27 August 2005
I was sitting in the garden when a haunting and poignant song drifted down from my husband's study, strangely familiar and forlorn - I almost hoped it would end quickly but it was also compellingly beautiful. I remembered the steps that accompanied it; it was in fact a dance, The Elm Dance.
It was fitting that I should be reminded of the Elm Dance after a day spent at the very moving exhibition at Saint Peter Mancroft remembering the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 60 years ago. This song is a reminder of a more recent nuclear catastrophe, the horrific accident at Chernobyl in 1986, and of the townspeople upwind at Novozybkov.
I first saw the dance and heard the story of it at a workshop with the Eco-philosopher, system theorist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, who starts each day of her workshops with the joining of hands to follow the simple steps of the Elm Dance. She does so to remember the suffering people of Novozybkov whom she had promised she would never forget. Each time she leads this dance, it is in recognition of their suffering, in solidarity with them, and in hope for the future of humanity.
As the burning reactor in Chernobyl exploded in a volcano of radioactivity, the winds shifted to the north east, carrying a cloud of poisoned smoke in the direction of Moscow. To save the millions in that city, a quick decision was taken to seed the clouds and cause them to rain. So an unusually late April heavy rain bearing intense concentrations of radioactive iodine, strontium, caesium and particles of plutonium, drenched the towns and countryside of the Bryansk region. The people there were not informed of their government's decision and even now, although it is common knowledge, it is rarely mentioned.
Joanna Macy and her team had travelled from one town to another, offering workshops to help with the psychological trauma of those affected by the contamination of Chernobyl. Novozbkov was the last town she visited, and although the most badly affected, nobody wanted to talk about Chernobyl. Sitting in a circle, these people wanted to talk about the anger and breakdown of their community, from sullen children, absent spouses, to backbiting neighbours. But the nightmare of the contamination was taboo.
They also remembered happier times and their own childhoods - harvest time, sleigh parties and picnics in the forests. Even during the Nazi occupation, they fought from the shelter of the forests. Even under Stalin, they went into the forests every weekend - walking, picnicking, mushrooming. They said that they were "people of the forest". They could not move forward from 1986. They refused to accept the horror that happened to them, but felt compelled to speak. They recalled the searing hot wind from the south east, the white ash that fell from the sky, the children running and playing in it, the drenching rain that followed the rumours, and the fear.
As the workshop progressed, a number drew pictures - many of trees, and the road to the trees blocked with a large X, blocking the way for wood absorbs most radiation and the forests had become the most dangerously contaminated area.
When they returned to the circle, they were angry and distraught. One woman cried: "What good does it do? I would be willing to feel all the sorrow in the world if it could save my daughters from cancer. Each time I look at them I wonder if tumours will grow in their little bodies. Can my tears protect them?"
The next day, calmer and clearer, they acknowledged how hard it had been to face their pain, but they also spoke of how it had connected them to everyone else "as if we were all branches of the same tree". Breaking the silence was painful, but cathartic - a man who had left silently every day to visit his young daughter in hospital said: "It is like being clean, for the first time in a long time".
In Norfolk, we are at considerable risk - on our doorstep, we have nuclear warheads at the US base at Lakenheath, and reactors at Sizewell. In June, we heard that the government is considering using a site in Thetford Forest for storing/dumping nuclear waste. There was also the exercise called 'Dimming Sun', which simulated what would happen if a US plane carrying nuclear weapons crashed in the forest. Those wishing to rid this area of nuclear weapons will be holding a vigil at the Lakenheath base on September 25th. I hope they too will find time to join hands in solidarity with the people of Novozybkov for the Elm Dance.
A CD of the Elm Dance and booklet can be obtained from firstname.lastname@example.org.
20 August 2005
Human Rights Watch published a report on August 3 2005, indicating that the George W Bush administration would soon resume production of antipersonnel mines, in a move that is at odds with both the international community and previous US policy.
This coming December, the Pentagon will decide whether or not to begin producing a new type of antipersonnel land mine called a 'Spider'. The first of these mines would then be scheduled to roll out in early 2007. Funds have already been earmarked for Spider's production: the Pentagon requested 1.3bn dollars for the mine system - as well as for another mine called the Intelligent Munitions System, which is expected to be fully running by 2008.
Landmines continue to kill or injure between 15,000 and 20,000 people annually. Many more suffer and die as a result of the indirect but equally lethal impact of landmines as an obstacle to sustainable development. Landmines render potential agricultural land unusable and so contribute to food shortages and nutrition deficit. Landmines restrict access to potable water and thus contribute to diarrhoeal diseases, the greatest cause of preventable death on the planet. Landmines stop schools from being built and hinder the construction and maintenance of roads - with devastating economic and social effect. Landmines breed insecurity that tears the social fabric of vulnerable states and creates further instability.
So why does the most militarily powerful nation on earth still need to produce these deadly devices?
The US has not officially used antipersonnel mines since the 1991 Gulf War, when it scattered more than 100,000 landmines from planes over Iraq and Kuwait. In 1996 President Bill Clinton said the US "would seek a worldwide agreement as soon as possible to end the use of all antipersonnel mines". The Mine Ban Treaty became international law on March 11997. In February 2004, however, the Bush administration abandoned all pretence of joining the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty (the Ottawa Convention), saying: "The United States will not join the Ottawa Convention because its terms would have required us to give up a needed military capability -- Landmines still have a valid and essential role protecting United States forces in military operations - no weapon currently exists that provides all the capabilities provided by landmines."
Steve Goose, Director of Human Rights Watch Arms Division, says: "We are beginning to see the bitter fruit of the new Bush administration land mine policy. The US appears well on the way to resuming production of antipersonnel mines. Renewed export and renewed use of these inhumane weapons will not be far behind."
The Pentagon has yet to confirm or deny reports that the US government intends to deploy a remote-controlled antipersonnel land mine system called "Matrix" in Iraq. Twenty-five of these mine systems, which can be detonated from a distance via radio signal, were allegedly sent to Iraq in May of this year for use by the US Army's Stryker Brigade. At the same time, US First Lady Laura Bush was entertaining at the White House Farah Ahmedi, the Afghan teenager who lost her leg to a landmine in Afghanistan and now lives in Chicago. On May 5, Farah joined Adopt-A-Minefield as Youth Ambassador to encourage young people to become more involved in helping resolve the global landmine problem.
Laura Bush may work just as hard in America as Sir Paul McCartney does here in the UK to promote the work of 'Adopt-A-Minefield' and help rid the world of the impact of landmines - but what is the point of all their hard work if as fast as they clear one mine field, the US military is busy developing new and nastier antipersonnel mines to contaminate yet more countries?
Given the immensity of international support for the banning of antipersonnel land mines, if the Pentagon does resume production of these weapons, diplomatic problems are certain to ensue - and so they should do. The 145 parties to the Ottawa Convention are forbidden to "assist" others in acts prohibited by the treaty. Therefore US military allies could also be at risk of breaching the treaty in joint military operations where antipersonnel mines are being used. November 3 2005 has been designated as "No More Landmines Day". Surely the best thing we can all do for world peace between now and then would be to point out to our MPs, councillors and Rotarians (who do a lot of work with Adopt-A-Minefield UK) the dreadful irony of raising funds to clear mines from one patch of land only to have our government, or that of our closest ally, infest new lands with new mines.
13 August 2005
By Rupert Read
Two years ago, I was in Syria, learning about the history of that troubled nation. I visited the town of Quneitra, entirely flattened in cold blood by the Israeli Army just before they returned it to the Syrians. I visited the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights area. And I was deeply fortunate to be invited to attend a friend's wedding in a huge Palestinian refugee camp.
Syria has had to absorb enormous numbers of refugees, since they were expelled / fled from Palestine in 1948 and '67. The 'temporary' camp I spent a day in has been there for a whole generation.
The spirit of those attending the wedding festivities was nevertheless tremendous. Many of the guests, and the children, were very poor - there is little work in the camps. But, so far as I could tell (virtually no-one spoke any English; I had to rely on my girlfriend to translate from their Arabic), many of them seemed happy…Especially the kids, when I agreed to take digital photos of them! It was a wonderful experience for me, to share this day with them, to dance with them.
Back in England, I felt more surer than ever that the world owes these Palestinian people justice: a home. And my understanding of them as people had been immeasurably enriched.
Two weeks ago, I was privileged to take part in a private meeting at the University of East Anglia - in the Islamic Centre (the mosque), there - between leaders of the Muslim group on campus and various representatives of the broader Norwich community - Councillors, peace and anti-racism campaigners, religious leaders. I was deeply impressed by the vivid desire for peace and mutual understanding that the Muslims that we met with showed. They reached out to us, as we did to them, in this difficult time of reflection on the truly appalling bombings in London -- and on our own government's actions in Iraq and across the Arab world, on the police in London shooting dead an innocent man, and, sadly, on senseless attacks on mosques (including in Norwich).
These devout Muslims, like virtually all practicing Muslims, have no sympathy whatsoever with violence or intolerance. And their views have been misunderstood. If they believe in the fundamentals of their religion, it is only in the following sense: they believe in worship and peace and brotherhood, and in reading and holding to the teachings of the Koran, which do not condone the taking of any innocent life. And they explained to us with great care that the very meaning of the word 'jihad' has been perverted: the word really means simply 'struggle'. So, when one tries to do good in the world, as (say) an aid worker, one is engaged in 'jihad', in the word's true sense! The most valuable aspect of the meeting was to actually get to know some of those folk. To meet and talk with Abdullah, who converted to Islam many years ago - and who has a great sense of wit. Or Mansour, who comes from Saudi Arabia - and who has five kids, and a lovely smile.
Yes, he has a beard; so do I, sometimes! When one looks more than superficially at these neighbours of our's, one sees people, not stereotypes.
If we can come to understand something of life in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria - a life in many ways extraordinarily different from our relatively easy, secure lives - then surely we can come to understand British Muslims. After all, you or I have far more in common with those people I met with recently than we do with those wonderful wedding guests I met in Syria two years ago. We share a common language, for starters - that helps!
If you get the chance to meet some of Norfolk's Muslims, then you too will discover what I have: that they passionately desire peace. That they are ordinary people with children and jobs and hopes and fears just like you. That they are longing for a happy and secure life. And if you walk pass a Muslim person on the streets of Yarmouth, or at UEA, or wherever, bear in mind that they are relying on you -- on all of us -- not to make the disastrous error of presuming that they have any sympathy whatsoever or any association whatsoever with the outrages recently perpetrated in London. No more than you have anything to do with the disgraceful attack on the Norwich City centre mosque that took place after that outrage, as a 'revenge attack'. As you are guiltless, then never forget: so are Norfolk's Muslims.
6 August 2005
60 years ago today humanity entered a new era as the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Each year, there is much soul searching and arguing about the morality of this event. Whatever the arguments and counter arguments, few ordinary people would disagree that nuclear weapons should never be used again.
With this very significant anniversary, it is more valuable, then, to look to the future. We can't change the past, but we can choose to do differently in the future.
Yet, since Hiroshima and the end of the 2nd World War, each generation of UK leaders has chosen again the 1950s notion of a British nuclear deterrent. Like mice on a treadmill, without the will or imagination to do anything different, this decision is taken in the utmost secrecy. This reflects a grave crisis in leadership and decision making - our leaders repeatedly sleepwalk into choosing weapons of mass destruction.
Within the nation, too, people are increasingly disconnected from the issue and in denial - part of a growing spiritual crisis. Earlier this year, I collected signatures for nuclear disarmament in Norwich. The depth of people's denial came home to me, as several people commented they thought nuclear weapons "were no longer a problem". Only under an opiate daze of consumerism can people be so unengaged.
As Martin Luther King said "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." These prophetic words were made in 1967 - now we must wonder if our nation has reached the point of spiritual death.
The death cycle of WDM is continuing once again - press reports suggest that the government has already made a decision to replace the current Trident nuclear weapons system.
In fact, early work on this huge new nuclear weapons programme is very likely to have already started, with Defence Secretary John Reid's announcement to parliament on 20 July that an 'agreement has been reached with AWE Management Ltd. (AWE ML) to take forward a programme of investment in sustaining key skills and facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. This will involve an investment of £350 million a year for the next three years.'
Bearing in mind, that we are continually told we are "fortunate" to live in a democracy, why are these momentous decisions made by a very few individuals without even reference to Parliament? No wonder people feel disillusioned and sooth themselves in the next new shopping Mall.
If we were in any doubt before, since July 7th, we can be sure that our greatest security threat comes from a small number of people prepared to blow themselves up. What purpose can a continuing British nuclear program have in the face of asymmetric warfare, here and globally?
Despite the few who are in denial that there is any link between Britain's involvement in Iraq and the emergence of home grown terrorism, most British people know in their hearts that our foreign policies, and particularly the Iraq misadventure, are a significant influencer of recent tragic events.
Replacing Trident continues a supremely aggressive foreign policy from the mid 20th century. The government is unaccountable and undemocratic in continuing this incredibly dangerous and expensive Dr Strangelove project.
It is a risk to the world - increasing the risk of nuclear weapons being employed in some future war. It is a risk to our people - increasing the risk of nuclear weapons being used against us. It is a risk to the future - increasing the appeal of nuclear to terrorists and other nations.
Why, 35 years after Britain made a commitment under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), do we allow a small number of men continue to break that commitment? How can people trust us around the world? This flagrant violation of international treaties sends the wrong signals to all countries, particularly those who may be encouraged to develop their own nuclear systems.
Then what about the tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money that could better be spent on life affirming projects - here and worldwide? We simply can't "make poverty history" without making rampart militarism history too. The spiritual death of our nation is certainly inevitable unless we break out of the cycle.
The vibrant campaign for unilaterally disarmament in the 1980s, and the fall of the Berlin wall, tells us that a British nuclear deterrent is past its sell by date. A truly democratic government would engage its citizens in a real debate about whether there is still any requirement for a British nuclear capability.
To mark the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, the Exhibition "Hiroshima to World Peace" is at St Peters Mancroft Church from August 6th to 18th,10.30am-3.30pm daily.