Time is a River Without Banks.

I sensed already that no good would come of Ann, my boss, visiting Belarus. We were together in Belgium the week before at a conference. We were in Place des Martyrs before going to visit the chapel where the statue known as Our Lady of Aberdeen is situated, Ann would not take a card featuring the statue of Mary with an anchor presented to Brussels by Catholics of Aberdeen . At that point I just knew.

I was having counselling at the time with a wonderful nurse as the stress of my work was still affecting me. I remember telling her that felt in my guts that Ann should not go to Belarus.

The day it happened, I was called to the office of my CEO who said she and Iain another colleague were missing presumed drowned. They decided to send me over to Belarus immediately. It is a good job I had my passport in my desk. I headed for London to get a visa. I was contacted at this point by a wonderful detective from Grampian Police. He offered to come with me as he knew about repatriation of human remains. He was a friend of my Dad’s. We met at Gatwick and the whole adventure started.

The British Embassy in Minsk failed to meet us on arrival. Just to add to the general madness, France were playing Belarus in a World Cup qualifier. This meant there were no hotel rooms to be had. I bribed our way into a suite. Then I bribed a random driver to take us the next day to Homiel.

By this time. they had found what remained of Ann. She had been dragged into the propellers of a boat and was dismembered. Iain was dragged down after her so he drowned and was found further down the river. They had dredged the river and found some ten other corpses. We have no idea to this day who they were.

Before going into the mortuary, I asked them to tell me what I was going to see. I wanted to minimise any shock. In true Belarusian fashion they thought I meant I did not want to see their private parts. They placed embroidered doylies strategically on each corpse like Belarusian folk art fig leaves. Somehow their doing so helped me get through it. I was kicked in the back by a leg of one of the corpses on stone slabs. But most of all,it was the smell I can’t forget. There was a forest of bodies and no refrigeration.

We identified what remained of Ann by fragments of her hair and one eye. There was so little of her left. Iain was on a slab, bloated through having been in the river for so long. They waved his right hand in my face. They were trying to get my confirmation that I recognised his wedding ring. Belarusians wear their wedding rings on the right hand. The Detective stood behind me in case I passed out.

He was no wimp. He had worked on the Piper Alpha Disaster but he cried. I didn’t. All I could think of was the families waiting at home for the return of their loved ones. I wish I had cried. I was sowing the seeds of PTSD without knowing it.

We had a meeting with the Homiel Council and I sensed who was involved  that day. Detective Inspector Neil said he could see in my body language who I knew was partly responsible. Apparently I leaned slightly across the table towards this man. According to Neil I scared the living daylights out of him by that one simple movement. It goes to show how precarious the balance of power can be.

Neil was all for getting in the international undertakers Kenyons to take over. I started kicking him under the table as I could sense how important it was for the Belarusians to be involved as they felt deeply responsible. I whispered “let them do this”. I dismissed the largely useless representatives from the British Embassy and went with my gut feeling that we could do this ourselves in partnership with our trusted Belarusian friends.

We needed to find aluminium to line the crates that the coffins would be transported in. They took us to a watch factory who donated not only enough aluminium but also plaques for the coffins. The coffins were provided by Belarusian carpenters.

Neil got to know the Belarusian Militia over a very drunken lunch. They were worried that he was investigating them which he was not. He had small key rings of handcuffs which he handed to each Belarusian policeman. He asked me to translate “this is for your wife”. It was a clever way of using police humour to build trust. He then decided to phone my Dad back in Scotland. He said “your daughter is a gem”.

The only time I cried was I was translating the death certificates on an ancient Soviet computer which kept crashing. I wanted to find a better word for “raschlenenye” than “Dismemberment” to make it easier for Ann’s family. There is no other word.

Given I had chartered a planeload of Aberdonians to visit their project partners in Belarus, there were a lot of us in the City at the time.  I arranged a memorial service at the Orthodox Cathedral so we could all mark this shocking event. My one major memory of this was the arrival on the scene of the man from the watch factory. He was rather drunk but he lurched his way to the front of the cathedral and crossed himself. It was his day off, but he wanted to pay his respects. This is the spirit of Belarus. They cared and felt personally responsible for what happened. It was not their fault.

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Homiel Cathedral

Neil and I drove behind the refrigerated lorry. It was a hot summer. We had to make sure the lorry was cold enough. It meant stopping off every ten minutes or to check the temperature.

The Belavia plane was not big enough to cope with the crates so we sent them via Frankfurt on Lufthansa. I met before that with our Ambassador Sir John Everard in a car park. I just said “give me blank letter headed paper with your signature on them so I can fill in any details they require”. At the airport I felt my handbag was heavier than it should be and realised that a kitten had attached herself to it.

I was still under the illusion that this was all a tragic accident. It was only when I got back to Aberdeen that, after a visit to my home late at night by the very drunk Leader of the Council who was there that day, I was made aware of what really happened that day.

What traumatised me was not the horrific scenes but the hypocrisy and the cowardice of those who sought to hide the truth. It instilled in me a lifelong loathing of people who live according to these warped ‘values’. These are themes that will recur in future blogs, from talking about the aftermath of the accident up until more recent times and my experiences with certain parts of the NHS.

Certainly, my life was changed forever by the experiences around the events of that day. I bear the scars even now and the fact I am writing this as an inpatient in hospital on my mobile is testament to this. Time, as Chagall described in his work, is indeed a river without banks and I may never reach the shore.

F2EBD9E2-6FD1-4C37-9578-48B323E0B525The River Sozh, Homiel Region, scene of the accident

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Don’t Mention the War

Part of my role as International Relations Officer at Aberdeen City Council was to help organise hospitality for foreign groups and individuals. This ranged from school groups to people like Mikhail Gorbachev. There were many levels of hospitality ranging from tea, and an Aberdeen rowie during the day, to the full shebang – met at the airport by a piper and an evening “do” with dinner, entertainment, and general expensive jollification. There was also a very nice dining room in the Old Town House where foreign delegations would be treated to silver service lunches.

There was bureaucratic rigmarole involved of course. I will try to unravel the lump of cold spaghetti that represents the relatively simple (one might think) process of issuing invitations. I will try to be succinct. Here was the process.

  1. I shared admin staff with the Lord Provost from whom the invitations ostensibly came.
  2. Admin Officer would don her “Lord Provost’s Secretary” hat and start handwriting the invites often to receptions I had organised myself, so I did not require an invite as to my mind it was part of my job to be there.
  3. I would occasionally catch her handwriting an invite to myself. I would try to wrestle it from her but no, there was a process to be gone through.
  4. My invite would be put in an envelope, addressed to me, and put in the internal mail which was then sent across the road to St Nicholas House where the proletariat worked. It would then be franked and sent back across the road to me to the same office and land on the very same desk, where it had started its journey.
  5. The very same admin person would then don her “Alison’s PA” hat and would personally open the same envelope she herself had sealed. It would be logged in my mail book and then at that stage it would finally arrive in my in tray.

I could not believe no-one questioned any of this. It was like something out of Gogol.

Now to the receptions themselves. Funnily, there was never any problem getting Councillors to attend the evening shindigs. All the liquid spirits being doled out on trays by waitresses were automatically double measures and many a Councillor would pour three of those into the one glass.

The problem I had was getting anyone at all to come along and greet groups of students for example, being received during the day where all that was on offer was tea and the ubiquitous Rowie.

Visual aid

rowie

I used to have to leg it along the corridor to the Councillors’ Lounge where what I called the “Politburo” would spend all day dribbling and enjoying all the free food. I would be carrying the solid gold civic chain, determined to find at least one of them compos mentis enough to represent the Lord Provost to welcome the group. This was never ever easy.

One day I got it badly wrong. We were welcoming a group of students from Dresden and there was no-one around at all to do the official bit. Then I spotted an ‘elder statesman’ whom I will call Jimmy. He was a Tory Councillor who for some weird reason always addressed me in Arabic. He was incontinent so you had to be mindful of where you sat in the lounge. He also smelled like the Aberdeen fishmarket but needs must. I shoved the gold chain around his neck, unstuck him from his seat and virtually dragged him through to the formal reception rooms.

They were very earnest East Germans. Their translator tried to make conversation with Jimmy.

Has Herr Burgermeister ever been to Dresden?.

It was at this point a shiver went down my spine as I suddenly remembered Jimmy’s role in the RAF during the war. Too late….

No, but I HAVE seen it.

My life started flashing before me along with an image of John Cleese.

It looked very nice just before we bombed the smithereens out of it….

Fail on my part. Definite fail.

Sometimes it was not my fault however. My Chairman at this time was known locally as Marco Polo such was his fondness for “fact-finding missions” overseas. He travelled so often and was of a “certain age”, that he would sometimes forget which country we were in. For that reason, I will call him that throughout this tale.

On this occasion he was leading our delegation on an official visit to our Twin City of Regensburg in Bavaria. The whole of Scotland had been linked with Bavaria in 1948. Our Councillors LOVED it there. No work at all, lots of free beer and general carousing in the guise of forging international friendship and understanding.

Regensburg

There was a clue at breakfast that all was not at all well with our Marco Polo. He announced

I am awa oot for some Francs.

I was sitting with a lovely Councillor who was a fire fighter and so actually attached to reality unlike some of them. I clocked it immediately

Did you hear that?

The Councillor was not unduly worried.

It’ll be a slip of the tongue.

I thought to myself:

I think we’re in trouble.

It was our final day, so the local Oberburgermeister and Burgermeisters were gathered to give us a final reception at which Marco Polo was due to give a speech. A number of those were rather elderly distinguished gentleman who would have seen active service of various sorts with the Wehrmacht at the very least. I downed a few Franconian wines as I just knew it was all going to go badly wrong.

Marco Polo got up to make his farewell speech on our behalf.

I downed another glass.

He commenced thus, in particularly poor French

I would just like to say, Mercy Boocoop pour le Hospitalitay.

Stunned silence. He was however on a roll.

And it all reminds me of the day I led the victory parade through the streets of Bordeaux having notched up more than a few dead Nazis on my rifle.

A chill descended. I had been doing the Nancy Reagan thing of standing behind him hissing

It’s Germany. We’re in Germany but to no avail.

We were ushered to Munich airport pretty sharpish after that.

There were very many more incidents of cringingly embarrassing behaviour by our City Fathers eg Councillor B asking via a PA system at an international conference in Belarus  for a penknife as

I want to scrape ma feet.

Cue Japanese delegation leaving to commit Hare Kiri in the car park.

And we nearly lost one in the Zambezi. I think we took a hippo back by mistake as they were similar in shape and the level of debate from him improved dramatically on our return.

But the most shameful incident of all is what led to the death of my colleagues in Belarus and the conduct of the Councillors but particularly the then Leader. I believe I will soon be ready to talk about this in full, but that is for another time.