Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Not Night, but An Absence of Stars


Not Night, but An Absence of Stars is an international, multilingual, multimedia project on massacre and memory initiated by project manager Mase Moloi (Lesotho) and co-creative directors Rasha Salti (Lebanon) and Michael Schmidt (South Africa). The project is busy putting together its Curators' Collective and so far looks like it will include curators from Iran, Russia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, and the USA, but more will be drafted in to cover the Portuguese, Spanish, Hindi and Chinese languages in particular.

PROJECT SUMMARY

When we contemplate the abyss of the deliberate obliteration of individuals and entire peoples, sacrificed to political expediency, we know in our bones that massacre, torture and disappearance are employed not merely to destroy flesh, but to annihilate memory, and the very reason for being of those targeted. 
Not Night, but An Absence of Stars is an international multilingual arts project, conceived primarily as an attempt to recombine the DNA of the forsaken, to retrace the visceral, lively presence of those who have been erased, and restore their reason for being. 
Using the raw materials of history and of the heart, it is an interrogation of grief, of a marrow-deep saudade for the humanity we have lost – but also an ambient encounter with the intimate maps of memory, a forensic meditation on the subterranean architecture of rehumanisation, and an assaying of the promise of restorative justice. 

DRAFT HOME PAGE ESSAY

One embarkation point for African slaves headed for the American Colonies, the Senegalese island of Gorée, is called the “Point of No Return,” for many leavers their graves-to-be not even the fecund rot of far-off plantations, but the shifting grey forgetfulness of the ocean. 
The Nazis cynically nicknamed the route to the gas-chambers in their extermination camps the “Pathway to Heaven,” and the converging railway lines inexorably drawing the viewer’s eyes to the terrible terminus of Auschwitz is probably the most infamous yet indelible image of a point of no return, the ultimate mournful milepost, standing on the brink of utter annihilation, am dem abgrund [at the abyss].
Auschwitz is one of the most heavily freighted of the world’s awful exits. But there are many other points of departure that are unmarked, unremarkable, whose saturated evil is only visible to initiates of the eerie atmospherics of irrevocable oblivion.
The remote dirt airfields of Namibia from whence some 200 detainees were drugged, bludgeoned and thrown from light aircraft to drown in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1980s…
The bank of the Seine in Paris where perhaps as many as 200 Algerian protestors were murdered and thrown into the river in 1961, the “Secret Massacre” only officially admitted to in 1998…
The bland square of the town of Mueda in the far north of Mozambique where the Portuguese gunned down maybe 500 people who’d simply been asking for better wages, in an ambush in 1960…
The Katyn Forest in Poland, Tlatelolco Zocalo in Mexico City, Villa Grimaldi in Chile, Orletti Motors in Buenos Aires, Srebrenica, Beirut, Tehran, Phnom Penh, Tiananmen, Tahiti, Hiroshima… the names of some points of departure hammer down the years in the rhythm of some ghastly rollcall of the dead, drumming, worn through the fingers as the rosary and the dhikr.
The secret prisons in Rabat, the mass graves of Civil War Spain, Constantine in Algeria, Butare in southern Rwanda, Vlakplaas in South Africa… other points of departure leave no sound at all, the cries, the blackened blood and the few flowers, secretively left, long since absorbed into their tainted soil as if they never were.
In denying the night of annihilation, we “rage against the dying of the light” – yet also know that this is truly deepest night, one in which all points of light and guidance have been obliterated. So, this is an unbook of loss, an unchoir of the vanished who silently endure the crushing abyssal weight of neglect as present, unnamed unghosts, their unbeing not night, but an absence of stars. 
The pages of this project are bound neither by time, nor tears nor soil; they are scattered on the winds, ashes that sting our eyes. 


The scene of the Mueda Massacre, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, where on 16 June 1960 colonial Salazarist forces gunned down 500-600 people of colour whose leaders were meeting with the authorities to try and negotiate wage increases.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Flying the Enemy’s Flag, a review of James Ellroy’s Perfidia


In the age of sail it was an acceptable ruse de guerre to sneak up on an enemy ship flying his own colours as camouflage to get oneself to a position advantageous to a swift and successful assault; but to fail to run up one’s own colours before actually attacking and attempting to kill or seize the prize was ungentlemanly conduct known as perfidy. 
The theme was applied to love and betrayal by Mexican composer Alberto Domiguez for his song Perfidia which became a 1940 hit for Xavier Cugat, band-leader at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City during WWII – and now crime noire don James Ellroy has employed it as the treacherous heart of his latest novel, Perfidia, revolving around Japanese fifth-column activity in LA in the weeks after Pearl Harbour. 
In tune with this age’s fascination for prequel narratives of popular works, Perfidia lays the groundwork for Ellroy’s LA Quartet of novels: The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz. Of those, the first three – Dahlia and Confidential were made into compelling films – are masterful but the final volume runs out of steam and appears to lose its way off the central narrative.
That is despite the fact that the central figure in the last three novels is former IRA gunman turned brutal LA policeman on the make Captain Dudley Smith, a great literary creation at the nexus of the torsion between shady cops and the criminal underworld of 1946-1958 Los Angeles. 
But in Perfidia, which covers only 6-29 December 1941, the Dudster, then just a sergeant, is on the rise, exploiting his confessional ties to JFK’s bootlegging father Joe Kennedy, to Chinese tong boss Uncle Ace Kwan, and to Mexican blackshirt state policeman Carlos Madrano, his killer instinct honed by a racist and yet entirely opportunistic Irish Catholicism, and abetted by a deliciously droll patter delivered in a seductive brogue.
Many other Quartet figures find their first breath here, but one stellar entry who only passes by in The Black Dahlia is 21-year-old Midwestern farmgirl Kay Lake, an arriviste ingénue and quick-study whose penetrating personal diary forms the connecting tissue of the narrative. Lake’s pitiless yet charming self-assessments of her own perfidy are stunning and deliver a nuanced, flawed, dynamic character worthy of big screen treatment. 
Ditto for the rapid evolution of the moral ambivalence of closeted young queer Japanese police forensics buff Dr Hideo Ashida, desperate to prove his worth to bad men like Sergeant Smith in order to gain protection for his brother Akira and their drunken, Tojo-supporting mother Mariko as it swiftly becomes clear the country’s Japanese population are headed for mass wartime internment.
For Ellroy fans, although his inimitable blend of fictional and true-life characters remains, there are several departures from his usual style. For one thing, James Ellroy is the anti-James Lee Burke; where Burke’s denouements resolve high dudgeon with an unusual quietness, Ellroy is infused with the Götterdämmerung of his native Hollywood and his novels end not with a whimper but a bang – yet here, the key mystery of the novel – who murdered the fifth columnist Watanabe family, trying to make it appear like a family suicide, and how is this linked to plans to profiteer from the looming mass internments – is resolved with somewhat unseemly, almost offhanded speed. 
Then, apart from Lake’s diary, Ellroy’s usual technique of using FBI memos and other quasi-documentary snippets to link the narrative are gone. And despite the fact that the entire book is driven by a visceral exploration of post-Pearl Harbour anti-Japanese animus, often referencing a then-still-potent domestic and international fascism, Ellroy has tempered the racist language that marked – some would argue, marred – all his other works, in particular the brilliant Underworld USA Trilogy which covers the dramatic seven years from 1958-1972 covering the JFK assassination and its aftermath from the perspectives of them what done it. Perfidia is not quite up to the Trilogy’s standard, but will prove more than satisfactory to those readers hungry for a foretaste of the characters that made three-quarters of the LA Quartet great.

[ENDS]

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Bushveld Bomb


A colour photograph for sale in a Johannesburg store shows an eerily calm scene: under a beautiful deep blue, cloud-flocked sky, the gleaming silver of a sleek aircraft parked on a sandy field, a red fire extinguisher standing by its nose-wheels, with an identical aircraft standing in the background.
The place is Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean group of the Marshalls, the plane is a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber and it has “Enola Gay” written prominently on its nose. The image is signed in blue pen “Dutch Van Kirk Navigator Hiroshima – Enola Gay – 6 Aug. 1945.” The aircraft in the background is “Bockscar,” which dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.
In a week in which Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un traded threats of nuclear annihilation, a new exhibition in Johannesburg recalls the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a loss of some 226,000 lives. 
The Atomic Bomb and Human Rights Exhibition at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre has at its epicentre the story of Sadako Sasaki, who was two when Hiroshima was incinerated and who died of the resulting leukaemia ten years later – her habit of folding origami paper cranes becoming a global symbol of the anti-nuke movement.
In honouring South Africa as the only country to have voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons, Kazumi Matsui, the mayor of Hiroshima, in a message for the exhibition’s opening, noted that although the “absolute evil” of the nuke which destroyed his city in 1945 had resulted in deep hurt that still persisted today, now, 72 years later, “there are approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world,” most far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
Public knowledge of the South African nuke programme only emerged very incrementally following President FW de Klerk’s bombshell announcement in Parliament on 24 March 1993 that the country had developed “a limited nuclear deterrent capability” but that it had been “dismantled and destroyed.”
Details were deliberately vague and it was only a decade later, in 2003, that more information was revealed when former atomic war-chief Lt Gen Jan van Loggerenberg, former Armscor research-and-development head Dr Hannes Steyn and former Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC) head Dr Richard van der Walt released their book Armament and Disarmament. 
That book sketched the programme’s development from the initial decision to build nukes in 1978 until the project was wrapped up in 1991. Its primary new contributions included how the SA bomb – a gun-type device in the tail section that would fire a uranium projectile into an enriched-uranium core in the nose section – were tightly controlled via a parallel system of half authorisation codes required to be matched in order to allow the removal of a tail and a nose from separate armoured safes at the secret Advena facility near Pelindaba. More rules determined how the sections would be united and the nuke armed. 
In an interview with me in 2004, van Loggerenberg revealed that they had developed all-terrain launch vehicles for nuke-tipped missiles “to ensure survivability from possible pre-emptive strike” and to make it very hard for enemy reconnaissance to pinpoint the launch site.
The latest book on what they call “the bomb in the bushveld,” The Bomb, is by former AEC nuclear physicist Nic von Weilligh and his daughter Lydia von Weilligh-Steyn in which for the first time, the individual devices are properly identified. Starting in 1979, a “300 series” eventually developed into five pre-production models – two of which were of such high quality that one, 305, was retained as a training device called Hobo after its warhead was removed and integrated into the first production model called Cabot in December 1982 – “a Christmas gift for PW Botha.” 
A production series of true nuclear weapons then started with the completion in November 1979 of Video – later renamed Melba and used as a demo model – plus Cabot, 306 which was upgraded into an active device, and the “500 series” of live nukes produced between 1988 and 1989, giving a total of six operational fission weapons with yields of 10-18kt, equivalent to the Hiroshima bomb’s 15kt.
The authors relate a scary tale of what happened when Video was hidden in a disused coal mine outside Witbank – Advena not yet having been built. Arriving with the nuke at 3am one night, Dr van der Walt decided to have wheels of the nuke’s trolley removed “to make it more difficult to steal”. One of the builders of Video recalled: “I started unscrewing the nuts on one wheel in the dark…The mine was pitch-dark… Then I saw that I was busy trying to unscrew a split rim. If it had blown out it would have taken my head off.”
The authors are equivocal on the famous incident of 22 September 1979 when a US spy satellite picked up the telltale double-flash of a nuclear detonation over SA’s Prince Edward Islands possessions – despite corroborating seismic and fallout evidence that a 3kt device had been detonated, probably an Israeli missile test fired from Overberg in the Cape with SA observing.
But The Bomb’s real new revelation is that the apartheid state wanted more than six operational nukes. In November 1986, a new nuclear weapons deterrence strategy was approved by Defence Minister Magnus Malan and President PW Botha that called for one demonstration model, three gun-type nuclear weapons that could be delivered by ballistic missiles, and three “boosted” versions (with a yield five times larger) that would be delivered by medium-range missiles, plus another seven weapons which could be delivered by aircraft. 
And a massive new facility was planned to produce weapons-grade plutonium and other heavy metals – aiming at thermonuclear fusion bomb with a yield of around 100kt that would be delivered by intermediate-range ballistic missile. But In the 1986 strategy’s worst-case scenario, of SA facing a losing war, the nukes would have not been used strategically against enemy capitals like Luanda, but rather tactically in support of naval and ground forces. So despite possessing six Hiroshima-type atom bombs, the apartheid war-chiefs stopped short of a “Hiroshima solution” to win the Bush War.

[ENDS]

* Post-script: my own book, Drinking With Ghosts, has a chapter on the apartheid nuke programme, but The Bomb adds more valuable detail.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Cetaceans - the Other Intelligence


A Review of Philip Hoare, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

Probably one of the saddest contemporary books in natural history, The Whale relates how Homo sapiens, driven by a need to light his lamps and bulk out his womenfolk's skirts, hunted cetaceans. Despite the fact that cetaceans are possibly the nearest competitor to human intelligence in our world, the slaughter started with precious few attempts to understand them - except to understand how to kill them. 

If the UN Convention on the Crime of Genocide could be applied to cetaceans, as a species we'd pretty much stand guilty, for almost *all* of our knowledge of whales comes from hunting them to the brink of extinction and it has only been since the 1960s that this has more generally been agreed (Japanese and Norwegian whalers excepted) to be a rather bad idea. 

Whales are pretty weird by evolutionary standards, having walked out of the oceans at some point as smallish otter-like creatures, who at some point abandoned the shores and reverted to the waves, losing all but the vestiges of their newly-acquired limbs and fur. There are some sub-species of cetaceans that thankfully we have never even seen alive - knowing them only by the very rare washed-up corpse. Tragically, there is one whale that we know to be the last of its genus because its unique, haunting, lonesome whale-song has remained unanswered in the depths of the Bering Sea for decades. 

Amid this tragedy, however, Hoare brings a beautiful and intimate storytelling style that starts out as a exploration of why and how an unknown Yankee hack named Herman Melville (keen to challenge Nathaniel Hawthorne as author of "the great american novel" - a perennial obsession of obscure US writers, it seems) came to write Moby-Dick - along the way exploring how the tale of a real "great white whale" entranced and horrified 19th Century seafarers. 

Hoare spends time in Nantucket for which Basque whalers set out from the Bay of Biscay in at least the 16th Century - but by some early accounts way back in the 14th Century - to hunt their prey. I guess at least back then the whales had a better chance of survival than the whalers in their fragile boats. He tracks the development of whaling from a survivalist pursuit of meat to a vanity of scrimshawed teeth and whale-boned corsets, to a black-hearted massacre driven by the greed for oil, to a very belated turn to conscience and conservation.

Along the way, he also brushes up against some of the other denizens of the deep - in particular the arch nemesis (and tasty meal if its dinner-plate sized suckers come unstuck) of the sperm whale, the giant squid. This is the "kraken" of lore if at least one eyewitness account cited by Hoare is credible, of a giant squid running some 100ft long, alongside a ship under sail, though current scientific estimates put it at a mere 43ft maximum (or the larger females, that is). Then again, bear in mind that we know so little about them: the giant squid was photographed in the wild for the first time only in 2004.

It is often forgotten that whales are not only those monstrous leviathans of the abyss with car-sized hearts, but also include much smaller species including the "smiling" dolphin, the feared orca, and the narwhal - its tusk a single extruded tooth with thousands of nerve-endings that is more likely a navigational and mating tool than a weapon. Not that we should get all cute about cetaceans: Free Willie aside, even dolphin are smart, pack-hunting carnivores and are sometimes given to gang-banging (take that, you hippies!).

Yet for any of you who has held their breath as Sea Shepherd's vessels have clashed with Japanese whalers and factory ships, Hoare underlines that cetaceans are the transmitters of knowledge (if not "culture" as we narrowly understand it) to their their offspring, and the consummate navigators of the world beneath the waves that makes up most of our planet. When we are finally gone I hope that ours becomes a planet of the whales once again.



[ENDS]

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Recalling the Marikana Massacre


A LITTLE OF THAT HUMAN TOUCH: Journalists look at the process, reporters at the event; we need more journalists writes Michael Schmidt, Op-ed, The Star, 30 August 2012

In all the angst and soul-searching wrought by the Marikana Massacre – despite some jaded commentators trying to reduce it to a mere “incident” – the description of the clash that has been most noticeably absent is “class war”.
We South Africans are so accustomed to the almost ritualistic dance of burning tyres and toyi-toyiing crowds, then the arrival of an armoured phalanx of police, then an inevitable escalation through megaphoned warnings, to rubber bullets, to live ammunition and, sometimes, corpses, that we can’t see the class war for the teargas. In much the same way as most journalists refused to talk of insurrection in the late 1980s in preference to the depoliticised term “unrest,” so in the democratic era, we talk of “protest” and not class war.
Poloko Tau’s commendable on-day reportage in The Star on the killing by police of his contact among the striking rock-drillers, the strike leader that he only knew as “the man in the green blanket” immediately emphasised for me how rare it is to have our journalists even bother to build such contacts in stricken communities, before the smoke rises on the horizon. 
Cardboard-cutout renditions of extremely complex conflicts cuts both ways. Who after all recalls that in the 1976 Soweto Massacre, the leader of the police contingent Theunis “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel lost his right eye to a bottle in the fray, which might have precipitated the shooting; or that student leader Tsietsi Mashinini was himself stoned by the students for demanding that they back down? It is telling that we do not know the actual sequence and detail of one of our most hallowed sufferings in more accurate detail. Likewise, in the polarised narrative over Marikana, the details of the police deaths are either totally ignored by those backing the strikers, or upheld as a justification for slaughter by those backing the police. 
Most journalists were rooting the origins of the massacre in the strikers taking to their Wonderkop redoubt barely a week before the bloodshed. But I recall noting that there was “trouble at t’ mill” down at Lonmin at least a year ago, and I had a gut feeling back then that it would all end in tears, though few journalists kept their finger on the pulse in the intervening months. In fact I worry that most of our journalists (those who analyse conflict as process) have been supplanted by reporters (those who simply report on conflict as isolated events). For one thing, I have seen little reportage over recent years of the surreptitious remilitarisation of our police – civilianised at great cost in the wake of apartheid.
Myself and Canadian photographer David Buzzard were the only two journalists on the scene of the Christmas Day Massacre at Shobashobane on the South Coast in 1995 when 19 ANC-aligned villagers were butchered by an Inkatha impi; and I was the only journalist who returned a decade later to report on the aftermath.  I employ a process I call “forensic meditation” in returning to the scene of a massacre; walking the paths of the killers to their termini, re-interviewing victims and perpetrators, reconstructing the details and teasing out discrepancies.  My forensic meditation on Shobashobane in 2005 resulted in a partial confession from former IFP warlord Sipho Ncobo, by then serving as mayor of the area. I have been 2km down the Implats platinum mine, on the stopes where rock-drillers sweat in 55°C heat, the air thick with the bite of ammonia. I’ve yet to see our journalists walking the paths of the rock-drillers they are reporting on.
Scott Peterson was one of few journalists in Rwanda during the “100 Nights” Genocide back in 1994. What he produced out of an incredibly complex tale was not just harrowing eyewitness reportage of the infernal interahamwe bloodletting, and went far beyond reporting on the Genocide as process not event, but resulted, in his book Me Against My Brother, in one of the best structural analyses of how the slaughter was rooted in the convergence between the interests of Agathe Habyarimana’s Akazu (Little House) inner circle and their extremist Zero Network, of the meddling French post-colonial state, and of the Rwandese Catholic hierarchy. In other words, structural analyses of the interests served by massacre penned by journalists are far too rare. 
It was left to Leonard Gentle, director of the International Labour Research and Information Group, to write that “The drill workers at Lonmin… were Xhosa-speaking and brought from the Eastern Cape into an area where most people speak another language, Tswana. This was a conscious move by the company to heighten exploitation in the mines. Add to this the toxic mix heavily armed mine security, barbed-wire enclosures, and substandard informal housing—and a picture of institutionalised violence emerges.”
A decade after the Genocide, I sat at a fancy restaurant overlooking the velvety hills of Kigali at night, drinking with the top military brass of the Rwandese Patriotic Front. One salient thing struck me about them: having forcibly ended the Genocide when France and the United Nations proved unwilling, they believed with a frightening certitude that they were on the side of the angels regardless of what they did – something I encounter in the ANC elite regarding their role in ending apartheid; that they are incapable of doing wrong, or at least that all they do is sanctified in the blood of their martyrs. This sense of semi-divine mission, combined with the ethnic divisions and institutionalised violence of which Gentle speaks, in support of mining multinationals, not only replicates apartheid logic but is a dangerously volatile mix.
In July last year, I had the privilege to interview one of the world’s most intriguing guerrilla fighters. As a youth, Octavio Alberola plotted the invasion of Cuba with Fidel Castro, and became a member of Defensa Interior, the Spanish exile anarchist underground council tasked in the 1960s with assassinating Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Today he has become deeply involved with breaking what in Spain is called the “Pact of Silence”: the unspoken backroom deal whereby Spanish society remained mute about the abuses in the aftermath of the Spanish Revolution when Francoist forces are believed to have killed some 200,000 people. It is only in recent years that mass graves have been uncovered and Alberola is driving a campaign to have the ersatz “criminal” sentences of those massacred expunged so their remaining widows can be pensioned. 
I have come to believe that there is a similar “Pact of Silence” in Southern Africa – all the more potent, as in Spain for it being unspoken. And there is no case that more glaringly demonstrates this than that of the Operation Dual Massacre that is almost unknown – despite it being apartheid South Africa’s biggest war-crime. It was accepted as true during the failed Dr Wouter Basson prosecution that between 1979 and 1987, some 200 captured members of the South-West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) were drugged, flown in a Cessna from an airstrip at Etosha Pan, naked and bound, to a location about 100 nautical miles off the Skeleton Coast, where they were dumped into the ocean from an altitude of about 3,6km. A lawyer friend of mine who worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions told me he believes the reason SWAPO has not gone after the known death-flight perpetrators is that SWAPO has atrocities of its own that it fears would be brought to light if it pursues this (and in fact a Dutch human rights group has attempted to bring charges before the International Criminal Court). The implication is that perpetrators on the apartheid and liberation movement sides of the line are colluding in suppressing the truth.
But somewhere out there are 200 families wanting to know that happened to their sons and daughters. Some day the dam will break – but those families are unlikely to ever have any bones to bury. In contrast, this May, the bones of Alberto “Pocho” Mechoso, the long-lost brother of another interviewee of mine, Juan Carlos Mechoso, a former guerrilla with Uruguayan resistance movement Revolutionary Popular Organisation – 33 (OPR-33), were found in a drum on the seabed off Argentina where he had been kidnapped, tortured and “disappeared” during the Dirty War in 1976. There were seven other drums of human remains alongside his. The only reason the Mechoso family can finally find closure after 36 years of agony is that Argentina has a proactive prosecutorial authority that has undone secrecy pacts and those they protect with impunity.
Western and African heads of state last week hailed as a great leader the dead Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi whose forces in 2005 murdered 193 pro-democratic protestors, injured 800 more, and jailed 40,000. To my mind, only elite-class interest can explain this cynical, deliberate act of forgetting. Our journalists need to explore the class function of our police – who are themselves poorly-paid and work in atrocious conditions – in support of the elite’s structural interests. And those interests are terrifyingly inhuman: during the Xenophobic Pogroms of 2008, the inactivity of the police for the first week of the killings made it seem as if the elite was curious to see how far such a fire could burn before they were forced to put it out; after all, divisive ethnic violence has proven a ready fall-back for regimes in crisis in Africa. Divide-and-rule remains the rule for minorities – and elites are always minorities.

[ENDS]

For Want of a Truth Commission


A review of James MacKinnon, Dead Man in Paradise, Faber and Faber, London, UK, 2007.

Seldom does a work of historical investigation manage so delicate a balance between poetic nuance and forensic judgment, but it is even rarer for a journalistic probe into the mysterious death of a family member four decades ago in a foreign country to manage to illuminate the nature of an entire people and country, an illumination all the more powerful for its inability to penetrate, and yet at least to delineate, certain recalcitrant shadows. 

The only book I know to do something similar is Martin Pollack’s The Dead Man in the Bunker (1998) in which he pursues the truth about his long-dead father’s hidden past as an SS officer, which reveals almost more about the roots of anti-Slavic racism among Germans living in the borderlands of what became the Third Reich than it does about his own family.

The Dominican Republic is a country that has, unlike my own South Africa, or the more directly comparable Chile or Guatemala, not undergone the flawed-yet-purgative process of a sort of “truth and reconciliation commission” after emerging from decades of authoritarianism. South Africa’s commission was blessed by being covered by a radio journalism team lead by the poet Antjie Krog, which resulted in her harrowing book Country of My Skull (1998).

But for want of such an official inquiry exhuming its skeletons, the Dominican Republic, that forgotten Caribbean land of caudillismo, exquisite fruits, genocide, and crystal waters, at least has the interlocution of Canadian journalist James MacKinnon’s breathtaking true tale of his dogged search, stumbling in poor Spanish, for the truth behind the weird murder of his uncle, Catholic priest Arthur MacKinnon, at the height of the popular revolution that broke out in April of 1965. 

With a robust passion for the Dominican downtrodden, Padre Arturo was a natural mark as a trouble-making “red” for cold warriors like General Elias Wessin y Wessin, the tank brigade commander whose forces battled the youth of the revolution in the capital Santo Domingo until the US, fearing a second Cuba, landed Marines in May 1965 and the clock stopped.

But what then to make of the fact that in June 1965, alongside Arturo’s bullet-riddled body were two more gunned-down corpses – one a uniformed police lieutenant and one a plain-clothed police corporal – and while the dead cops are suspected of assassinating the priest, it appears that an army soldier may have gunned the cops down in turn, insuring 39 years of silence, in a country that harbours its silences? 

Who killed who, who gave the orders if there were orders, and why? Amid the suggestions of a political plot with a “blush of communism” lurks a possible motive of a cuckolded lover. But in a country struggling to come to terms with its past, nothing is as it seems and few answers are straightforward.

MacKinnon has an amazing eye for detail and a poetic sense of mood, plot, pace, dialogue and of place: “I can see the fires on the slopes as farmers clear the underbrush. In between them are valleys filled with flame trees, all of them ferociously in bloom. The canopy of flowers is the same colour as the embers that glow from the earth.”

What he has produced is a tour de force in what I term forensic meditation, the painstaking reconstruction of a scene of damage and loss, sifting through the evidence to strip away the layers of accumulated obfuscation, restoring its original simple brutality to the scorching light of the Caribbean sun, and in doing so, revealing many truths about themselves to the Dominican people. 

[ENDS]

Restoring the Reputation of the Polish Anarchist Movement


The Polish anarchist movement suffers from a uniquely distorted history. Although it honourably defended the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto - two Anarchist Federation of Poland (AFP) militants being later hailed as "Righteous Among Nations" for such work - and took up arms against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, it has often been mischaracterised by historians as tainted by either nationalism or Bolshevism. The roots of the problem lie in the bizarre fact that in 1930, the regime of military strongman Józef Piłsudski united several unions into what was intended as a yellow government-friendly union centre: nationalists, independents, socialists including a small faction of the Polish Socialist Party and a workers’ faction that had broken with the Second International, and the 40,000-strong anarcho-syndicalist General Worker's Federation (GFP, formed four years earlier at the same time as the AFP) were merged to form the Union of Trade Unions (ZZZ).

The ZZZ's programme, according to historian Rafał Chwedoruk, “was a compromise between radical syndicalism and reformism, even solidarity,” the latter presumably meaning solidarity with the regime. Nevertheless, Chwedoruk noted that "the syndicalists became more and more socially radical in the era’s economic crisis. They supported and organised many strikes. The syndicalist wing dominated the ZZZ… It was a large centre (170,000 members) and had influence within certain industries (esp. in Schliesen in central Poland) – in construction, metal industry, military undertakings etc. The ZZZ declared for the class war… [yet] had a small parliamentary group..." Chwedoruk argues, unconvincingly, that Polish syndicalism was a strange hybrid, a “unique political doctrine” straddling “the border of national-Bolshevism and anarcho-syndicalism,” and “a weird mixture of nationalism, syndicalism and anarchism”. It is not clear whether this is because he appears to take the ZZZ as an undifferentiated whole, or whether it is because of the common error of counting as "syndicalist" those like the Zet youths under the sway of non-syndicalist radicals such as the proto-fascist Georges Sorel.

The ZZZ was clearly a mixed organisation including conservatives clustered around Stanislaw Cat-Mackiewicz, editor of the journal Slowo (Word), but it also embraced a significant anarcho-syndicalist current centred on the likes of tobacco worker Ignacy “Morus” Głuchowski (1892-1944), AFP militant teacher Władysław Głuchowski (1911-1941), former prisoner of the Russian Okhrana secret police Stefan “Szwed” Szwedowski (1891-1973), and agronomic draughtsman Tomasz “Janson” Alfons Pilarski (1902-1977). Many would come to play leading roles in the anti-Nazi resistance: Pilarski, a member of the anarcho-syndicalist Free Workers' Union of Germany (FAUD) in Silesia from 1919-1933, had even helped form the anti-Nazi anarchist Black Ranks militia in 1929 before being forced to flee Germany in 1933 under threat of execution for high treason. From 1931 to 1939, the ZZZ established itself as a powerful force on the labour front, and expressing an interest in joining the anarcho-syndicalist international, the IWA: the anarcho-syndicalist current within it was represented at the 1938 congress of the IWA in Paris in 1938 by Pilarski. The conservative unions - including the military munitions factories - later split off the ZZZ, putting it more firmly under anarcho-syndicalist control. 

After the Nazi invasion in 1939, some 4,000 ZZZ members formed the clandestine Polish Syndicalist Union (ZSP) which built an armed wing, the 104 Company, which by some accounts rose to 600 insurgents, while AFP militants formed the Syndicalist Organisation "Freedom" (SOW) which had its own armed wing, the Syndicalist Brigade. Both units liaised with the Committee to Protect Jews and the mainstream Home Army (AK), ran supplies into the Warsaw Ghetto and smuggled Jews out, and fought the Nazis before and during the Warsaw Uprising. The anarchists and syndicalists even continue fighting for four days after the AK surrendered to the Nazis on 2 September 1944 - and their remnants went on to fight in other formations, helping to drive the brown plague from Poland. It is time that the Polish movement be restored to its proper, honourable place in history as a solidly anarchist, anti-fascist fighting force; I trust the sections on Poland in my forthcoming book Wildfire will serve to do just that!

[ENDS]