20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
by Evangeline Paterson
This man is called Obed. His surname
is in another language. You do not need
to know it.
This is his room. He lives here
by himself. He does not have
These are his wife and children.
They live a long way off. He sends them money.
They do not have enough food.
He goes home once a year. They run to meet him.
Sometimes they cry, we are told, for happiness.
He comes back to his room in the city
where they are not allowed. They stay
in the hard land where nothing grows.
Does this discourage him? Who knows? He throws
no bombs. He breaks no windows. He
sends home money.
All his enterprise
'Dispossessed': anyone from whom home, family and possessions have been taken away
'Obed': a Biblical name (one of the ancestors of Jesus was called Obed)
After the Second World War, the International Refugee Organisation was set up to help people left homeless by the war. It managed to resettle 1.5 million people within 6 years - but it had expected to take only 3 years to complete the task. A fourth Geneva Convention was created in 1949, which stated that refugees had the right not to be forced to return to their former country if they risked persecution, or worse, there. (The Convention was extended in 1977 to protect all civilians of any nationality.)
In 1951 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was founded to assist new refugees. There were not expected to be many of them. The UN Convention on the Status of Refugees was also agreed: it accorded basic human rights to all refugees, including the right not to be treated as illegal aliens.
But in the years that followed, the numbers of new refugees increased (large numbers of them people displaced in their own countries by civil war); at the end of the 1990s no-one knew exactly how many refugees there were in the world, but it seemed likely that 35 million was a fair estimate.
And refugees, once regarded with sympathy, are now often seen as a nuisance, disruptive to their host communities. The world's dispossessed now depend almost entirely on the work of the aid agencies. The agencies in turn depend on voluntary donations, whether from governments or other institutions and individuals; and the UNHCR depends on funding from the States belonging to the United Nations - which means being subject to each funding State's wishes and priorities. Furthermore, aid agency staff themselves have begun to be come into danger, and some have been killed. Militias on all sides have been happy to ambush aid agency vehicles and make off with the supplies intended for civilians in need.
Dominant today is the question of people seeking political asylum, who cannot stay in their own countries without risk, yet are unwelcome in other countries. Some people mistakenly believe 'they take our jobs'. These refugees, particularly, are perceived as Someone Else's Problem. Worse: to some people they are (as a British local paper called asylum-seekers from Kosovo in 1998) 'human sewage'. A British commentator said in 2001 (the 50th anniversary of the UNHCR): 'In our hostility to refugees, we become clients of the dictatorships that we profess to deplore'.
There is also the question of long-term refugees, such as Palestinian Arabs dispossessed when the State of Israel was founded in 1948. Many young refugees have known no other home but a refugee camp.
It has been said that the gap between law and reality is probably greater in the area of refugee rights than in any other. People speaking on behalf of refugees say that at least there is a body of international law to refer to: a starting point for reform.
But what creates refugees is war. The only really effective reform starts with limiting war; and then, ultimately, will abolish it altogether.
This poem is a simple but strong statement about the way many refugees are forced to live. Beneath the simplicity there are ambiguities. Who is the 'speaker'?
What is the tone of 'you do not need to know' Obed's surname? 'You don't need to know it - it's foreign'? 'You don't need to know it - it might put him at risk'? What other interpretations are there?
Perhaps we don't need to know Obed's name because he represents many Obeds with many names in many languages, but all with personal tragedies. Separated from their families but doing their best to support them, lonely and hungry, poorly and irregularly paid: it's true that there are many men in this situation - and many women and children fending as best they can in areas stricken with poverty and drought. That 'hard land where nothing grows' - does that also mean that the children will die?
The poem relies on simple, bleak observations, which simplify the complexity and detail of an individual life in order to evoke its bleakness and pain. Perhaps it doesn't even seem 'poetic' at first. But if we read it as though it is prose, something is lost. For a start, repetitions (not enough food, sending home money) become banal instead of poignant. It also has something to do with the poem's structure: two sets of three 3-line verses each with its own inner rhythm, and a strong central couplet on which the poem pivots (and which has its own pivot between tears of misery and tears of happiness). Yes, the final sentence is a 3-line verse. The spaces in it (draw a deep breath in each one!) are a practical and poetic expression of struggle - the struggle to keep going, and to keep faith.
P E A C E P L E D G E U N I O N 1 Peace Passage London N7 0BT, Britain.
phone +44 (0)20 7424 9444 fax: +44 (0)20 7482 6390 CONTACT US