Minds at War
anthology of poetry of the First World War. All the greatest war poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and war poems of over 70 other notable poets. All set in the context of the poets' lives and historical records. With historic photographs and cartoons. Edited by David Roberts.
400 pages £15-99 (UK)
Cornwall Hill by GF Johnson - about a memorial, to a soldier, a sailor and four airmen, in the Transvaal
Poems by Andreas Morgner
Arms Deal, Central Africa
Gunship, West Africa
Gacaca (Genocide) Court, Rwanda
Portuguese Graves, Guinea Bisseau
Mambo Point, Sierra Leone
Andreas Morgner is a U.S. government investigator who, as part of his work,
travels to Africa periodically. As part of his work, he deals with people who
live on the continent--from UN officials, peace keepers, human rights activists,
doctors, to many Africans themselves. From this, Andreas Morgner has gathered
numerous stories about the tragic impact of the recent wars across Africans and
what a struggle it is for many of its inhabitants just to survive. He heard so
many of these accounts that he felt compelled to find a way to pass on
these searing, compelling stories to others. Since he had written poetry as a
much younger man, he decided to use that format.
Author's notes on the poems
Introduction to War Crime, This poem is drawn on my personal experience in the Balkans in visiting a war crime site in Kosovo while supporting US peacekeepers. Later, when I worked with the UN's Special Court for Sierra Leone which was investigating war crimes from that country's savage civil war, I was struck with the similarities of some of the incidents to what I saw in the Balkans so I melded the two together to create this piece.
Introduction to Perusha, Mambo Point, Arms Deal, Gacaca (Genocide) Court & The Album. These are based on both personal experiences as well as accounts provided to me by people who helped in my work. To those who helped give me the inspiration for these pieces, I can only offer my eternal gratitude.
Cornwall Hill Memorial
Liketso tsa Molimo ekare lilotho
(Acts of God are like riddles)
The singer came out of the bush
While the relief convoy stopped for a break.
Ancient hair bleached whiter than bones,
Rail thin, cloaked and carrying a staff.
He had walked out of the old religions
With his amulets and charms rattling
In time to his steps into the New Testament.
He paused in his singing only long enough
To take a quick drink from the water jug
And to bestow a blessing on us
With outstretched arms.
Then he disappeared into the brush,
His song fading into the dry trees.
“A holy man” one of the guards whispers
Crossing himself. This one has power.
They say that wherever he walks,
Lions ignore him, scorpions hide their stingers,
And the landmines he steps on refuse to detonate.
The guards who had all been nervous before
Driving through this district visibly relax.
We are protected now.
Deal, Central Africa
Arms Deal, Central Africa
Apa wa lila omona ka yuk u momenapo.
(The full consequences of a deed are not reaped all at once)
The first sign of its approach is a thin drone that climbs
Above the hum of insects in the tall grass. After awhile
It appears. A stubby “T” hanging against the clouds
Followed by a wispy black tail of burnt kerosene. It
Resolves itself into a bulky white aircraft that some call
The “Whale.” Even from a distance it looks dirty. Worse
As it comes in low with roaring engines to chase the
Cattle off the cracked runway. A turn and a last look
For rocks or logs. Satisfied, the monster lands and rolls up
To the group of soldiers waiting by the roofless hangar.
In front stands an officer who is ice behind his mirrored
Sunglasses. The plane rolls to a stop and the engines wind
A ramp drops and the pilot and loadmaster walk out of the
Gloomy hold and into the sunlight. With a nod from
The officer, soldiers tramp into the plane and begin off-loading
Long green boxes onto the tarmac. The officer, the pilot, and
the loadmaster scan the manifest and count boxes with dancing
Pens. While the plane’s crew rest in the emptying hold,
Sunglasses points to a box and soldiers use a crowbar to
Rip off the lid with a shriek. Guns lie in perfect rows.
The finger points again and another box reveals bullets.
Sunglasses nods. A dirty suit staggers out into the furnace heat.
From behind his medals, Sunglasses pulls out a small sack.
Dirty Suit grabs it greedily and wedges a jeweler’s loupe into
His eye. A small stone emerges from the bag. He holds it up.
Down. Close. Another stone comes out. Then a third.
The pilot sweats. Sunglasses remains ice. Dirty Suit finally
Looks up and smiles. The pilot sighs and holds out his hand.
Sunglasses salutes and walks off. The pilot spits on the sizzling
Tarmac and signals the crew. The cargo ramp closes as the trucks
Roar off. The aircraft’s engines spool up. Power builds as throttles
Open. In minutes, the plane climbs into the innocent clouds. The
Cows wander back across the tarmac to the beckoning shade trees,
Grasshoppers sing, and another revolution begins.
Umwáansi aguciira icoobo, Imáana ikaguciira
When an enemy digs a grave for you, God gives you an emergency exit
Another day, another mission
Same sweat-stained flight suit
Same orders—hit and run.
Knock them on their ass and get out
Before they can shoot you down.
You know it’s just a game.
You’re playing chicken and the grand
Prize is that the winner keeps breathing.
So you strap in for another round
(At least boxers get to quit after ten.)
Add the numbers, odds now leaning in
The other team’s favor. The dice are in
Your hands and you can feel your run
Of lucky sevens is almost through.
Once you flew under a different flag and
Wore a different uniform. From where you sat
Though, the war looked the same as now.
Then, you actually believed the bullshit when
They pinned medals on your chest because you
Were so good at this. Godlike, you felt you
Owned the battle. That you were fighting for
A greater cause. Now you are even better.
Maybe its because you stopped believing the lies ,
Flying now only for the highest bidder.
Maybe it’s because now the battle owns you.
Pre-flight. Go robotic during lift off.
Don’t think. Just do. Try to numb down.
Mike smelling of yesterday’s stale beer
Stomach alive with liquid fire churning
As you clatter into Indian country.
Final checks are made and weapons control is
Switched to the red button on the control
Stick. Tell the rest of the crew, “Pucker up. “
Bank the helicopter sharply left. Then drop it
Hard into a gorge. This is the new foreplay.
Tons of metal responding passionately to the
Lightest touch of your hand. This is the
Closest you feel to anything anymore. Closer
Than to your crew. Closer than to the whore
Last night. Closer than to your wife when the
Marriage was still new and you thought the
Feel of her cool, scented skin was without
The chopper shudders and groans against the forces
Pulling her apart. Warning lights flicker against
Cyrillic letters. No time to worry. Just a
Quick Hail Mary that nothing big falls off.
Combat approach almost complete.
As the target ridge looms, haul back on
The stick and feel inertia punch against
Chest and arms as turbines scream
Struggling, shuddering for altitude,
Brushing the hill top trees sending
Great clouds of birds fleeing before
Dropping down into the rebel camp.
You yell “Target visual” on the intercom,
Flick off the cover, a single finger of pressure
And the helicopter shudders to a near stop
Mid-air with over a ton of recoil kicking from
The guns and rockets going volcanic all at once.
That cathartic release, the hit you crave
Each spiraling bullet a release from old nightmares
Each impact providing fodder for new ones
Huts, stick figures, and vehicles shred
And trees bend back from the blast and
The spray of dirt, blood, and shrapnel.
Something detonates into a ball of fire
That rolls quickly above the camp.
Cease fire and throttle up.
It’s your turn to get some as bullets clatter
Against armor plate and tracers flicker
Past the windscreen arcing towards the
Clouds. Adrenaline pumping faster,
Look for an escape route. There.
Put the stick hard over and bank sharp
Now the door gunners get their turn
To let fly streams of fire before you hot
Foot it back out of the kill zone.
Hug the ridge close and brush the trees again
To ruin the aim of any missile launchers.
Claw for speed. Pray no one has cross
Hairs on your ass or a warbling radar lock.
Run for cover, run for home.
Tomorrow’s another day.
Gacaca (Genocide) Court, Rwanda
Abakiaye mekoni ndiye huzima moto.
(He who remains near the fireplace is the one to put out the fire)
The trial starts early today. People come dressed in their Sunday
Even though they may have to sit on the grass. The judges help set up
A folding table while the prisoners in pink pajamas carry in benches.
The court clerk fishes an unused school notebook out of his satchel
To record words and searches his pockets for a pen.
One by one the prisoners stand and are identified by the court.
Accusations are made. Some prisoners deny them, other hang their
Heads or stare defiantly. Witnesses stand and speak. Time collapses
Back to nights and days of horror. Tears come slowly, though, as
These wells are almost run dry from the rivers already shed. Sentences
Are passed or forgiveness offered. The crowd drifts off. The clerk
Closes his notebook and goes home.
Walking along the dusty road, the clerk stops at a neighbor’s house.
The wife greets him in the front yard. The farmer comes in from
The field and the children return from school. Dinner is served
After the children recite their lessons from the day, the wife relates
Marketplace gossip, and the farmer laments ruinous crop prices.
Not until the children go outside to finish their homework by the
Light of the dying sun does the clerk discuss the results of the
Day’s trials. The farmer and his wife listen with pinched faces.
Finally, with a bowl of leftovers from the wife, the clerk gets up to leave.
The farmer rises to shake his hand. The clerk looks into haunted eyes.
A madness easily contracted so long ago like a virus has left its mark.
Blood spilled in hate never washes off completely. Enough remains to
Stain dreams and sour joy. The clerk knows no prison bars are needed
When demons scourge the soul. As the clerk walks home in the gathering
Darkness past the cemetery where his wife and children are buried, he
Wonders if the farmer still hears their screams every night.
Butcher pics. Blood porn. Military snuff.
What the photographer took to save his own skin.
An album with the kind of trophy shots
That soldiers around the world take
After a battle while the fires burn and
The blood is still wet.
To keep the machetes at bay, the photographer
Encouraged them to celebrate the fact that
When the bullets stopped flying
They were the ones still standing.
That their enemy was now well and truly fucked
Corpses that could be posed to show the folks
At home what great warriors they had become.
How the feared enemy was now nothing but
Footstools for victorious boots to rest comfortably on.
Sometimes the photo is just of a head
Propped on the hood of truck or on a log.
This one has sunglasses and a lit cigarette
In its mouth as if still trying to be cool.
Many just look like they are sleeping
Others are poked or prodded by
Grinning victors and wear a frown as if annoyed.
The worst are those scenes that aren’t posed.
The ones the photographer took
When the soldiers weren’t looking
Then you see those scattered pieces
While they were still all attached
When fear still poured from the eyes and
Limbs moved as they stumbled towards
God and the bloody machetes.
Shaku kathiri hoondoa ubasiri.
(Too much passion crowds out wisdom)
The lament of a thousand women chills the heavy air.
An ululating wail taunting everlasting torment
Upon the soul for blood spilled.
No forgiveness given.
No contrition offered.
Instead guns are oiled.
Each an investment in power and
The requirements of fragile manhood.
Eyes narrow with imbedded hate at the other.
Insults are stones thrown at old grudges.
A boy cradles his new gun
Hurdling his man-child snarl.
His father looks on approvingly.
A finger tightens on the trigger and
A barrel swings around.
Portuguese Graves, Guinea Bissau
Com arma de guera na mao
Grenada sera o meu caixao
Enterro sera na patrulha
(With my rifle
in my hand
The grenade will be my coffin
My funeral will be on patrol)
From an Angola marching song
The withered porter unlimbers creaking bones to unlock
The ancient gate. Its rusty squeal cuts through the hiss of
The nearby surf. Beyond the crumbling wall are ranks of
Tombs evenly spaced where salutes and white collars left
Them. Years of tropical rain have washed any lingering
Holiness from the wrought iron crosses and watered the vines
Wrapping themselves around marble with welcoming arms.
These soldiers came to defend others’ dreams of empire.
Molded by family, teachers, and priests, they went to feed
A history that weighed centuries on their shoulders all the
Way to aluminum steps into darkened aircraft holds. Tears
Were lost in the prop wash and roaring engines drowned
Out desperate beckonings. Jammed between duffel bags and
Crates, anxious eyes try to catch last sights as home slipped
Under clouds and the featureless ocean rolled by beneath them.
In the months and years that followed, glory hid her face behind
Minefields, choking dust, and burning tukuls that lit bloody,
Confusing nights. Men died abruptly without last words or else
Screamed gibberish in bloody hospitals leaving new empty spaces
In the mess hall. Finally, the time came when a truce stopped the
Flying bullets and weary survivors rode scarred aircraft rumbling into
The sky one last time over the smoldering city. Once clear of besieging
Guns, the planes banked north over the crystalline ocean before
Disappearing into welcoming clouds for a home of unraveled lives.
Those that stayed were forgotten along with the promises that
Gained them a bed of blood-red soil under their backs. Above
Them, stone slabs hide blue sky and ranks of clouds marching
Silently towards forgotten horizons and lovers left hollowed out
By the slash of grim telegrams. Some withered, pressed between
Grief and the pages of memories that wouldn’t release. Others
Hid remembered curves under the weight of unwanted husbands.
Lost to the world they knew, the soldiers are left in tropical dirt
With nothing but cold hearts filled with dust. Their bitter murmurings
Are ignored by a gaudy kingfisher perched on the cemetery wall
Cocking his head from one side to the other as he scans mercury
Waves for his next meal.
Ituri Province, D.R. Congo
Wanka bangwe ntiwanka zana ndabe
(You refuse to stop fighting, but you can’t
hide the wounds.)
Dinner time. A fire stoked with the day’s haul of dry wood.
Pots and pans are brought out along with the cassava and beans.
Until a goat is slaughtered, meat passes lips only in dreams.
Be ready. Insolent guns could start again at any time.
They usually begin by probing the air with single piercing shots.
Each noise a slap across the face and a stab at the heart.
Eyes dart, hands freeze when the metallic barking begins in the hills.
For some, only mouths keep moving. Chewing furtively. Quickly.
Eyes looking out the door are already running into the forest.
The hills grow quiet now as triggers move on. Darkening as clouds
Pass over. Brightening as the weakening sun returns. This was a
Beautiful place—before. Now the breeze may be a Trojan horse
Hiding marching feet and psychotic eyes.
House and field once rooted these people solidly to the red earth.
It gave food and Shelter. Your children could grow tall and strong
In its embrace. Now it is a searchlight. Come rape, loot, or kill.
No matter the uniform.
Children play. Each move tentative. The desire for fun struggling
With a wary glance over the shoulder. A mother hovers close in
Case feet need wings. The guns love children the most. Each a
Potential recruit for others’ wars.
The final dying rays pierce the underside of the clouds on the
Western hills. Lanterns wink on around the village. A woman sings
Low over a steaming pot and another joins her. A monkey hoots
In the branches. The land settles into itself.
Another day of peace.
Point, Sierra Leone
Sea breezes wave palms under cathedral skies. The
Hotel is a beacon commanding the bay and the city’s
Waterfront. On a stone patio, multi-hued umbrellas
Protect the lunch crowd from the brassy sun.
Waiters glide smoothly between tables with drinks
And meals. They are largely ignored by the peace keepers
In their crisp uniforms and ribbons over their chests.
Some laughing over some war story from past deployments.
Others are deep in discussions over future truces to keep.
Diplomats lean back in their chairs with self-congratulations
Swimming in their eyes over the latest peace treaty. This
Time, all the warlords have signed. Power promised, state
Ministries allocated and money divided while stony-faced
Waiters clear tables and return with another round of drinks.
Sitting near the bar, pimps in silk ties and laptops quietly
Hammer out deals. Hard to tell what is being discussed. Oil?
Arms? Maybe even food to be distributed to the refugees in
Their squalid camps (and whether payment will be by wire transfer
Or letter of credit). One grabs the arm of a waiter and makes him drop
His tray. Pink mouths and perfect teeth bray with laughter.
The lunch hour passes. The crowd melts into the hotel, their
Chauffeured SUVs, or the military helicopter clattering into the sky.
Clean up is over. Shift change. The waiters trade starched linen
For T-shirts, get their pay, and walk home in the growing dusk.
Past the hotel’s barbed wire and guards. Past the steely whores
And iron money changers. Down the streets to where friends call
Them by name, the evening’s cooking fires are starting, and
Children run to greet them.
Sea breezes wave palms under cathedral skies. The
This poem is
drawn on my personal experience in the Balkans in visiting a war crime
site in Kosovo while supporting US peacekeepers. Later, when I
worked with the UN's Special Court for Sierra Leone which was
investigating war crimes from that country's savage civil war, I was
struck with the similarities of some of the incidents to what I saw in
the Balkans so I melded the two together to create this piece.
Basajja nsolo: ezimu zirya zinnaazo
(Men are like wild animals: some eat their own kind)
Voices from far away. Pulsing lights as we pass under trees.
Hypnotic. Numbing. Good. Hoping this time will never end.
The soldiers in the back of the truck hold thousand yard stares.
The officer in front—what’s his name—is explaining events.
Catch only fragments. A sudden rebel offensive before the
Coming truce. Many villagers caught unawares. Some make
It to the forest to hide. We are going to see what happened
To those who didn’t.
Arrive at the village. An incomplete demolition site. A wall
Here and there. To one side, a house untouched. The truck
Bounces over rubble. The stub of a minaret casts a shadow
Over the street. We stop. Returned villagers surround us all
Talking at once. The officer tries to calm them. Finally an elder
Leads us over to one of the houses. Three walls are shattered.
The last one has soot streaked by the recent rains. The old man
Chatters in a reedy voice as the officer translates.
The words become a newsreel.
Rebel soldiers shouting as bayonets prod survivors past the
Mosque already burning brightly. Explosions nearby. Dynamiting
The houses one by one. Scared, the small crowd is pushed into
The clinic. In the darkness they huddle. Knees pulled up to their
Chests. Arms raised while voices plead for mercy. Supplications
Turn to screams as guns start to stutter. Moments later, grenades
Bring silence. The officer coughs and turns his head.
The elder goes on. Three climbed out a back window. One
Barely took two steps, then was thrown three more by the bullets.
A woman is almost in the bushes before she, too, fell. The last
One, a boy around 10, makes it into the brush. Feet barely touching
The ground. Splash across the stream. Climb the far bank. Almost
Safe. Almost to the trees where his family watch anxiously from
The shadows. More gunfire, a spray of blood, and the rebels cheer.
Now, months later, we pick through tumbled bricks and put scattered
Bits of bones, ribs, and spines into an old bureau drawer. How small
They look. Most of the rest is gone with the forest scavengers who
Ruled this ghost town. Photos are taken. Notes are made. Statements
Recorded. Somehow we are back in the truck. The soldiers stare into
The distance again. Just another day for them. Another pantomime.
Sympathy offered and justice promised. Meanwhile, we pass the next
Village. Four young men lean against a car. Ex-rebels. As we drive by,
One makes a pistol of his fist, points it at us, and pretends to shoot.
Their laughter follows us all the way back to the city.
Yet, the very name Sierra Leone is synonymous with images of forced amputations, conflict diamonds and child soldiers. In recent times a brutal war ravaged the land for just over a decade. The effects of this salamandrine conflagration have certainly laid the country low. The putrid stench of corruption now wafts through the corridors of power and sadly, the judiciary seems content to wallow self obsessed in its dotage. Issues such as child trafficking, deforestation and the blight of Female Genital Mutilation have yet to be addressed, whilst HIV and AIDS have begun to take their toll.
It might seem that a demi-Eden has been lost, but my experience of Sierra Leone tells me otherwise. Whilst the people may be materially poor, they are spiritually rich. The poems that follow are my musings and thoughts about the dark days, that God willing, are now at a close.
Mark T Jones.
Mark T Jones
Swaying fronds beckon
Agile men ascend to steal your sustaining source
Let nature through fermentation take its revenge
Your milky sap saps and turns heads soft.
Soon mortal thieves sway frond-like and beckon
Agile men to take them to their rest.
[The citizens of Freetown were in a celebratory mood on 10th September 2000 for thanks to Operation Barras a maverick militia group called the West Side Boys were defeated by British forces. As a Brit that day there was no escaping the local palm wine - powerful stuff that could floor an elephant!]
Mark T Jones
[One day I walked in to a vast camp filled with 3,500 amputees, some as young as two. The horrifying scene that confronted me brought to mind certain works by the artists mentioned in this poem.]
Mark T Jones
Mark T Jones
Mark T Jones
"His Excellency the Minister will see you now."
I stand endeavouring to look taller
Hat firmly clasped, heat resisted.
God, how I hate these meetings.
Tawdry furnishings and even cheaper words
Our dignity must be maintained
He must be appeased, his ego massaged
A malodorous minister must be seen to glow.
His bull-necked toadies sit in ill-fitting suits
Biros recording every nuance, every hollow gesture
Whilst in the real world people strive to live
Their futures choked by the rancid fumes of protocol.
[Written in Freetown following meetings with various Sierra Leone Government Ministers.]
Mark T Jones
Mark T Jones