I’ve heard that one photograph can speak louder than a thousand words, so I guess its easier for me to take them rather than explaining them, and also the process of explaining how you took just one single photo can take more than a thousand words (1,700 and counting so far)…almost there!
I’m stuck in the mud, thinking about how I am about to lose the photos from the whole day and that we have a mission, we are looking for the cemetery and the disappeared town of Tarakanitza, its just one photo that I need of this place, come on, this can’t be happening! Pierre Jerome probably heard me say something on my way down into the mud, so he stops walking and rapidly comes back to help me. I cannot imagine how I must have looked, but by the look on Pierre’s face, it wasn’t good.
-Cristian!- he says as he extends his hand towards me. I cannot move, the more that I try to move, the deeper I go. I’m really stuck. I’ve completely lost my balance, so by now both my hands are in the mud and my vest with all the camera equipment is starting to sink… I manage to get my right arm out of the mud and reach for Pierre’s hand but the mud makes it slippery and impossible to really have a good grab. He’s on higher ground but I’m thinking that I don’t want to pull him into the mud with me.
He lifts me just enough so my vest with the camera won’t sink in the mud, my right leg won’t come out, at least with the boot for that matter. I grab the edge of the boot with my left hand and pull with all my strength, while holding Pierre’s arm and it finally comes out. I don’t know how, but he manages to pull me out of there. I set foot on better terrain but still slip a little. I can feel the thick and sticky wetness of the mud all over my legs. I cleaned whatever was left of the mud on my arms with the back of my shirt that managed to stay dry. I notice that the rest of the mud is all over Pierre. I guess that while trying to stand up I ended smearing all of the mud on his jacket.
-Are you ok?- Patrice, our team leader asks while looking at my all-covered-in-mud look.
—Here, let me help you, give me your camera!- Pierre-Jerome says, while making a rapid demanding gesture with both his hands. I thought that he was just going to hold my vest while I got a hold of my self and recovered from my fall. I remove it and pass it to him, he immediately starts wearing the vest as a backpack.
-It’s ok!- he says and gives me the thumbs up. -Lets go!- Now I’m walking in front of him feeling lighter. Why did I decide to bring it all?!
I’m covered in mud, sweating, mosquitoes flying all around me and walking in the middle of nowhere and the only thing on my mind… What is beauty?
We hear noises around us in the bushes, we notice rapid movements as well. We don’t know what it is. We hear the noise moving closer and closer, faster and louder, we freeze, what is that?! All of the sudden, Strelka, one of the Siberian huskies passes us by, running really fast, making allusion to its name in Russian “Arrow.” I hear Patrice saying something in French as the second dog, Laska, passes him. They do this quite often, I don’t know if they’re playing or they’re just reminding us that they’re there, taking care of us.
We are walking now in the middle of a huge field with flowers and grass so high that you can’t see your own feet. I notice Patrice walking with his arms in the air, the view is impressive really. I don’t have my camera with me, Pierre is carrying it, I guess this image is gonna be for me and my memories. Beautiful things don’t ask for attention, so this one, this moment, I’m gonna keep it just for me.
We arrive at an open field, it seems different, I hear our guide speaking to Patrice in Russian, Patrice answers -ponyatno… ponyatno, harasho- then he adds -Otlichno, harasho- and he walks back to where Pierre and I are. So we’ve arrived to what was the entrance of Tarakanitza, the entrance to the town, and he signals with both his arms to an area around where we are standing. We all look at each other with an expression of awe and surprise. Its an amazing view, you’re not looking at anything but open space, it’s not so hard to imagine the entrance to the town, houses, and people walking around. You can sense something different…energy? You’re feeling history all around you, how many families were evacuated from here? How many atrocities happened here? How many stories took place here before the war? Were there any love stories? People falling in and out of love, witnessing beauty on their days. But unfortunately all that is gone…or is it? We see a light post still there, is it from the old town? We are in the middle of nowhere and there is a light post? Believe me, it was an amazing thing to stand there, there are no remains of anything, to say that you’re in a ghost town, it is all energy and remains of history floating around you.
We keep walking and we stop at a tree. In this spot, this same tree, partisans hid, they were outnumbered, there was nothing they could do. Too many Germans to make a fair fight, there were only approximately 6 partisans. They survived that day, they witnessed horrible things. And there in that same spot, we were standing 70 years later. Every time I’m at a killing site, there is the same feeling… you can’t help but see an amazing (beautiful?) place with such horrible moments as part of its history. Do people know about this? Are they aware of everything that happened here? Does anyone else feel the same energy while standing here? Is there any beauty amidst all of this? So many of these things are so unfathomable to a lot of people around the world.
We’ve been walking for so long that I have lost track of time He says its just 500 meters more, but that’s what he told me 500 meters ago. Patrice is looking exhausted and preoccupied while he sprays some more repellent around me, the amount of mosquitoes is amazing, you see a black cloud around the person walking in front of you. Every step we take is a step we have to take on our way back, so how many steps more do we have to take? We finally arrive at the cemetery, the sun is just behind it, drawing a perfect dramatic and almost celestial light for the photographs. Almost as soon as we arrive, we have to leave, it’s late and we definitely don’t want to be here after the sun sets. No time for breaks. We start our walk back, its going to be almost an hour and a half of walking.
On our way back my mind starts wandering… If someone from outside Earth could see humanity along its trajectory, the things we do, the things we don’t do, and could come to a conclusion, I think they would say that hope is our weakness, sometimes we are not objective and don’t want to see the truth for what it really is. Why would people during the war want to survive? They had to endure so much suffering, witness and live through horrible things. Why would they want to survive for a life full of despair and suffering? Because it’s not just a matter of survival. I think that our biggest weakness can become our biggest strength, and these people had hope…hope that something would change for the better, faith in humanity. We all hope that beauty will arise in our lives and everything will be alright. But also, to find the beauty within ourselves, that is the drive that makes us get up every morning and live. Hope keeps us going.
For me beauty is hidden in plain sight, in the little things, always waiting to be found… in the smile of a stranger at the cafe that you may never see again, in a babushka, who invites us to her house, all strangers, to smile at each one of us and who is curious about where Guatemala is. To remember horrible things she witnessed 70 years ago and cry, to put her heart out and tell stories that probably she hadn’t thought of in years. Or many Dedushkas who took us to different fields and walk out of the comfort of their houses just to show us one place. That unselfishness…isn’t that beauty?
For me, beauty is witnessing a colleague crying in the car because she was affected by a testimony, in the friends that I made here, or the fact that despite the distance from my own country I feel like home, that despite the obvious differences, physical and cultural I cant help but find more similarities than differences. That the language barrier hasn’t been a barrier at all because when people really want to communicate words are just noise and the true nature of human beings comes to the surface because we were united by one true mission, to prevent things like this, horrible experiences that people like Evdokia, Nina, Mariam, Zoya, Raissa and so many others whose testimony we heard, from happening ever again. That’s also why we endure whatever we have to, in order to find the truth and expose it.
But the truth, being objective, is that we are just a tiny part of this mission. Everyone can contribute, doing whatever is possible in their hands…sharing these stories, not leaving this part of history to die, not turning the other way, to be united no matter our beliefs, religion, country or language. This is not just hope, it is definitely possible. I witness this in Russia, 10,000km away from home, working with people from different parts of the world, speaking 4 different languages among us and still remaining united. And for me… that is a thing of beauty.
And for you? Yes you! The person who managed to read the whole entry and did not leave it behind, not closing the window and (hopefully) not getting bored, for you dear reader, what is beauty?