How can the child cross the river?

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How can the child cross the river?
Musdah Mulia with Parjiem a supporter of peace in Ukraine in front of a flower board in front of the Russian Embassy asking Mr Putin to withdraw his troops from Ukraine. Photo credit: Rimar Andhika

IO – When I was young I worked for the BBC World Service radio in London for a number of years. I created programs but also served as a radio announcer and news reader with that special call line “Selamat malam. Inilah BBC London”. I used to have to lower my tone as I have a high soprano’s voice and high voices do not sound half as good as lower ones do on air.

This was during the time of the Bosnian War and of all those late nights reading the news there is one time that remains etched in my mind. I was reading the news about Bosnian civilians, women, children and old people fleeing from Serbian soldiers through the woods and how the Serbian soldiers pursued them, shooting and killing them.

As I read the news, I found tears beginning to roll down my cheeks. Fortunately, it was radio and not television and I managed to steady my voice and continue reading the news calmly. A news reader’s task is not to show emotion but to read the news in an even and neutral voice. Once the news was over however, I went out of the room, found a chair placed my face in my hands bent over and wept.

Later that week, there were posters announcing a big demonstration for Bosnia in the city. So, I went. At the time the Serbs were attacking and killing Bosnians who had insufficient weapons. They unable to defend themselves, they were so ill-equipped and there was an arms embargo on. When I arrived there was a long procession with masses of people. I knew no one and so simply joined in the ranks. We marched towards Westminster and with us there were people with megaphones who would shout things like, “What do we want?” And the protestors would shout back, “Send them arms!” “Send them arms!”, “Send them arms!”. Later, I was given a tin can and told to collect donations from the crowds watching us. I remember there was a Middle Eastern gentleman standing in front of an expensive hotel. I asked him for a donation and he responded, “What are you collecting for?” and when I told him, “Arms for Bosnia,” he opened his wallet and emptied it all into my tin. It was a lot of money.

Later, I was sent to Malaysia to interview Bosnian refugees that the Malaysian government had accepted. I interviewed some of the women and also met the children. There was one little girl who had seen her father killed in front of her eyes. Her mother who was still in Bosnia had managed to have her daughter evacuated out of the country. Somehow, she had ended up in Malaysia. They told me that she could not speak. She was suffering from conflict related post-traumatic stress. It was the first time I had heard of such a thing. To try and help her, they gave her crayons to draw pictures with. They showed me a picture she had recently drawn. It had a river winding across the paper. There were woods in the picture. On one side of the river she had drawn a little stick girl and on the other side of the river she had drawn a stick-woman in a skirt. After she had finished she asked, “How can the child cross the river?” It was the first time she had spoken.

The last person I interviewed was a young man in his late thirties. He was the leader of the group and had fought during the war but had been wounded and then evacuated. I could sense that he did not like being interviewed. His answers were short and gruff and there was an anger in him – but he agreed to be interviewed for the sake of the group and Bosnia. Nevertheless, he told me very little until I came to the last question. “When Bosnia is free again and you return, what is the first thing you will do?”

His eyes leaped up at my face and then slid away and stared off into the distance as if he were seeing something. When he spoke it was the first time his voice was not angry. It was soft, “I shall walk into the woods until I find a spring of clear water and then I shall lie down on the earth and drink and drink… and I shall drink the earth and the leaves and the water of the land I love.”

I never forgot his words or those of the little child trying to find a way to cross the river. That was nearly 30 years ago… and in that time I have grown old… and yet… and yet there is a part of me that remains exactly the same as that young news reader and journalist so many years ago. And that was brought home to me this year….

It is now 2022 and war has broken out in Ukraine. For days I watched the Russians bombarding the Ukrainians. Not just the military but old people, children and mothers; schools, hospitals and houses – and I watched how valiantly the Ukrainians were fighting back. Old ladies going up to Russian soldiers and scolding them; handing them packets of sunflower seeds and telling them that the seeds were so that if they died fighting the Ukrainians, sun flowers, the flowers of Ukraine would grow over their graves. Everyone, men and women, young and old were fighting the Russians. And all the memories of the Bosnian War came flooding back to me. Day after day- and then one morning I woke and thought, “Enough. It’s how we were in 1945. I need to say something. I cannot just stay silent like this.”

So, I texted a message to Prof Musdah Mulia, one of Indonesia’s most renown Muslim scholars. Her Compendium of Islamic Law is used at Harvard Law School. She has been to Afghanistan and spoken with the Taliban and debated radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in the heartland of his Fron Pembela Islam (FPI) or Islamic Defenders Front. When Ba’asyir was on trial as he walked into the room FPI members told everyone to rise and pray for him. The terrified courtroom all rose. Only one person refused to rise and remained seated: Musdah Mulia. She was also a witness against him.

“I texted her, “Come, let’s go demo the Russian Embassy. I cannot watch them killing the Ukrainians like this anymore.”

Her response was immediate, “Good idea. I also don’t like Russia’s arrogance.”

So, I went for the first time to police headquarters to inform them that I was going to organize a demonstration. In Indonesia anyone may demonstrate, they must just inform the police at least 3 x 24 hours in advance.

Policeman: “Where?”

Me: “From the Ukrainian Embassy to the Russian Embassy.”

Police: “How many people?”

Me: “Well, 10 – maybe 30 – but more like 10 people.”

Police: “What will you do?”

Me: “Go to the Ukrainian Embassy shout ‘Free Ukraine!’, sing the anthem give the Ambassador roses. Then walk to the Russian Embassy with our banner reading ‘Free Ukraine’, shouting the same thing, sing the anthem put sunflowers at the Russian gate and then go home.”

Police: “Do you promise not to destroy property, cause a riot or try to sleep in front of the Russian Embassy?”

Me: “Yes, I promise.”

Police: “Not on Saturday, though. Can you do it on Friday instead?”

Me: “No. Everyone will be working.”

Policeman: “You do it on Friday. Not Saturday.”

Me: “I am sorry but I am not asking you for permission to demonstrate. I am letting you know when we are going to demonstrate.”

Policeman gave a sigh: “What is the name of your group?”

Me: “We don’t have one. We are just concerned citizens.”

Policeman: “Who is funding you?”

Me: “No one. We don’t need any money. There are only 10 of us.”

Police: “Lots of demonstrations get funded by people who want to make a point.”

Me: “Well, wouldn’t it be a bit of a waste of money to fund an old lady and 10 people to demo the Russian Embassy?”

Police: “OK. I see you have written an article, Now, you are organizing a demonstration. What else are you going to do to try to free Ukraine?”

Me: “Well… I hadn’t really thought about it. Mmm…maybe collect some donations…”

Police: “What else?”

Me: “Well, I can’t volunteer to join the Ukrainian army. I don’t know how to shoot and anyway it’s illegal to fight in a foreign army. I could lose my Indonesian citizenship.”

Police: “Exactly. Why do you want to do this? Why don’t you just stay home and let some young people go demonstrate?”

Me: “Just because I am old does not mean I don’t have a brain or a heart anymore. I just can’t watch those poor Ukrainians being bombed and shot at like that anymore – and they are so valiantly fighting like we fought for our independence 70 years ago. I just have to do something. And lots of Russians don’t like it either but if they say something they are arrested and go to jail for 15 years. But I can say something. I have freedom of speech. Imagine having that and never using it. Like having a hand phone and never using it.”

Suddenly the policeman began to smile: “You know what? You’ve broken the record. No one your age has ever come here before to report that they are going to organize a demonstration. You maybe old but you’ve got a very young spirit. I’m impressed, lady.”

He was young so he gave me a high five and his phone number – in case of any problems.

So, on Saturday we held our demonstration. Twenty people showed up which did not surprise me as I had not really informed anyone. What did surprise me was that 20 journalists and photographers and four TV crews showed up. I felt a bit embarrassed but they seemed quite happy about it. We brought two banners reading ‘Ukraina Merdeka’ or ‘Free Ukraine’ and the Ukrainian and Indonesian flags. One woman brought a big bunch of yellow sunflowers but those were for the Russians. First, Musdah Mulia presented a bouquet of yellow and blue flowers to the Ukrainian Ambassador, Vasyl Hamianin and then they each spoke to the press. That morning at the flower sellers stalls they all told me, “We don’t understand it. We keep running out of sunflowers and everyone wants yellow and blue flowers. It’s the flavor of the month.”

I do not think that Indonesians are deliberately buying these as a sign of their support for Ukraine. Its more as though the flowers, the colours and the war had somehow seeped into the Indonesian subconscious.

After handing over the flowers we gathered our banners and flowers and flags and began to march to the Russian Embassy.  As we marched along I lifted the megaphone as I had seen it done once before and shouted, “What do we want?”

And the protestors shouted back, “Freedom for Ukraine,” “Freedom for Ukraine,” “Freedom for Ukraine”… “Ukraina Merdeka”.

At the Russian Embassy there were what looked like 20 policemen. There was already a large stand in front of the Embassy with flowers and lettering that read, ‘President Putin please, bring home your troops safely, ASAP’ – which is the polite Indonesian way of saying, “Russia, go home!”

I moved to the Russian Embassy gates to place a bouquet of sunflowers and shout our demands. The press swarmed around me and began advising me how to attach the flowers to the gates. They raised their cameras and each policeman began filming with  his hand phone as I shouted, “Russia, we send you our condolences for the many Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine and we ask you to stop the war in Ukraine! We demand that Russia cease all nuclear threats for to threaten one country with nuclear war is to threaten the world with nuclear war. With climate change our tried earth cannot stand a nuclear attack. It will destroy the planet. And we demand that you allow the Ukrainian people their right of self-determination as stated in the United Nations Charter!”

Everyone looked pleased: the protestors, the press and the policemen. The protestors folded up their banners and flag, the press gathered their cameras and wandered off and  then in the Indonesian way, I politely thanked all the police and apologized for troubling them. I suppose they were pleased that I was not attempting to sleep in front of the Russian Embassy for they all smiled back warmly and said, “No trouble at all, Ibu”.

So, was it worth it? A demonstration that small? When I think of the little child trying to find its way across the river or the man wanting to drink the water, the leaves and the earth of the land he loves, I know that there are now many such men, women and children in Ukraine who are suffering and longing for peace – but who want to be free. Words both written and spoken have an energy that takes on a life of its own. Our small demonstration will not save Ukraine but it will help Ukraine a little and if enough people in the world speak up it will help Ukraine a lot. Surely, we who have the right to speak also have a duty to help the child find a way across the river…

During the demonstration I turned to Musdah Mulia and she smiled gently at me. Ibu Musdah is a member of the Nahdlatul Ulama  or NU which is the largest Muslim organization in the world with a membership of between 40 and 90 million people. Musdah has held leadership positions both in NU’s young girls’ organization as well as its women’s arm. “It’s probably going to get worse in Ukraine,” she said quietly, “So, we’ll have to do it again, but next time I’ll be bringing my people. It won’t be a small demonstration like this.”

I sighed, “We will be back, then.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)