Education and respect
It's Thursday, August 8, 2013 and the weather is beautiful. At a quarter to ten in the morning, I am ready for a photoshoot of the graves of the 456 soldiers, victims of the First World War, at the military cemetery of Lier.
It's the school holidays and it's pretty calm on the otherwise very busy Mechelsesteenweg at the Ringenhofwijk. I had my tripod out and was busy assembling my camera on it when I suddenly became aware of the appoximity of someone else. When I turned around I saw a young man and a woman. I estimated him about 18/19 years old, slightly southern type, but the lady was heavily veiled, her veil was just not a burqa, and with all that faceloss, I could not really judge her age.
When they came to me, the young man wished me a good day in flawless Dutch. He first introduced himself and then introduced the lady as his aunt. He was very proud to announce that he was Belgian, born here while his aunt lived in Turkey and was visiting his parents. It almost never happened that I was disturbed at a military cemetery, so I could prepare for a chat.
They had chosen to come to the military cemetery that morning because he actually did not know what this place meant. He suspected, however, that it was a cemetery, but had no idea of who was buried here and why. He wanted to show this place to his aunt, place which, at least for him, always had had an air of mystery.
I explained to them that the cemetery was a military cemetery where only Belgian military personnel, soldiers, were buried that died in the First World War in the wider area of Lier. More than half of the victims here are buried in a hemisphere in three rows, head to head. We were just standing at the beginning of such a hemisphere and I asked him to take a closer look at the nameplates on the graves with particular attention to the date of birth and date of death of each soldier.
He had a brief conversation with his aunt, in Turkish, and they did what I asked. When they came back, I had by then already made a series of pictures, the young man said: "The soldiers were all but a year or so older than me and they died in the months of August and September 1914."
Then it was time for a history lesson. I told him that the First World War began on August 4, 1914 with a raid by the German troops into Belgium. It took the better part of three months time before the Germans captured the forts of Namur, LiŤge and Antwerp, crossed the river Schelde and were getting ready to wipe the last bit of Belgium off the map. Then the advance stopped and a full four years of trench warfare raged in Flanders, France, Italy, Austria, the Balkans, and even into Turkey. Therefore that war was called a world war.
When he heard the name of the homeland of his parents and on top of that I told him that Turkey had fought in the camp of the enemy in relation to Belgium, he was very surprised. He started a conversation with his aunt and after a few minutes he had to admit that I was right. His aunt remembered from her school years in Turkey that her country had played a role on the German side. At a certain point, she even dropped the name Gallipoli.
Then it was my turn to be surprised. How could it be that his aunt, who, to our standards anyway, must have had a lesser quality education, knew more about the First World War than her cousin who has been educated in Belgium? Do we teach the wrong things to our children? I did not insist and silently had my own thoughts, but I didnít like this at all.
Because I thought playtime was over, I started making an attempt to continue my photoshoot. The young man immediately asked me what I was doing and why. I told him that I was taking pictures of the graves of war victims with the aim to use them in the commemoration of the centenary of the start of World War I in 2014.
He also asked if the soldiers were actually buried here under the standard tombstones of the Belgian nation. Except for the fact that there are 143 unknown soldiers buried in Lier and that there may be a few mistakes, I had to agree that this was the case. According to the young man I stood on top of the remains of those guys to make those photos. According to his religious standards that was sacrilege.
Here again there was evidence that the Islamists have more respect for the dead than the Christians and he made it understood to me in an unvarnished manner.
I had never given that a minute of thought, but he was right. Between the lens of my camera and the subject was never more than 1.10 meter. Therefore my tripod stood somewhere above the knees of the buried soldier and I, behind, step on his toes.
The young man then showed me how far I had to go back in order not to disturb the dead. Since that day I have much more work to edit my pictures.
When I finished at midday and went home, I asked myself two questions:
1 - Do we teach our children at our schools the hard truth of what has happened here a hundred years ago, so that they are aware of the value of the privilege to live in a peaceful society?
2 - Is there sufficient respect for the sacrifice of their lives that our war dead have made a hundred years ago? Respect for the sacrifice of their health that our veterans offered?