Robert Fisk: Horrors we have no choice but to forget

Only a poet could come up with the idea of a poem that would clear amnesia
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The Independent Online

I have a clear memory of a terrible crime that was committed in southern Lebanon in 1978. Israeli soldiers, landing at night on the beach near Sarafand – the city of Sarepta in antiquity – were looking for "terrorists" and opened fire on a car load of female Palestinian refugees.

It took the Israelis a day before they admitted shooting at the car with an anti-tank weapons, by which time I had watched civil defence workers pulling the dead women from the vehicle, their faces slopping off on to the road, an AP correspondent holding his hands to his face in shock, leaning against an ambulance, crying "Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ. I suppose all this is because of what Hitler did to the Jews." Save for his remark, however, all I remember is silence. As if the whole scene was muted, sound smothered by the dead.

Yet I was running a tape recorder for part of the time, and when I listened to the old tape again a few days ago, I could hear many women, weeping, cars passing, honking horns above the shrieks of grief. My own original notes state, in my handwriting, that "a throng of women stood crying and wailing". Yet all I remember now is silence. A child was on a stretcher, cut in half, a girl in the back seat of the car, curled in death into the arms of an older woman. But silence.

I was reminded of all this by an especially powerful interview conducted at Cannes with the Israeli director Ari Folman, who has made a remarkable film – Waltz with Bashir – about Israel's later, 1982 invasion of Lebanon and about the "collective amnesia" of the soldiers who participated in this hopeless adventure.

Bashir Gemayel was the name of Israel's favourite Christian Maronite militia leader who was elected president but almost immediately assassinated. It's an animated film – a film of cartoons, if you like – because Folman is trying to fill in the empty space which the war occupies in his mind. Because he can't remember it.

"I never talked about my army service," Folman said. "I got on with my life without talking about it, without thinking about it. It was like something I didn't want to be connected with whatsoever." In one astonishing scene, Israeli soldiers come ashore in Lebanon – only to find that there is no one there. They are entering an empty country, washed clean of memory.

Alas, Lebanon was not empty; more than 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, almost all civilians, died in that terrible war, and at the end of Folman's movie, the animation turns to reality with photographs of some of the 1,700 Palestinian dead of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, murdered by Israel's Phalangist allies while the Israelis watched from high-rise buildings. It is Folman's dream that this film should be shown in an Arab country – given the dotage and stupidity of most Arab ministers, that is surely a hope that will not be realised – but it did almost win the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Amnesia is real. And it afflicts us all. But it is also a block to memory. Take my old letter-writing friend, poet Don Newton. He dropped me a note the other day, asking why humans have to create wars and mentioning, at the start, that he remembered the Second World War and, in 1944, Germany's V2 missiles. What grabbed me by the throat, however, was the penultimate paragraph of his letter, written with an eloquence I cannot match – and whose power and suddenness will shock you, as readers, just as it shocked me. This is what Don wrote:

"I saw some of my friends killed around me when I was 12, when a V2 punched into the road near where we were playing ... I was lucky and survived but ran over the road to find my father lying dead by our front gate. He looked for all the world like a grey, dusty broken puppet with his left arm laying next to him. It had been sliced off just above the elbow by a piece of shrapnel that had also cut through the oak gatepost behind him.

"Strangely enough, that sight seems to have wiped from my conscious mind all but a handful of memories of him and those are mostly unpleasant in their associations, like the time I burst into the toilet when I was only six, to find him sitting reading a newspaper, and blurted out that my younger brother by a year had been run over. Peter died in hospital the next day without ever recovering consciousness. This 'amnesia' is, I suppose, a defence mechanism but I find it weird and unable to break. I am struggling to put this problem into a poem and, hopefully, when it is out on paper maybe the fog will clear?"

I find this letter – horror and the mundane inextricably, unbelievably mixed together – unanswerable. The V2 explosion turns into a father's death, the interruption in the lavatory into a child's death. And a poem to clear the amnesia? Only a poet could suggest that. I didn't see my father die but I was sitting beside my own mother when she died from the results of Parkinson's. My memory is clear – she choked on her own saliva because she could no longer clear her throat – and I do remember sitting by her body and thinking (and here I quote another Israeli, a fine and brilliant novelist), "I'm next!"

So I turned, of course, to a haiku in Don's latest collection of poetry, The Soup Stone, called "Mum's Death, 1982" – the same date as Folman's Israeli invasion when he (and I) were trying to stay alive in Lebanon:

"Just sitting, waiting,

For your last slow breath.

Suddenly – it's here."

Which is about as close to death as you can get in verse. And there really is a silence at the end.

Robert Fisk's new book, 'The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings', a selection of his Saturday columns in 'The Independent', is published by Fourth Estate

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