CAN YOU SHARE A LITTLE OF YOUR CURRENT WORK WITH US?
This piece was written while I was working with refugees with disabilities in the camps of Southern Azerbaijan. I am currently putting all my many articles together in a memoir:
THE RAILWAY CHILDREN OF SAATLI by Caroline Kennedy
Through the heat haze reflecting off the carriage roofs, through the belching smoke from the nearby asphalt factory, through the dustclouds whipped up by the unrelenting winds, you can catch a fleeting sight of them. Like phantoms, blurred, pallid, vague silhouettes, now here, now there, wafting in and out from behind the ancient railway wagons. Nimble, agile, fleet of foot. One moment in sight, a wisp of smoke, a puff of soot, then gone. Unreachable. Untouchable.
But when the air clears, there they are again. Or are they ? Is it my imagination? Are they an illusion, a mirage ? Could the dwindling light, the shadows, the dustclouds be playing games with the wind, perhaps ?
But here they are, approaching me, seemingly hordes of them, though, in reality, probably far fewer. Closer now they come, grubby, barefooted
figures of young children, bare, fleshless arms outstretched towards me. Clothes ragged, hair matted, limbs encrusted by soot. But it’s their eyes that catch my attention. Not the normal eyes of children. These eyes are unresponsive, dulled by hunger, by lack of motivation, by boredom. They are lustreless, unflickering eyes of children, old beyond their years, some born, some growing up, all living on the railway lines of Saatli.
Home to these children are abandoned railway wagons, no more than corroded metal junk heaps, destined decades ago for the scrap merchant’s yard. Windowless, airless, dank. No ventilation, no light,
not even the winds penetrate these dark hovels. Life inside these improvised dwellings is lived in perpetual darkness. Stifling in summer when the brutal rays of the sun blister everything in their grip. Freezing in winter when the ill-fitting sliding doors offer no protection against the bitter, howling gales and the persistent snowstorms.
The only shade now - not trees, for there are none here - but the back-breaking space beneath the wagons. Here the weak ones sit, day after day, singly and in groups, hunched up, cramped, listless, pitiful. The lack of animation evident in their dispirited expressions, their vacant
stares and their inability to brush away the invading army of flies which voraciously seek out their eyes, their mouths and any available open sore on their bent and feeble bodies.
Under a white shroud, like a mummified corpse, lies a woman the impoverished medical system in this country has either forgotten, neglected or, deliberately, ignored. Mind confused, right side paralysed by a minor stroke, she lies, day after day, mumbling words only she can understand. A despairing old man, her husband, puts his ear to the faintly moving lips beneath the veil covering her face, vainly trying to
interpret their meaning. He shakes his head, desolate, for he can do nothing for her but watch over her and caress her shrivelled, veined hand. A small disabled boy lies next to her, dribbling, moaning, wretched, his unfocussed eyes infested by the myriad flies.
I watch this scene, moved and saddened, yet somehow transfixed. Reluctant to intrude but, nevertheless, wanting to be a part of it. I move closer. At the same time, voyeur and participant, observer and player, detached yet intimately involved.
And, as I squat down beside them a cast of characters crawl in and out from under this wagon. A heavily pregnant mother, panting furiously, brow sweating, her swelling draped in purple nylon, heaves her weighty
body under the train and settles herself gratefully in the shade. An old woman, doubled up by age and defeated by years of arthritis, drags her distorted limbs painfully under the carriage, sinking, with a sigh, onto the temporary coolness of the metal track. A young man, a soldier from the war with Armenia, his left leg blown off by a recent encounter with a
landmine, discards his ancient crutches, stumbles forward, then flops inelegantly down onto the ground beside her. Turkeys, geese, hens, ducks, cats and dogs, ever willing to fill their empty, worm-infested
bellies, scratch for crumbs of food among the feet of this motley cast.
The children have joined me now. In swarms they come, hurtling up the track, pursuing me with chants of “Arnu Swarznegger, Bruze Lee, Junclode Vundam!” Simulating karate chops, high kicks and beefcake muscles, they have suddenly come alive. For one brief moment, no different from children anywhere. For foreigners are few here and so arouse immediate curiosity. Those that do come rarely stay. Few have time to sit for a while, to chatter, to play and, above all, to listen. They come with nothing and they leave with nothing, for the railway wagons are inhospitable, uninviting and offer little in the way of comfort to the visitor.
The children, their dead eyes sparkling now, jostle around me, pushing, shoving, touching, eager to get a closer look. One or two grasp my hands, help me to my feet, lead me on. Others, naturally shy, hold back, quietly observing me from a distance.
I spend some time here, with my new friends. But can I really call them my “friends” when I know, in no time at all, I shall be leaving them ? I shall go home and, in all probability, I will forget them. And yet, I know there is this feeling, they will continue to haunt me, these railway children of Saatli, these images of despair, so young, so vulnerable, so needy.
It is evening now. Dusk’s shadows, distorted and kicked in all directions by the unpredictable winds, throw dancing patterns over the broiling, dusty ground, flickering images, like a monochromatic kaleidoscope. The sun, falling in the west, vast, shimmering and aflame, paints the sky cinnamon. Plumes of cinder smoke, gusting from the factory chimney stack, release a delicate network of fluffy ashen threads across its sinking path.
I watch in silence, holding a child’s hand, as the gently fading rays turn to a soft, golden apricot before finally being swallowed up by the welcoming earth. I squeeze that little hand in mine. I must go home now. Night comes swiftly here in Saatli. But no matter how dark it becomes, no matter where I am, wherever I go I will still see those children’s eyes, not normal children’s eyes. Eyes of children, old beyond their years.
Caroline Kennedy is the In-Country Co-ordinator of Leonard Cheshire International in Azerbaijan, working with refugees with disabilities.
WHAT GENRE ARE YOU MOST COMFORTABLE WRITING IN?
I love reading fiction but I definitely prefer writing non-fiction. I think this is because I have always been fascinated by people’s personal stories. Sometimes these stories can truly be stranger than fiction. I believe there is something unique in everyone’s life. And that everyone’s life is worth documenting. It’s incredible to me how often I have heard someone say, “Oh, your life sounds so extraordinary. Mine is very boring and mundane in comparison.” And yet, if I talk to that person long enough I can always find something special and unique that is worth writing down. This, for me, is the thrill of writing non-fiction.
HAVE YOU EVER HAD WRITER’S BLOCK? AND, IF SO, WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT IT?
Yes, indeed, I have had writer’s block. Sometimes it can last not just weeks but months. I used to stress about it a lot and try to force myself to write when clearly nothing was going to emerge on the page. I have since learnt the best way to deal with writer’s block is to ignore it, find something else creative to do – in my case making elaborate belts, necklaces and bags - anything just to keep my fingers busy and my mind off the fact that I have temporarily lost the ability or the desire to write. This usually works for me. And, at least, when I finally the words do start flowing again, I have produced something in the interim that is creative and that I can sell or give away as presents.
WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPIEST?
I love to travel. I love to meet new people, see new places, taste new food and learn about different cultures, religions and customs. Living and working with refugees with disabilities and with indigenous communities gives me so much pleasure. Listening to their stories, learning about their lives and seeing for myself how content they are with what we, in the West, would consider so little. So many of us forget today that simple living can often be the most satisfying life to lead. I would love one day to show my grandchildren how to live simply and how much pleasure there is in scaling down one’s life to the minimum.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE FICTION AUTHOR?
Currently my favourite author is Rohan Mistry whose towering novels about India are so vivid, so descriptive and so visual that I can totally immerse myself and believe I am there experiencing everything he is writing about. I end up knowing the characters so well and empathizing with them. I feel their pain, their anguish, their sorrow, their joys and their afflictions. There is so much going on in his books, like a vast kaleidoscope of sounds, smells, colours, life and death. I would love to write such epic novels – fiction, so true in every minute detail, that it seems like non-fiction.
WHERE DO YOU GET INSPIRATION FROM?
Since I write mostly non-fiction I get my inspiration from life in its many shapes and forms. I observe people. I listen to conversations. I like to blend into the background so people don’t notice me. That way I can be like a video camera, overhearing, watching, recording mental notes in my head and then scribbling them down later. Not, of course, in any sinister way but simply as a fascinated observer. I love the process. I learn so much from watching and listening to others.
IS YOUR FAMILY SUPPORTIVE?
Yes, I have been very fortunate. My son is a producer and is encouraging me to write so, perhaps, one day he can produce something I’ve written. My two daughters often tell me they are proud of me. One of my nephews is very positive about my current book. One sister did complain, “Oh no, you’re not writing THAT story again!” I think her main problem with this particular book is that she is staunchly Conservative and it shows up the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan as a vindictive government bent on the destruction of one innocent man to cover up their own misdeeds.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO TO MAKE MONEY FROM OTHER THAN WRITING?
I have actually been “retired” for the past ten years while living in Costa Rica. But while living there I have been very active in the local English Language Theatre. I have been President of the theatre for 3 years and have directed 3 plays and acted in several more. I also worked with indigenous Bribri groups in the Talamanca mountains of Costa Rica, putting their lives and legends into dramatic form. Before that I was a humanitarian aid worker, working with refugees with disabilities in Bosnia and Croatia during the war and then in Azerbaijan. I loved that work.
LOCATION & LIFE EXPERIENCES – WHERE DID YOU GROW UP AND WHERE DO YOU NOW LIVE?
I grew up between Surrey in southern England and the Highlands in the far north of Scotland. I would say I had a very idyllic childhood in both places. But I had itchy feet from a very early age and couldn’t wait until I left school at 16 to adventure abroad by myself. I lived in New York for three years and worked as the producer of an all-night Talk radio programme on 1010 WINS New York. Then I travelled alone around the world, taking the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia and Siberia. I lived in the Philippines for 3 years, working as TV and pring journalist, before heading back to the UK. I currently spend my time between Los Angeles, Costa Rica, the UK and Newfoundland. Travelling every 3 months seems to calm my restless spirit.
WHAT SCARES YOU THE MOST?
What scares me the most is the American love of guns and the callous attitude of the NRA towards background checks, weapons in the home and massacres of innocent people, including children. What scares me is their intransigence to any sort of gun control and their only solution to children being gunned down in schools is handing out yet more guns to teachers. This scenario is very scary to me.
DO YOU PLAN TO PUBLISH MORE BOOKS?
No, I have no plans at present to write another book, other than my memoirs, written more for my family and friends than for general readership. I won’t categorically state I will never write another book. Simply that I am concentrating right now on completing a screenplay and that will take me a few more months. So I can’t really predict beyond that what irresistible subject, like Stephen Ward, might arise that I would be eager to dedicate another four years of my life to.
WHAT IS HARDEST – GETTING PUBLISHED, WRITING OR MARKETING?
Until independent publishing took off I would definitely say the hardest task was getting published. It seemed to be a chicken and egg situation. No agent, no publisher. No publisher, no agent. I was extremely fortunate in that I had a successful author who became so excited by my research when I showed it to him that he immediately called his publisher to tell him he must publish the book. The publisher, Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, needed no persuasion. He became hooked and was 100% supportive and certain it would become a best-seller. I hadn’t actually written a word, I had no agent and yet here I was talking to a top publisher who was more excited than I was! Now, these days, with the growth of independent publishing, it is easy to publish a book. The hard part is marketing it. I think one needs to be very tech savvy and familiar with all the social networks to make a success of it. Unfortunately I am neither.
IF YOU COULD HAVE A DINNER PARTY AND INVITE ANYONE – DEAD OR ALIVE – WHO WOULD YOU INVITE AND WHY?
For the living guests I would invite Rachel Maddow because I love politics and I would dearly love to have been a political journalist. And Maddow is simply the best and brightest of all of them all today.
I would invite Imelda Marcos (former First Lady of the Philippines) because I have written scathingly about her numerous times in the past. I feel I owe her at least a decent dinner for never having had me thrown in gaol or had me assassinated as was the fate of many of her other enemies. And, let’s face it she is very entertaining.
I would invite Eddie Izzard because he has the funniest one-liners in the business and would poke fun at Imelda and keep us in hysterics the whole night and, thus, prevent the conversation from ever becoming too serious.
For guests who have died, I would love to have met the writer, adventurist, diplomat, great English eccentric and my secret heroine, Gertrude Bell who felt equally at home “sitting in a palace with Kings as she did squatting with nomads in a tent in the desert.” I feel equally at ease in all these situations too so would be fascinated to meet her and listen to her and exchange notes.
My next guest would be Oscar Wilde, also known for his one-liners, his acerbic wit and his irreverence. It would be delightful to hear his views on the current marriage equality laws.
And my final guest would have to be, of course, Stephen Ward. I have often wondered how he would react to someone who has taken five years out of her life to prove to the world that he was innocent of all charges and who is still working towards having his conviction overturned.
"How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward" is a major expose of a government cover-up that has lasted half a century. It is a powerful story of sexual compulsion, political malice and ultimate betrayal. A number-one bestseller when it came out in 1987 under its original title, "An Affair of State", the book reveals never-before-heard testimony that has been uncovered by the authors in the years since the scandal broke.
Using startling new evidence, including Ward’s own unpublished memoirs and hundreds of interviews with many who, conscience-stricken, have now spoken out for the first time, this important account rips through a half-century cover-up in order to show exactly why the government, the police forces, the Judiciary and the security forces decided to frame Stephen Ward. Stephen Ward is now the subject of an upcoming Andrew Lloyd-Weber musical and this book offers a wider perspective on its complex, central character as well as a broader insight into one of the greatest scandals of the past 100 years.
As the authors’ research reveals, Ward’s “trial of the century” was caused by an unprecedented corruption of justice and political malice which resulted in an innocent man becoming a scapegoat for those who could not bear to lose power. This is an epic tale of sex, lies, and governmental abuse whose aftermath almost brought down the government and shook the American, British, and Soviet espionage worlds to their core. With its surprising revelations and meticulous research, Ward’s complete story can finally be told.
Buy Now @ Amazon
Genre – Politics, Espionage, Scandal
Rating – PG-16
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