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I visited Oradour on my 2004 holiday
And then had to write this.
I don’t like violence.
I don’t like death.
I don’t like war.
I don’t like waste.
Although I have known this for a long time there are times such as today when it really strikes home.
I may feel guilty in the garden when I dig the flowerbeds and cut a buried worm in half. I may sombrely reflect when I read about the many perished souls who died on a battlefield or during other conflict. None of this can be compared to the horror that is Oradour.
To walk into the ruined village and see the desolation and disrepair, the roofless homes, the fallen walls, the charred wood, the twisted remains of bicycles and the rusting hulks of cars. Then to realise that (after a small tidying up and continuing maintenance) this is exactly how the village was left after the massacre of innocent civilians by an occupying army in a peaceful area. To look at the telephone lines still on their poles and to think that up until that fateful day they were active and joining families separated by distance; soon to be eternity.
To stand on the village green looking at the shells of the buildings and to imagine on one day this going from a peaceful community, to a frightened gathering here around you, before finally the quiet of the countryside is shattered by gunfire; followed soon after by the clear air becoming thick and dense with the smoke of a burning village. The smoke of a primitive cremation fire as the innocent bodies turned from the mornings work and play into the evenings bony ash.
Today as you walk amongst the ruins the smell of death is long gone. The soot and ash is also gone, washed away by sixty years of weather. The memories linger though.
Plaques on walls tell the merest snippet of fact. “Here were found two charred bodies” “Here the villagers gathered” “Here a group of men were killed”. Looking through a window a tiled wall has a regular row of circular holes perforating its surface. Bullet holes? There is no telling. There is no knowledge of what happened in that particular room on that day, so few survived to tell the tale.
In the church there is no doubt. One lady survived. I knew from reading the story beforehand that the church door had opened and soldiers fired machine guns in. The holes in the opposite walls could surely have come from no other source. A board listing those villagers killed in the first world war is damaged. Thirty years after the young soldiers died their names once again came under fire and were hit and damaged. Is there no end to the violence? Can these long dead never rest?
As I leave the church, trying to make some sense of it all, I can see from the faces of other visitors that they cannot either. Sitting on the wall I have a view back into the past, a past that we cannot return to.
But here and now that sense of waste hits me. All these lives ended. Families struggling to bring up their children and give them the best in life – for nothing. The child perished along with their parents. Houses carefully maintained only to be destroyed by fire set by strangers for no real reason. Cars brought to the garage to be serviced, not burnt and left to rot.
I stand here looking across the ruins. I look through one building across rubble and through the next. Was that really a house, a garden, a shop? It is now an irreparable wasteland. The damage was done with the pulling of the first trigger, the first life snuffed out; or was it that first explosion that synchronised the start of the killings?
Whichever it was it makes me think. How much of what we do is undoable? In our daily lives where is the point of no return? Where do we set our limits? Do we become as the Himalayan Monks I read of who sweep the path as they walk for fear of hurting ants and other tiny creatures? Suddenly that makes sense to me. Do we continue our daily lives but think more about our actions? Or do we remain as those soldiers that day where we do what we want to do, or we follow orders with no thought as to the consequences?
Even if we think we are hurting nothing (except the ants we step on) is that really the case? The more I think about it the more I come to realise that we are harming others albeit in a way that is socially acceptable today. Is the electricity used to both write and read this from a safe source or is there radioactive waste or polluting smoke with both your name and mine on it? By driving we create life killing pollution. By driving we kill thousands of people every year, almost without notice or complaint. By building both our roads and homes we remove habitat from our wildlife, killing it off slowly. Or even more quickly if we tidy our gardens into a sterile patio and lawn.
I think of those soldiers as well. Did any of them feel remorse or guilt? Did any refuse to carry out their orders? An easy task to pretend to fire your gun, or to fire it into the ground, when all around you are firing theirs at innocent civilians. Or did they get carried away in the heat of the moment? Doing what they suddenly felt was right.
Hypothetically speaking, if those victims were to have known their fate years before, known but at the same time known in a strange way that they could not escape and where they accepted it. What would they have done differently? Would they have spent hours practicing a musical instrument? Would they have put all their effort into making their small business survive? Would they maintain their property and build up their possessions? Or would they live life to the full, living for today and not for the future?
It is just a waste what happened there. A waste not only of human life but also those many hours and all that effort spent getting the village and its villagers to where it was that fateful morning.
I could spend hours here, both reflecting back on a life long gone yet still within reach. This isn’t a historical site where what is seen is an archaeological deduction, this is living history. The more I look the more I see that shows daily life as it should be continuing had not those bullets and then fire stopped the metaphorical village clock at that tragic hour.
All I can do to prevent morbid depression running over me and sucking me down is to look amongst the ruins and see how life goes on. Man and man’s stupidity and brutality may have stopped the life of the village, but it has not stopped life. Wild flowers now grow where people cannot go, wildlife has made its home amongst the shattered bricks. I look at a fireplace and see from the many sticks there that birds must be nesting in the chimney above with no fear of a sweep’s brush. Geckos run across the sun kissed walls. Buzzards swoop and play overhead. Small birds rest on interior window ledges where once glass and roofs prevented their access. Trees grow in corners of rooms. In fact, I would hazard a guess that had not man kept this village open as a monument to his own violence then nature would have fully reclaimed it if not by now then in the near future. Walls that are now buttressed and reinforced would be lying collapsed under moss and entangling roots. Stronger buildings would be hidden under climbing plants. Animals, growing in species size, would be making this their home as the years passed. And then finally, in many years to come, archaeologists would stumble upon the bricks under their covering of accumulated soil and would wonder at what caused this village to be abandoned.
Will we learn from the lesson we are being reminded of here? Will we start to live truly in peace and without destruction?
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