Kevin Sullivan reported from Asia for fourteen years before returning to Europe. He has written several novels that make use of his experience as a journalist. The Longest Winter published by Twenty7 on 20 October is set during the siege of Sarajevo.
Covering demonstrations can be illuminating as well as colourful. Tiananmen Square is a particularly memorable setting for political drama. It’s the size of several football fields, and the buildings that surround this vast open space are monumental. On 3 June 1989 I wandered through a crowd of about a million people in and around the square; twenty-four hours later I was in the same place but the number of protestors had dwindled to a few hundred and troops were assembling on the steps of the Great Hall of the People. Subsequent events were dramatic and very dispiriting.
In the 1980s and early 1990s I covered mega-demonstrations in South Korea. The factions contending for the country’s presidency after the end of martial law were well organized and deeply antagonistic (Trump v. Clinton on steroids); protestors and police fought pitched battles in the centre of Seoul and other cities; demonstrations routinely morphed into riots at which tear gas was deployed on an operatic scale, making possession of a gas mask a practical necessity. On one occasion, activists were trying to bring the body of a student who had been killed at an earlier protest back to his home town of Kwangju on the south coast. Police had blocked the motorway, preventing the hearse, surrounded by a phalanx of supporters, from entering the city. So much tear gas was fired into the crowd that for about ten minutes visibility was zero. The students in the middle of the chaos took advantage of this to carry the body up the motorway embankment to a waiting car that followed an alternative route to the city centre, thus turning the police weapon of choice to their own advantage.
The most significant incident that I witnessed in Korea, however, revolved around the fate of one individual rather than the supporting cast of activists and police.
The day began with a familiar configuration: riot police in full battle gear on one side and demonstrators (some of them volubly belligerent) on the other. After about an hour the focus of attention suddenly shifted from the confrontation line to an overpass where a middle-aged woman had climbed over the barrier, set herself on fire and plunged into the crowd below.
This tableau lasted less than half a minute, from the climb over the barrier to the suicidal leap. The crowd formed a circle round the victim. Two or three men took off their jackets and tried to smother the flames. The petrol had burned away the woman’s clothes. She had broken bones and she was badly burned; she was half conscious.
I wrote these details in my notebook – and for a long time afterwards I considered the ethical implications of this note-taking. Perhaps it would have been more human and more helpful if I’d removed my jacket and joined the effort to douse the flames (though in practical terms one more person doing this would have been superfluous). I couldn’t speak Korean so even if offering words of comfort had been an option, I wasn’t the person to do this.
The fact that the woman was naked in the midst of this huge angry crowd struck me as a stark and (for the individual) humiliating reflection of vulnerability, of the helplessness of being human. And it was a brutal reminder that politics is about flesh and blood as well as clever arguments and soundbites.
No doubt, reporting events from far flung places makes it possible for all of us to understand the shifting dynamic of our global village – and hopefully this can make the village a little more peaceful and prosperous and just.
Yet it’s also true that 24-hour news hasn’t stopped atrocities. Media-savvy zealots actually solicit publicity.
So, it’s a valid question: does observing world events – making notes and writing about them – have a meaningful impact, and if it has an impact is it positive or negative?
I’ve just published a novel set in Sarajevo at the end of 1992. I wrote the first draft in 1993 when I was recovering from the effects of a landmine explosion in central Bosnia. The Longest Winter is a portrait of life under siege. The action follows several characters over the course of three days.
I hope that in a modest way the book will make the point that political violence rarely delivers positive results. I hope it will also serve as a kind of memorial to the resilience and decency of Sarajevans I had the privilege to meet at that time. And I hope I’ve been able to draw them as fully rounded human beings – humorous and curmudgeonly, generous and shrewd.
This, I suppose, is the correspondent’s apologia for describing, notebook in hand, the suffering of others. It is not, I hope, a question of callousness but of a legitimate calling. By recording events, there is at least a possibility that these events will not be rendered meaningless, that they will not be consigned to oblivion.
And yet, the memory of that woman in Seoul stays with me: the fact is that words may be inadequate when it comes to tragedy, the tragedy of individuals and the collective tragedy of societies at war with themselves.
(c) Kevin Sullivan
About The Longest Winter
For fans of The Kite Runner, Girl at War and The Cellist of Sarajevo, The Longest Winter is Kevin Sullivan’s inspiring and authentic debut novel about life in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.
Terry is a British doctor on a mission to rescue a sick child in urgent need of life-saving surgery.
Brad is an American journalist desperately trying to save his reputation following the disasters of his last posting.
Milena is a young woman from Eastern Bosnia who has fled from her home and her husband, seeking refuge from betrayal amid the devastation of besieged Sarajevo.
In the aftermath of the assassination of a government minister, three life stories are intertwined in a dramatic quest for redemption.
The Longest Winter is in shops now or pick up your copy online here!