Anzac Day: In coronavirus lockdown, dawn remembrance on driveways

Traditional commemoration services were cancelled because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

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    Anzac Day is usually marked with sombre ceremonies in Australia and New Zealand to honour the two countries' war dead [Reuters]
    Anzac Day is usually marked with sombre ceremonies in Australia and New Zealand to honour the two countries' war dead [Reuters]

    In the darkness, figures emerged from their driveways to stand quietly on the kerb.

    It was the first time these New Zealanders, many of them neighbours, had seen each other in four weeks. They murmured rhetorical greetings, making sure to keep their distance from each other.

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    Just before 6am local time, one man reached into his jacket for his cellphone and turned up the volume. In his other hand, he clutched a frame encasing his father and grandfather's war medals. The neighbours, still spread sparsely, heard the bagpipes - it was the Piper's Lament.

    At dawn on April 25, 1915, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) stormed the beaches of Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey.

    For the young nations, World War I was their first military engagement and Gallipoli was their first campaign. For 11,000 ANZAC soldiers - one in six who landed on the peninsula - it was also their last campaign.

    Anzac Day is observed in honour of the men who died.

    New Zealand
    New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands at dawn on the driveway of Premier House with her father Ross Ardern, and partner Clarke Gayford, in remembrance of ANZAC Day. People across New Zealand and Australia joined the remembrance [Ross Giblin/Pool via Reuters]

    The governments of New Zealand and Australia declared it a public holiday to commemorate their soldiers killed in action. Dawn services were adopted in most towns by the 1930s, timed to coincide with the first Gallipoli landing. The memorials have since spread globally.

    But this year, for the first time, traditional Anzac Day services were cancelled because the coronavirus pandemic required the suspension of large social gatherings in order to try and curb the spread of the virus. 

    Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association (RSA) President BJ Clark said he was disappointed but suggested a safe replacement. The RSA asked people to stand at the end of their driveways and listen to a virtual service on the radio as dawn broke.

    New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern endorsed the effort: "Today we commemorate Anzac Day in a way that hasn't been done before. For many taking part in a local dawn parade or Anzac Day service is an important tradition that spans generations. Part of our heritage it acknowledges and honours those who sacrificed their all. Things are different this year."

    The service followed tradition with bagpipes and bugle call, The Last Post.

    One minute silence

    During a one minute silence, the group on the kerb gazed across the road, some looked up contemplating how strange it was that a global pandemic had twisted their century-old tradition.

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    Maori elder Miki Apiti and RSA President Clark recited the Ode of Remembrance in both te reo Maori and in English: "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them."

    Down New Zealand's side streets, the national anthem echoed across individual radios and cellphones. People sang softly, self-conscious in front of their neighbours in the revealing light. 

    The Australian anthem followed, in light of what the New Zealand Defence and Veterans' Minister Ron Mark called the two nations' "mateship".

    "Whilst it was forged on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, in the years since we have served side by side all over the world," Mark said.

    Protect the elderly

    It is unclear how many of those veterans have lived to witness the first roadside dawn service.

    The New Zealand government has not maintained records of the 140,000 citizens who served in World War II.

    "Today our small band of second world war warriors, our veterans, are amongst those most affected and threatened by COVID-19. At this difficult time we must do all that we can to protect our elderly veterans and protect those at risk," Mark said.

    New Zealand has reported fewer than 1,500 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. While case numbers are comparatively small, of the 18 people who have died, all are above the age of 60.

    Prime Minister Ardern is pursuing an elimination approach to the virus and enforced one of the world's strictest lockdowns on March 23, when the country had about 100 reported virus cases and no reported deaths. The government mandated that most citizens could only leave their homes to exercise in their neighbourhood or go to the supermarket.

    Not since World War II, have New Zealanders had to act as a collective to defeat a common enemy. The Anzac initiative was the first in-person social experience most citizens have had in a month.

    "The effort of our team of 5 million has broken the chain of transmission and taken a quantum leap forward in our goal to eliminate the virus," said Ardern earlier this week (April 20).

    In Auckland, a red glow feathered clouds inching towards another day.

    The radio broadcast ended and the neighbours broke their formation to return, once again, to the confines of their homes.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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