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War and peace

I was curious. I always am. The charitable organisation I work for offers support services to the men and women and their dependents (mostly young wives and their small children) that serve in the British Armed Forces based in Germany. Our projects on the military bases their represent one third of our work, yet virtually no-one in our UK locations knows anything about what goes on. With the recent conflict in Iraq, I felt it was time for me to undertake a 'reccie' - a mission of discovery - to expose our tireless and unsung work back home. Although it was a 'work' trip, with the worries I currently face, the opportunity to 'run away' for four days was strong. I flew to Monchengladbach in search of war and peace.

Now, being a curious sort of a person (in so many ways!) I couldn't let such an opportunity pass by to see any big old rocks that might be en route. Riot Gibbon suggested -with some urgency- that die Externsteine was a 'must-see'. I like a strong recommendation. I easily persuaded the charming Paul, my escort around the bases, that a relaxing detour to this site late one afternoon might be nice. As indeed it was.

I spend the morning talking to recently-returned-from-Iraq squaddies with tanned faces now looking rather thin in their baggy uniforms, and to some of the young wives who's husbands have been in Iraq since January 2003 and are still there, mostly peacekeeping and reconsructing at Basra airport. The tales that these ordinary hard-working women told me broke my heart - the worry, the loneliness, the chilling fear everytime they hear the news. I needed some peace as much as the people I was interviewing did. I was lucky, I could get some.

A short drive of 30kms from the base at Herford took us to the edge of a forest south of Detmold. We walked through the dappled sunshine and shade until the forest cleared to reveal a massive natural fortification of sandstone pillars.

At the far end it fell away sharply into a large lake inhabited by scores of huge mirror carp, cruising just beneath the surface like U-boats in the dark waters. The naturally occurring rocky outcrop with its feet in the water looked just like castle walls as they cut into a moat. A very significant place - both now and thousands of years ago to the early inhabitants of this area, for this is utterly unique.

The pillars of stone rise sheer and vertically 35 metres tall from the base. Rock cut steps lead a dizzying path to the top. Despite my fear of falling, I was compelled to climb only ever able to look up. Once at the top, a small connecting bridge had been built to take you from one chimney of rock to another. Summoning all the courage and rational thoughts I could, I went for it!

The importance of this place on subsequent generations is recorded in its stones: 16th century graffiti; ancient, now-smoothed rock cut steps leading off to nowhere, a small Christian grotto; a 19th century bas-relief of the cruxificion, but -not-surprisingly- no record of bronze age activity. Any trace of this would surely have been erased through the centuries. But I find it impossible to believe that this wasn't a site of major spiritual importance to the neolithic and bronze age inhabitants of the region, linking as it does so dramatically, the heavens, the earth and the water which bubbles up from a spring.

To try to observe more closely and the make sense of it further, I made a quick sketch:

The peace I found here was edible, tangible, wonderful and so much needed. My colleague, Paul, felt it too. As I painted and become absorbed in recording my looking, he dozed in the sunshine. Despite his having lived in Germany for 14 years, he had never visited this amazing place. Have I converted him to big old rock hunting? Only time will tell... There is no doubt that the peace overcame him as strongly as it did for me.

Later we sat on the other side of the rocks in the grass that had clearly been camped out on for the solstice and an old hippy, reluctant to leave, strummed his guitar and time slipped away.

Next day, we spent the morning at the garrison at Fallingbostel and a very nice soldier who I got talking to about things in general and after a while the conversation got round to what I was interested in.... He told me of some big old rocks very close by called the Siebensteinhauser (Seven stone houses). He tried to describe it and had difficulty in doing so. When I showed him some paintings in my sketchbook of the hunebedden he said: 'yes, they're just like that!' Our work completed on the base, Paul and I set out to locate them. We got VERY close. Within about 30 metres I would guess, but with the sound of shells falling on the firing range we pulled up at the end of a track. We could go no further without risking our safety.

Apart from this grotty photo found on the internet, I would never find what the Siebensteinhauser were like. Bollocks. I was desperately disappointed.

Our wonderful project at Hohne is quite literally next door to the site of the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, where 70,000 people, including famously Anne Frank, the diarist, now lie dead. It felt only right and proper to pay my respects to the dead and remind myself as to one of the reasons why British Forces are here.

What can one say about such a terrible place? It was the little things that got me. Some unearthed paraphenalia of 'ordinary' camp life had been hung on a small section of wire fence: a bent spoon, a length of rusted barbed wire, a rotted old leather shoe, a battered saucepan,a pair of broken spectacles, a piece of burned fabric...

Despite now basking under hot sunshine, with birds chirping through the trees, this forest clearing was once the site of unimaginable human horror. As I walked past the endless mounds of mass graves, I wondered what it was like to be German and have this appalling weight of guilt burdening one's nation. How do you ever recover from the sins ot the fathers like that? And how can humanity call itself 'civilised' when crimes like continue to be perpetrated around the world?

May the peace that now descends upon this place be forever in the minds of all humanity. And may the all the gods of our beautiful planet forgive us and help us find the courage to forgive ourselves.

War and peace, war and peace...

Jane Posted by Jane
27th June 2003ce
Edited 14th July 2003ce

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