Vanni

Vanni,
Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock
Myriad Editions & New Internationalist

New Internationalist and Myriad Editions have collaborated on another graphic reportage work, following the fascinating and moving Escaping War and Waves by Olivier Kugler last year (reviewed here). In Vanni Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock explore the tragedies of a land that should be the very image of a tropical paradise, Sri Lanka, starting with the natural catastrophe of the 2004 tsunami, then later the years and years of the grinding civil war in that island, which saw thousands of deaths, disappearances, tortures and other atrocities and masses of displaced civilians caught in the middle, killed, maimed, driven from their homes once more, but this time by human-made disasters, not the anger of the waves.

We get to know Antoni and his family, from the grandmother to the youngest kids, living in a simple but happy life in their wee village on the coast, where fishing provides a living. The Tamil Tigers, fighting against the Sri Lankan army and government which has a long record of treating Tamil people as second class citizens. While understanding the struggle, Antoni and his family are as wary of the Tigers as they are of government troops, and for good reason – they don’t want the young men of their family to be co-opted into the fighting, but of course, inevitably their family is drawn into it (in extremely upsetting scenes later on the Tigers resort to raiding villages and refugee camps, press-ganging any women or men of the right age into service against their will, including some of the young women of the family).

The threat may be on the horizon, but before the war expands to swallow their world, first nature delivers a terrifying event with the tsunami. Pollock’s mostly monochrome artwork moves from smaller panels to four pages with very big panels, the large format of the book (almost quarto sized, I think), allowing the art to really shine. Those four pages utilise the large panels and no dialogue, just “silent” imagery as the wave arrives. The terrified villagers are trying to escape inland, but the angry ocean is far too swift; some desperately make for the roof of the one really solid building, the stone church (their own homes being much flimsier). In four large panels the wave rears up as it strikes the land, washing over trees, buildings, people, the irresistible, awful power of nature made abundantly clear. The following two pages remain free of dialogue, depicting the ruined landscape and shattered village left by the passage of the mighty wave. It is simple and powerful and awful; a terrifying depiction of how vulnerable we are in the face of nature.

The aftermath is extremely emotional, both in story and art – Pollock skilfully depicts the “thousand yard stare” of some of the survivors. Any of us who have been sudden, shocking events such as a bad accident, a sudden death in the family, a fire, will be familiar with that expression that clearly signals the utter shock of your world being ripped apart, the grief, the numbness, the feeling of what just happened, how could it happen, how could things become so terrible so quickly? It’s a form of PTSD, and that is an internal scar on mind and soul that never truly goes away. In another, later scene one of the younger lads of the family, tired of refugee camps, returns to the sea and swims. As he dives under the water his village re-appears on the shore, as it was before, but when he surfaces and looks, all he sees is wreckage and refugee tents; it’s gone for good, and the momentary peace being in the sea gave him vanishes as quickly as the illusion of his old home.

Worse is to come as the civil war grows though. The refugee camps, already struggling, are over-burdened by new columns of civilians fleeing the fighting, and, as in every way our species has ever wages, those civilians often get caught in the cross-fire, shells and bombs hitting the camps. Supposedly by accident, and of course some may be accidental, but as the human rights violations rise it is obvious that some of the attacks on the camps are part of a deliberate fear campaign, with no regard for civilian lives, both sides committing atrocities in the name of their respective goals, both supposedly fighting “for the people” but in reality not giving a damn about those actual people who are suffering and dying.

There are many scenes here which are hard, as you would expect from this subject matter. Not only major scenes of death and destruction, but smaller scale depictions – refugees hobbling in their columns, some missing limbs from bombings and mines, the looks on the faces of children and adults, the obsessive over-protection of some of the older members of the family to the children, clinging to them, not letting them leave the tent or their sight for fear of another attack or disaster claiming them, desperately trying to protect what little is left to them and terrified that in the end they won’t be able to do so; the feeling of panic and helplessness is palpable. In other scenes we see torture and execution – even here though, while not shying from showing the shocking events, Pollock, I noticed censored part of his art where two victims are forced to strip naked to humiliate them before being shot, a small touch, but one I found moving, as the artist attempted to give those men at least a tiny shred of dignity.

Vanni is very much inspired by Spiegelman’s Maus and the graphic reportage of Joe Sacco – Dix, in fact, mentions these in his own notes in the book, and how he read some of these works while he was in Sri Lanka with the UN relief agencies. The characters are fictionalised here, but the stories are real enough, taken from many personal interviews with eyewitnesses (now scattered around the world from India to France, Britain and Canada as asylum seekers), the names and elements of the stories altered somewhat to protect the and their family members who are still in Sri Lanka from potential vengeful retribution from the government there, a government which still downplays the huge scale of the civilian atrocities during the war and their own culpability in it to this day (their continued denials makes it all the more important that books like this give voice to the victims).

No, this is not an easy read, and you may well ask, why do some of us read books like Vanni or Maus or Footsteps in Gaza when we know how upsetting it will be? Personally I have always subscribed to the old adage of “bearing witness” – if you cannot change events (and clearly we cannot with past historical events) then you at least try to bear witness to them, to be aware of them and make others aware, not to let the conspiracy of silence blanket those events and hide the foul deeds of the perpetrators from the eyes of the world. The comics medium is, I think, remarkably well-suited to exploring these kinds of tales in an accessible manner, and Vanni can hold its head up alongside the likes of Sacco for giving a voice to those most of the world has forgotten, to share their cautionary tale of how quickly a seemingly stable, normal society can tear itself apart and its people with it.

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees,
Olivier Kugler,
Myriad Editions / New Internationalist


The children are nervous… When they hear any noise, even if you only knock at the door, they can get very afraid.”

The world is currently experiencing its one of its worst refugee problems since the Second World War, with masses of people being displaced through war, famine, economic poverty and more. You’d hope by this point, in the 21st century, humankind would have learned and moved on from this sort of wretchedness, but no. And apart from the physical and practical problems of countries coping with a mass influx of often desperate refugees, there are those who shamelessly use such an awful situation to whip up xenophobic hatred, turned to their own cynical purposes to garner political and popular support. German creator Kugler does something which is desperately needed, puts a very human, very personal face onto some of those refugees.

We see in the news regular statistics – this many drowned in a ricket boat crossing to Europea, this many in camps, this many asking for asyulm in countries that are worried about the impact of so many so quickly, even in nations who have traditionally been open and inviting. Kugler does not pretend to have answers to these enormous practical and ethical problems, what he does here is give us people, not statistics, not some politician’s ideologically driven rhetoric. People. Men, women, kids, families. People just like us, like our friends, our families, our neighbours, our communities.

The images we see from the news, even by the most well-intentioned journalists, often gives a distorted view. We see people grubbing in the mud of a camp like the infamous Jungle in Calais, or an overflowing city of tents in Kurdistan, and those images can give us the wrong impression, make us judgemental in the same we it is too easy to be when seeing someone begging or sleeping rough on our own city streets. We don’t know the stories behind those images, behind those people, what they have endured, are still enduring. Kugler gives us that, and does his level best to do so without interjecting himself – there is a very clear desire by the author to make sure that as much as possible he presents these people in their own words.

Many of these refugees are well-educated folk from a decent background, college-educated with degrees, a nice family, pretty home (one speaks movingly of missing their little vegetable garden by their home, where they grew oranges and lemons right by the house, home now gone, even the trees that grew for years ripped up by the uncaring war). There are teachers here, lawyers, computer specialists, nurse, doctors, even psychologists like Suzan who helps MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers, the same charitable organisation many of you will remember Guy Delisle’s wife working for in his comics travelogues).

Kugler goes to various locations to talk first hand to people who have had to flee Syria, some because the war came literally to their doorstep (if they were lucky they all escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs, if they were unlucky they escaped after shells had killed some of their family in front of them), taking us from Kurdistan to the Greek island of Kos, to the “Jungle” camp in Calais, to Britain and Germany where some of the refugees have been allowed to settle, the most fortunate reunited with other family members already there, he takes us from those struggling in overflowing tented camps where charities and local authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, to those trying to make a new life for themselves in Europe.

It’s often heartbreaking, especially hearing from the children. Not for the first time I was reminded of the late, great Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, from the WWII Italian campaign when they came across a village where a child had become a casualty of the fighting; “the adult world should forver hang its head in shame at what is has done to children” commented Spike, and he wasn’t wrong. But while much of this is, as you might imagine, very upsetting, this is balanced with that quality we all need, especially these days: hope. We see the fortunate make new homes for themselves; they miss their old hometown, their country, but they are relieved to be in a place that is safe, where their children can go to school and thrive.

Several times the kids briefly forget the traumas their young eyes have seen and grow excited like any other child, telling Kugler what they want to be when they grow up and leave school (“a nurse!” “an engineer!!”). The fact they can overcome those traumas and think about a future again, to play and dream of being a doctor or an engineer when they are older, is a wonderful thing to see in those children. In an especially touching scene Kugler visits some in Germany – the kids of the family now go to his old school.

Rather than a series of sequential panels, Kugler opts more for (mostly) coloured sketches taking up an entire page, or sometimes running across two pages, with text telling the person’s own story, rather than speech bubbles. Thoughtfully these chunks of text running around the art are numbered to make it easier to follow around the art layout. The sketches themselves tend to focus on characters central in the image, they are depicted with the most detail, the colouring, and most importantly, the expressions, coming through clearly, while around the periphery details and people there are sketchier, not as detailed, perhaps not even coloured in.

It felt as if the artist was using this approach to hint that for every couple of people he talked to, centre on the stage of the page, there were so many others around the edge; he can’t talk to them all but he can infer to the reader that they are there and the too matter. There are small details added in like a little arrow pointing to something small in the background and text explaining “chocoalt bar”, “plastic flowers”. It all serves to normalise these unusual scenes, the bric-a-brac of everyday life scattered around just like it would be anywhere.

There is also a remarkable amount of hospitality and welcome shown here by many refugees. As Kugler explains not everyone wants to be drawn or photographed, understandably given their circumstances (many still have family back in war-torn Syria and fear anything they say could cause trouble for family still there). But many, even those in the regugee camps with so little to their name, still do their best to offer warm hospitality when he visits. One man who had managed to make himself a wee business while stuck in the camps, running a small stall selling coffee, drinks and other snacks sees him standing in the cold and mud waiting on his interpreter to arrive, and offers him hot, sweet coffee, refusing payment. Others, in tents or in homes in Birmingham or Simmozheim, Kugler’s home village in Germany welcome him into their homes, be they tents in a camp or actual homes in the country managed to get asylum in.

Even for those settled in Europe the scars are horribly visible, both physical (one man shows his bullet wounds), others mental (children still scared when they hear a helicopter passing overhead, or the sudden roar of a train going over a bridge as they walk under it. Again I was reminded of Milligan, how his nerves shattered by the war, he would find himself in tears of sudden fear just from the sudden sound of a car exhaust backfiring). God knows what some of them have been through – despite many opening up to Kugler, it’s obvious this is barely scratching the tip of the iceberg. We all know how bad a place we can be in when dealing with emotional upsets – illness, losing a loved one – and how emotionally hard it is to cope, and that is us with our home, rest of our family and friends around us. Imagine having those kinds of traumas and losing your home, the town you lived in destroyed, having to flee your own land and throw yourself out hoping desperately for help.

That’s what Kugler does so well here, he enables us to see these people not as a news story, not as statistics, not as demonised figures, but to show us people, people we can see ourselves in, we can empathise with. And from empathy comes compassion and more understanding, and god knows our world desperately needs those right now. This is not an easy read, it’s emotionally hard-going, but very worth making that effort; it’s a much-needed riposte to the demonising and hatred we see poured at some refugees, and a reminder of that old saying, there but for the grace of God go I. How swiftly could everything we think is normal be destroyed just as it was for these people? Home, work, school, going to a restaurant, the movies, day out with the kids? Suddenly all gone. And how desperate would we be, how much would we rely on our fellow humans to show kindness if it were us in such a situation? No, this is not an easy read, but it is, I would say, a very important read.