From the frying pan into the… Balkans. A twist to the old adage sums up my background and, in this post, I’d like to sketch the path that’s led an Irish girl to a long-term involvement with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Just an overview – to give you an idea of where the coffee’s coming from, so to speak.
OK, I’m a bit of a conflict junkie. I grew up along the border of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In a region which bore (with certain distinction) the moniker ‘bandit country’, geographically known as South Armagh. Back then, it was famous for all the wrong reasons – ambushes, abductions, snipers and the suchlike. Though we could lay claim to some unusual ‘attractions’. Europe’s largest heliport was a few miles down the road. The world’s most bombed bridge (well possibly, bar re-runs of the River Kwai) was a highlight of our Sunday walks. As kids, we got a terrifying thrill from sprinting under the rusting metal sheet that, for years, hung guillotine-sharp beneath its girders.
And there were incidents… Like the balmy night when, as we sat chatting, an explosion shattered the village. Chunks of debris were catapulted over my grandmother’s home and crashed through the roof of the house across the street. But normal life went on. Or life under the shadow of perennial violence became ‘normal’. You learned to tell the sound of a mortar, the question ‘was that shootin’?’ was usually rhetorical and a bomb-scare was a great excuse for turning up late for school. Society hunkered down – there was always that pervasive whiff of fear. So you stuck to your own ‘community’, you slipped into grooves hewn by distrust. The narrowness was stultifying and, for me, scarpering off to college in Dublin was both an adventure and a release.
This was the early nineties, though, and reports of the wars in the Balkans were daily news. And not the kind it was easy to ignore. The places were too familiar – holiday destinations, ancient towns like Dubrovnik. Then Bosnia, Sarajevo… The city of the Winter Olympics, the city from the textbooks: ‘where did the First World War start?’ Again making terrible history – but now on live TV. I was visiting my grandmother, back in South Armagh, when I watched the ITN broadcasts which revealed the horrors of Omarska and Trnopolje. This was happening no more than an Inter-rail journey away in the pre-Ryanair days of student travel. I couldn’t close my eyes.
I spent the summers of ’93 and ’94 as a volunteer in refugee camps in Croatia, where I worked with a lot of people from Bosnia. I also got involved with a solidarity group called Ireland Action for Bosnia and, through this, met many Bosnians who were arriving in Dublin at that time. Among these was a (rather dashing) young man from Sarajevo, who’d been seriously injured in the war and had been brought to Ireland for medical treatment. We fell for each other in November ’94, at a candlelit protest against the atrocities being perpetrated in the ‘safe havens’ of Eastern Bosnia. The romance of activism on a frosty Dublin evening! I’ll just stress that I was protesting, while he was busy checking out the talent…
Over eighteen years later, we have three Bosnian-Irish daughters. We’ve lived and worked in Sarajevo, but are now based in Ireland. However, we make sure our children are aware of their two languages and cultures and, every summer, bring them to Bosnia. We’ve also tried to do whatever we can from Ireland to keep a focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Recently, this has included efforts in support of the demonstrations in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities which brought thousands of citizens to the streets demanding change. You can read about our activities in the ‘LINKS’ section of this blog (see below). We’re continuing to inform Irish politicians about the challenges facing ordinary people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the hope that they may raise these issues at an international level.
So that’s the perspective I’m writing from, the Bosnian-Irish mix to this verbal java. Brewed through love, war and protest, with a metaphorical shot of uisce beatha… or rakija.
This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 6 September 2013, available online at:
Note: just to acknowledge the journalists who took great personal risks to bring news of the war in Bosnia to the world. The work of Ed Vulliamy for the Guardian and Observer deserves particular mention and his latest book ‘The War is Dead, Long Live the War’ (2012) is a compelling, if gruelling, testimony to the barbarity of the Bosnian conflict and its unresolved aftermath.