That long line of refugees

When Ernest Hemingway’s dispatches from the Greco-Turkish war of 1922 began appearing in a Toronto newspaper, readers discovered a new style of war reporting that read, in some ways, like a novel, telling a story that put readers in the story.

When I read these dispatches during my journalism school days, I was most taken  by his description of an endless line of refugees: “Minarets stuck up in the rain out of Andrianople across the mud flats. The carts were jammed for thirty miles along the Karagatch road. Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud. No end and no beginning. Just carts with everything they owned. The old men and women, soaked through, walking along, keeping the cattle moving. The Maritza river was running yellow almost up to the bridge. It rained all through the evacuation.”

But what impacted me most strongly, was that in a dispatch sent several weeks later, he wrote: “No matter how long it takes this letter to get to Toronto, as you read this in the Star you may be sure that the same ghastly, shambling procession of people being driven from their homes is filing in unbroken line along the muddy road to Macedonia. A quarter of a million people take a long time to move.”

The power was not only the writing, but the fact that in between reports while the world went about its everyday business, this line of people was still on the road.

NewsClick photo

I think of these reports now as I watch or read reports of the long lines of refugees fleeing Ukraine, fleeing from a man who claims his army doesn’t target civilains, and that all the time when I’m not reading the news, those refugees–like the endless line of people from the Greco-Turkish war–have been on the road, cold and hungry while I was having dinner, being shalled while I was sleeping, walking endlesss steps while I was watching television.

The power of the scenes on TV and Internet news sites comes partly from the horrors described. It also comes from the fact that while we come and go, the tragedy in Ukraine is a 24/7 nightmare. While I’m sitting here typing this post and drinking a glass of red wine, another man is walking toward Poland carrying his dying child, one of many in an unending line of other such men and other such children.