Saturday, 23 April 2011

The end of the line

A couple of days ago, at dusk, we were buzzed twice by a helicopter that was flying so low over Grillou that I thought it was going to land in the willow garden. It's not unusual to see helicopters around here: they have myriad uses in the mountains, from delivering telegraph poles and pylons to dropping food supplies for shepherds and refuge huts to attending accidents to taking aeriel pictures. Our neighbour tells me that the gendarmes also use them regularly to check out isolated houses for cannabis farming; this, I assumed, was the explanation, although I didn't really see why they had to get so close I could count the hairs growing out of the pilot's nose.

The next morning, returning from an early morning dash to the brico shop for woodworking supplies, I encountered three soldiers in the village, all dressed in commando-type gear, one crouching behind the kids' swings, the others behind the little hut that passes for the telephone exchange, pointing their weapons at the Mairie. This, I must point out here, is pas normale. However, nobody seemed perturbed, and the aînés who spend all day sitting outside their houses were just ... sitting outside their houses. As we didn't seem to be in the middle of an invasion, I drove on.

The next day, I discovered that the Ariège was hosting a big military exercise involving students of an elite officer training school in Brittany alongside officers from a couple of local regiments and the Foreign Legion: 250 in total. The trainee officers had been divided into two units: one group were the renegades, whose task was to make their way, in small groups and under cover, from Lavelanet in the east of the department right across to St Girons, from where they could cross the Pyrénées into safety. They were encouraged to undertake a sabotage operation or two en route, of course, and to enlist the help of local residents wherever possible. The other unit had the job of apprehending the renegades before they could either reach St Girons or blow up any pylons or bridges.

Bit of a familiar feel to all of this, non? (Well, okay, maybe there isn't unless you live, as I do, in an area that was at the heart of Resistance action during the Second World War). But the irony was clearly not lost on the militaires, who named their exercise Opération O'Leary.

Pat O'Leary was the cover name of the Belgian Major-General Albert Guerisse, who ran one of the biggest and most successful escape lines during the war: the O'Leary line. The O'Leary line started out leading escapees towards Marseilles, but as time went on many of those helped by the O'Leary network were routed down through central France, through Toulouse and into Ariège. Escapees were passed from one member of the Resistance to another, each one of whom formed a link in a vast, secret but highly organised human chain that sheltered, fed and clothed the escapees on their journey towards the Pyrénées and into Spain. St Girons was the gathering point at the end of the O'Leary line: people would be hidden in secret collecting areas and formed into groups ready for a night-time ascent over some of the most difficult terrain in the mountains: La Chemin de la Liberté. The journey could take several days, and escapees were often ill-prepared for the extreme icy temperatures and the sheer difficulty of the trek - hard enough in daylight, but treacherous in complete darkness. Perilous ledges, steep ravines and mountain peaks stood between them and safety in Spain, and the mountain guides who sheltered and led the escapees across the mountains did so at great risk to themselves and their families. According to official statistics, 782 people escaped over the mountain peaks between 1940 and 1944; in reality there were undoubtedly many more than that. Today, St Girons hosts an association and a (fascinating) museum dedicated to the Chemin, there's a commemorative walk every July, and Le Chemin de la Liberté itself is a waymarked path..

I sometimes wonder if Grillou was used as a safe house; whether escapees were hidden in the greniers before their final push over the border into Spain. I'd like to think it was, but it's hard to find a tactful way of finding out. Rimont is still, after more than 60 years, a village split between collaborating and resisting families. Because of its unique history, the old wounds run deep, even after all this time and through several new generations. Although we've met two daughters of the family that farmed Grillou at the time, I've no idea on which 'side of the fence' the family lay. And just how does someone like me - foreign, incomer, and pacifist - find the words to ask someone whose family has had roots in Rimont for generations whether they collaborated or resisted?

1 comment:

Markosy said...

Great post!

Well, being Spanish makes your entry today familiar. We have the same thing going on with the Civil War.

Kind regards,

Antonio