Last weekend, I went through to Edinburgh to enjoy some of the sights and sounds of the Fringe Festival. Whilst there, I went along to the Book Festival and attended a fascinating session organised by Amnesty International. This year’s theme was “Imprisoned Writers”. As the leaflet explained “every year people are imprisoned for writing critically about their government or country. Today we pay tribute to writers who have been persecuted for their words, thoughts and opinions.”
It so happened that the session I attended was particularly topical, entitled “Syria:Paved With Death”. Four well-known authors read works by or about Syrians in these terrible times. First was Francesca Simon, best known for her children’s books especially the ‘Horrid Henry’ series. Ms Simon movingly read the last dispatch sent by journalist Marie Colvin very shortly before she was killed. Most poignant was the fact that Francesca had been a friend and colleague of Marie Colvin. She described how Ms Colvin, famous for the black eye patch she wore following a previous incident, had always been determined to get into the most difficult places to make sure that the world was aware of what was going on inside countries where most journalists fear to tread. The dispatch was filled with horrifying stories of the bombing of Homs and how it had affected the people. Written in a city were the bombs were constantly falling, it told the stories of people who had watched their children die, who had lost everything and who felt abandoned by the rest of the world.
Following Francesca Simon came Lauren Beukes, a best-selling author of novels, comics, screen plays and TV shows who was born in South Africa and young Australian writer Hannah Kent who has just completed her first novel, ‘Burial Rites’. The two young women each read works by Syrian authors, one named Samar Yazbek and the other Dia’a Al-Abdullah. Both works powerfully described how it feels to be persecuted for your words and to live in a country torn apart by civil war.
Finally,writer Colin McAdam, who was born in Hong Kong and has lived in Denmark, England, Barbados and Canada, read out a series of letters written by refugees caught in terrible conditions in camps in the countries surrounding Syria. The letters were short but all expressed the same basic wish…that the writer and their family could return home to Syria and go back to the life they had known.
No-one who listened to the readings could fail to be moved, especially with the crisis in Syria escalating on a daily basis. Whilst Presidents and Prime Ministers discuss war, let us all remember that there are ordinary people just like us whose sole wish is for life to go back to normal. To be able to go about their daily business whether as journalist, writer, baker, housewife, school pupil is all that they ask.
For more information about Amnesty International and the work they do, visit their website here.