The Pastor and the Painter, Cindy Wockner

Almost two years ago I reached 300 books on my “Books Read” list. A list I started late in 2009. I wanted to mark that milestone with a “worthy” title, and chose Schindler’s Ark , a book of recognised literary merit (Booker prize winner), addressing something of significant historically importance (the Holocaust).

I have now reached book number 400, and chose a different kind of book about people and events a lot closer to home. As a Christian and a painter, I took a personal interest in the events explored in this 400th book.

Reading The Pastor and the Painter was a little like reading a book about the Titanic. The tragic conclusion has already been well publicised.
However, the important part of this story is what happens before that conclusion: a story of crime, politics, redemption and the victory of finding faith in God.

Andrew Chan (the pastor) and Myuran Sukumaran (the painter) were killed by an Indonesian firing squad, upon the order of the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo.

Chan and Sukumaran as accused leaders of the “Bali Nine”, had been sentenced to death by a Bali court for drug trafficking a decade before the sentence was finally carried out. Pleas for clemency were denied.

As a journalist, Cindy Wockner reported on the Bali Nine case from the beginning and was able to spend a lot of time with the nine Australians imprisoned for trying to smuggle drugs out of Bali to Australia. She developed a friendship with Chan and Sukumaran and had frequent access to them to report on their plight as they fought and lost their fight to avoid execution. Her book was written to continue their fight, obviously not for themselves, but for others who remain on death row in Indonesia.

Not long before his death, Sukumaran painted a portrait of the man who would demand that the executions be carried out. On the back of the painting of the president, Sukumaran wrote “People Do Change”, stating the fact that everyone apart from the president seemed to recognise – that the two men whose lives were being taken from them were not the same men who committed the crime a decade before. They HAD changed.

The men sentenced were young, irresponsible, angry, unco-operative and undeniably guilty of the crime.
The men being executed 10 years later were repentant, responsible and highly respected by those with authority over them in jail. Unlike many in their position who buried their despair in drug use, Chan and Sukumaran turned their lives around and went to work developing and running training programs and various other activities for other prisoners within the jail.

Chan studied for Christian ministry and started a church within the prison.
Sukumaran developed his artistic skills and was mentored by Australian artist Ben Quilty; sharing what he learned through holding art classes for fellow prisoners. Paintings were sold and proceeds used for various causes, including raising money to pay for life saving surgery for a female prisoner.

While many in the past have had sentences reduced, sadly, for others Indonesian law would remain inflexible.

Laws are like spider webs: if a fly or mosquito gets near, it gets trapped, but if a wasp or bee goes near, it breaks it and leaves. The same applies to the law: if a poor man strays he gets caught, while the rich and powerful exempt themselves from the law and walk away.

(Andrew Chan – from The Pastor and the Painter)

The absurdity of executing fully rehabilitated young men, who had not only turned their own lives around but had made significant contributions to the rehabilitation of their fellow prisoners, became even more extreme when the time came for them to be transported to the place where they were to be held prior to facing a firing squad. It was a full-on military exercise with armoured vehicles, armed soldiers and fighter jets escorting them on their journey.

On 27th April, two days before he and Myuran were executed,  Andrew Chan married Febyanti Herewila, a local church minister he’d known and loved for some time, in a small ceremony within the prison.

All up, about 20 people gathered, After Muran led them in prayer, he started singing ‘Bless the Lord’, a song also known as ‘10,000 Reasons’, and one they all knew and loved.

There was still some time for jokes amid the sad pall that hung over the Besi prison visiting area. As Myuran got stuck into some more junk food, someone told him it wasn’t good for him.

He smiled. “There are worse ways to die”.

(From The Pastor and the Painter)

On 29th April 2105, at 12.25am, Andrew and Myuran and six others were brutally killed by Indonesian president Joko Widodo. The weapon used: firing squad.  They were strapped by the elbows to wooden crosses and sang until their voices were silenced by almost 100 simultaneous gunshots*. The song in the video above is the one cut short by the fatal bullets.

executed

The eight people who were executed in Indonesia on 29 April 2015. Top row from left (including two of the Bali Nine): Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, Nigerian Okwuduli Oyatanze and Nigerian Martin Anderson. Bottom row from left: Nigerians Raheem Agbaje Salami, Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise, Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte and Indonesian Zainal Abidin. Two others (not pictured) who were scheduled to be executed were given a temporary reprieve. Photograph: The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/29/bali-nine-who-are-the-nine-people-being-executed-by-indonesia )

 

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* There were 12 marksman assigned to each victim, firing a combination of blanks and live ammunition.

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The Commando (the life and death of Cameron Baird VC. MG.) by Ben Mckelvey

The Commando, is a biography of Cameron Baird the 100th (and to date last) Australian Victoria Cross winner who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2013.

It was quite a disturbing read, although I’m not sure it was intended to be so in the way I found it. It was written to honour a ‘hero” but (to me) it did more to expose a lot of uncomfortable issues related to Australia’s part in the war in Afghanistan and what it did to the special forces troops trained and posted to serve there.

It shows how Baird and his regiment lived to kill and were always impatient to be sent out on a mission to hunt down the “Taliban”. (The author notes at the beginning of the book that he used the term “Taliban” as a kind of generic name for any hostile Afghan – who weren’t necessarily associated with the religious group, but were assumed to pose a potential danger to western troops).

At one stage Baird and his Australian colleagues were used as the weaponised arm of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, with the aim of destroying Afghan drug cultivation and manufacture: basically as guns for hire, because apparently the US Government wouldn’t allow US troops to be used for that purpose.

Among his colleagues Baird was considered lucky because he died in action on one of the last missions in Afghanistan. Those surviving colleagues have found it hard to settle back into everyday life. One of the men interviewed for the book killed himself not long after giving the interview.

I’ve read or seen accounts of the other three Australians awarded a Victoria Cross for their service in Afghanistan and I was left in no doubt why they were deemed worthy of the award. However with this account I wasn’t so sure about the reason for Cameron Baird’s award. The book just didn’t make it clear why his final action stood out from what his colleagues had also done to earn his posthumous VC.

I feel some discomfort writing this because it might come across as being critical of Cameron Baird, a man who gave his life in service of political decisions made by his country’s leaders. That’s not what I want to do. He was clearly a very likeable man, fully committed to whatever he set his mind to – whether that was football during his youth or his military career as an adult. He wasn’t a man willing to compromise to make do with a second rate effort or to be happy with anything less than a first rate outcome.

Any deserved criticism needs to be directed at the political and military systems that train men to become killing machines but do little to help them return to normality when those “skills” are no longer required.

Hope and Persistence

These two books show humanity at its worst.

Firstly through the evils of the war in Syria that has made so much of that country impossible to live in.
Secondly through the treatment of those trying to flee the horrors inflicted upon their homeland by both governments and terror groups.
And lastly by the western nations that again close their doors to people in desperate need.

But despite all of that, many of those who have needed to flee from everything they’ve known, worked for and loved, have somehow drawn on those rare human virtues that can lie dormant until adversity of the worst kind is experienced.

hopenujeen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of the story of A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming is perhaps better told by the author herself in this video.

And the story of Nujeen Mustafa:

 

Illegitimate Bill

bill-the-bastardBill the Bastard by Roland Perry is the story of an almost legendary horse ridden in Australian Light Horse campaigns in WWI, who my wife and I politely refer to as “Illegitimate Bill”.

I first heard about Bill in a TV documentary about the horses used by The Australian Light Horse during World War I.

His name came up again a week or so later at a local trash and treasure market when I met a descendant of one of the very first ALH members who had fought in the Boer War. He told me where there was a statue celebrating Bill and his most famous exploit. I was able to visit that statue a week or two later.

Bill got his name because of his wild and stubborn nature. He refused to be ridden, although he could be used as a very strong and dependable packhorse. Those who tried to ride him always came off second best, and some were seriously hurt. Perry’s book records how one man, Major Michael Shanahan was able to win Bill over and was able to use him as his mount in battle. On several occasions Shanahan’s life was saved by Bill’s ability to sense approaching danger.

BTBBill’s “most famous exploit” commemorated in the statue happened at the Battle of Romani, where the Australian Light Horse were trying to repel a massive Turkish force. One section of Australian troops fell to the Turks and were wiped out. However four horseless survivors of that section were found as the Australians were trying to withdraw. Shanahan rode up to them and helped them onto Bill, two sitting behind the rider and the other two standing on a stirrup each. Bill carried the five away to safety despite being chased and fired upon by Turkish pursuers.

Later in that battle, Shanahan was seriously wounded in the thigh, but fought on as long as he could before losing consciousness. Bill clearly knew something was wrong, making his way back to camp with Shanahan slumped on his back. The weakened Shanahan came close to death, his wound became gangrenous, and his leg was amputated to save his life.

excerpt from military record

excerpt from military record

Perry’s book is written more like a novel than a history book. While its an easy and interesting read, it has one weakness. There are no source references, so I was left wondering at times how much of the detail is factual and to what extent things may have been imaginatively embellished.

I didn’t doubt the accounts of major events, but at times incidents and conversations were reported with a degree of detail that I thought was a little “suspicious” as if someone had been standing nearby with pen and pad recording it all.
As there are no reference details provided, the possible source of the detail is left a mystery. In other WWI books I’ve read, its been made clear that dialogue between participants has occasionally be constructed from information found in soldiers’ diaries and letters.

At the end of the book, Perry mentions the statue of Bill that I referred to above, however by describing it as “life-sized” he makes it clear that he hadn’t seen it himself; unless Bill and the Light Horse members he saved were the size of garden gnomes.

Major Michael Shanahan

Major Michael Shanahan with nurses after his leg was amputated

Vera Brittain and the First World War

VB My 2015 reading year started off so well – but recently it hit an obstacle or two. I’ve continued with books about World War 1, but started committing myself to too many similar books at the same time.

A few years ago I started my first book blog with the hope that I’d be more disciplined with my reading and would always stick with a book until it was finished. Until that time I had a habit of starting books and then giving up on them if something that appeared more interesting came along.
Mostly I’ve kept up that discipline and the results can be seen in the lists of books I’ve completed over the years (see “books read” tab above).

It has now been two months since my last blog post – which also means two months since I finished a book. That changed last night when I reached the last page of Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge.

It’s a book that I picked up for some “easier” reading to give me a break from those that I’ve been struggling through for a while.

Recently I retrieved Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth from storage (most of my book collection is stacked in cupboards in the garage). I’ve had that book for around 30 years but still haven’t read yet. I sought it out again because it fits in with my current reading about the 1914-18 war.

Brittain’s brother Edward and some male friends enlisted, were sent to the Western Front and didn’t return. Brittain herself worked as a nurse. Her experiences led her to write her best-selling book and set her on a path of pacifism. Her story fits into a primary area of my war interest, which centres on the human cost with a special focus on those trying to pick up the pieces (such as stretcher bearers and nurses), and also the cost born by those who lost their loved ones to a brutal conflict.

Mark Bostridge’s book gives a brief summary of Brittain’s war time experiences: her attempts to write about those experiences in her diary, in fiction and later in Testament of Youth. Bostridge then gives the reader a glimpse of the various ways her story has been explored in other media, including TV and ballet and culminating with a recent film. He also offers insight into some of the unknowns surrounding Edward Brittain’s death, potentially finding answers that Vera herself was never able to discover.

The Price of Valour, by John Hamilton

price valourThe latest book in my Gallipoli quest is Price of Valour, a biography about Hugo Throssell VC.

Throssell, had survived some of the worst parts of the Gallipoli campaign. He was one of the few to live through the suicidal attack at the Nek, where wave after wave of charging Australian troops were cut to pieces by machine gun fire. Appeals to senior officers to stop the attack were rejected and the waves of troops sent to certain death continued. Only a few, Throssell included, managed to find cover and eventually edge their way back to safety.

Soon afterwards he became part of a move to take and hold “Hill 60”, where a partial trench was taken from the Turks who were kept apart from Australian troops only by a barrier of sandbags. The opposing sides attacked each other by throwing bombs into the trench occupied by their opponents. Survival meant catching the bomb before its short fuse burnt through and throwing it back to its source. Several men lost hands and arms during the several hours that this went on. Throssell was one of the few survivors, who despite being shot through the neck and his back peppered with bomb fragments, returned to the battle after being evacuated for medical attention. It was this involvement that earned him the Victoria Cross.

After the Gallipoli campaign he received a lengthy break for medical attention. During this time an attempt to correct a problem with his nose caused a penetration of his brain cavity from which fluid leaked and led to serious infection that caused problems throughout the rest of his life.

His final military experience was in Palestine where he was wounded again, but more tragically it was here that his brother Ric was killed. Later in the year he was part of the final assault on Jerusalem and was chosen to be part of the guard of honour when the victorious General Allenby entered the city.

Exalted to the status of hero after being award a Victoria Cross for actions at Gallipoli, after his return home he was soon pushed off the pedestal upon which he’d been placed, when he spoke out against war, saying that peace would never be achieved while some people could make substantial profits from war. This didn’t go down well in his conservative community, particularly after his marriage to writer Katherine Susannah Prichard, a committed socialist writer who became one of the earliest members of the Communist Party in Australia.

The effects of his war experience, the wounds he received, the legacy of a bungled wartime operation that gave him mild brain damage, the suspicions of his community, followed by the Great Depression when he fell into serious financial trouble – all led to his eventual suicide.

The book’s title is very appropriate and shows a different perspective of the glorious Anzac myth.

Flight Command by John Oddie

flight-command I first saw John Oddie in a documentary about official war artist Ben Quilty. Oddie was sitting for a series of portraits that are currently part of the After Afghanistan exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.*

The paintings of Oddie are haunting.  In Oddie’s words Quilty had “not only captured the worn-out air commodore… he had somehow seen and exposed the burden I was carrying and had yet to understand.”

When I knew that Oddie had written this autobiography, I added the book to my reading list, wanting to know more about the man and the “burden”  Quilty had revealed in his paintings.john oddie

After a short introduction into his family background, Oddie moves on to the difficult technicalities of learning to fly various types of aircraft. He covers both fixed wing and helicopters as he progresses through his training and into operational flying. Some of that went completely over my head but in doing so I was left in no doubt about the skill and determination needed to become an accomplished pilot, especially one flying under difficult and dangerous conditions.

As the pilot of a Chinook, one of those familiar, large double rotored helicopters, Oddie had the opportunity to be seconded to an RAF unit in Europe and during this time became part of Britain’s involvement with the first gulf war. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book relates to this period when the RAF (Oddie included) mislaid 14 Chinook helicopters.chinook

Later in the book Oddie moves on to the management side of his experience, as he progressed through the ranks and had to deal more with the bureaucratic aspects of the military. One thing seems clear, that he was intent on improving the way things were done to help his crews increase their efficiency and their safety.

One of Oddie’s more significant roles was overseeing the first response to the 2004 tsunami that devastated so many communities around the Indian Ocean. Oddie’s role was taking aid into Aceh, the worst hit region where around 160,000 lost their lives. Working 22 hour days, Oddie  organised the the aerial delivery of supplies and evacuation of survivors while acting as diplomat alongside the Indonesian military and other aid agencies (many of whom were determined to do things their own way despite the wishes of the local authorities).  I found this to be one of the more interesting parts of the book,  contrasting the earlier technical and bureaucratic elements with the emotional cost of a major disaster. Here is the first glimpse of the “burden” captured in Quilty’s portraits.

Oddie’s final operational military role was overseeing Australian involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a time of many challenges when several Australian servicemen lost their lives.  He writes:

In the eight months I was Deputy Commander JTF633, eight of our people were killed, and I reflect sadly on that price and the eight families damaged as a result…

…By the time I sat down to write this book, Australia had lost forty of its finest sons and over 250 had been injured. In total, including those with lasting emotional or mental damage, well over 300 families will be affected.

Flight Command gives an overview of a military career from recruitment to retirement; from the technical aspects of operating military hardware to dealing with personnel and reducing the risks they face in a high risk occupation. It also shows the emotional cost that is felt most keenly when constant pressure is removed.

What I initially thought was exhaustion from eight months of work in a stressful environment, I later felt was some emotional damage. This increasingly surfaced as the demands of being an active and present military leader faded.

For me the strong points of this book were the parts showing the more human aspects of Oddie’s military service, how people were affected by what they saw and what they did. And also the effects of knowing they couldn’t do enough when a need was too large or a bad situation was unpreventable.

It was the portrait of a haunted man that brought me to this book. While its intensity may not match the painting (for me there was too much technical information I couldn’t follow), we do get quite a bit of insight into the emotional cost of Oddie’s experiences and responsibilities.

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* Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan Exhibition:  http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/quilty/