‘Dealing with’ the past?

Our past is a lasso. We think we’re out of its reach. Then it’s coiling at our feet, tripping us up again. Like bungee rope, elastic in its stretch, it loops and twists. Ties knots around us, dangles us in its grasp. We’ve each got our own leash, an individual tale. But strands of our personal histories wind into those of others. Mesh to form the fabric of a certain place or time. Often these threads are coarse, the patterns they weave alarming.


They lengthen into tapestries, warped by battles, with a weft of pain. Societies are wrapped in them. Conflict-haunted regions wear them as armour and shrouds. They might flaunt a bright new mantle – a voguish statement piece – but their undergarments are blood-stained. A frayed past rips the present. So would it not be better to cut fresh cloth? To draw a line, snip along it and start over? Recent suggestions made by Northern Ireland’s Attorney General seemed to point in that direction. They met with outcry, most poignantly from people for whom ‘The Troubles’ haven’t ended. Fifteen years of peace can’t erase their agony. Many are still seeking the barest solace of ‘justice’. The search for truths continues in a long-memoried country.

Three decades of everyday murder leave open weals. The final third of the twentieth century doesn’t seem to be ready for the archives. Charting Ireland’s chronology, it feels like only yesterday when news of ambushes and explosions were breakfast staples on Radio Ulster. Another ‘tit-for-tat’ killing, snipers, informers, allegations of collusion… You knew your good fortune if you got up to tea and toast (coffee was a Christmas luxury) and the semblance of normality. Maybe after the odd night’s interrupted sleep. ‘Did you hear the helicopter?’ was a familiar morning greeting. But, if you trundled on relatively unaffected, you were among the lucky ones. This was a place where people were assassinated, caught in cross-fire… and sometimes ‘disappeared’.


We used to play on the beach where a woman’s remains were found. Over thirty years since her abduction. A widow from Belfast, torn from her ten children. The paramilitaries excelled at wrecking young lives. Oblivious, we paddled at the water’s edge, spread a tartan rug and picnicked in the dunes. Recollections of these summer outings charred when the shore revealed it secrets. Our seaside haven became infamous, somewhere to avoid. Other sinister landmarks were impossible to ignore. The spot on the road into town where two policemen were shot… Passing, you tried to not to think of it. Instead, through the car window, you noticed lilac blooming in the hedgerows, signs translating to Irish as you crossed an unmarked border. Life amid the hillocks was watched from look-out towers. They peered down on an apprehensive hinterland.

Today the army has gone. Despite the persistence of ‘dissidents’, the threat of violence in this area has receded. Apart from an occasional ‘security alert’, things are quiet. The hurt inflicted here is historical. But it’s still too real for the victims, for each family that has suffered loss or injury. It feels disrespectful to forget. Though how should we recall? It’s a question that must be asked. Not just in Northern Ireland…


Multiply the casualties by thousands. Go back to the war in Bosnia, which ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement eighteen years ago. The state created by that accord is yet to come to terms with the trauma of its birth. Fear and hatred linger, mourning is juxtaposed with denial. On the surface, it seems that ordinary life has returned, bringing its own myriad of challenges. But, below the earth, the scattered bones are stirring. Another gruesome find was made this autumn. The mass grave uncovered at Tomašica, near the town of Prijedor, is likely to prove Bosnia’s largest. Already, it has yielded the bodies of over 400 missing villagers. Hundreds more await identification. The world has paid scarce attention to this excavation. Fleeting mentions in the media have faded. The tragedy is being reduced to bygones. Because that’s how it’s regarded by most, except those closest to the children, women and men who were slain. Just a site to enter on a mappa mundi of war-crimes, alongside Srebrenica and other massacres… A terrible addition – but there have been many since the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Bosnia. Plotting genocide is an unfinished project.


Stop. Remember. Learn. Perhaps these are the only words which make any sense when pondering troubled pasts. Yet, unless they’re spoken or penned by a survivor, they seem hollow. I deliberate hard about writing on such themes. Is it simply hopping on the bandwagon of shallow commentary? Or does coming from a strife-filled place and stumbling into love for another mean I can’t stay mute? Maybe it’s better to risk sounding an empty echo than to say nothing. Especially when those who may have been ‘in the know’ are shamelessly vocal. People who couldn’t have been as unaware as they might claim, those who downplay heinous acts perpetrated in the name of their erstwhile ‘cause’. And some of them are public representatives.

It’s a tempting wish, though… to separate history from the here-and-now. Too many conflicts have been fanned by reminders of former injustice and offence. But facing the past, rather than running away from it, fosters the possibility of dialogue. It can combine old yarns whose colours mightn’t appear complementary and use them to repair gaping tears. Stitching together damaged people, mending scarred locations. Recognising anguish isn’t bound by any statute of limitations.

Useful links:

The Disappeared: Hidden story of Northern Ireland Troubles (relating to a BBC/RTE documentary broadcast in early November):



Irish media coverage of the discovery of the Tomašica mass grave in Bosnia:

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/video-hundreds-of-bodies-found-at-bosnia-mass-grave-1.1580680 (includes video)


In memory of Jean McConville and all other victims of conflict in Northern Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina


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