The Rio Olympics, Zika virus and the pressing questions Brazil must consider

In the past few weeks, two words in particular have been saturating our media coverage: Zika Virus. As many as 46 countries have reported some level of Zika infection and with 130 countries operating as a home to the Aedes Aegypti mosquito (the carrier of the Zika infection) – it can only be concluded that the rapid spread of the noxious virus will intensify in the weeks to come.

The Zika virus was first discovered in monkeys in 1947, with the first human contraction recorded in 1952. Just like the resurfacing of the Ebola virus which rocked the Africas up until late last year, the Second Coming of the Zika virus has proven to be far more intense and transmissible than previously prognosticated. Though in early 2016 it was reported that the Zika virus allegedly only infected expecting mothers, new developments are being made nearly everyday which continues to ignite alarm over the severity of the disease on a global scale.

Though unable to be verified with evidence, babies born to Zika-affected mothers are thought to be born with a congenital condition pertinent to a deficiency in brain development. France reported what the country thought to be the first sexually transmitted case of the Zika virus in Europe  less than a week ago. Most recently, a group of scientists’ in Paris claimed to have gathered the “strongest evidence yet” between the Zika virus and the Guillain-Barre syndrome – a neurological condition that can cause paralysis.

With more than 1.5 million cases of active Zika transmission, Brazil remains the hardest hit nation. Thrust under a global spotlight, it is evident that the country has acted as swiftly as possible to find ways to contain the tumult that has unexpectedly come its way. Yet following the abortion debate that reignited following the country’s inundation with microcephaly cases, another pressing conversation must be opened.

Brazil was handed down the baton to host the 2016 Summer Olympic and Paralympic games – beating huge competitors like Tokyo, Doha and Prague for the top spot. With over one million tourists from 203 countries flocking to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Rio Olympics were anticipated to bring in a mountain of glory to a country suffering its worst recession in the past century. Yet with many countries issuing travel warnings to those planning a trip to Brazil and with a series of airlines issuing refunds for pregnant mothers wanting to cancel their bookings, it comes as no surprise that Brazil’s tourism industry has already started to feel the effects of the global panic the Zika virus has provoked.

Even with news of a woman contracting the Zika virus from within a 2-mile radius of the Olympic Park, the Brazilian government remains adamant that the Rio Olympics will carry on. So far, Brazil has reached 74 percent of the target income it is expecting from ticket sales, though the sale of tickets to Paralympian events has been slower than expected.

According to the World Health Organisation, the most important preventive measures at the moment is the need for mosquito populations and mosquito bites to be controlled. Around 220,000 navy and air-force personnel are participating in a government-run task force aimed at the prevention and fight against the mosquito transmitting the disease to combat breeding grounds in every house. Top medical experts from across the globe are also working with Brazil to research a possible vaccine to tackle this contagious disease. Yet with Brazil still unable to verify a link between the Zika virus and microcephaly thousands of cases later, concerns about whether the country is doing enough has been echoed by many.

If the International Olympic Committee does decide to somehow cancel the Olympics, it would be the sixth time in history the Games have been scrapped (and the only time in history they’ve been changed because of health reasons). Previous cancellations, like Berlin in 1916, were due to international violence. However, that the Zika virus has, in a way, declared war on the globe in a health sense should also be considered. Though the decision to can the Games is an arduous one to say the least, history has shown that in the face of global controversy – it is one that can be made.

With August 5th slowly but surely approaching, the question as whether these preventative measures will be enough to protect the athletes, tourists and citizens who will flock to the Olympics this year needs to be considered. With an estimated $1 trillion dollars being spent on infrastructure planning alone, it is no surprise that Brazil has remained so optimistic in such a tragic time. But the hard questions must be asked and they must truthfully be answered. And the safety of the Olympic athletes and the people of the world must be prioritised in the face of this debilitating disease.

With under 5 months to go and with the eyes of the globe vigorously watching their every move, that Brazil is in a difficult situation is not up for dispute. Yet with the lives of so many in their hands, Brazil without a doubt has some tough questions to face. And whether the country can afford to carry on with the Rio Olympics with the backdrop of the Zika commotion is one that must definitely be considered.

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4 classic revision mistakes and the statistics behind them

There’s much to look forward to in Spring, but if you’re a student, the season can also bring a lot of added stress. October is the month students have to face the dreaded word of ‘exams’ and get lost amongst the piles of textbooks they are required to study. The Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) exams have already commenced, and University students across Melbourne are buckling down in preparation for their heavily weighted exams that are set to begin in a matter of weeks.  Before sitting down for a whole night of study, pay attention to these four classic revision mistakes which may be hindering the effectiveness of your exam preparation.

  1. Not taking breaks – Talking amongst friends about how much you studied for your upcoming assessment can often spur a panic attack.
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    Take frequent breaks to give your brain enough rest to get through the study session.

    If the number of hours which they studied for far exceeds yours, feelings of inadequacy can stir within, as you question how sufficient your preparation really was. If so and so studied for x number of hours more than me, that must obviously mean they studied better than me, right? Wrong. Study sessions that go beyond 7 hours more often than not point to a breach of the first cardinal rule of revising: take frequent breaks. Without breaks, the point where none of the content is actually sinking in will always arise. Sure, you may have been reading for 10 hours straight, but can you actually remember what you read 6 hours ago? In fact, psychologists now believe that the time that you spend between sessions is key to remembering that all-important information: the longer, the better!

     

  2.  Getting distracted too easily – Whether it be our iPhones, tablets or PCs – we all are guilty of being glued to a digital device of some sort. In
    7118761213_5bd4ee0ba4_z

    Don’t study with your technological devices!

    fact, there is a palpable emptiness that we feel with the absence of the ‘ting tings’ of our phones and the sounds of the TV making its way around the house. However, though this may prove to be the hardest thing to do, getting rid of all the technological distractions is definitely the most effective way of studying. Social media is a particular problem: a recent study has shown that belonging to a social network may increase stress by around 15%!

     

     

  3. Cutting back on sleep – The days leading up to an assessment are often extremely stressful. You might think that constant revision right up until your exam is the task that needs your utmost attention; however, there’s something far more important. Multiple sources quote 8 – 8.5 hours of
    Adults ideally require 8-8.5 hours of sleep per night to function during their daily lives.

    Adults ideally require 8-8.5 hours of sleep per night to function during their daily lives.

    sleep per night as the ideal number of sleep hours for adults. These hours are even more crucial when high levels of concentration are required of you. This is because sleep deprivation can seriously impair your sense of judgement and decrease your reaction times. Therefore, even though you may think that revising your notes from the break of dawn until the night sky is brightly lit is what needs to be prioritised, you should remember that you cannot function at your best without a good, balanced night’s sleep. This is a real problem beyond the sphere of exams: according to a study at Harvard University, sleep deprivation costs the American economy $63.2bn a year.

  4. Leaving it all to the last minute – The human brain is, by far, the most fascinating body part:
    Leave at least a month for exam preparation

    Leave at least a month for exam preparation

    the amount of information it can hold is truly amazing. However, this does not mean that it is an unlimited storage centre without any constraints. Though cramming information is veryeffective for some, feeding your brain too much information at the last minute can cause your brain – like a computer – to overheat, resulting in only parts of the content consolidating in your head. Some interesting stats for you: the human short-term memory can only hold between 7-9 facts, and even those typically tend to decay after 30 seconds. Even if you do manage to turn some of your last-minute cramming into more durable memories, your chances here don’t look great! Once you’ve got your exam/test date, you should be aiming to give yourself at least a month’s worth of revision in the run up.

    Exam study can be quite daunting, but in sticking to the four cardinal rules of study in mind, your revision will definitely be more worthwhile. Remember to take breaks, give yourself plenty of sleep, and keep those phones tucked away! Good luck!

    This post was first published on Kandongsee.com

Vanity Fair warns females not to Tinker with Tinder

Photo: Hashela Kumarawansa

Photo: Hashela Kumarawansa

Two weeks shy of reaching the half-year mark since she became single, Mia decided to celebrate by signing up for Tinder. Having called it off with her long-term partner of three years, Mia knew that Tinder and its offering of a platform for casual, fun “hook-ups” was exactly what she was after. So on the ubiquitous hype of Tinder, Mia decided to get swiping.

But that all changed when news of a Tinder gang rape broke out. The decision by a 28-year-old woman to go on a Tinder date while in New Zealand for business sent

alarm bells ringing across the globe, calling for women Tinder users to err on the side of caution. One minute the woman was enjoying a drink with her companion, the next, she woke up in an unfamiliar location and a victim of a savage gang rape. In another case last year, Warriena Wright, 26, fell to her death on a Tinder date on the Gold Coast.

This event sparked many women members to shift the way they used Tinder, and for people like Mia (whose name has been changed for this article) to rethink using the app altogether.

“It really hit me how dangerous Tinder had the potential to be. I thought about the worst scenarios, like getting stalked, assaulted and scared myself into staying away from the app,” Mia said.

However, are women suffering beyond these haunting thoughts of having their personal safety compromised?

According to Vanity Fair‘s Nancy Jo Sales – yes. Sales’ feature in this month’s issue of the magazine, provided a lengthy piece on how the abolition of the “traditional dating scene” is affecting women the most, claiming the app did nothing for feminism as has been argued before.

However, Melbourne feminist, Sum Ambepitiya, claims that to label Tinder as a “feminist’s ideal” in the first place is to bark up the wrong tree.

“I think that statements about Tinder being inherently ‘feminist’ or ‘anti feminist’ are in themselves misogynist because they perpetuate the stereotype of men seeking quick, no-strings-attached sex, and women seeking long-term love relationships, with no room in between.”

Ambepitiya said Tinder is used for a wide range of purposes by its 50 million users –  and they’re all gender neutral.

“Saying that Tinder causes heartbreak in women because they have unrealistic expectations of the men who use it denies women’s very real desires for casual sex, and men’s very real desires for serious relationships.”

And Tinder had a lot to say in response to Sales’ article as well, even boasting in a tweet to its almost 54,000 followers on how Tinder is the first dating app that puts women in control this morning.

If you want to try to tear us down with one-sided journalism, well, that’s your prerogative.

— Tinder (@Tinder) August 11, 2015

Or you could have talked about how everyone on Tinder is on an equal playing field.

— Tinder (@Tinder) August 11, 2015

Users can’t message each other unless BOTH people are interested in one another.

— Tinder (@Tinder) August 11, 2015

This all creates social accountability so that Tinder users treat each other well.

— Tinder (@Tinder) August 11, 2015

This post originally appeared RMIT’s City Journal .

70 years on, Hiroshima stands as a symbol of peace

After much divided public opinion, the citizens of Hiroshima agreed to rebuild this building to look as it did instantly after the bomb struck. It is now known as the Atomic - or A-bomb Dome
When 8.15am struck in Hiroshima this morning, tens of thousands stood united in silence, paying tribute to those who lost their lives when the first atomic bomb was dropped in Japan 70 years ago.

On August 9, 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, the city of Nagasaki was struck.  The two bombings, which killed at least 129,000 people, remain the only use of nuclear weapons for warfare in history.

When I visited Japan earlier this year, I was able to visit the

The entrance to the Peace Park where a large statue depicting Sadako (from the famous Japanese folk tale) holding a paper crane above her shoulders.

The entrance to the Peace Park where a large statue depicting Sadako (from the famous Japanese folk tale) holding a paper crane above her shoulders. / Photo: Hashela Kumarawansa

HiroshimaPeace Park and War Memorial. This experience was, by far, the most memorable of my two-month journey in Japan and I consider myself very lucky to such an eye-opening experience at the age of 20.

I was aware that Japan was severely damaged as a result of the bombings and the thought of all the innocent lives lost in the poorly veiled name of war was saddening. When I came second place in the United Nations Poetry Competition devoted to the Hibakusha – the Japanese term coined for the bombing survivors – I thought I held a well-rounded grasp of what it was like to live through 1945. Howver, it was only when I visited the Peace Museum that I understood just how unaware I was about the implications of the attacks and the toll they took on the two cities and its people. I was confronted with things that could never be learnt through reading.

Walking through the serenity of the Peace Park, you could very well find yourself momentarily forgetting the atrocities that took place there. R

Peace Park, Hiroshima / Photo: Hashela Kumarawansa

Peace Park, Hiroshima / Photo: Hashela Kumarawansa

Families were often left with miscellaneous items like a piece of uniform and a sandal as the only fragment left to link to their loved ones. These personal belongings remain gently preserved in their original, fragile state behind glass displays to remind the world of the empty families that remain in Hiroshima.

Heat in the hypo centre raised surface temperatures to between 3000 and 4000 and blasts blew 440 metres per second. Heatrays, blasts and radiation instantly destroyed the city and wax figures of school students’ fleeing to safety in tattered uniforms and vicious burns to their bodies depict this well. Amongst all the moving displays, there was one that affected me the most: Shin and his tricycle. The caption read:

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Photo: Hashela Kumarawansa

Shinichi Tetsutani (then 3 years and 11 months) loved to ride this tricycle. That morning, he was riding in front of his house when, in a sudden flash, he and his tricycle were badly burned. He died that night. His father felt he was too young to be buried in a lonely grave away from home, and thinking he could still play with the tricycle, he buried Shinichi with the tricycle in the backyard. In the summer of 1985, forty years later, his father dug up Shinichi’s remains and transferred them to the family grave. This tricycle, Shinichi’s best friend, was donated to the Peace Memorial Museum.

The Peace Memorial Park and Museum aim to spread the truth about the Atomic bombings throughout the world to prevent further tragedies from occurring and to help promote a better future, away from nuclear weapons. I learnt and felt a lot during this visit due to the deeper understanding of this part of history I gradually came to possess. Something that resonated with me the most was when my tour guide explained that every family lost at least one loved one, so that at the end of it all, there were no complete families in Hiroshima. Though far from the typical touristy vibe, this visit has been the highlight of my Japan trip and has been a real eye opener to the types of atrocities that can be inflicted by human-kind in the name of war.

All administrative agencies were so badly destroyed that the number of lives taken away by this barbaric act remains unknown. On the eve of the 70th anniversary, the total stood at 292,325.

The un-peaceful lovers

 

The days dragged on

Eleven full moons passed by

There he remained with his wife

Under the repeating night sky

 

He longed to be with her

She told him to stay away

“Keep Death happy

It is the only way”

 

He cried at Death’s door

To take him to his wife

“Please take me now

Before I sacrifice my own life”

 

His wife became cross

“Sadness makes you foolish indeed

Death will be dissatisfied

And won’t fulfil our needs”

 

“I do wish you were here

Oh, how many times I’ve cried

Your time will soon come

Just don’t challenge Death’s pride”

 

On the twelfth full moon,

A final decision

The ultimate deed

With the greatest precision

 

Death had not chosen him

When he desperately needed Him to

So he empowered Death himself

And did what Death refused to do

 

He thought he would be at peace

Finally reunited with his wife

Yet Death does not forgive

Those who take their own life

 

Death sought cruel revenge

And separated the souls of the lovers

They were parted for eternity

To remain the un-peaceful lovers

 

 The un-peaceful lovers won the 2011 Brimbank Literary Awards for the teenage category. 

The resurrection of Journalism

This is an edited version of an assignment I submitted as part of my Journalism course in October 2014. 

Journalism and the future of journalism are two ideas that have gone hand in hand for so long that, these days, they are simply strung together as one in dialogue. Ask most journalists about the future prospects of their respective careers and you can almost see the veil of gloom and doubt rise oppressively above their heads. It’s become the ominous dark cloud that never fetters – regardless of how persistent the efforts to demolish it are.

The digital world has increased exponentially over the past few years, in unforeseeable and uncontrollable ways. Naturally, this has left those in the media brooding over the possible methods that could be enforced to circumvent this ubiquitous hurdle. Yet, the minimising of funding to key media organisations is forcing big companies to shrink the size of their companies – bringing out the scepticism in even the most optimistic.

With thousands of students expected to complete their Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) in a matter of weeks, the clock is ticking for students to make informed decisions about their futures. Yet, with all the pessimism with which Journalism is being discussed, whether our younger generations will want to prosper in journalism in the future remains a blur.

Hannah Kuhar, 17, is one of these thousands. In a matter of weeks, Kuhar will fly out of the cacoon she has concocted at Genazzano FCJ College in Kew and into higher education. With a natural ability to colourfully tell stories, Kuhar was persistent on a career in Journalism. However, this strong determination ended with the commencement of her VCE. Kuhar admits that the hype about the supposed austerity of journalism was a factor in her change in heart.

“I just thought – “what if there really aren’t any newspapers in the future?” I wouldn’t want to be a full-time blogger for the rest of my life”, Kuhar said.

When contrasting the increase in citizen journalism and the digital world with the palpable reduction of the journalism industry, Kuhar’s sentiments towards the industry are not surprising.

The Federal Government’s cut of $43.5 million over four years to the funding of Australia’s public broadcasters in the last May budget left media organisations struggling. The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) was one of the many leading organisations that vocally condemned the Federal Government’s decision – repeatedly labelling it  “a broken promise”.

MEAA Media director Paul Murphy said: “You can’t hold a public broadcaster together on string and band-aids. There is a real cloud now over the ability of the ABC to meet the requirements of its charter in serving regional and rural Australia. SBS, which was starved of funds in recent years, is once again in a desperate position.”

More recently, there was intense upheaval as the ABC proposed to axe Lateline after 14 years on air, as well as many of the state-run 7.30 reports. Prominent journalist and previous Media Watch host, Jonathan Holmes, founded the ‘Save Lateline’ petition, addressed to the ABC board and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. It strongly urged Australians to “protect quality investigative reporting and current affairs coverage”. In less than 48 hours, the petition accumulated almost 60,000 signatures –which safeguarded Lateline from the axe.

However, despite the promulgated ‘end’ of Journalism, University enrolment figures for journalism courses show that the number of students wanting to study journalism has remained constant – despite the tumultuous years of changes to the industry.

The Bachelor of Journalism course at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) is renowned as having one of the best journalism courses in the country, mainly due to its strong focus on industry based experience.

RMIT University’s selection officer, Josie Vine, makes about 70 offers per year for the undergraduate journalism program, which she says, has remained “largely unchanged over the past few years”.

As part of the course, students are exposed to the news environments of highly regarded organisations, such as RRR and Channel 31, prior to graduating. Josie Vine says that this helps equip students with the vital skills needed to find employment after the completion of their tertiary degree.

“At RMIT, we teach journalism through practice, and make sure all students have experienced real news production before they graduate. This means we need to keep numbers quite small and it’s why our course is quite exclusive and competitive. International offers are separate, and will vary according to the quality of candidates”, Vine said.

Jennifer Zhao contributes to the small percentage of international students who are offered a place in RMIT’s journalism course. Zhao believes that it was her natural raconteur abilities that attracted her to journalism from a young age. However, after bearing the sole responsibilities for her living expenses since her migration to Australia at the young age of17, Zhao has realised that her love for storytelling may not overweigh the need for a stable and financially rewarding career for her future.

“I sometimes consider pursuing something else mainly due to the bleak salary prospect in the Journalism profession. I still see myself working in the media industry, but I’ll try go for something a little bit more flexible and open for a wide range of job opportunities”, Zhao said.

Due to the increasingly competitive nature of the Journalism industry, Zhao believes that aspiring Journalists will need to show a range of versatile skills in order to be recognised in the future.

“To be a sought after Journalist, we have to equip ourselves with extra skills – be it editing or filming – on top of excellent writing.”

The Under Age is an online publication conducted by The Age and Express Media that allows 12 aspiring journalists to work in a journalistic environment, with industry professionals and fellow students with a keen aptitude for news.

“We can’t drink, drive or vote, but we can write. Look at the world through our eyes”, the website reads.

More than 200 high school students have applied for a position at The Under Age this year and according to Benjamin Riley – the head of The Under Age publication – the number of applications will continue to rise.

“It’s pretty unique. I’m not aware of any such programs in Australia that offer high school students a 12 month traineeship where they learn to write articles for publication and work one-on-one with industry professionals”, Riley said.

Students meet at The Age Media House fortnightly where one hour is devoted to Q&A sessions with key industry figures. The other hour focuses on the practicalities of journalism, like writing skills, the ethics and regulations of journalism and the types of journalism.

An array of journalists have come into The Under Age this year, including prominent investigative journalist, Richard baker.

Though The Under Age is an online forum for aspiring journalists’, Riley concedes that not every student who completes their traineeship with The Under Age will continue to have a passion for journalism. By teaching students to have realistic expectations of the industry, Riley believes students will be able to make an informed decision about their futures – gaining invaluable experience either way.

“The Under Age is a publication and everyone will come out of it with a portfolio of published work, especially working with a masthead of prestige like The Age which isn’t something a lot of students can say they have”.

Rachael Ward believes that her participation in The Under Age has discernibly opened doors for her. Ward is currently studying a Bachelor of Journalism at La Trobe University and says that applying for The Under Age is “the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Admittedly, Ward tried convincing herself that she wanted to pursue a more “stable” career like Law, until she found a letter she wrote to her future self while aged 12.

“It’s funny, I’d completely forgotten that I wanted to be journalist when I was younger until I opened the letter. I had written something about really hoping I’d become a writer. So I guess that desire to just have a go at journalism encouraged me to pursue it.”

Ward believes that The Under Age has helped her gain confidence with her writing which has allowed her to write for a broader range of publications. Since joining The Under Age, Ward has written for The Age, Cosmopolitan Australia, Birdee, The Weekly review and Truth 4 Youth.

Ward believes the death of journalism talk is overhyped because society will always need quality journalists to communicate and act as a point of authority regarding the events from around the world. However – like Zhao – Ward worries about the large range of skills Journalism students may need to be equipped with for the future.

“The real issue is that journalism as we know it is changing, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Although I do worry about not having the right skills to be a journalist in the future. As newsrooms continue to shrink journalists are going to need skills like being able to code and be able to produce info graphs, which I personally am yet to master.”

Two years into his Bachelor of Science degree, Chris De Silva, 21, realised that he “actually hated” his course. De Silva was in the middle of a tedious calculus equation when he decided to write his first WordPress blog post about the NBA as a form of procrastination. Perhaps underestimating the power of social media and the quality of his writing, De Silva was overwhelmed by the response he received after tweeting his first article “with a couple of hashtags”.

“I didn’t really expect anyone to notice it but some time later, I got a notification on Twitter from this guy who was asking whether I wanted to write for his website”.

De Silva now studies Journalism at La Trobe University and believes he has found the passion and drive he had been trying hard to attain in his previous course.

Talking about why he decided to pursue a career that has been speculated to have no future, De Silva highlighted the importance of hard work.

“If you’re amongst the best at your job, then no matter what the cuts are, there is always going to be someone who will want to employ you. That’s the kind of mantra that I live by. However, I know it’s a competitive industry and if I kick my feet up and relax, there’s someone else working overtime to surpass me. So it’s up to me not to let that happen.”

This is a mantra that is also shared by Ward, Zhao and Kuhar.

Kuhar is now leaning towards the more “stable” option of an Arts/Law degree, but believes the work experience she undertook when she was still interested in journalism has helped her excessively, especially with her self-confidence. She still writes for a variety of publications, like Footy Nuts, and believes that extra-curricular activities are essential for aspiring journalists’ who want to get into the industry.

“Having a good ATAR only shows that you’re good at the books, not that you’re a good journalist. It would be nonsensical to not have had any journalism work experience before studying it.”

About technology, De Silva said: “Technology is a very powerful tool and when used effectively, it can pay huge dividends”. And indeed social media, like Twitter, are excellent ways to take a leaf out of De Silva’s book on how to be noticed in the cyber world.  We can only hope that, in the near future, the journalism industry will learn to effectively fuse the digital world with journalism and find other means, like increased advertising, to gain profits.

George Orwell once said that “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” And that the public will always need a bullish and reliable fourth estate will always be a fact.

Untold stories of Stasiland

PREFACE:

Studying Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’ in Year 12 Literature was one of the highlights of my schooling years. Through Funder’s exploration of the corrupt Stasi (the abbreviation for the East Germany Ministry of State Security), readers are given insight into the brutal regime which East Germans were oppressed by. In 1961, the people of Germany awoke to find their country to have essentially disappeared, as the construction of the Berlin Wall overnight catapulted the nation into the polarisation of East and West Germany – diving a nation that was once united.

The Stasi spied on its citizens for more than 40 years and where possible, manipulated many into informing (spying) on their loved ones and friends to strengthen their regime. It is estimated that at least 500,000 people were informers by the end of the the Communist party’s time. From interrogation transcripts to intercepted mail – the Stasi kept tabs on everyone who were political dissidents or those who were deemed likely to rebel. When the totalitarian regime was at its end, the Stasi staff tried to destroy as many of those documents as possible.  When the machines broke down, staff were forced to destroy the documents by hand.

Puzzle Women is the name given to the workers who meticulously work through the sacks of paper, trying to create something out of essentially nothing. Their contents are of immense importance for understanding how the East German regime functioned. However, with more than 15,000 sacks full of an estimated 600 million pieces of torn documents left behind, whether all the bags will ever be sorted through remains a bleak question.

Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of The Wall  recently. Amongst the progress Germany continues to blossom in, it is essential that the stories of the past are told, never forgotten. This is a driving force behind Funder’s ‘Stasiland’.

My creative piece is based on ‘Stasiland’ and two main characters from the text. It focuses on the lasting impact this “perfectly surveillenced” state had on the victims of the German Democratic Republic. Though The Wall has now been physically hacked to dust, I also explore how some people won’t have the closure needed to move on, leaving them forever stuck in a world with the psychological presence of The Berlin Wall – a  ‘phantom’ wall.  

 

I am on the 7.20 morning train to Nuremberg. As I look beyond the carriage’s crystal windows, thoughts about the unfolding day unravel in my mind. Today marks exactly 10 years since Miriam Weber and I crossed paths. I vividly remember that dull, grey morning where she entered the glass doors of the headquarters, subsequently entering my life. She had travelled all the way from Leipzig to Nuremberg after hearing about us Puzzle Women.  We are the people who diligently work to recreate the intelligence documents the Stasi Police shredded in a bid to destroy all evidence that they had spied on their fellow countrymen for 40 years.

When the Berlin Wall was erected, it not only ruined a country, but the lives and hopes of thousands of its citizens. People from all over the country have approached us over the years, desperate for any information. For Miriam, she was searching for proof to validate her belief that her husband was murdered at the hands of the State.

Miriam was forced to bury her husband – Charlie – a decade ago, when he took his own life after the effects of being wrongfully imprisoned took a deplorable toll on him. Except, Miriam believed this story to be a concoction of lies, dictated by the Stasi officers who wanted to bury the truth of how they killed Charlie along with him. In hearing the news of Charlie’s file being recovered by our headquarters, Miriam came to seek our services, to seek the truth.

When I look at Miriam, I see a still of my own life. I remember how the Stasi prohibited my brother from attending college purely because of his refusal to inform on me – his only sister. The Stasi regime created a Germany where the lives of some who agreed to spy on their loved ones were spared and those who held onto their moralities were destroyed. Trust and friendship became extinct in the crazy jungle this land once was. In a way, my brother, Miriam and I are one of the thousands who are stuck in the amber of time – the paths of our lives irreversibly altered

I accepted Miriam’s case in a heartbeat because I empathised with her pain. I, too, wanted to expose the brutal totalitarian regime of the Stasis’ that had destroyed the lives of so many. The Stasi had murdered Miriam’s husband, refused to let her see his body at the funeral and repeated the same fabricated story of his suicide to explain his death. Miriam knows she won’t ever be able to hold the Stasi accountable for her husband’s murder, but she’s hoping that I will be able to piece together Charlie’s file and find proof that he was murdered. She wants to exercise her basic right to know the truth. And after ten strenuous years, I’m praying that today is the day I give it to her.

Unusually, I am keen to go to work today. I muse over how the last ten years have panned out: Miriam arriving at the front reception promptly at noon – always anxious, always nervous. After years of meticulous work, today I hope to find the final piece to complete this puzzle that has encapsulated her life. And in a way, mine too. I am anxious for noon. Though Miriam and I have maintained a formal and courteous relationship over these years, I feel as if I know her. Having access to Charlie’s folder, filled with the notes the Stasi officers made about the day’s monitoring of the both of them did give me insight into Miriam’s life. Like how Miriam became a criminal of the state at only 16 for trying to climb over The Wall, how all German Universities were forced to reject her application to study with them because of this decision she naively made at 16 – effectively ending her dreams to be a writer – and how the Stasi didn’t even let Miriam pay homage to her dead husband the way she wanted.

Though I am not sure what exactly Miriam will gain from the Stasis’ file on Charlie, at least she will have the truth. I hope that this will be enough to set her heavy heart and soul free. I hope that it will bring a ray of sunlight into her life, that has been clouded since her husband’s sudden departure from the world.

I walk through the glass doors with the ‘Staff Only’ neon signs. After years of walking this exact path, the routine of finding my file is a task I could do blind. As I scurry past the thousands of big, brown sacks all lined up in organised rows on the shelves, unease runs through my body. Knowing that these sacks contain the millions of secrets and surveillance methods the Stasi used to obliterate the lives of its own people is a fact I can’t adjust to. I walk to the last row and stop in front of the ‘W’ drawer. I flick through the files until I finally see the black blocked lettering of ‘Weber’. I lift the thick manila folder from the chest, struggling to  carry the years of progress that it contains. I take a deep breath and, praying for the best, I make my way to my desk of ten years.

I sit down and open the file – laying out the puzzle I have tirelessly worked on. I sometimes forget that the intact documents I am analysing  now, once used to be miniscule pieces of paper – five sacks full. I scatter the fragments of information I have regarding Charlie on the small surface of my desk. From the previous documents that I have pieced together, I know a Herr Weil signed off on Charlie’s staged suicide and fraudulent funeral. Today, I hope to find the signature of this Herr Weil, and as I glance over towards the brown, dull sack that is resting beside my desk, I pray with every fibre in my body that this crucial piece to the puzzle is sitting quietly in that bag – waiting for me to recover it.

I tilt the bag upside down and gently pour its shredding into the large glass bowl on the top left corner of my desk. I run my hand through the glass bowl and examine the size of the paper pieces, which are larger than commonly found. This has to be one of the files that the Stasi failed to shred. With the unexpected announcement of the fall of The Wall and the imminent raids of the Stasi headquarters by angry citizens with the taste of freedom in their mouths, the Stasi tried destroying the hundreds of thousands of files it kept on its people. However, the headquarter shredders couldn’t tolerate the speed and load of the thousands of files and broke a part – a metaphor for the totalitarian regime perhaps. They resorted to tearing the files by hand, which explains the varying sizes.

I look over the file that I have pieced together over the years, refreshing my memory of what I have strenuously been working on and for what purpose. I begin to make room on my table for the contents of this final bag to be spread out, ever hopeful that this table holds the vital piece needed to complete the story of Charlie Weber.

14.10.1980
Today, Charlie Weber was given the chance to be freed from prison, provided that he informed on his wife, Miriam Weber. The state became aware that Frau Weber has been submitting photography to magazines and subsequently, earning money from these submissions- even though the state has ensured that she, being an ex-criminal, is to be prohibited from such rewards. The state required information regarding Frau Weber’s helpers and sought Herr Weber’s help to spy on his wife. Herr Weber, however, did not comply – instead, causing an aggressive commotion when being approached with the proposal by some Stasi officers. Despite repeated warnings by the officers at the scene for Herr Weber to control himself, he was unable to. As such, for the sake of the safety of our prison guards and to deter other prisoners of such vile behaviour, it was asked that Herr Weber be isolated.

19.10.1980
Today, Frau Weber barged into out headquarters demanding to know more of Herr Weber’s death. She declared her suspicions about the explanation the Stasi provided her with regarding Herr Weber’s suicide. As she makes a good point about how the prison cell holds nothing that could be used to harm oneself, it will now remain that Herr Weber killed himself with the waistband of his trousers.

21.10.1980
Today, Herr Weber’s body will be released from forensics. Frau Weber will be allowed to start planning a funeral for her husband, but at a parlour the State chooses. The receptionists at every funeral parlour have been ordered to refuse Frau Weber’s requests to have a burial for Herr Weber. The bruising on Herr Weber’s neck is too visible, and if the State is to maintain the story about Herr Weber’s suicide – for the sanctity of the State – then it is utmost necessary that Frau Weber’s determination for a burial is matched. However, the State cannot explain to Frau Weber why a cremation for Herr Weber is necessary, and so must implement a plan to ensure Frau Weber is under the impression that her desires are being fulfilled, all the while upholding the State’s. Herr Weber’s body will be cremated – in secrecy – after Frau Paul’s private funeral.

30.10.1980
Today, the cremation of Herr Weber will take place. Yesterday was the memorial service, conducted by Frau Weber. The mourners, including Frau Weber, were strictly ordered to keep a distance of at least 10 metres from the casket to prevent any recognition of the body. Herr Goch – another dissident who was found guilty of distributing anti-GDR propaganda – was buried as Herr Weber today.  30 minutes of mourning time was provided as soon after, the Stasi officers made their way to the secret location set for Herr Weber’s cremation. May the evidence of Herr Weber’s murder burn away with his body.

The adrenaline is rushing through my veins. I feel my heart pounding. In my hand, I hold three pieces of paper which all appear to contain fragments of the same writing for the same signature. I am nervous to place the pieces on the table, knowing that the weight of my ten years of work rests solely on these pieces of paper. I take a deep breath and lay them out on the wooden surface that is my desk. It takes me less than 5 seconds to rearrange the paper pieces and see the blocked letters ‘HERR WEIL’ in front on my very eyes. It takes me even longer to piece together that this signifies the completion of my first puzzle, and the completion of a chapter left tethered in Miriam’s life.

The digital clock in the main waiting room reads 11.58 AM in bright, red letters. I feel the beads of sweat gathering on my palms and forehead. I hold the file in my hand, noticing that it feels heavier than I’ve ever remembered. I think of how to tell Miriam that her suspicions about her husband’s death were right, that she buried a man she had never even met as her husband – whether I should say anything at all. Miriam’s face with all the possible reactions to the file engulfs my vision. I start to have a hot flush and as I stand up to go to wash my face, I see Miriam’s petite frame walk through the glass doors. I quickly use my white-laced handkerchief to rub the sweat from my face. I clench onto the file a little bit tighter and walk up to Miriam, with a smile that widens with confidence with every step I take. After years of sombre greetings, today, she senses something different. She walks towards me and I can see the hope and gratitude illuminating from her eyes. “Charlie’s file”, I say, while handing over the manila folder with the puzzle I put together. It turns out I didn’t need to say much at all, as I feel Miriam’s warm embrace tighten around me for the first time – repeatedly thanking me. Though we both don’t know what Charlie’s file will bring her, palpably, we are both grateful that she finally has the truth she so desperately needed.

The time is 6.38 in the evening and I am on the train home. I look out into the nightlife and stare into this strange land that was once controlled by fear. A land that brainwashed its citizens into glorifying the GDR and spying on their friends and family.  I am curiouser and curiouser. Ten years was how long it took for me to piece together Charlie and Miriam’s story. Yet, how long will someone else have to wait? What happens to those who never get the truth? After seeing the plight of Charlie Weber, I wonder if it is sometimes best to not know. As I find myself pondering over this sad truth, I quickly change my train of thought back to today’s events and the sense of peace I hope Miriam has found today. In a world where it is often so easy to forget, that there is one less untold story from Stasiland is something I can make peace with. The Weber story is now complete.