On a train at the Romanian border, two Iraqi Kurds jumped into our carriage and sat facing each other as though they had been there for the whole journey. Two Romanian border guards entered soon after. They were not interested in what four British men were doing visiting their country a year and a half after the fall of Ceausescu. They thought they would have fun with the Kurds; but these boys had crossed a number of borders already and were no match for the guards who had little history of dealing with foreign visitors. After what seemed like a heated exchange to us, ended in almost friendly banter, as the four of them laughed at each other’s dictators.
After a few days in Bucharest losing count of the pepper of bullet holes from the revolution, news came through that there was a coup in Moscow by hard-line communists against President Gorbachev. We sat in our rooms listening to events unfold on the World Service; the mood of local people was complete fear bordering on panic. They thought the Soviet tanks would roll in as they had done after the Second World War staying for over forty years, and that their revolution was over.
We saw the aftermath and fear that remained during those years after 1989 when we went through Bulgaria, Romania, The Czech Republic (as it still was) and Hungary. And it was in the latter country that one of the few uprisings took place against Soviet rule, and is told in Anne Cooper’s poem Hungary 1956: from a woman in exile. Here Anne explains the story behind the poem:
“I wrote this poem in 2006, 50 years after the uprising in Hungary that was mercilessly crushed by the Russians, a turning point for many on the left in Europe who had refused to believe news that seeped out about Stalin’s massacres of the Russian people. The spectre of tanks crossing borders and crushing a people literally and metaphorically raised the question – could this be socialism and led to the disillusionment of a generation of people who had been inspired by Russia and hoped for a better world. I wrote it following a conversation with a woman I ran into on the way back from the supermarket in Clapham. She was struggling with her bags, I offered to help. When she told me where she was from, when she arrived, I asked, “Did you come here after the uprising?” Her story tumbled out, here it is. She wishes to remain anonymous. I have written it as a poem of witness. A story of the incredible heroism shown by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances; people fighting for democracy and the right to run their own lives, paying such a high price, yet lighting a flame of inspiration for the struggles that followed across the Eastern Bloc and beyond.”
Anne Cooper is a writer, poet and educator. For over a decade Anne performed regularly with the group Poets Know It also appearing in libraries, pubs, and miscellaneous venues in London including an art gallery and the Brockwell Lido.She has had poetry broadcast on Resonance fm and her poem essay about the massacre in Fallujah, Iraq in 2003 was published by Stop the War and broadcast on the Islam Channel. She is the author of Touched, a collection of poetry published by Survivors Press in 2006. In this first collection, the words slide into, spin around and wrestle with the theme of desires. Anne is the founder of The Way of Words creative writing workshops and editor of their anthology, And Then There Was Light, published in 2008 including the work of 24 Lambeth writers. In addition she has facilitated workshops at Lambeth Mind, Survivors Poetry and The Word is Out, a peer led mental health project funded by the NHS. She was editor of their anthology, Out is the Word, published in 2012. Anne is a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and is a creative writing tutor at St Mungos Recovery College. Anne believes passionately that another world is possible.
Hungary 1956: from a Woman in Exile
The tanks arrived the day before,
until then we had control of the streets,
We occupied buildings; held meetings
night and day. Now, everywhere this smell,
of bodies burning, everything burning.
When the tanks patrolled in the evening,
a friend of mine crept around a corner,
up beside these creaking tracks.
He threw a grenade through the open top,
then ran, blind, the fire at his back.
My job was to release the prisoners.
I reached the jail at dusk, my heart a drum,
the guard was with us, I tied him up,
drugged him with chloroform.
I was a pharmacist then you know.
I took the keys, found our friends,
standing at the bars, ready, waiting.
I could hear something knocking, looked down,
it was the key in the lock. Breathing,
I stilled my hand and watched it turn the key.
Somehow it released me. I let them all go,
our friends and the other prisoners as well;
the regime would lock up anyone back then.
So, you see, well after that,
I had to leave the country.