Together we can reach the top of the castle.

A person’s problem looms large but it is only a part of that person. We need to enlist and unleash the rest. You cannot mobilize on a deficiency any more than you can build on quicksand
Edgar Cahn
Author of “No More Throwaway People” & founder of the Timebanking movement.

Our work with our Sister City Bulawayo in Zimbabwe seemed to me to be based on a premise that we with the money and therefore the power, somehow had the right to dictate to those with less wealth and therefore less power, what was good for them. We expected nothing in return but a large dollop of gratitude. Right from the start I felt in my guts that this approach was wrong, that it was patronising and wasteful of the resources I could see were in abundance in the two communities in receipt of our largesse namely Homiel in Belarus, and Bulawayo.

I ended up on the receiving end of decisions regarding what was good for me, made by the largely well-meaning who held power over me after I became ill. I knew to my cost how it led me to be even more disconnected from any of my strengths as I became nothing but a bundle of needs to be met, and symptoms to be managed.

I knew at least that my early thinking that this was a wasteful and ultimately damaging view.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

How did I learn to challenge the belief that compassion meant sympathy and was often more about the ego of the giver than the welfare of the recipient?

In the 1990s I was extremely privileged to be asked to arrange a visit to Aberdeen by a group of pupils from the King George VI Memorial school in Bulawayo. This was a special school in very many ways. It was for children and young people living with disabilities. They were in the UK to take part in a specially adapted Adventure holiday in Devon and they wanted to take some time to visit us in their Sister City.

My colleague who ran our Bulawayo Trust organised for the group to stay with young people with Learning Disabilities at the Rudolf Steiner School on the outskirts of Aberdeen and they helped me with the programme. It was my first experience working with the LD community and I noted that involving the took us down more creative and unexpected routes than I would have come up with by myself. They had the idea of showing the group one of our “indigenous crafts” and so introduced the group and me to a traditional “bucket mill” making wooden buckets out of wood turned using a water wheel.

I loved this group from the start. They were all highly motivated and determined. What I learned from the most however was that each pupil had a skill or ability that could be of use to one of the other pupils. Thus Thandiwe who was a wheelchair user due to having brittle bones disease had been taught sign language. She was the interpreter to the deaf pupil Umpumelelo who in turn, being able-bodied, helped Thandiwe get around in her wheelchair. I loved this assets-based approach that stressed the fact that we all, irrespective of what else is going on, have something important to give, if only the conditions were in place to allow us to do so. This became an important part of my own “journey” out of the passivity of becoming disabled myself, in my case having long-term mental health issues due to trauma

We took the group to Crathes Castle. We had a Scottish Tourist Guide showing us around and she, albeit in a kindly manner, announced that there was “no way” the disabled kids would be able to get up the spiral stairs. I mean there was even a trip stair designed to make the English invaders fall over and so give the Scots upstairs more time to either get out or get ready to fight. These kids were fighters too. As soon as their ability to get to the top of the castle was in doubt, their determination to do it increased a hundred fold. They helped one another up. Some had to go backwards up the stairs on their bottoms. It took a long time but of course, they did it. They all signed their names triumphantly in the Visitors’ Book right at the top of the castle. This small episode said so much about the ethos of the school and the extent to which it had been embraced by its pupils.

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They visited the Town Hall where my office was situated and we invited them to join us at a civic reception. Here they all are with my two guest contributors Nqobile and Mandisi right in the centre looking rather like the King and Queen on their thrones. I can tell it must have been raining as my hair is frizzy but it brings back so many memories to see them here with the guys with Learning Disability who accommodated them and helped me with the programme. My colleague Doug is in the photo, as are other members of our Aberdeen Bulawayo Trust which Doug administered. The group from left to right are Thandiwe, Lynda Fincham, Umpumelelo, Mandisi, Nqobile, Leanne, and Rosemary Drayton.

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Nqobile was born had severe cerebral palsy but he was one of the most determined young people I had ever met. There had been few expectations of him when he was born but they hadn’t counted on the sheer force of motivation in him as he grew up. I could tell he was a highly intelligent young man but that people’s assumptions regarding his difficulties with speech and so forth, somehow blinded them to this fact. I found communication with Nqobile very easy right from the start. I took on a challenge to find a way to get him some training in a specialist college. He was and still is the only African ever to get a place at Beaumont College in Lancashire. It took a lot of negotiation but together, we did it. Thanks to the seed of an idea planted after talking to Dominic Makuvachuma from Mind, also from Zimbabwe, I managed to track Nqobile down via Linked in so I am now able to give you Nqobile’s thoughts and reflections on the impact that visit had on him:

Over to you, my Zimbabwean younger brother:

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No Mountain too high!!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
The success story of a young man privileged to live with cerebral palsy.                                       
Before I left school in 1993, I was chosen to be one of six pupils to be part of the Calvert Trust Tour to England, Scotland and Devon, for three weeks. We participated in a range of sporting activities designed for people with disabilities. We also visited Bulawayo’s twin city Aberdeen and Number 10 Downing Street. Aberdeen City Council welcomed us by a reception and tour around the city with other young people with disabilities. And we were met by the wife of the former British Prime Minister John Major, behind the world’s famous door.

While I was in Aberdeen God opened an opportunity for me to have a chat with the twinning officer and I shared my vision of pursuing I.T. at Beaumont College and she expressed her interest to try to assist me to help me. I have learnt that when God puts a vision in a person He provides the right people to help to achieve it. After three months when I got back home, after three years of attempting to be enrolled at college and seeking for financial assistant, God used Miss Alison Cameron to negotiate with college authorities and College agreed. And the college offered a short course for three months and tuition fees came down from 25 000 to 4,200 pounds just for me.                                                                                  
Upon my return to Bulawayo in May 1996 I worked for the City Council of Bulawayo on a 2 year contract in human resources section as clerical assistance and assisting in training staff to use PCs. From 2001 to 2004, I started a printing business; I designed business cards, letterheads etc. from 2004 to date, I have been doing digital photos slide shows using Proshow Producer, sophisticated video editing program which allows editing video and mixing photos with sound track, all in many different formats.                                                      
It was interesting to share with other young people from Aberdeen their experiences.

Nqobile

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I am so proud of Nqobile. He has things he wants to achieve. He now lives independently, but I know he’d love to be able to drive. He has already had one lesson. If anyone can do it, he can. He does motivational speeches throughout Southern Africa. I am delighted I played a very small part in his journey.

Another of the group to whom I became very close was Mandisi Sibanda who also has cerebral palsy. She also had a great sense of humour. She was obsessed with British comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo and was always coming out with “Oh Rene” with exactly the right French accent. One day I was worried that her mobility level had declined. In fact she was pretending to be Herr Flick of the Gestapo so was mimicking his limp. She was also really into Mars Bars. I will allow my younger sister from Bulawayo to talk about this in her own words. She is never short of a few words….

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My name is Mandisi Sibanda. I was born on11 May 1978 with a disability called cerebral palsy. l started school at the age of 4 years old at King George Vl Memorial School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. By that time I wasn’t able to walk and l was using a wheel chair.
The day l shall never forget is when we were from a walk at Ascot shopping center. I recognised my mum from a distance. My mum had come to visit me. By then she was teaching in Victoria falls. I jumped from the wheelchair and l said mum l can walk and it was a big surprise for mum to see me walking. She prayed hoped for that and it was possible with the prayers and physiotherapy l got from KG VI.                                                         
I did my primary and secondary schooling at KG VI. l want to give thanks to Miss Rosemary Drayton who was our physiotherapist. And Mrs Lynda Fincham our headmistress by then who accompanied us on our trip to England and Scotland in April 1993 That was our journey of our lifetime.                                                                                          
That was the time when we met the beautiful Alison Cameron who was then the Twinning Officer between Aberdeen and Bulawayo. I really value her friendship and sisterly love she gave us. I remember the Mars Bars.                                                                                                               
I had a lot of experiences from KG VI we were always out on trips to places of interest. I was very much inspired by the trip overseas. I became a disability activist and motivational speaker for people with disabilities. I would still love to travel all around and my role model is Alison Cameron my big sis.                                                                                                    
After my schooling l did an Information Technology Computer course and l worked as a self advocate for people with disabilities with a local NGO and l used travel around Zimbabwe motivating people with disabilities which mainly focused on Children and Young People with disabilities.                                                                                                                                       
I was raised by a single parent and she is now in her old age. I am very ambitious still want to see the world and l do believe in dreams come true.

I would love to meet Alison again.

Mandisi Sibanda

 

I see that this wonderful school celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. I can see from more recent photographs that at the centre, they continue to create the conditions for young people with disabilities to live life to the full, to unlock skills, and foster the kind of determination which each member of the group had in spades. Their motto is “Still not giving up”.  I try to live my life according to their example.

“Be curious and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at” Professor Stephen Hawking. RIP

 

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The Truth Will Out

My return to Aberdeen along with the coffins containing the remains of my colleagues was the start of a spiral downwards for me. I was still under the illusion that this had all been a tragic accident.

In my office, a bunker had been created of those in the know who were desperately trying to keep a lid on the whole thing. I was admitted into the bunker. I was told I was to visit the widow of my colleague Iain who drowned as and when she needed me. I agreed as I felt that I had been in her place, the last one to see her husband should have been her. She had a four week old child and a four year old child who did not understand what happened to her Daddy.

I attended funerals reluctantly and an official memorial went out live on radio. I translated for Mikhail Gaponenko from Homiel. We will retain happy memories of them, is how he concluded his speech.

Then I found out. The Leader of the Council and I will name her, Margaret Smith was there that day. As soon as it became clear that Iain and Ann were missing she took the film out of Ann’s camera. I still wonder to this day what kind of mind would immediately go into “hide the evidence” mode. She had the photographs printed privately and in a drunken state, arrived at my flat late one night to show me them. They were disgusting. They showed what was beyond a drunken party featuring Belarusian and Scottish politicians. I mean, how dare they have an orgy without me invited? The Chief Executive Anne Mearns put it to me in true Jean Brodie style “I understand there was something of a libidinous gathering”. I am not averse to the odd Belarusian piss up but this was something else. It looked vile, degrading and devoid of any standards whatsoever given that this was an official visit paid for ultimately by taxpayers.

And the horrible truth was that Ann and Iain met their deaths as they were having sex behind the boat. They were at a blind spot where they could not be seen by the captain. So when the boat became loose of its moorings the Captain could not have seen they were there, he turned on the engine and the result was their deaths. I met the young man in charge of the boat that day. He went to prison. He did not deserve to.

How this impacted on me was immense. I knew that Iain was not the saintly father figure that his widow thought he was. I was still visiting her always accompanied by an HR officer and listening to her “he was such a lovely man” stories. The truth started rising in me. I could feel it growing up and taking hold of my throat. I begged to be released from my “dealing with the widow” duties as I might just tell her the truth.

The Belarus Embassy were very supportive at this time. A group of them went to Selfridges to buy toys for the two children who lost their father. They handled it all with such humanity and genuine caring that I will never forget. However they wanted assurance that there would be no legal action against Belarus. I was assured and believed, that there would be no such action.

With that in mind, we arranged a visit to Homiel for the widow and her family. We had lunch on the boat that was involved that day and in Belarusian style, they set out a place at the table including glass of vodka, for the departed. On reflection I recall the representative from the Ministry of Transport trying to tell us the truth. But we were all so engaged with ensuring the widow would not find out what really happened.

I recall with absolute clarity when the world turned upside down for me. On the last day, the widow and her brother produced a legal document. They were going to sue the Republic of Belarus. They had assured me that the visit was entirely to help them cope with the death of Iain. I had no idea at all that there was another agenda. We had played into this by not being honest as to how they died. The Belarusian Government agreed to pay compensation covering all educational fees for the two children. The widow swiftly remarried and relocated to South Africa.

The effect on me was immense. Even my parents had a visit from the Lord Provost telling them not to talk to me about any of it. There was panic in the air and I, as acknowledged truth teller was a danger to them.

The pressure on me to lie is what caused my PTSD.

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.

 

Spaced out. A Highland Fling & my first Full Rasputin.

Though the bulk of my work in Aberdeen was running projects in Belarus and Zimbabwe and also looking after foreign delegations such as the belching Chinese of Kunming, I ended up in some rather unexpected places too.

One of these places was the then semi Secret City of Zhukovsky, centre of aviation and space research. It is in Moscow Region and now just part of the City but then it was only starting to emerging from official non-existence.

Zhukovsky was deeply involved in space programmes. Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, trained there at the Gromov Flight Research Institute in the City.  It was also where they test flew the MiG fighter aircraft.

How I ended up there had nothing whatsoever to do with any of that stuff. The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra had approached my office to try to find an amateur orchestra with which they could link in the USSR. The best orchestra in this category, which is still very much alive, was the Zhukovsky Symphony Orchestra. Zhukovsky was a City of Scientists and so it was considered important to give attention to the cultural side of life to keep these top brains from losing the plot perhaps. We were put in touch with the orchestra through the Soviet Embassy and off we went to meet them.

The first visit I don’t remember very much. I was billeted with a family as there were no hotels for foreigners what with the then “Secret” status. I was right at the top of a tower block with a lovely teacher and her mother. What I do remember is the MiGs flying lower than our floor almost deliberately weaving through the tower blocks.  You could see the whites of the pilots’ eyes. I was to realise that Test Pilots are a breed apart. Their job is to take a plane to extremes to check whether it is going to crash. It gets to their heads after a time, I can assure you.

We then invited people from the Zhukovsky City authorities and the orchestra to the UK to attend the annual shindig concert by the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. The orchestra would travel down through Scotland collecting musicians and Caledonian Society types otherwise known as “teuchters”  in what was described as a ceilidh in a distillery on a train. The Royal Albert Hall concert replicated that. It was normal to see kilt-clad madmen doing the Highland Fling in the Albert Hall boxes. I remember I ended up dancing a Gay Gordons in the corridor of the RAH with the First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy. It wasn’t the kind of concert to which the Russian orchestra were accustomed but I think they loved the anarchy of it all.

From that, it was decided a Cultural Agreement would be signed between Aberdeen and Zhukovsky which of course required an official visit by a delegation led by our Lord Provost, of whom I have written previously, the Director of our Art Gallery Ian McKenzie-Smith, and myself.

This time, it was way more formal than the first visit. We had constant KGB presence and were filmed at all times. In terms of accommodating us, they clearly had a problem due to aforementioned lack of hotels for foreigners. That was why, in the depths of winter, we found ourselves in the middle of a snowy forest, in a sanatorium for former military and KGB Officers. I have stayed in some strange places in my time, but this really was something. All I could hear was the wind howling through the trees. There were lots of people in white coats floating down corridors like the ghosts of KGB past. One night Ian came knocking at my door. He’d had a note shoved under his door in Russian and asked me to translate it. I remember exactly what it said

Comrade, your appointment with the Gynaecologist is at 8am tomorrow morning.

Colour drained from Ian’s face

I don’t have to go, do I?

One evening, we were invited to join the inmates at their “social evening”. They all seemed to operate in slow motion so I am pretty sure they were all heavily drugged probably to prevent them from regressing to the old days interrogating people in the Lubyanka which might not help the therapeutic process what with pulling one another’s teeth out and connecting their bits to the electrics. This evening took the form of a visit by two well-past-their-prime “ballroom dancing professionals”. When I try to visualise them, I can only think of the two ballroom dancers on Hi-de-Hi. They were more barnacled than sequinned.

Hi de Hi dancers

I however decided this was so bizarre I might as well join in. I was up on the floor doing the tango, the cha-cha, the quickstep (the not-very-quickstep in the case of my dance partners). I had done ballroom dancing as a teenager and hated it but was very good at it so these KGB retirees got treated to my full repertoire including a bit of Saturday Night Fever which seemed oddly apt. The upshot of it was, I was declared best dancer and was given a collection of Marina Tsvetaeva poetry as a prize. I treasure that book still.

We were given the privilege, so I was told, of being shown their aviation and space facilities which to be honest I found rather deadly dull. Who cares if it’s the biggest wind tunnel in the world? I hate flying anyway. However, the former test pilot accompanying us, Sergei (name changed for obvious reasons) was of a great deal more interest. Actually he was also our KGB minder as I later found out. My late Mum always said I was never going to settle for a fisherman from Buckie and she was right. A KGB Officer, half bonkers due to being a test pilot whose plane had spectacularly failed the test, with a wife in tow somewhere was IDEAL! This started a long distance romance of sorts which was great in that I didn’t really do intimacy so having a few countries between us most of the time was rather helpful. I could then go over there when I felt like it and more importantly, leave when I felt like it.

I spent a week with him at the St Petersburg Air Show with a bunch of fellow truly off-their-trollies pilots. They had made their own aircraft out of God knows what – bits of string and sticky back plastic one imagines. They had flown from Moscow to Canberra on these things. They told me the only medical supplies they had on board were vodka and pure alcohol. One was for stomach complaints the other for colds. I can’t remember which way round.

I was introduced to the famous Cosmonaut Igor Volk. He was leader of a group of Cosmonauts named the Wolf Pack (Volk is Wolf in Russian) and had made many successful missions into space. He was to be the pilot of their equivalent of the shuttle – the Buran. It had been test-flown already to the edge of space and I got to sit inside it. I have a burnt tile from it in my flat somewhere. I didn’t think much of this encounter but on return to Aberdeen started to get letters from space enthusiasts telling me how lucky I was. My impression of Igor was that he had been a bit scrambled by going into space or it might just have been the vodka/pure alcohol combo.

Igor V

At this time in my work I was getting increasingly stressed due to the bullying culture in Aberdeen City Council. After a particularly stressful visit to the Soviet Embassy when they locked me in, I started getting migraines where I would be unable to see properly for several hours. On another visit to Sergei, I arrived off the overnight train from Belarus to Moscow, looked in the mirror and said out loud “God you look like shit”. The migraines were every day by now. Sergei noted this and decided without telling me, to do something about it. That something was unforgettable.

He said we were going to the home of a TV producer. Sergei ran a TV station as a sideline. We sat having tea and nice normal chat in this Moscow flat and then it changed…

They started telling me about this famous “Healer” who was a medical doctor but used his apparent “special powers” in his work at a major Moscow hospital.

Sounds really interesting I said, trying to be polite.

Maybe you would like to meet him?

I thought to myself,

Yes in the fullness of time, roughly on the day of the freezing over of Hell.

He’s in the next room. We’ll bring him in to help you.

At this point I remember thinking I am not ready for the Full Rasputin, I am happy with my Migraine tablets from Boots thanks very much etc.

When he appeared, he wasn’t at all Rasputin-like which was slightly disappointing. He was an ordinary looking Russian in a bad jumper. I did not want him sitting opposite me as I didn’t want him delving into the dark alcoves of my mind. Sergei beckoned for him to sit opposite me. He said

She doesn’t want me to sit there, I will sit here

Oh Fuck.

I was still holding my cup of tea – a nice Lomonosov china number with saucer – and the teacup was rattling as I was shaking so much by this time. He sat next to me and said precisely this

Do you want to know why you looked like SHIT this morning? (repeating my exact words to myself on the train).

I had given in by this time as I knew he was for real. He stood behind me. I heard him crack his knuckles. He put his hands on my head. There was immense heat. He took his hands away and I felt what I can only describe as an emission of a vast rush of energy escaping right out of the top of my head.

He then sat and told me a few things about myself. He said

Your problem is, you are ready to give people 100% and when you only get 30% back your Soul gets weaker.

This was true then and still is.

The migraines were really because my working environment had become so toxic. The Chief Executive was the Stalin of the Western Isles. He would physically and verbally assault colleagues at all levels so there was an ingrained atmosphere of terror throughout the building. This Healer started to talk about this which again was rather freaky. He said not to worry as something was about to happen.  I was not convinced. It was all very well to be doing flashy Healer stuff in a room but to sort out a maniac from Stornoway working in an office in Aberdeen remotely from Moscow would have tested even Rasputin himself.

I got back into my flat after this extraordinary trip, dumped my bags and without even taking my coat off, turned on the TV. There was my Trade Union rep being interviewed on the news, for the first time going public about the bullying culture perpetrated by the Chief Executive. The first words I heard her say were

Fear stalks the corridors of the Town House.

Things were about to change drastically, just as the Healer predicted….

But that’s for another blog.

 

 

The Name of the Star is Chernobyl

I went into the Zone from the very beginning. I remember stopping in a village and being struck by the silence. No birds, nothing. You walk down a street…silence. Well, of course, I knew all the cottages were lifeless, that there were no people because they had all left, but everything around had fallen silent. Not a single bird. It was the first time I had ever seen a land without birds. (Irina Kisilyova, journalist.  From Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

I know that silence. I first went to the Zone in 1990 four years after Reactor No.4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went down after a series of blasts. Fifty million Curies of radioactivity were released into the atmosphere. 70% of that figure fell in Belarus and 70% of that came down in Homiel Region. Homiel was the City Aberdeen City Council assumed was in Russia and agreed to “twin” with. I am glad they did as it started an enduring relationship for me with Belarus and its people. It is a passionate but volatile relationship. We have laughed, cried, fought, made up, and misunderstood, but we have also loved, both despite it all, and because of it all.

My first incursion into the Zone, the area marked presumably on a map in red pen by a bureaucrat, was unencumbered by anyone else from Aberdeen. I was with one Belarusian woman who ran a charity trying to increase awareness of what had happened there. The memories are jumbled as I made so many visits. I will be writing more blogs about Chernobyl and Belarus in general, so I will begin with my personal reflections. I was to make many further visits with delegations including our infamous local politicians and wonderful medics, scientists and community groups from Aberdeen. The reason Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and our university decided to involve themselves in fact was due to what I reported after my solo visits. As an aside, when I reported back, I was “strongly advised” to play down my experiences by a scientist who was a consultant to  British Nuclear Fuels. These are NOT scientific findings. This is what I experienced, how it felt and the permanent trace the people whom I met left on my Soul.

There was little in the City itself to indicate that we were in the middle of the zone marked in red on the soon-to-be-familiar radiation map. The map was published in the daily newspaper so people would know where to pick mushrooms and where not to. I looked out of my hotel window and saw someone in a uniform with what looked like a Geiger counter. Other than that, people were out and about living their lives.

They had been out and about in the afternoon of the day the reactor exploded at 01.23. It was April 26th, 1986 and as dutiful Soviet citizens, they were out on the streets marching in practice for the forthcoming May Day parade. They marched with sticks, saving the flags for the day itself. It seemed even the Soviet flags had deserted them.

They were not told. The Apparatchiks, the high ups, the party officials had been noticed leaving hurriedly by bus and rumours abounded about “an incident” but they were not told. An old man told me the sheep were evacuated before the ordinary people. People should have been told to stay inside and given iodine to protect their thyroid against the blast. However, it was still the USSR and clearly Gorbachev’s much vaunted policy of Glasnost’ (openness) was yet to exist beyond words. And an important Soviet holiday was coming up.

Mayday. M’aidez. Save our Souls.

To get into the deadly Zone you had to get past a cordon of guards. I was already adept at bribery so it was not a problem. I noticed that on one side of the fence marking the start of the Zone, cattle were grazing. The other side of the fence had been deemed deadly. Over the fence, the livestock meant contaminated milk and meat was being sent off out into the food chain. Talking of contaminated meat, I still think about the guards standing at the entrance to the Zone all day. They were young. They were National Service conscripts whose parents presumably lacked the means to bribe their way to giving their sons a safe posting. I wonder where they are now. I suspect I know.

And the silence. The silence. If I keep repeating it over and over in my mind it might accurately reflect what that was like. 

We advanced further into the Zone. We got out at a deserted village consisting of traditional wooden cottages. It looked rather idyllic until you looked more closely. Each door had a skull and crossbones crudely daubed on it usually along with a sign saying “Attention, there is radiation here”.

My guide Natasha knew where she wanted to take me. Unbelievably, in another village, we found a group of people mainly older women with traditional Belarusian headscarves sitting on benches next to trucks clearly loaded up with their possessions. They had a quiet resignation about them which reminded me of the departure of the Jewish families in Fiddler on the Roof.

Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years. One season following another, laden with happiness and tears. 

But who were these people? Natasha explained that they were “officially” evacuated. Some Chinovnik (bureaucrat) had clearly stamped a bit of paper to say they had been evacuated, so in that case they had been. As they had been officially declared gone, they had closed all the services, the shops etc. And the people sat there waiting. Still they waited. They waited some more, but no-one came. I talked to one old lady and she said this:

I am digging potatoes out of the ground so I can live. I did the same during the war, but then I knew what we were fighting. I could see the enemy.

The streets in the Zone were overgrown with a black weed that thrives on radioactive soil. In English we know it as Wormwood. I never usually quote the Bible but here I will make an exception.

The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. (Revelation 8:11)

In another twist of fate, Wormwood translated into Russian is “Chernobyl” so the passage in the Russian version of the bible would read as follows

The name of the star is Chernobyl.