The foothills of the hilltop village of Takrouna, an hour and a half's drive south of Tunis, saw some of the heaviest fighting of the Tunisian campaign, including in the last days before the Axis surrender on 13 May 1943. Hence the 1551 burials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Enfidha , where we gathered yesterday in the annual Remembrance Day commemoration, as well as the Free French cemetery and Italian and Eighth Army battlefield memorials a little to the West. We were glad to welcome a hundred or so visitors from Britain to Enfidha, but sadly on this occasion there were no World War II veterans amongst them.
We wanted to remember and honour those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and the chance we have been given to build a better world. We have much to do on that. But our main theme was reconciliation and peace in all its facets - peace-making, peace-building and peace-keeping - in which so many of our colleagues and our servicemen and women are engaged.
The theme of reconciliation was beautifully evoked by our new Anglican bishop-designate in his homily on only his third day in Tunisia. It was also symbolised by the presence of the German Ambassador, who, with his Defence Attache, laid a wreath in memory of the War dead. Another European colleague, visibly moved, told me that the service for him illustrated in a profound way the meaning of the whole European project - reconciliation of former enemies. The graves among which we stood reminded him of the tragedy of war and the need to avoid reopening old wounds in Europe.
As we remembered our own losses we spared a thought for the Tunisians. What had they felt as foreign powers battled across their farms, a theme powerfully illustrated in Lillian's book on World War II military cemeteries in Tunisia? Had they hoped for liberation from French rule?; Or had they simply kept their heads down and pursued their existence as best they could whilst the conflict raged? We had no answers. But the presence of two Tunisian army buglers and (for the first time) a Guard of Honour reminded us of Tunisian tolerance and hospitality. Their support of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who maintain eight cemeteries and graves in three other burial-grounds across Tunisia, has been exemplary.
Today the Americans held their own ceremony of Remembrance at the Carthage war cemetery. Tomorrow it is the turn of the French, and Saturday of the Germans. We shall be represented at them all, though Lillian and I leave Tunisia finally on Thursday. In their different ways these ceremonies give us the chance to remember, reflect and resolve to do more together to build a better world.
I am glad to report that we have found a short-term solution to the problem of delays in our visa service in Tunis about which many customers and senior Tunisians have made representations to us. Thank you for the feedback. We have been listening! So we have arranged to resume from today (4 November)our former practice of taking decisions on applications here. This will be a temporary measure until a satisfactory long-term alternative is identified. But applicants should find that straightforward cases are processed within a week. I very much hope that we shall continue to meet this target when any new measures are introduced.
Last weekend's Tunis La Presse reported that only 4% of Tunisians are below the poverty line and that over 80% of the population can be considered as "middle class". The Tunisian authorities operate a Solidarity Fund to help the poorest families and there are health and social security schemes too. Tunisia has already achieved all the Millenium Development Goals. So is in many ways it is a model for the region and for Africa. Yet this success carries a price-tag; freedom of expression and association is limited. But for most Tunisians the trade-off is a good one and poverty no longer an issue.
How different from my last overseas posting in Sudan where poverty is an immediate threat to millions. Lillian and I remember in 1998 meeting an emaciated woman in Southern Sudan holding a baby - barely skin and bones - to her withered breast. With difficulty she squeezed out a tiny drop of milk. "Cok, cok" she said in Dinka, "hungry". She stumbled off in search of something, anything, to eat. After our visit the late Derek Fatchett, a great FCO Minister of State for the Middle East, spent two days in Nairobi and Khartoum and patched up a limited humanitarian cease-fire between the Sudanese government and the rebel SPLA, which lasted for two precious years. After a great deal more effort Britain helped achieve a peace agreement in south Sudan in 2005 and a Darfur peace agreement, which was not signed by all the rebel groups, the following year. But the former is fragile and the latter needs reinforcement and/or renegotiation. Millions of people remian displaced and in desperate need.
The international community is of course doing what it can to help. But why is peace so elusive? Why do governments and warlords indulge their appetites and economic interests at the expense of the poorest among their own peoples? Listen to two Sudanese women: "Men want power: women want peace." And, "We tell the men to make peace for the sake of our children. They say that we can have more children. And we say that we do not want more children; we want to bring up those we have already."
Peace - or at least a cessation of fighting - is of course a precondition for a serious effort to eradicate poverty. So is empowerment of women and the provision of opportunities for education, health and employment. We can all play a part in this however modest our means. As I write Lillian is in Darfur - her 21st visit to Sudan since her expulsion in the wake of the breach in relations occasioned by the ill-starred US bombing of the Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum North in August 1998. (The Sudanese know how to forgive). She directs an English charity, Together for Sudan, which provides university scholarships for over 200 disadvantaged Sudanese women, pays for schooling for HIV-AIDS orphans, organises women's literacy classes including in Darfur, conducts AIDS outreaches in displaced camps around Khartoum and provides eye-care to thousands of needy Sudanese, both the displaced and in the Nuba Mountains, with no access to medical services.
All this and more is but a drop in the ocean of need. But if we work together, each giving what we can of funds or our own time, I believe we can make a difference. After 40 years of diplomatic service I am convinced that our very modest contribution in Sudan is more significant than anything else we have attempted. We retire from government service next month and frankly should like a rest. But how can one rest from attempting to relieve poverty, not only in Sudan, but across the globe?'
Now that Ramadan is over we take stock of the first month of our new visa operation. I am glad to say that customers are reacting well and becoming used to the much longer delivery times for their visas. But I repeat our apologies to the handful of last-minute applicants who have been disappointed. We are working to straighten out some kinks in the courier arrangements and hope to reduce the processing time this month.
Visa services is only one area in which British embassies are working much more closely together. In our case colleagues in Rabat, Algiers, Paris and Cairo are among those whose responsibilities cover Tunisia. And we host a regional training centre in Tunis, which offers courses not only to our own staff, but also to colleagues from other missions in the area.
The positive experience of these changes encouraged me to suggest that more regional working could be beneficial to us as well as to our stakeholders. So we are preparing a meeting of our ambassadors in North Africa to be held in Tunis on Monday to review the possibilities. I am hoping to convince them to make more use of Tunis as a platform for joint work.
I must apologise to regular readers for the interruption in postings over the summer, due partly to my own absence from Tunis and partly to the setting up of a new platform for FCO bloggers. As is the way of new IT projects, this has taken longer than we had hoped. But it is now operational and has the new facility of enabling you to post comments. So please feel free to do so and I hope we can generate a good discussion of current policy issues.
The issue which has been preoccupying us at the embassy is the transfer to Cairo of responsibility for taking all decisions on visa applications which came into effect on 1 September. This is part of the streamlining and upgrading of visa services worldwide. Decision-making will become more consistent and costs will be kept under control. Applicants in Tunis will see little change. The procedure for submitting on-line applications and attending the embassy thereafter is not being changed. But the process will take longer – up to seven working days. It will therefore be very important that all applicants apply in good time before they wish to travel.We shall not be able to handle last minute applications or to accelerate the process in individual cases.
I congratulate them on meeting the target date for the new system, which is a key element in our change programme. I hope that all will go smoothly and we shall welcome any feedback.
I should like to take this opportunity to wish all colleagues and readers a blessed and peaceful month of prayer and reflection. Let us all, Muslims or non-Muslims, resolve to be tolerant and understanding of our differences and to devote more effort to our dialogue.