Day ceremony in the courtyard of the Canadian Embassy. As the Chaplain read out the names of those who had died, the immediacy and importance of taking that moment to remember those young Canadian soldiers struck home. One of the young soldiers had been killed by a roadside improvised bomb while on patrol. The week before, he’d been one of my cheerful, singing armed escorts.
Tonight, I remember him especially.
It was 22 years ago—1995—also at this very time of year, that I first travelled to the war-torn country of Bosnia. With some difficulty I had entered Sarajevo, a city still suffering under the longest siege of modern times—1425 days. A siege that killed more than 10,000 citizens and damaged or destroyed almost every building in the city.
I was there at the invitation of the Minister of Health in Sarajevo, to assess whether it would be possible, once the war ended, for Canada to help rebuild their health care system. The UN peacekeepers stationed in the city worked under tight restrictions to protect the citizens of Sarajevo against shelling from the surrounding hills and from invisible, terrifying sniper-fire from burned-out apartment blocks.
For Sarajevans, that particular November day was just another day of the siege: another day of scavenging for water, food and firewood, winter having come early that year. I arranged to visit the makeshift psychiatry hospital. My host—a dignified, elderly doctor who had come out of retirement because there was no-one else to help—was responsible for a few hundred very ill patients who had been physically turned out of the actual psychiatric hospital in a Serbian-held part of the city and who had been gathered up from the streets by citizens and brought to this place. The doctor walked with a limp, having been shot in the lower back by a sniper. The ward was like a scene from Bedlam: noise and chaos, extremely ill people in crowded rooms, sleeping 2 or 3 to a bed; staff doing what they could with minimal resources. It was a disturbing day, to say the least.
That evening, I made my way to the UN military base at the centre of the city, where I’d heard there were some Canadian peacekeepers. A young officer from British Columbia welcomed me into an old truck container that was serving as their headquarters. Over tea, we spoke about his young family back in Nanaimo. We lamented the terrible plight of these people who had lived for years with this situation while the world seemingly did nothing. He spoke to me of his anger and frustration at not being able to protect Sarajavens from the shells, grenades and snipers—at not being able to fight back. He told me that the best thing he could do, in his off-duty hours, was to walk to a nearby orphanage and read picture books to the children. He said that, while he hoped this benefitted the children, he also did it because it was peaceful. It made him feel like the world was almost normal for a little while.
It was only later that night, as I wrote the soldier’s words in my journal, machine guns sporadically shooting at our roof from the nearby ridge, that I realized it was Remembrance Day. Tonight, I remember our Peacekeepers especially.
We are fortunate people here in Canada. We have never known war on our own soil. By next spring, Afghans will have lived through 40 continuous years of war. Since the average life span in that part of the world is not much more than 40, almost everybody that I met there had only known war in their life.
During my last trip to Afghanistan I spent several weeks in the far north of the country, in the very remote province of Badakhshan. Once part of the old Silk Road, it is a forbidding landscape, sparsely populated with remote villages and nomadic peoples. This is where we had measured the highest rate of maternal mortality ever recorded in the world. My task was to evaluate the potential for Canada to fund an ambitious project to reduce that terrible burden.
I spent my days visiting remote villages and health centers, traveling by jeep over hair-raising roads. One day we stopped at the foot of a mountain at a bend in the road beside a fast-moving river that we hoped would provide some cool while we ate our lunch. On wooden platforms under some shade trees nearby, I noticed a small crowd of men. Someone seemed to be addressing them.
My driver then explained something I found very moving, in the context of this story of war: each of the provinces or districts had their own representative flower. Each year, a festival was held where poems dedicated to the flower were recited. The poets were held in the highest esteem. Despite the war, this tradition had continued for as long as anyone could remember.
What we had happened upon, in the middle of this prolonged, desperate war, was a festival to a flower, celebrated in poems. For a few moments, it felt like the battle had paused. Some of the poems were vehicles of protest and support for political causes, but mostly, they stood as powerful and creative signs of life.
To bring this story back to Kingston, during my first visit to Sarajevo, I made contact with the primary school of the neighborhood where I was sharing a room in a house with a Bosnian family, a neighborhood that became my home for much of the next 15 years. The school had been destroyed in the fighting and now rested in a no-man’s-land at the foot of our hill. The children were being taught in an abandoned building with no windows or heat and few supplies.
I visited each class and took photos of the teachers and kids, intending to pair this school with my own kids’ school back home. When, a few months later, it became clear that a peace process was unfolding, we gave the Bosnian schoolkids paper and art materials and asked them to make a picture of anything they wanted. I returned to Canada with a few hundred art works in my suitcase. With the wonderful support of many groups in Kingston, we organized an art auction as a fund-raiser. Each painting at the auction was accompanied by a photo I’d taken of each child artist.
All except one. The young boy in red at the forefront of the Grade 1 class picture had returned with his parents to his home in a part of the city overrun by the Bosnian Serb army. He‘d gone into his bedroom where he found an old teddy bear he’d left behind when the family was forced to flee. With delight, he picked up the teddy-bear, not knowing it was booby trapped. The boy was killed instantly. We dedicated the auction to his memory, and through the generosity of hundreds of Kingstonians, we raised enough money to purchase all the books and supplies for a new library in their rebuilt school, the library that now bears his name. Each book—and there were thousands of them—was stamped with a red maple leaf and the words, “From the people of Kingston.” Tonight, I remember Muhadin especially.
Paintings by the students. Click each to see full size.
I’m not sure whether acts such as these shorten wars, or lead to ceasefires, or apply any significant political pressure. But what I do believe is this: that through poetry, art, and music—such as we are enjoying this evening—and through the act of telling stories, we create a powerful counterbalance to the destructive, malevolent thing that is war. These acts, and evenings of remembrance like this, help to sustain, to remind, and restore “human-ness” in the midst of war.