Vesselina Ossikovska-Burchett – 1919-2007
Journalist, linguist, lecturer in art history, wife of Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett (1911-1983) and mother of PIB editor George Burchett,
Vessa Burchett died of a stroke in Sofia, Bulgaria on 26 August 2007.
Hers was a life richly and meaningfully lived with a passion for art, politics, culture, interesting places and people, good friends, good food, generously shared.
She and Wilfred had three children: Peter born in Peking, George in Hanoi and Anna in Moscow.
The Burchetts lived in Peking, Hanoi, Moscow and Phnom Penh, before finally settling in Paris, France in 1969.
Their house in Meudon, on the outskirts of Paris, was a meeting place for journalists, diplomats, writers and poets, artists and scholars from all over the world.
It was a place where East and West easily met around a good meal cooked by Wilfred or Vessa.
We would like to pay tribute to Vessa with a few passages from “Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist, The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett”. We know she would have liked that…
Wilfred Burchett, Ho Chi Minh and Vessa Burchett in Hanoi, 1966
… I had met Vesselina Ossikovska during my first visit in the early summer of 1948 and we immediately formed a friendship which deepened during each of my subsequent visits. Her family had been among Bulgaria’s first socialists, and she had been an activist of the anti-fascist youth movement in Bulgaria and also later on in the resistance in Italy, where she continued her studies to complete doctorates in Literature and the History of Art in the ancient university of Padua. A few months before Dimitrov died she had been invited to become his press secretary and personal interpreter. At the time we first met, Vessa was working at the Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Following Dimitrov’s death she was awaiting a posting as a correspondent abroad, for which she was qualified by her experience and expertise in four European languages other than her own. Our common interests and tastes were extensive and we seriously contemplated marriage…
The Kostov Trial was a catalyst. When it ended we had to make a decision about our future. Objectively, with spy psychosis at its height and strong overtones of Western involvement, it was the worst possible time to contemplate an East-West marriage. But it was equally true that it was a “now or never” situation. We chose the “now” option with no illusions about probable difficulties ahead. They were more serious than we could have expected, aggravated by some information or opinions given that I was a member of the British Intelligence Service (something I learned about over ten years later). Vessa was not permitted to leave the country, my visa was not extended, and once I had returned to Budapest I was not allowed back to Bulgaria.
… But my return to Kaesong – and continuing investigation of germ warfare – was interrupted by the news that Vessa was on her way to join me in Peking. We had been in constant contact and, after her Bulgarian exit visa had been granted and it became certain that the Korean ceasefire talks were going to continue for a long time, I had sounded out the possibility of her working as a style-editor for the French language publications of China`s Foreign Languages Publishing House. She had also made arrangements to be accredited as the correspondent of Literaturen Front, the weekly journal of the Bulgarian Writers` Union. Letters and cables had been exchanged and while I was visiting the POW camps on the Yalu a telegram arrived saying now she was actually on her way on the Trans-Siberian Express. I made a quick dash by Jeep to Antung and thence went by train to arrive at Shenyang (Mukden) when there was a momentary electricity blackout due to American bombing of the Suiho hydroelectric complex through which I had passed 12 hours earlier.
A hurried conference with railway officials established that the train was passing through that same night. Help was promised to locate my wife and get her and her baggage out of the sleeping car during the train`s brief stop. An astonished Vessa, expecting to meet me in Peking, was awakened, clothes were thrown into bags and bags were handed out through compartment windows. The train puffed off towards Peking, we headed in the opposite direction by Jeep, and within a few hours we were crossing the battered Yalu Bridge into war–torn Korea. It was a most unmannerly way to greet a wife after two and a half years of marriage, only the first month of which we had spent together!
… In the meantime, ten weeks earlier, an event of considerable importance on a more personal level had taken place. The nom de plume invented by the Daily Express had been handed down to posterity by the birth and registered naming of Peter, son of Vessa, in Peking. We had good reason to congratulate ourselves that baby, mother and father were all alive and well - four months earlier the prospect had seemed doubtful! In mid-January, on one of several occasions on which the US delegation unilaterally broke off the talks, it was announced that as from January 20 the immunity of delegation supply and liaison convoys on the Kaesong-Pyongyang road would no longer be respected. Until then, as part of the framework within which the talks were conducted, a daily convoy of up to five vehicles could make the trip without being attacked from the air. A similar provision covered “UN” convoys on the Munsan-Panmunjom road. It was correctly assumed by the North Korean-Chinese delegates that all this meant one more attempt by the First Marines to capture Kaesong. Non-essential personnel must be evacuated. These included two pregnant women - the wife of Colonel Yang, chief Chinese liaison officer, and Vessa Burchett. It was left to the foreigner to decide whether to make the trip by night as usual or by the “attack-free” daylight convoy. With souvenirs of the awful shocks of unavoidable bomb craters during the “lights out” period of night travel and their effects on two five-month pregnant, soon-to-be mothers, I decided on the “attack-free” daylight run. There were still five days within which the immunity agreement was valid. So we left on the morning following the ultimatum.
We left in two Jeeps with the regulation red cloths across the hoods, with strict instructions to maintain a 50-yard distance between the vehicles and not to stop under any circumstances. These were the agreed “non-attack” conditions. After the first hour we heard the sound of planes and as we were passing through the blackened ruins of Sinanju – about halfway between Kaesong and Panmunjom – two fighter-bombers flashed past us at a low enough level to see the bombs under their wings and the barrels of their cannon. We kept going, Madame Yang`s vehicle ahead and ours the regulation 50 yards behind. The planes zoomed up and then roared down in a mock bombing run. We kept going. Peasants in the fields had dived into slit trenches. Another bombing run and a napalm bomb exploded on the road ahead so close to the first Jeep that it had to back up and signal to our driver to take the lead. A donkey in a little cart which had pulled off the road alongside the burning napalm looked at us in astonishment as we kept going, the second Jeep by now 50 yards behind us. A few seconds later there was the terrible clatter of machine-guns, and looking back as we rounded a corner of the road there was Madame Yang`s Jeep halted and being strafed. Then came the infernal noise of antis-aircraft batteries on each side of the road and black puffs all around the planes as they zoomed towards the sky. Depositing Vessa, unborn Peter and myself in the dubious security of a hut alongside the batteries, our driver and bodyguard headed back to render first aid. Miraculously nobody had been killed. A bullet had actually grazed Madame Yang’s forehead, another had gone clear through her buttock, a third had gone through the driver`s foot, the Jeep had been destroyed, but that was all. The wounded were transported to a first-aid station and would continue on to Pyongyang by night – which is what we did. Their Jeep had stopped because, in backing up from the napalm bomb, a bit of the jellied gasoline had attached itself to one of the tyres which burst a few seconds later and gave the planes the pretext to attack a vehicle which had “violated” the non-stop regulations.
Next morning we pulled off the road while a big flight of planes attacked the bridge across which we had to pass to continue towards the Chinese frontier. A small Korean boy, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his padded vest, amidst the roar of diving jets and exploding bombs jerked his chin and said contemptuously “Many of them don`t even go off.” And there, to our horror, in the garden of what had been his family`s home, was an unexploded anti-personnel bomb. The rest of the family was in an underground dugout with a curtain of icicles covering the entrance. Ever since, the image of that small boy has remained as a symbol of the incredibly heroic spirit of the Korean people and their contempt for the material techniques used to crush that spirit. Half an hour later, the planes having taken off, we crossed the bridge as delayed-action bombs threw up spouts of water on each side. The rest of the journey was uneventful and it only remains to add that a few months later Liaison Officer Colonel Yang and I celebrated the birth of sons and heirs over a bottle of ginseng wine in Kaesong (he later served as China’s ambassador to Afghanistan).
… Moscow in the late spring of 1957 was in the throes of preparing for a World Youth Festival – an audacious venture which must have sent shudders down the spines of many old-time Stalinists. Who could predict the impact on Soviet youth of the sort of ideas that thousands of their counterparts would bring with them from all over the world?
That was their problem. We had our own, if not youth, at least infancy problems. Had we consulted child psychologists they would have warned us that the ages of two and four are perhaps the worst to move infants around the world. The immediate difficulty, however, was adjusting to the six hours difference between Moscow and Hanoi time, the two worlds of difference between Moscow and Hanoi food, and that matter of living in a villa with a garden and two rooms in Moscow`s Savoy Hotel (the journalists’ special apartments were not yet completed). Not to mention the language problems. In revenge for their parents speaking Russian with visitors and hotel staff they withdrew from our family French and plotted against us in Vietnamese, of which we understood not a word. They slept and woke at the wrong time and got hungry - but would not eat even then – at the wrong time. In overall revenge at being uprooted, they took a perverse delight in kicking the testicles of an enormous stuffed Siberian bear which stood at the top of the staircase leading to the hotel`s first floor. It placed a great strain on the Russians` natural affection for children to see their national symbol being desecrated in such a way. But somehow they survived.
Getting them to eat – anything – was a major problem, until one day when we had arranged a very special meal in our hotel rooms for a visiting friend. After a last minute inspection that all was well – the two demons asleep in the adjoining room, the table well garnished with traditional hors d’oeuvres, the follow-up dishes already ordered – we descended into the lobby to await our guest. Escorting him into our improvised dining-room, we sensed that something was wrong. The demons were fast asleep, clasped in each other`s arms, beatific smiles on their faces and crumbs of black and red caviar stuck to their cheeks. They had gobbled the lot. When they awoke it was to exclaim how tot lam (Vietnamese for “good”) the confiture had tasted. After that there was no problem – except for the cost in roubles – in feeding them. Caviar for breakfast, lunch and dinner was an acceptable diet for them. Bread and jam, they thought it was!
In mid-June Ho Chi Minh arrived on a state visit. He was received with all the double honours of a Head of State and Old Comrade. Twenty-one gun salute, national anthems of both countries, goose-stepping march past by the Guard of Honour, presentation to the diplomatic corps, and on past the press corps to greet the public. He spotted us standing amongst the third row of journalists and - to the horror of the security and protocol personnel and the amazement of the diplomatic corps – he left the solemn line of welcomers and welcomed and strode over to embrace us and place into the arms of Vessa the huge bouquet of flowers presented as he left the plane. The other members of his delegation broke line and did the same. Pham Ngoc Thach, Minister of Public Health, Hoang Minh Giam, Minister of Culture and others all piled their bouquets in our arms and embraced us while security and protocol stood by almost with open mouths. “Where are you staying?” whispered Ho Chi Minh, and an aide noted our hotel. Certainly no other Head of State at a Moscow airport reception had ever violated the rules of protocol in such a way. But there never was such a Head of State as Ho Chi Minh! Spontaneity and loyalty to old friends plus a healthy disrespect for protocol was part of his nature. A few days later, after a couple of telephone calls, a huge black limousine whisked us off to what had been Stalin’s dacha in the forests outside Moscow. And there we had breakfast as so often in Hanoi – with “Uncle” Ho. It was a simple enough building, and alongside the dining table was a divan where Stalin slept after his meals. After questions as to our health and that of the demons, Ho Chi Minh asked what I was doing. When I said, somewhat diffidently, that among other things I was writing again for the London Daily Express, he said “Splendid! If you could write for Life Magazine it would be still better.”
Our breakfast was just a renewal of a close friendship, with Ho his usual simple and cordial self. There were no great world problems to discuss – as we had done at other times – and we left with Vessa promising to see him in Bulgaria, which was his next stop after the Soviet Union.
And so it went for nearly four decades. Wilfred was often absent for long periods of time covering wars and revolutions, while Vessa “manned the fort”. Occasionally they travelled together to safer destinations.
Vessa was the Moscow and Paris correspondent for several Bulgarian newspapers and magazines and also contributed to the Paris-based weekly Afrique-Asie.
Although she did cover current affairs, her main interest as a journalist were art and culture.
Wilfred died in Sofia in 1983. Vessa posthumously translated his last book “Shadows of Hiroshima” into Bulgarian and retired from active journalism.
TO MY MOTHER – George Burchett 26.8.7