“The only way I can pay back for what fate and society have handed me is to try, in minor totally useless ways, to make an angry sound against injustice.”
Everyone has their war; the one that haunts them, that defines their age, that walks beside them down the days like a silent shadow. For my Irish grandfather it was the Easter Rising, which saw hundreds of young Irishman stand up and fight for their country’s independence. For my father it was Vietnam, when war was played out in real time and war reporting came into its own, while photographers such as Don McCullin broke through rigid censorship to show the world, in lurid technicolour, the true horrors of modern warfare. For me, it was the Bosnian war of the early 1990s that brought the concept of death and brutality hurtling into my teenage world.
I had grown up reading books such as The Iliad, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, but these were fictional battles with clear-cut divisions between good and bad and were no more real than the ghost stories I loved or the jolly man in a red suit who popped down the chimney every 25th December.
In 1992 I turned thirteen. It was the year of the Barcelona Olympics, of Kurt Cobain, compilation tapes and first love. It was also the year of ethnic cleansing and massacres; of rape camps and horrors beyond anything my young mind had thus far encountered, and it was happening in a place I knew well, a place that I had always associated with beauty and happiness.
“This was a war without end, without resolution.”
For me, the Balkans was a magical place, a land of lakes and mountains and fairytale bridges. This was mainly due to my favourite aunt who holidayed in, what was then, Yugoslavia each year and would send me postcards that I kept in an old shoebox, depicting unspoilt beaches and pretty town squares with hanging baskets and long tables laid for dinner. At thirteen I was learning about the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo – the tinderbox that ignited the carnage that would be the First World War. It fascinated me how one man’s mistake – the driver had taken a wrong turn – could shape history and how the city of Sarajevo, whose pretty cafes I had longed to visit, was the place from which one of the bloodiest wars in living history had begun.
And so 1992 saw terror and beauty collide in the most heinous of ways and the picture postcard images I had lovingly collated were ripped apart and replaced with scenes of misery and despair. I was old enough now to watch the news and each night the images seemed to get worse and worse: broken bodies, sobbing mothers clutching children to their chests as they fled burning homes; emaciated figures with dead eyes staring out from behind barbed wire fences. This was war played out in real time – my time, our time – the time I was living through, growing up against. This was a war without end, without resolution; it had yet to be neatly explained and packaged up inside a history book. It was happening now, minute-by-minute, hour by sickening hour, as the world watched.
Fast-forward a quarter of a century later and my nine-year old son is in tears in front of the TV screen as he watches the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi being lifted from the sea and laid onto a Turkish beach. He turns to me and asks why that tiny boy came to be on a boat fleeing his homeland. So I tell him about Syria and now my son has his war.
This horrifying conflict has become the war of our age and as I set out to write My Sister’s Bones I knew I would have to address it. As a mother, the plight of children trapped in war zones around the world chills my blood and through the character of Nidal I wanted to tell the story of a little boy who just wanted to play with his friends and feel safe, something every child deserves.
I also wanted to explore, through the recollections of the main character, war reporter Kate Rafter, the impact of war on the psyche. In the course of my research for this novel I discovered that the link between PTSD and war reporting has been woefully overlooked. I spoke to Dr Anthony Feinstein, a leading psychologist, who has worked with traumatized war journalists. He told me that when he started out there was almost no research being conducted into the link between PTSD and war reporting. I found this startling. However, when I spoke to journalists about this they said that very few of their peers would admit that they are having problems. Many reporters would rather bite their lip and carry on than to be seen to have ‘lost their nerve.’ This inspired me to shape the character of Kate Rafter and to show, through her experience in Syria, the traumas faced by war reporters in their work and how this affects their mental state.
My father was a journalist and his reports on the aftermath of the Beirut civil war really struck a chord with me when I was a child. I was brought up to believe that journalists write the first draft of history and I have long been in awe of female war correspondents such as Marie Colvin, Janine Di Giovanni and Martha Gellhorn, not least for the way they made themselves heard in such a male-dominated world and always sought the human story within the chaos and horrors of war. Through the character of Kate Rafter I wanted to show the strength and courage but also the fragility and humanity of the war reporter and her dogged quest to be heard will, I hope, serve as a timely reminder of how important it is, in the words of Martha Gellhorn, ‘to make an angry sound against injustice.’
This 1983 interview by John Pilger gives a taste of Martha Gellhorn’s extraordinary life and work.