December 2015
Today I’m packing my cameras, notebooks and Yorkshire tea, plus special gifts for Sierra Leone. This will be my seventh visit to the West African country, but one that comes after a long pause, during which a lot has happened, for me and for them.

For the first Christmas ever my parents will not be here, so I’ve decided not to be here too.

For many people in Sierra Leone this season will be a difficult one also, without parents, children, siblings and friends lost to ebola. Though the country has been given the all-clear, there is an observation period in place from now until February, as borders are porous and the disease keeps rearing its ugly head in neighbouring countries. Ebola and its aftermath are causing problems, and my heart goes out to those left behind coming to terms with loss, as well as the vulnerable youngsters and orphans, and the survivors suffering health and social problems.

Still, there will be joy at seeing my female friends again - Rebecca, Julie, Sally, the two Cecilias, Sarah - and getting back to work recording life and lives. Gladys has promised to cook jollof rice until our ‘bells-full ping ping!’. I remember the burn of the hot pepper on my tongue and the sounds of burnt grains being scraped from the bottom of the cooking pot and never thrown away. She asked me to bring along mixed spice for the Christmas cake. She is an expert baker at her charcoal fire, controlling the temperature by shifting the lid of the pot and blowing on the coals.

We will all miss much this Christmas but one thing’s for sure, In Sierra Leone we women will not be alone.

Gladys preparing dinner © Lee Karen Stow

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In a field in North Yorkshire, the red poppies and the white poppies grow freely, side by side.

I know this because I visit each summer to photograph them. The red poppies are in their thousands and far outnumber the white poppies, which number seven to ten. Chris, the local farmer swears he sees more of the white poppies reaching up amidst a blood red carpet each year. It's profoundly moving and like nothing I have ever seen before. It is no illusion. Here at least, the red poppies of remembrance and reflection live hopefully with the white poppies of peace

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November 2015
Remembering the Women

In Whitehall, London, a few strides north of the Cenotaph and the tomb to the unknown soldier is the Monument to the Women of World War II. This tall, bronze pillar, sculpted by artist John W. Mills, is a giant coat rack. Seventeen types of uniform, representing the roles thousands of women undertook during the war, hang on coat hooks, symbolising their job done. Unveiled by the Queen in 2005, this monument of recognition was a long time coming.

One of the uniforms represents members of the 80,000-strong Women’s Land Army (WLA). Women like Iris Newbould of Hull, now aged 90. Iris is one of the few ‘Land Girls’ still around to share memories of digging up spuds, sorting the chaff, felling trees, catching rats, ploughing and milking the cows on bitterly cold mornings. Physically demanding work, but which freed male agricultural workers to serve on the front lines, and helped feed a nation.

I met Iris a few years ago, when I photographed her in her garden allotment. We talked about the poppy story and, a keen poet, she offered to write a memory of a day she can never forget:

Tags: poppies poppy day remembrance women war peace

Poppy Day
(Memories of November 1932)

by Iris M. Newbould, Women’s Land Army

‘Why do we have Poppy Day, Daddy, why?’
The shrill echo creeks down the years
To fill my mind with sweet recall
Of a parent’s love, the best gift of all.

‘Because it’s Remembrance Day, my child,
Put on your poppy, I trust you have prayed,
Now, watch out for Daddy, he is on parade.’
‘But why, Daddy? I already did it last year.’

‘Lest we forget, my dear, for as we live and dream
Too busy to remember, they too had dreams.’
They now lay dead, where the poppies grow.
The band plays on, silver trumpets glow
Hymns and prayers echo in the silent streets.

The Cenotaph falls silent, poppies lay crisp
On the frost, their glowing redness
Warms the hearts of father and child.
They wander off, side by side
In peace, they live in the moment
Content, rejoicing in just being
‘tis enough.

[In memory of a beloved father 1900-1974]

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September 2015
Every Tuesday morning at the Women's Refugee Group in Hull I see the fabric of life taking shape. Women driven out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia meet, for a couple of hours, their troubles past, present and future pushed aside.

They tie dye with bright reds, canary yellows, and cobalt blue. They stitch and seam the cloth, transforming a bed sheet into a dress, or slicing felt into squares that are patched up into a purse. Shiny glitter and plastic beads catch the light.

These pieces of cloth and textiles remind me of landscapes in Africa, threaded by rivers and streams, folded by mountains, divided by boundaries. I try not to see in the red splashes of ink the bloodshed. After all, it’s just dye spattered onto fabric that is carefully being transformed by their hands, into something else, something useful, something beautiful.

I began working with the group a year ago, off and on, and now can’t imagine a week without seeing them. We recorded in images and poetry the war and peace stories of Honorata (Congo), Shuke (Ethiopia) and Eman (Iraq) for the Hull Libraries project I Remember and for my larger Poppies: Women and War. It takes great courage to share a memory. More recently, I recorded some of the Somali women singing songs of the lands and homes they left behind.

We have much to learn from these women who carry the label ‘refugees’, a label often misused and misunderstood. Being a refugee is a huge part of their history, but is a fraction of their hidden depths.

Like the scraps of fabric they scissor and stitch, I hope these women and what they have to offer become more deeply part of the tapestry that is Hull, a city hoping to be an even stronger community of culture. If more barriers are broken and more doors are open to them.

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My three-week visit to Japan is almost over. I came to make two final portraits for the exhibition Poppies: Women and War. Female survivors (hibakusha) of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I met four women who were schoolgirls when the bomb was dropped on them in 1945, changing their lives forever.

I attended both 70th Anniversary ceremonies and heard Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan re-assure his people of his pledge to keep Japan peaceful. Some are sceptical.

A week later I watch online coverage of the WWII VJ Day back home. Hear of the barbaric torture, abuse and starvation of British POWs at the hands of the Japanese military.

In these days of remembrance I have seen hundreds of young people carrying placards appealing for an end to war. Seen the words 'Never again x' scratched on a wall. Seen footage of civilians on all sides burnt and butchered. Heard apologies, speeches of remorse. Comments such as 'they started it so they needed to be taught a lesson'. Really? It was a dirty bomb for civilians, not just soldiers, and their bodies are still burning, 70 years on.

I heard dIrect appeals from survivors, visitors, tourists, against the making, stockpiling and continued testing of weapons of mass destruction by all the leading powers.

Meanwhile major art exhibitions on war and peace are being staged in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Osaka. They bring together gut-wrenching expressions of shock, outrage and sympathy by Kathe Kollwitz, Picasso, Otto Dix, Hamada Chimei and war photographers Robert Capa and Tomatsu Shomei. I see them all. Profound statements that leave me ashamed, bewildered and questioning. Mainly baffled by the insanity of war and the playground mentality of 'He hit me so I am going to hit him harder'.

Working on Poppies: Women and War - from women of WWI (the war to end all wars) and this, the ultimate in destruction of life, the nuclear weapon - I am reminded of how the chief, the dictator, the emperor, the president or the general rarely gets burnt to charcoal or has his eyeballs torn out. It is the young lads marching off to fight evil, or the schoolgirls who are taught only their side of the story.

Mostly it is the woman, and her child, who suffer.

This image will stay with me. A pencil drawing by 17-year-old Yokoyama Ayumi, a third-year student I met in Hiroshima. She drew a schoolgirl shackled by her ankles to the charred ruins of her city. She says:

''It has been 70 years since the WWII ended. As time goes by fewer and fewer people experienced the war, and that event is becoming vague. However I wonder if tragic history would be repeated if we completely forgot that event. The chains of the picture give us warning as we are becoming indifferent to the past. We should hand down the war and the tragedy of that in order not to repeat the same mistake.''

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