11 11 2008

Salerno, Italy

Several hours north of Bangkok there is a wide brown river spanned by a large metal railway bridge. It is a bridge like many others. Though thoroughly unremarkable in its design and appearance, every year travellers from all over the world make the journey to see it, cross it and pay tribute to those responsible for its construction. The bridge is located in the small town of Kanchanaburi: a place even less remarkable than the bridge itself yet now home to one of Thailand‘s major tourist attractions.


This is “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. A structure made infamous by books and an Oscar-winning film and built during the Second World War by the forced labour of hundreds of thousands of local Thais and many thousands of Prisoners of War.


Not far from the bridge sit two cemeteries that are the final resting place for more than 8,700 prisoners from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, Malaya, India and elsewhere. If the bridge is the result of their brutal toil, the tranquility of Chonk-Kai War Cemetery is the reward of rest they were so cruelly denied during their last days.


Like war cemeteries everywhere, it is impossible not to be moved by these simple memorials. To walk amongst the immaculate headstones, to read the names of the fallen and witness their stolen youth is to see the destruction of innocence and the annihilation of entire generations. For those of us fortunate enough to have avoided conflict in our homelands, such loss of friends and brothers, fathers and uncles is incomprehensible, but sadly for millions of people throughout the world it is very much an ongoing reality even today.


Since the beginning of time, war has brought out the very worst and the very best in people. While it has been greed, hatred, powerlust and evil that has been responsible for war and the mind-numbing atrocities that have accompanied it, war has also provided us with some of the greatest acts of bravery, sacrifice and selflessness. Amongst the horror of violence and genocide are countless accounts of staggering heroism. Tales of seemingly ordinary individuals who risked – and often gave – everything to save the life of another.


When we travel, we often encounter memorials to those who have died in conflict and invariably we pass straight by on our way to a pub, restaurant, train station or art gallery.  The carefree attitude we have on vacation might well be the very same approach to life that those whose names are now carved in granite had until their own lives were interrupted and they were sent away to a distant shore.


Next time your travels take you past a memorial in a small town square or a perfectly maintained cemetery, spare a moment for those whose own involuntary travels never brought them home again.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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