My Journey to a War Zone as an Autistic Poet
Editor’s Note: The following contains some graphic descriptions of war and its aftermath.
As far back as I can remember I have always been autistic. I have been treated differently. Yet it’s strange, the only place I really felt safe and like who I really was, was when I was a war poet. Unnatural is the word for being in a war zone, and yet it’s as real as real can be. Ask any soldier, nurse, medic or journalist. Being a war poet is a responsibility all its own. That responsibility came to me in those early summer months of 1993 when a local newspaper was asking for volunteers to help load the humanitarian aid wagons organized by all the police forces in England.
Deciding to Go
I invited two police officers into the BBC Greater Manchester Studios, where I was poet in residence as part of the Who Cares? program at the time. Live on air, Sergeant John explained, “We will be taking desperately needed aid to four points in war torn Croatia. We will be giving aid to devastated Pakrak, Zagreb and Cakovec. We now need volunteers to help load aid onto the many wagons.”
“Can I hitch a lift?” I asked.
“We leave in six weeks,” he said. “I’ll be ready,” I replied.
My wife Sandra wasn’t immediately on board with the idea. “What happens if you’re ill?” she shouted (I have epilepsy). “This is foolish.”
I pointed out that there would be medics and nurses with us. “Disabled people come back from a war,” she freaked. “They don’t go to a war. You can’t cope with the vacuum, never mind the sounds of war. You get lost everywhere you go and who will sort your tablets?”
Silent meals for almost six weeks.
It was strange watching the white cliffs of Dover slide away from us and there was a strange anticipation of something I couldn’t quite understand. On the ferry, I was already being shouted at for wandering around on my own away from the main party of police officers, medics, volunteers and some men dressed in ordinary clothes. I swear I saw handguns under their jackets when the ferry swayed. We were soon in Europe.
Our first main stop for a rest was on the side of the autobahn in Germany. I was doing OK until a stench of something between urine and burnt coffee smacked my nose, which didn’t seem to be affecting the others. People were standing around on the grass resting place a couple of hundred yards from the convoy, in their groups. Some were talking. Some were smoking. But most didn’t show any emotion, fear, whatever. Realization hit me then more than at any other time: I wasn’t one of the herd. I was me. Then a red-haired woman came to chat with me. She was nice, asking where I was from and who was I with. I boasted that I’m a poet. She talked Ted Hughes while I talked Charles Causley. It was OK while it was just her and a couple of her friends. But when more people came over, I started feeling “full up” of people.
The First Sounds of War
At the Slovenian/Croatian border, in the far distance we heard artillery pounding poor souls and their surroundings. We watched in silence and while there, alone, in the middle of two or three hundred people, me and my body felt strange. Deeper than an ordinary tingle, turning into a shudder with a tankful of fright thrown in for good measure. After some army rations were finished and cigarettes smoked, we were back on the road.
Our base camp was in the huge, grassy grounds of an international hotel just outside Zagreb. For the first couple of days, we rested there with a pot full of sun cream. My tent felt uncomfortable. It was in a perfect line alongside the other tents. The following day, I saw refugees – mothers, thinner than thin – carrying plastic bags full of pigswill, their dresses like shrouds. No breast to feed their babies. Women were dying on their feet. I gave my water and sterilizing tablets to one who was on the floor. I thought I’d seen everything. Not this. This was back to the Holocaust. Hours later, we were driving into Zagreb, and passed more mothers holding up their babies.
Something was itching my eyes
to stare over at the machines.
Only I seemed to hear the bleeping
yet my whole family was standing there
and everyone who had ever lived,
the whole universe even, all screaming
not to look. Yet the bleeping seemed
to bounce off every childhood picture
and get-well card
in the Zagreb hospital:
like a ball to my feet.
Then I made my mistake
and looked at a face,
a kind of no-face with holes for eyes
legs missing from the knees down
still stuck to all those bits of shrapnel
somewhere, which banged her life apart.
A little girl, bandaged
in mummy, almost pretty.
Some nurse had taken an age
getting each lap perfect
so proud that when we look
we might still see a person,
In the refugee camp, my sensitive nose was hit with a stench somewhere between sulphur and diarrhea. Some kids took me over to the far stream, where a body was rotting in the water. I was OK. Even though I was there, I was separate from it all. I wasn’t afraid. More than anything, I think being autistic helped me through the experience because I was happy to be away from the main group who were talking, who seemed to be making the day’s trauma worse for themselves.
After leaving the camp, I left the main group to go on my own into Zagreb to a refuge center for vulnerable girls and women. I was told no other press person had been there. Who says we can’t achieve the extreme? It’s a strange thing being a war poet, autistic or not. Some people believe people on the spectrum are only good at math. This makes me furious. Of course the experience is still with me. Just like it is with most who go to a war.
Our wagons rock, jerk
through lines of pot-holes
a foot deep in a cinder path
where children walk barefoot.
It’s a ride down
into something I don’t understand;
a dog shelter where at least
one hundred families live,
who beg out their hands
and cough loud barking coughs.
Naked kids swapping boredom
for disease under a tap
that’s splashing cold silver
into mud pies.
My interpreter – an English Lit. student,
his family wiped out,
is talking of Shelley in a waste land
such as Eliot never saw.
Read more of Peter’s poems in “Thumbing from Lipik to Pakrac: New and Selected Poems.”
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Thinkstock photo by Mikdam.