World Have Your Say, World Service, Tuesday Outlook, World Service, Tuesday Soul Music, Radio 4, Tuesday

A cry for help on air from Homs as the bombs fall...then silence

Chris Maume
Sunday 12 February 2012 01:00

We tend to fancy ourselves as experts on pretty much everything these days, and the internet means the world can instantly tap into our wisdom.

Sometimes, of course, we don't know what we're talking about – and there was a fascinating divide on World Have Your Say, which on Tuesday devoted three programmes to the ongoing massacre in Syria, between those tweeting and emailing in from around the world and those on the spot.

The former, sitting cosily at their computers, were mostly against intervention; the latter were absolutely unequivocal: "We need your help!" cried Omar in Homs. "Our gods!" And as he was talking there was a huge explosion, then another, and another, and another, then silence. "Good heavens, Omar. Don't get yourself in danger for us," said Ben James in the studio in London. Silence. "Omar, are you still there?"

But for all the scary immediacy of the live updates, even more powerful was Tuesday's Outlook, also on the World Service, which featured Ammar Cheikh Omar, a doctor drafted into the Syrian army who found himself firing into the air when ordered to shoot at demonstrators.

Things got even worse for him when he was transferred to an interrogation unit, where he spent three months writing detainees' statements, which were being dragged out of them with beatings and electric shocks: "I wasn't writing what the detainee was saying, but what the officer was telling me to write: 'Yes, I was taking part in the demonstration ...'."

He also described how one soldier forced to fire on protesters came across a body in the street. It was his brother. As he began wailing, officers stepped in and took his rifle away. Thankfully for Omar, he eventually escaped to Turkey.

Deeply moving in a different way was Soul Music, which looked at "Gresford", or "The Miners' Hymn", written by a Northumberland pitman, Robert Saint, in commemoration of the 1934 Gresford disaster, when 265 Welsh miners died in an explosion which left most of them entombed and unreachable. The programme was a terrific mixture of reminiscences and an analysis of the tune itself, and what makes it so haunting.

There was lots of nice detail, too, such as the writer of a book about the "hymn" recalling meeting Saint as a child and asking his father about the little blue scars on the composer's cheeks. They were a legacy of coal getting into small cuts and scratches – "you could tell the miners by those little blue marks".

Max Roberts, who directed Lee Hall's play The Pitmen Painters, recalled how he had the entire cast come on stage and sing it in harmony at the end of his National Theatre production. It was the saddest but loveliest piece of music I've heard so far this year.

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