Sunday, November 04, 2012

Bethune: Canadian Hero

'He gave all he could, all he had, to the betterment of the people of the world'.
 The Canadian doctor Henry Norman Bethune, acknowledged in a leading article in La Voz de Almería (Nov 4th) called 'El canadiense que salvó vidas durante la huida desde Málaga a Almería en 1937' - The Canadian who saved lives during the retreat from Málaga to Almería in 1937.
Norman Bethune is best known for 'his service in war time medical units during the Spanish Civil War and with the Communist Eighth Route Army (Ba Lu Jun) during the Second Sino-Japanese War. He developed the first mobile blood-transfusion service in Spain in 1936. A Communist, he wrote that wars were motivated by profits, not principles' (Wiki)
'After the capture of Malaga by the military rebels, terrified by the news and the speeches that General Queipo broadcast from Radio Sevilla; on February 7, 1937 a large convoy consisting of about eighty or a hundred thousand people flee in the only way possible: towards the capital of Almería. Consisting mostly of the wounded, women, children and the elderly, the panicked column is pursued by Moorish and Italian troops and bombed without mercy by German aircraft. From the sea, the fascist navy zeroed in like as if were target practice. The walking column was slaughtered without the smallest glimpse of humanity' (Historian Milagros Soler).
The Doctor from the International Brigades, who had developed a new kind of live-saving mobile blood-transfusion unit, was a popular and useful addition to the Republicans, and he is remembered in particular for helping to succour many people along the 350kms track between the two cities.
'We had spent an hour in Almeria', he writes in a book recently released in Spanish called 'Las Heridas, 'long enough to obtain a bite of hard-to-find food. The small seaport had been bombed by air and blocked from the sea. One could feel the hunger in the streets. A kid took us to a bar, but it was completely saturated with soldiers, all eating the same mixture of thick smoky sludge. When we left again, the streets were full of people. The news about the fall of Málaga was spreading'. 
Together with a photographer, Hazen Sise, Bethune set out in his truck towards Málaga. Before he had gone very far, he began to encounter refugees.  'In place of what should have been the road, I could see twenty miles of human beings gathered as one. It was all thick with refugees, thousands and thousands, tight, falling against each other... It wasn't a defeat, it was a collapse'.
The Doctor emptied his truck of medical material and told his friend to drive as many people as he could - forty children and two women in the first load - to Almería 'and to stop for no one'. For four day and nights, Sise transported as many refugees as he could as Bethune tirelessly treated the wounded on the side of the road. 
Almería itself, with no wheeled transport left to help, was being bombarded by Franco's forces. 'Finally the attack passed', Bethune says in his book, 'but the dying and the dead remained'.

One of his most well-known poems was published in the 1937 July issue of a Canadian magazine:
And the same pallid moon tonight,
Which rides so quietly, clear and high,
The mirror of our pale and troubled gaze
Raised to a cool Canadian sky.
Above the shattered Spanish troops
Last night rose low and wild and red,
Reflecting back from her illumined shield
The blood bespattered faces of the dead.
To that pale disc we raise our clenched fists,
And to those nameless dead our vows renew,
“Comrades, who fought for freedom and the future world,
Who died for us, we will remember you.”

 On February 7, 2006, the city of Málaga opened the Walk of Canadians in his memory. This avenue pays tribute to the solidarity action of Dr. Norman Bethune and his colleagues who helped the population of Málaga during the Civil War. During the ceremony, a commemorative plaque was unveiled with the inscription: "Walk of Canadians - In memory of aid from the people of Canada at the hands of Norman Bethune, provided to the refugees of Málaga in February 1937". The ceremony also conducted a planting of an olive tree and a maple tree representative of Spain and Canada, symbols of friendship between the two peoples. (Wiki)
An hour-long film of his life is here .

Story by Amber Napier

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