An occasional series on Scots of singular merit, ignored or forgotten
It’s a measure of Suzy Wighton’s modesty, of her steadfast commitment to her work first in Lebanon and then in the UK, and an avoidance of shallow celebrity, that I do not have a photograph of her. There are none I can find on the web. I used one from her book.
The futility of war
‘One Day at a Time’ is part-diary, part a reflective account of her harrowing time as a nurse trapped in the clinic of a Lebanese refugee camp called Bourj al-Brajneh, in 1986. After it was over and she herself rescued, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to the Palestinian people. For a short time she was a heroine to us all until the Tories kidnapped the ideological agenda, and Suzy slipped out of view.
You’d think every Scot knew of her. As well as the MBE, she was awarded the Star of Palestine, the UN Development Fund Woman of the Year, Scotswoman of the Year, and Nurse of the Year – perhaps that ought to be extended to As Long As She Likes.
The conflagration that is Lebanon is long forgotten in the miasma that is the Middle East Armageddon. Suzy was there when, compared to today’s wildfire wars, it appeared an uncomplicated conflict, Jew versus Palestinian.
Arafat was the Palestinian leader, idolised by his people. He tried hard to get a two-nation settlement as agreed by the United Nations, but there was always an objection to it by Israel, with the US acceding to Zionist Israeli’s endless additional demands, particularly its appropriation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements. On top of that there was an impotent UN constrained by vetoes from the big bully ‘concerned’ nations.
Memories of that oppressed region fade as the next war monopolises media headlines, but Suzy’s time there should not be expunged from the record.
The lass in person
I met a good humoured, fresh faced plump girl with blonde hair and an open smile. Behind the smile was a resolve of steel. Look closely and listen intently as I did, and there’s something deeper – a sadness mixed with anger.
When she returned home she came back to a disaster that was Thatcher and the Tories making. The Tories were attempting to privatise the NHS in England, and control the one in Scotland. Bean counters almost outnumbered nurses. “John Major and the Conservatives keep on telling us how there is more money than ever before going into the NHS but, if that’s true, it’s certainly not spent on looking after patients. “
I recall my many conversations with her explaining the politics. She taught me a lot about what was happening, and who were villains, and who were innocent casualties.
She had never lost her soft Edinburgh accent, nor showed any scars from her ordeal, not in public at least. And she was incredibly articulate.
Suzy is what we used to called a heroine. I think she’d dislike that term. She praise instead the medical staff around her, and the woman who life together. In fact, the only photograph of her in her book – reproduced here – is one with friends promoting the book when revisiting the camp; all the others are devoted to the people and the camp she found herself in. There she was surrounded by the people she saved from certain death by bomb, bullet or starvation, after all her medical colleagues had fled. There she remembered those she was unable to save.
I met Suzy after it was all over and she back safe in Scotland doing a brief round of radio studio interviewed to promote her book, and draw attention to the plight of Palestine. She was studying for a Masters in Community Health at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine which she obtained.
I discussed the probability of turning her story into a cinema feature or dramatised documentary, but we both calculated the people who decide on such things, and who hold the purse strings, might not be well disposed to the Palestinian cause. My letters to BBC Scotland drama department were never answered. In one major Los Angeles talent agency, the bigwig literary agent turned the book over few times in his hands and handed it back to me with a wan smile, as if I’d given him sour milk to drink.
Thinking about the horrific experiences Suzy recounted, you realise nothing much has changed. Battles have turned into wars and invasions.
All the proselytising and all the pontificating of all the presidents and all the president’s men since then failed to put Palestine together again. Indeed, the US, the most dogged in mouthing solutions whilst supporting Israel, remains the equivalent of the policeman who’s not in the least impartial, yet insists on acting as referee in a dispute. Only one side trusts him, and it isn’t the victim. The US is still sending billions of dollars of weapons to Israel to oppress the Palestinians, and help build Israel’s Berlin wall.
Like all the individuals in the series of people who’ve impressed me or shaped my thinking, I cannot do justice to Suzy’s experiences. I can only encapsulate them in a few hundred words. I offer a glimpse. For the real deal you should buy a copy of her book from Amazon. It’s a hard read well written, but it will open your eyes to what goes on in God’s own hell of the West’s making.
Suzy was born in Edinburgh in 1959. In 1985, after completing a tropical nursing course, motivated by her earlier visits to occupied West Bank, Suzy found what she was looking for, an honourable cause for which she could use her medical skills. Ideals and training coalesced in the London office of Medical Aid for Palestinians. There she met Dr Swee Chai Ang, a surgeon who had survived the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. Dr Swee’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, and her bravery along with that of Major Derek Cooper and his late wife Pamela, was inspirational to Suzy.
The Palestinian medical staff in Beirut were again being slaughtered in 1985 and 1986. They were dragged – along with their patients – from the hospital, which was on the edges of the Sabra and Shatila camps, and shot by militiamen. Health volunteers were required, and Suzy stepped forward, ending up in fated Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut.
The Palestinian refugee population there had arrived from all over Palestine in 1948, mainly from the Galilee. They had left everything behind, locked their front doors, and moved over the border to wait for the fighting to end so they could return to their homes. When Suzy arrived none had managed to return to their homes all those decades before. Tents were replaced by corrugated tin shelters in which babies died sometimes of the heat and sometimes of the cold.
Six weeks after Suzy arrived, the war of the camps restarted, and she stayed for six months in the besieged camp.
As the siege intensified the first to leave for safety were English doctors and surgeons. The pejorative term snowflake was not in fashion then. One day they were there, the next gone. They left death and destruction knowing it would never end.
The various factions fought on, Lebanese Forces, Amal, the Progressive Socialist Party, (PSP) and the communists. Getting food and medical supplies into the camp became a life and death act. Woman smuggled paper and torn bits of cardboard to Suzy for her diary of events, who needed what medical help, who died, and what was happening outside. In time food was so scare internees ate their pets and caught the rats. To get water women chanced the sniper’s bullet dodging between collapsed buildings and debris strewn streets. Bodies were left to rot as a warning. Nobody dare collect them for burial.
A diary entry for two days before Christmas reads: “Now the fuel is running out. There’s supposed to be only enough to facilitate one operation of six hours duration. The internal squabbling and unwillingness to the hospital is leaving the only solution that each organisation pays for its fighter’s operations in fuel.”
Another entry reads: “A young man, Bilal Shabati, hit by a large piece of shrapnel which fractured his spine. He was intubated and appeared to breathe spontaneously, but as soon as the tube was removed he started gasping and making tremendous efforts to breathe. We cannot evacuate him. He needs a respirator. The decision was taken to allow him to die. There is no morphine. He took a long time to do die.”
And so it goes on, children and young adults, brought in for emergency aid on makeshift stretchers, limbs barely attached, leave Suzy and her nursing colleagues to administer heroic care until death is the permanent peace.
A heartfelt diary entry reads; “Dreamt last night I was not cut off from the world, and that many letters were given to me from Mum, Dad, and Poshie, and Ghillie, and Stewart – missing them all. A lovely old lady, Wafiqa’s grandmother, asked where they all were today, and expressed concern at my being alone in a strange place with a war.”
When Suzy was enjoying a retun to metal and physical health here in her capital city Tony Blair took over the British Empire with a landslide victory. Then one day he backed George W Bush Junior on a pre-planned policy to invade Iraq with the public intention of shipping American style democracy to the Middle East, but in private, a long held doctrine of taming the entire region, Libya too. Suzy was outraged.
“I accepted my MBE on behalf of all my unsung Palestinian and Lebanese colleagues and comrades. I have now returned it, also in their name.
It is an utter disgrace that the British prime minister refused to press for a ceasefire, remained on holiday while these war crimes were being carried out and that parliament has not been recalled. It is a disgrace that the US ambassador to the UN described a call for a three-day truce to assist in humanitarian relief and evacuation of the wounded as “unhelpful”. It is a disgrace that this government ignored the concerns of the electorate and all other forms of lawful protest. I have therefore come to the conclusion that to continue to hold on to my MBE, for which I was nominated by the parliamentary Labour Party, is also a disgrace.
I have returned my MBE to St James Palace, with regret, in protest at the government’s complicity in the prosecution of illegal wars and occupations. And I am returning it, above all, in the hope that this small gesture will add to the swell of support for action for the people of Lebanon and Palestine, and to those who wish to see peace in Israel and other nations.”
The last I heard of Suzy Wighton she was living in the bonnie village of Comrie, Perthshire, with her daughter. She doesn’t work for the NHS anymore.
If she ever reads this I hope I’ve honoured her memory, and that she knows an independent Scotland will not forget its outstanding citizens even if the UK does. Her bravery and that of her co-nurses was exemplary.
Others in this series of great Scots are:
Sir John Rae – explorer and cartographer; A.S. Neill – pioneering dominie; Adrienne Corri – actress and author; Ian Ritchie – architect and engineer; George Forrest – plant hunter extraordinaire; Allan Pinkerton – detective and spy.