Together to live as one

Solidarity, solidarité, solidarnost… Perhaps it’s an instinctive human reaction to inexplicable horror. Shock at the appalling events in Paris on 13th November turns to grief, confusion. What vile brand of evil could target people enjoying a Friday night? In the city of love and light? At a rock gig, in restaurants and bars, at a football match?

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All across Europe, we were doing similar things. In our house, the whole family was watching the first leg of the Euro 2016 playoffs. Insofar as it could be seen through the fog in Zenica. The Ireland versus Bosnia game was heading towards a draw. We were joking that the result wouldn’t serve as grounds for a Bosnian-Irish divorce. Until, just before the final whistle, our screens began to fill with scenes of chaos. Paris… Sirens screeching, carnage unfolding in real-time. Unreal. Young fans at a concert, taken hostage, brutally slain.

We mourn for the victims. But our tears are crocodilian if they don’t flow for the quarter of a million Syrians slaughtered in almost five years of conflict. Those murdered by ‘Islamic State’ extremists, who’ve now added the attacks in Paris to their catalogue of terror. And the tens of thousands more who’ve been killed by the forces of President Assad and his allies. It’s no wonder that families trek to Europe to escape this. From Syria and elsewhere – fleeing bloodthirsty fanatics and oppressive regimes. What would you do if a hazardous journey was the only hope of a future for your children? If the other options were either the daily fear of death or indefinite displacement and destitution. When all you want, as a parent, is to give your kids a safe home. To ensure that they have health, education, peace.

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Photo: UNHCR

The chance of a new life. It’s the destination sought by the adults and children crossing the Mediterranean, the families and individuals making their arduous way through the Balkans. Up to 800,000 so far this year. And over 3,400 lost at sea. Like at least two Titanic-scale disasters in less than twelve months. Though drowned infants are no longer headline news. Numbers become numbing. Words seem, at best, useless and, at worst, sinister tools to redefine the innocent as threats. From refugees, back to migrants, now potential terrorists – the terms bandied about by journalists and politicians seep into public opinion.

But the people keep on coming. Although the waves are rougher and temperatures are falling. Despite an atmosphere that’s growing colder. After Paris, the challenges they face may be greater. Yet, if Europe is to boast of any ethical values, these must hinge on cherishing our brothers and our sisters. Treating them equally. Sharing with them the liberty that we take for granted. Not closing our doors and turning them away. As European citizens, we should play a part in shaping these critical moments in our history.

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Photo: UNHCR

On a personal level, I find it’s not enough merely to talk or write about this issue. I need to act. That’s why I’ve decided to go back to Croatia and do some voluntary work with refugees there. I’m travelling to Slavonski Brod at the end of December. It’s a town that I last visited in 1994 when I was volunteering with Bosnian refugees who’d fled to Croatia during the wars in the Balkans. Now, it’s the location of a new camp to accommodate people en route to countries, such as Germany, in which they hope to stay.

This tragic cycle of world conflict has prompted my plans to return. I might be twice as old but I’ve acquired significant experience since the nineties. In fact, the course of my life owes much to those turbulent times. I’ve spent the intervening years with someone from Sarajevo. He came to Ireland, for urgent medical treatment, through a resettlement programme established for people who were affected by the Bosnian war. My three daughters are the children of a former refugee. Thus, the present crisis hits straight home. I’ve got to put my energy into practical action.

So I’ll be joining volunteers with the ‘Dobrodošli’/’Welcome’ initiative which has been supporting refugees since their arrival in Croatia this autumn. Over the next few weeks, I’ll also be fundraising for donations to aid refugees in the Slavonski Brod camp. More on this to follow very soon!

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a small example of solidarity. On Saturday (14th November) I went to an event at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland. It was a festival of food hosted by the Syrian community and Human Appeal Ireland, an organisation which has done remarkable work in bringing essential supplies into Syria. From speaking to Syrians, Irish people and attendees from other countries, it was clear we were united in revulsion at the atrocities in Paris. We were also linked by concern for those still suffering in Syria and an awareness of the ongoing plight of refugees. Above all, though, we were simply fellow humans engaging in conversation. We talked about common interests over sweet Middle Eastern cakes on a wet afternoon in Dublin. Together – irrespective of our origins or beliefs. And this was welcome.

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A year of Bosnian-Irish coffee

A birthday post from my little niche in the blogosphere! It’s a year since the start of ‘Bosnian-Irish coffee’ and I’d just like to thank everyone who has visited this site and shared its content over the last twelve months. I really appreciate your thoughts and feedback and hope that, among my mixture of topics and styles, you’ve found something to your taste.

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Birthday coffee – Rođendanska kahva/kava/kafa!

After a few weeks in the Balkans, I’m milling new ideas and trying to squeeze in time to jot them down. It’s a gradual process – like making Bosnian coffee! But the inspiration, the nuances, the unsettling feelings and the wonder which always strike me when travelling to Sarajevo and beyond will hopefully seep into my future writing.

Through a summer rife with conflict, many of the lessons that Bosnia teaches are, sadly, all too relevant. Human rights, respect, peace – they seem such hollow concepts when children are murdered. Yet, on a personal level, being part of a Bosnian-Irish family is a reminder that intercultural understanding is still worth striving for in today’s torn world. And that’s one of the things I’ll do my best to express. Meanwhile, for the blog’s first anniversary, here are some images that say much more than I can…

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Welcome to Bosnia-Herzegovina! A ‘stećak’ – medieval tombstone – at the necropolis of Radimlja, near Mostar

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Vijećnica, the former city hall and national library, restored after destruction in the siege of Sarajevo

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The Latin Bridge where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie – an act that led to WWI

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The memorial centre and cemetery for the victims of the Srebrenica genocide at Potočari

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Message of solidarity with those under attack in Gaza on a bridge in Sarajevo

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Many parts of Bosnia, like the town of Zavidovići, are still struggling after severe floods in May – heavy rain has brought further flooding to some areas

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Vječna Vatra – the Eternal Flame, Sarajevo… where the wild things are!

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My lovely horse – dreaming on in Vrelo Bosne…

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For peace comes dropping slow… sunset over the Adriatic Sea, Cavtat, Croatia

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And the sun also rises – early morning, Cavtat

Thank you for your interest in my blog and please drop in anytime for a read… for updates on new posts etc., follow @BiHIrishcoffee on Twitter!

Hvala za vaš interes za moj blog i molim vas posjetite ponovo ovu stranicu… za nove članke itd., pratite me na Twitteru @BiHIrishcoffee!

The silence of the learned

Where are the ‘best minds’ of our generation? Defiant Beat poetry has drifted to the fringes of living memory. Its prophets have long burnt out in drug-addled debauchery or been sanitised by the system at which they used to howl. Even those who did rehab are past retirement age. The rebels of yore are eclipsed by today’s leading voices – an urbane lot who know what to say and how to say it. As guests on news shows or opining in the papers, their views are influential. And their arguments can be stimulating, once the listener or reader is ready to question. Columnists, academics, luminaries of the arts, high profile social commentators interpret the issues of our times. Though it’s worth wondering what determines which topics they discuss and from which angles. Then to ponder the silent gaps in the script and what might lie behind these lacunae.

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Take debate in Ireland as an example. For several weeks the ethics of the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána, have been scrutinised. Scandals over the annulment of penalty points for road traffic offences and the inappropriate recording of phone conversations have exposed perturbing flaws in policy. The Garda Chief Commissioner has resigned. The Minister for Justice is trying to save his skin by fudging apologies. Inevitably, the controversy has filled hours of airtime and acres of newsprint. Fundamental principles have been violated. There have been allegations of police corruption, attempts by those in power to discredit whistle-blowers. But if you’re not one of the ‘pillars’ of the local community who may have had the liberty of evading punishment for dangerous driving, the relevance of this story seems quite slim. While the more serious threats to judicial procedure resulting from tapped phone-calls become moot when they’re plucked to tedium on radio by the doyens of the law. Mere mortals heave a sigh and tune out.

It’s not that we don’t find the whole scenario ‘disgusting’, to use what’s currently Ireland’s hottest adjective. Frankly, it’s that no-one is surprised. The latest Garda saga is just another offshoot of the culture of nudges and winks which bred the crisis in which the country remains mired. It’s little more than a sideshow to the nation’s unresolved economic problems. For, however the government spins its claims of ‘recovery’, unemployment figures are still appalling and their true extent is masked by emigration. There’s no upturn for families harried to breakdown by extortionist banks or for people on welfare who face increasing hardship. Never mind that health, education and social services have been shorn to bail out kleptocrats.

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Eminent economists have forwarded countless theories to explain Ireland’s collapse. Now they’re engrossed in predicting future risks. This burgeoning analysis has evolved into a profitable industry. It’s served as raw material for lectures, articles, books. Hyper-numerate professors and business hacks have been rebranded elucidators. Begone boring fustiness! They’ve morphed into slick panellists, comedy festival hosts. Teaming their sharp wits with a touch of cool, they bandy about ideas in marquees at boutique gigs. These guys (they’re almost always male) have got talent. I marvel at their knowledge and their red-blooded passion for finance. But aren’t they merely bolstering their careers? Bar the odd exception, are these authorities really aware of the ‘pain’ about which they’re handsomely paid to speak, though rarely share?

Here I’m not writing out of philistine disdain but as a woman flailing against the effluent of recession, trying to keep my family afloat. And I’m luckier than most. At least I’m grasping some sort of life-ring – a recent doctorate from Ireland’s top-ranking university. Well, so much for the league tables… Qualifications obtained in this era of austerity have become tickets for entry into, often unwaged, insecurity or for one-way flights to find work overseas. Still, with any education comes responsibility. The more you’ve benefitted from your learning and experience, the more you should see these assets as something beyond tools for self-aggrandisement. Right?

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Wrong! OK, clearly my research area isn’t economics. Judging by present standards, it appears a liability to have a social conscience. Maybe it’s due to the shift towards a more corporate than collegial ethos in third level institutions – the emphasis on marketing, the managerial structures that value those fittest to achieve goals measured in money or prestige. Or perhaps it’s always been that way… alumni of hallowed universities aren’t usually inclined to challenge the parameters that scaffolded their success. Even among students (myself included) who scraped along on ‘free’ fees and scholarships, it’s easy to forget that access to higher education is far from universal. Instead of contemplating this underlying inequality, it seems to make greater sense to study those who continue to be excluded. After all, advocating for the marginalised can lead to rich professional rewards.

A climate of competition, in which personal gain is championed, can’t be conducive to dissent. The same also applies outside the education sector. Editorial slants are unlikely to clash with the interests of media owners, be these the state or billionaire tycoons. Consequently, issues of concern might be given a glib mention but not the probing they deserve. Recognised artistic endeavour is likewise largely confined to privileged circles. Themes demanding self-interrogation by those who engage with them often get no more than a superficial gloss. Polyphony, apart from the tokenistic leeway occasionally granted to voices beyond established cliques, is very limited. And, I suspect, not just in Ireland.

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What’s ‘in the news’ depends, to a substantial degree, on what attracts the focus of prominent critics. Discussion among these gurus frequently descends into political point-scoring, contorting statistics, and chattering about trivia which they deem to be of significance. In line with their perspectives and perceived audience, current affairs get calibrated. National topics take precedence over objectively ‘bigger’ stories further afield. International reports with domestic salience are prioritised over those which sound less relevant. Thus the impact on the price of gas in the EU can sex up a conflict that’d otherwise be neglected. Conversely, long-running, complex tragedies with unimaginable numbers of casualties don’t appeal.

Syria? Don’t talk about the war… It’s a stale subject. Why should our brightest spokespeople waste their genius on a situation that seems so irresolvable? It’s spiralled out of proportion, human rights organisations are now estimating over 150,000 fatalities. The UN has stopped counting. Death on this kind of scale is incomprehensible, even for the masters of comprehension. Also, it’s bad optics – too many disturbing images to foist on weary viewers. Apocalyptic pictures of Yarmouk’s starving or the naked corpses of tortured detainees draw gasps of revulsion, but apparently lack pathos.

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Whether it’s due to the world’s emotional numbness or its impotence, interest in the Syrian war has waned. Not without a dash of Islamophobic prejudice, it’s been dismissed as yet another Middle Eastern conflict. Furthermore, any search for a global response is marred by previous foreign incursions into the region, the legacy of Western belligerence in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the UN is neutered by the stultifying enmities of its key members. So the horror drags on… coverage reduces, donor fatigue rises. Poor neighbouring countries are left to cope with the vast majority of the 2.5 million Syrians who’ve managed to flee, while wealthy states fail to meet minimal quotas for provision of resettlement places. Things are even worse for the millions trapped within Syria. As António Guterres, the head of the UNHCR has said, ‘Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.’ But who has listened to him?

The impassioned statements of Syrians directly affected by the war and of people who are aiding its survivors have been ignored by those who might be able to make a difference. By political leaders and their governments, but also by respected thinkers whose silence or specious disengagement has been conspicuous. Except for a bit of bluster over chemical weapons, it’s as if there’s an embargo on intellectual discourse about Syria. Where are our wise ones when it comes to showing solidarity with victims of war-crimes? The academics, both within and beyond the flourishing schools of ‘peace and conflict studies’ or niches in departments of history and theology… How many of them have written or spoken (and not simply for a pay cheque or publication in a peer-reviewed journal) about the fact that today, as slaughter happens, we turn away? Where are the writers and other artists whose work is so esteemed – is Syria beneath their lofty thoughts?

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What about students? Should coming of age not mean more than passing exams and passing out on drunken binges? Since the start of my activist days, as an undergraduate, I’ve been amazed at the absence of that ‘revolutionary spirit’ which I’d once believed was part of college life. But I know from agitating for Bosnia that all it takes is for one person to speak out… then friends get involved and word begins to spread. So my advice to anybody (slightly) younger than me is ‘dare to try!’ Even if you ignite only a flicker of awareness, you can singe prevailing apathy. And isn’t that more offbeat than participating in societies or activities which ‘look good on your CV’?

There’s no point, though, in denying that the intelligentsia is extremely prone to educated deafness. It’s an ailment typically triggered by crises in places that are considered unimportant. Bosnia and Rwanda sparked outbreaks in the nineties. Now it’s again pandemic. Very few have adjusted their register to hear the wails of the persecuted in Syria or the cries of those caught up in emerging conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Reactions have been muted. The label ‘civil war’ has been employed to equalise blame and to justify the shrugging of erudite shoulders.

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Too clever to admit they don’t care much about Arabs or the inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa, the sages refine debate to ideological quibbling. But such dilettantish theorising does nothing to end mass murder or the torture and sexual violence perpetrated in campaigns of terror. These atrocities, which occur daily in Syria, require each of us who can to take a stand against them. And this demand should ring loudest in the ears of those who inspire, on campus or via broadcasters and publishers. It must resound with those who are regarded as our ‘best minds’. For it’s a call for them to say that, as human beings, we’re all interconnected. We’re not just individuals dealt arbitrary cards from fortune’s deck. Some of us are not more expendable than others. It’s finally time to stop the sacrifice of the silenced.

The Irish Syria Solidarity Campaign are organising events in Dublin on Wednesday 16th April, discussing the situation in Syria with one of the few academics who has devoted extensive time and thought to it, Dr. Thomas Pierret of the University of Edinburgh. These meetings, in Griffith College (at 12pm) and DCU (at 5pm), are open to the public and free of charge. Please see the poster below for details:

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When Ireland met Bosnia…

It’s not every day that starts with a text from a friend saying: ‘the minister wants to know if we can meet him’. Or words to that effect… I had to read the message a couple of times to believe it was indeed an invitation! So how, in the name of whoever-you-fancy, did three plebs end up in Government Buildings on Tuesday 28 January? Well, it transpired that the Irish Minister for European Affairs, Paschal Donohoe, had scheduled an official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Thursday of that week. Before his departure, he was seeking some perspectives on the current situation there – hence his contact with us.

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This in itself was a small victory for activism. Over the last year, my husband and I have been in frequent correspondence with Minister Donohoe and other Irish politicians on themes relating to Bosnia. While our friend, who sent the text, has done so much lobbying, awareness raising and protesting in the rain for Bosnia since 1992 she deserves to have a street called after her in Sarajevo. And that’s not even to mention the hands-on support and understanding ear she’s offered Bosnians in Ireland. Or the fact that she’s been equally active on issues pertaining to Kosovo. Or that she now devotes almost every waking hour to the Syrian crisis…

Anyhow, the three of us met on a mizzly Merrion Street, a bit nervous but not over-awed by the occasion. Not until we got inside the palatial hub of Ireland’s administration. Being unused to the corridors of power, I must confess there were murmurs such as: ‘wow, the stained glass window!’ ‘ooh… nice soft carpets!’ and, directed at our Bosnian aficionado of national artwork, ‘nemoj dirati slike!’ However, as we waited for the minister, we were struck by stark reminders of Bosnia’s multitude of problems. Glancing at our phones, our Twitter feeds filled with reports from earlier that morning about the joint appearance of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The latter’s refusal to co-operate with what he called a ‘satanic court’ highlighted the resistance of those indicted for war crimes to any concept of atonement. It showed how far the victims of atrocities are from justice – how far Bosnia and the wider Balkan region has yet to travel on the road towards genuine reconciliation. Reading these headlines was all the more chilling on the day after the annual commemoration of the Holocaust.

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The legacy of war still throttles Bosnia. In our discussion with Minister Donohoe, we illustrated aspects of its impact. Ranging from the country’s constitution (Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995), to the political structures this has created, to the attempts of certain leaders to destabilise the state by consolidating power bases within its separate entities – Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We talked about how the consequent lack of normal functioning affects ordinary life. About a society in which politicians won’t agree on basic measures to protect human rights, never mind tackle the economic difficulties which have led to widespread unemployment and poverty. Instead, they seem more interested in institutionalising division, for example, by segregation in the education system. Discrimination and skewed versions of history aren’t confined to schools, they percolate through public affairs. Genocide denial by prominent officials in Republika Srpska continues to cause serious offence. The fate of over 100,000 people who remain internally displaced due to ‘ethnic cleansing’ is unresolved. Past trauma lingers in a country with almost 8000 missing persons and thousands more still suffering from the physical and psychological wounds of war. Meanwhile, although flashy new buildings can be seen in Sarajevo and other cities, Bosnia’s present condition is best described as one of stasis.

Inertia seems the default mode of its governing elite. Stagnation serves to benefit a top tier of politicians who are well remunerated for constant bickering. But the role of the international community, which has supervised an uneasy peace for over eighteen years, must also be queried. Can these privileged players offer the Bosnian people any hope for the future? Or will they allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to backslide as surrounding countries progress? During the last decade, several Balkan nations have already become part of the European Union. Admittedly, EU membership won’t cure the region’s ills. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of club that when one’s neighbours start to join, it’s prudent to try to keep up with the Joneses. Following the accession of Slovenia in 2004 and Croatia in 2013, European integration has emerged as a key policy goal across the states that once formed Yugoslavia. However, some are making a lot more headway than others. While Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo edge forward, Macedonia and, above all, Bosnia lag behind. Our meeting with Minister Donohoe focused, therefore, on the question: how can Ireland support Bosnia’s EU aspirations?

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The EU has many reasons, legitimate but possibly also convenient, to regard Bosnia and Herzegovina’s prospects as bleak. The country is yet to fulfil the criteria necessary for its Stabilisation and Association Agreement (signed in 2008 as an initial step towards membership) to come into force. The chief condition is the implementation of a judgement handed down in 2009 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This concerns the case of Sejdić and Finci – representatives of Bosnia’s Roma and Jewish communities respectively – in which the ECHR vindicated the right of minorities to full participation in Bosnian politics. It requires the removal of restrictions which ensure that positions in Bosnia’s three-person presidency and one of its two chambers of parliament (the ‘House of Peoples’) are limited to those who belong to the state’s ‘constituent peoples’ – namely and exclusively Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Four years have since passed, but Bosnia hasn’t adopted the ECHR’s ruling despite countless rounds of EU-brokered negotiations. Stalemate on this issue has caused the country’s EU accession process to stall indefinitely. This means that, while a clique of high-ranking politicians and international stakeholders engage in what appears to be an interminable circus, citizens face further isolation. And this case is only one of numerous sources of disagreement among political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

More than other EU members, Ireland can empathise with the frustration felt by the majority of the Bosnian population. The failure of the Haass talks to reach consensus on sensitive topics in Northern Ireland is analogous in ways to the ‘Sejdić-Finci’ saga. Intransigence tends to win out over any will to compromise in post-conflict ‘democracies’. As we in Ireland know, ethnically oriented voting patterns often prevail in divided societies where fear is a crucial factor in electoral choices. And if votes are cast essentially on the basis of ethnicity, there’s little onus on politicians to consider people’s needs. Campaigns can succeed simply by ramping up tension. Plus the social clout of political figures in Bosnia facilitates corruption and heightens the risk of voter manipulation. Bosnia and Herzegovina thus presents a more complex scenario than most of the other EU candidate states. It demands thinking outside the clichéd box.

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Or so we tried to tell Minister Donohoe. I’m not sure how well we explained things… none of us are politicians! We just spoke from experience, from the heart, as articulately as we could. However, we were encouraged by the minister’s interest in Bosnia and how he viewed his visit as not merely a bureaucratic obligation. This was also apparent two days later, both in the lecture he gave at the School of Economics and Business of the University of Sarajevo and in media coverage of his high-level political engagements. His repeated expression of Ireland’s support for Bosnia was certainly to be welcomed. Although the Irish government must prove this fresh commitment by advocating innovative approaches and working, along with its EU partners and Bosnia, to find sustainable solutions. Expecting Bosnian leaders to be cajoled into bridging differences by a smidgen of Irish charm is a tad optimistic. Granted, outstanding obstacles – like the Sejdić-Finci impasse – provide the EU with a plethora of excuses for inaction. But the international community can no longer sit on the side-lines and let Bosnia languish. And Ireland should be more than the country’s occasional cheerleader. Given how much the Irish people, whatever their gripes, have gained from EU membership – a point Minister Donohoe stressed in Sarajevo – Ireland has a responsibility to use its European voice on behalf of another peripheral state with a similarly fraught history.

It’s worth remembering too that Ireland can attribute its EU status to the laxer entry requirements of times past. In 1973, Ireland and Britain were accepted as members of the EEC when both nations were embroiled in bitter conflict – their applications were approved during the bloodiest period of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. We could also ask whether Ireland’s penchant for corruption would’ve deemed it ineligible for EU integration if it’d been assessed in line with modern standards. And did new ‘European’ credentials suddenly eradicate the Irish culture of ‘brown envelopes’? Furthermore, would the ECHR rate Ireland’s record as impeccable, when it has taken the court’s intervention to force this country to address many fundamental issues? These range from the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993 (five years after an ECHR decision in favour of gay rights activist, Senator David Norris) to last week’s ruling that the Irish state was liable in a case of child abuse which occurred in a primary school in the 1970s. It appears that existing EU members are better at preaching than practicing the ‘values’ they insist budding candidates should share.

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Yet the EU is what qualifies politically as ‘Europe’. Not the ragged-edged continent with an eastern boundary running from the Urals to the Bosphorus. Sometimes – when it suits –geography welds the arbitrary crack between countries of the ‘Union’ and their cousins on the wild side of the European family. In a centenary year, for instance, when former imperial powers want to rhapsodise or analyse their involvement in a war which engulfed the world. A war triggered by an assassination in Sarajevo. Undoubtedly, many dignitaries will descend upon the city in the months ahead. It may host premiers, presidents… perhaps even a pope. The Vienna Philharmonic has confirmed a concert in June and – here I’m rumour-mongering – might U2 make a comeback? Surely Bono knows that Sarajevo is much more fun than Davos!

With or without the Irish band, the anniversary of the beginning of World War I is already being billed as an unmissable event. It seems the mighty prefer to mourn the dead of 100 years ago than to stop the slaughter in Syria today or respond to the fallout of war in still-scarred countries like Bosnia. But returning to Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke whose demise had such tragic repercussions across Europe… Maybe one way of marking the significance of Sarajevo in 1914 would be to ask how the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina can be accorded their rightful place within an inclusive European Union. We hope that Ireland, which through the last century has felt the birth pangs then the growing pains of statehood and gone on to establish a unique EU niche, can lend them real support.

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This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 14 February 2014, available online at: 

http://novovrijeme.ba/when-ireland-met-bosnia/

Ireland’s solidarity with Syria

Forgotten people die forgotten. They’re tortured, raped and shelled without anyone noticing. We’ve seen their unremembered faces, their dismembered bodies. They’re on our screens daily, but we’re not watching. After almost three years, gore becomes boring. The world has tuned out from the war in Syria. Victims of chemical weapons can’t compete with Miley Cyrus in the annual internet ratings. Who wants to recall hundreds of poisoned children? The kerfuffle over US intervention dissolved into anti-climax as the story just got bloodier. Devoid of any clear script, it’s now portrayed as extremists killing each other.

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An estimated 130,000 people have died since the conflict began as a popular uprising in 2011. While this peaceful revolution met brutal oppression from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, its spirit survives among many Syrians who strive for a democratic, tolerant state. However, in the turmoil of war, such aspirations have been hijacked and thwarted by fundamentalist groups with foreign links. Opposition forces are a disparate bunch, increasingly at loggerheads. The situation appears too complex to resolve.

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Of course, this has served as a perfect excuse to ignore it. Russia’s clever manoeuvres on behalf of its tarnished ally enabled Western leaders to sheathe their unenthusiastic sabres. Global powers selectively forgot the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ – a commitment to act against mass atrocities which was made by the United Nations after its failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia. Meanwhile, the crisis in Syria has continued to escalate. Agencies such as UNHCR are struggling to deal with its human consequences – over 2.3 million refugees, half of them children. The impact of the conflict on Syria’s youngest citizens has been severe. By November, it was reported that over 11,000 children had been killed in the fighting. Since then, more have perished. Cases of polio, particularly among infants have been confirmed by the WHO, while curable diseases have proven fatal due to lack of healthcare and sanitation. Children are now dying from starvation and freezing winter temperatures have taken their toll.

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The facts are tragic. But how can Ireland respond? Syria may have slipped from the headlines, but donations from Irish people to organisations providing humanitarian assistance have contributed to a relief effort of historic proportions. As individuals, it seems we haven’t entirely forgotten Syria’s plight. It must also be acknowledged that the government has given significant aid to help those living in refugee camps in surrounding countries. However, at state level, Ireland could do more. Millions are displaced within Syria’s borders, with many in desperate need of food and medicine. Donor nations should insist that aid reaches civilians most at risk, especially those trapped in besieged towns.

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Furthermore, Ireland, along with other EU members, must be prepared to resettle a substantial number of Syrians. Amnesty International has described Europe’s response to this immense refugee crisis as ‘pitiful’. Thus far, the Irish approach to it has been disappointing. Last year, Ireland accepted only 35 people from Syria with a promise to take 90 more in 2014. This figure is negligible compared to, for instance, the 10,000 places pledged by Germany or the approximately 15,000 Syrians admitted by Sweden since 2012. Contrasting present Irish policy with that pursued in relation to past conflicts, our official attitude seems to have lost any vestiges of ‘fáilte’. In the 1990s, more than 1000 Bosnians – refugees and injured people requiring urgent treatment – were brought to Ireland. My husband, who had been seriously wounded in Sarajevo, was one of those medical evacuees. In many ways, we owe our family to the resettlement programme devised for Bosnia and Herzegovina at that time. Two decades later, Syria holds personal reminders.

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That’s why we, together with our three daughters, went to the gathering to mark the Global Day of Solidarity with Syria which took place in Dublin on Saturday 11 January. Attended by people of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds, it was part of an international campaign to refocus the world’s attention. The military blockades imposed on areas under siege were highlighted, with some participants fasting in support of Syrians who are starving as a result of this tactic. Above all, the need for a speedy end to the conflict, followed by a just resolution process involving the investigation of war-crimes and prosecution of their perpetrators, was emphasised. A petition expressing these objectives was signed by many passers-by while a symbolic ‘refugee tent’ added an eye-catching attraction. The Irish event was inevitably smaller than the marches and manifestations held in larger cities but, in front of the Spire on a busy afternoon, it made a striking impression. It also issued a powerful statement – saying Ireland won’t forget the Syrian people. Now we must act on this message and encourage our government to do likewise.

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You can still sign the petition online at:

https://www.change.org/petitions/petition-for-the-protection-of-the-people-and-human-rights-in-syria?share_id=gXkcOQnRzC

For more pictures of the event in Dublin see: http://www.demotix.com/users/robin-english/profile

The fur coat fiver

I’m not the earliest adopter of popular neologisms. None of those ‘twerking belfies’ until their lexical status matures beyond mere fad. But one recent addition to the Oxford English Dictionary sums up my last year… ‘omnishambles’. The superstition attached to its ominous digits proved true. Yet, despite its tenor of gloom, a few defiant undertones blended into motivational chords. These I need to amplify in 2014. To make renewed activism my soundtrack – and play it LOUD!

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January is a month of resolutions, most of them as short-lived as the snowflakes it often brings to Ireland. Some, though, manage to survive the cold snap. Like the decision I made, almost subconsciously, at the start of 1993. My final teenage new year… I was glad to return to Dublin after a cooped-up Christmas spent ‘at home’. It was one of those crisp Monday mornings when you actually want to get up, when city pavements gleam with a skiff of snow.

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My college wardrobe was always eccentric but weather conditions that day demanded a particularly special outfit. This was an opportunity to don the family heirloom – a leopard skin coat that had once belonged to a great-aunt and had passed down a chain of relatives to me. A compromising item of attire. I tried to convince my animal-friendly conscience that no offence was intended as I hauled the garment out and stroked its ancient fur. Wasn’t this simply recycling? The beast was decades deceased and I was giving its pelt a new lease of life. I told myself that the elegant feline would’ve already met a natural end, reluctant to dwell on the hunter who may have shot it in its prime. How my grandmother’s sister had acquired such an iconic piece for a woman of meagre means was my main source of wonder. It was falling apart when I got it – strips of hide tacked together by previous owners, with more repairs required. But it swung with an old movie thrill when I put it on.

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‘All fur coat and no knickers’ was my friend’s typical disparagement of girls with airs and graces but ostensibly loose morals. Not a PC phrase… though, in our defence, we’d grown up in a rather repressed society. I could imagine her laughter when she saw me swanning into lectures in my long-dead leopard. To avoid misinterpretation, I accessorised carefully. Teamed the coat with a dark flowing skirt and topped it off with a Russian hat on permanent loan from my mother. It dated from Mum’s era of millinery more radical than a woolly cap or polyester headscarf, i.e. before she had six children. A complement to my stylistic theme, it said ‘Doctor Zhivago’ not ‘classy hooker’. Ready to venture into Siberian scenes, I slipped my hand in one pocket. And pulled out a banknote! Five pounds, or punts as we called them, was a modest sum. Still, for a student on a shoestring, it meant coffee for the week or bus fares back to the flat after several late nights. A bright Monday indeed.

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I skipped down the street which, although it’d been trodden by droves of pedestrians, glistened underfoot. The temperature of the air remained sub-zero – too cold for the snow to melt to slush. Its arctic keenness alerted me to even the most ordinary of sights. Icy sunlight striking the window of Oxfam… The poster hanging there appeared more evocative: a group of women huddled in Bosnia’s war-time snow. Their shivers spread to the passer-by who’d just discovered a fiver. My find became a donation.

APC passing the Presidency.

It could’ve been a once-off. Yet the incident forced me to think about images of the Bosnian conflict which had haunted me for months. Over the Christmas break, TV reports from wintry Sarajevo – seething with victims of sniper-fire and shelling – had punctuated Europe’s festive viewing. They left me restive. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that January morning was a watershed. A small concrete act, followed by an unspoken resolution to do more…

During the last few weeks the world has watched snow falling over Syria, upon its displaced people and refugees stranded in surrounding countries. For the Middle East, the weather has been extreme. But it hasn’t stopped the fighting. Children have been killed in the barrel-bombing of cities. They’ve starved at the hands of siege tacticians who regard control of food supplies as an effective weapon. They’ve frozen to death.

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Meanwhile, the West has enjoyed its ‘happy holidays’, oblivious to the fate of kids caught up in a war that’s now deemed intractable. And media coverage of Syria, or other ‘foreign’ conflicts, seems less impactful than in the low-tech nineties. The internet is full of shocking videos and pictures from such places, but year-end search engine stats reveal a global preference for the derrière of a fabricated pop-star. Although it provides vibrant conduits for information, the virtual sphere might also desensitise us to reality.

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Perhaps we need a wake-up call. This is one of the aims of the international Day of Solidarity with Syria on Saturday 11 January. Dublin will mark this event by highlighting the plight of the Syrian people. By saying we can’t forget – dispelling the public amnesia which allows political leaders to either ignore distant wars or meddle in a manner that hampers justice. I’m hoping make it to the afternoon gathering at the Spire. If you’re around O’Connell Street between 12.30 and 2.30 p.m., please drop by and lend support. Maybe you can offer a few minutes of your time. Just wear something cosy!

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And here I’m veering back to my fetish for fluffy coats. These days, though, they’re only made of faux fur. I can assure the animal rights movement there are no big cats hiding in my closet. Nor have I found any more cash surprises in my pockets. A little luck would be welcome in 2014. So let fortune shine on all our dreams… and wishing you a year that’s, as they say in current parlance, ‘totes amazeballs’!

Plus a short video greeting in Bosnian – with some acrobatics: http://vimeo.com/83092792

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All the very best / najbolje želje svima!

‘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.

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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’.

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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…

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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.

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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):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-24765480

http://www.rte.ie/tv/programmes/thedisappeared.html

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)

http://www.independent.ie/world-news/bosnia-mass-grave-could-be-biggest-29716686.html

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

Conquering happiness (or trying to…)

We don’t go out much, my husband and I. Three kids and financial constraints have all but smothered our social life. Newspaper reviews are fast becoming my only link to ‘culture’. Our film viewing is limited to the dwindling DVD selection at our near-bankrupt branch of Xtra-vision. The cinema is a distant memory and Netflix a post-austerity dream. But, every now and then, an event comes along that simply can’t be missed. Something like The Conquest of Happiness… An interpretation of the writings of Bertrand Russell by the Bosnian director, Haris Pašović, it was part of the Belfast Festival at Queens in October. Via a website based in Sarajevo, I’d heard about its performance in Derry a month earlier. And I’d been disappointed that we couldn’t make it there. However, after a tour of the Balkans, the show was returning to Ireland. Good reason to head northward. The children were delighted at the prospect of a sleep-over with their grandparents. While a night to ourselves was a rare thrill indeed!

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The production sounded intriguing. Its location promised no comforts – a skateboarding rink in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. The ‘peace dividend’ may have brought regeneration to this area, but the cranes of Harland and Wolff still loom behind it. Testimony to when ships, doomed or otherwise, made their maiden voyages downstream from this berth. The venue blended into its quayside environment. The woman in the box-office described it as ‘just a big warehouse’ – the audience was warned to wear warm clothes. Rightly so, for our breath rose before us, even in the dim interior. The theatre-going crowd seemed apprehensive at this unfamiliar format. Nervous laughs, shuffling feet, as we waited.

The start came as a surprise. We were ushered out of the building and led through muddy puddles to a re-enactment of the levelling of a Palestinian settlement. Occupied Territories. In a city that’s often split between east and west, with a powder-keg north and an affluent south completing its simplified jigsaw. Its reality, of course, is much more complex. We listened to a stern figure philosophising in front of a bulldozer. Some heckling… was it genuine or scripted? Whispers among the throng as we herded back inside.

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The show proceeded in a series of vignettes, played out on makeshift stages and the trailers of articulated trucks. Bloody Sunday in Derry, Chile under Pinochet, a Vietnam veteran admitting he’d killed ‘men, women, children… and babies.’ The Khmer Rouge’s reign of slaughter depicted by the disappearance of dancers. Local kids became the inmates of Terezín. Their songs preludes to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. An atomic bomb exploded on a screen. Uprisings were crushed. We were catapulted to the end of the twentieth century: Bosnia, Rwanda, the failure of the international community. Beyond, to the wake of 9/11… A historical helter-skelter threaded together by an actor who grew up in Sierra Leone speaking in the clipped tones of an English aristocrat.

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The action swept the audience with it. The music roused and haunted – from the soloists to the choral groups, to the cellist’s dirge. My husband may have been the only one who could lip-sync to the hits of former Yugoslavia. But we weren’t alone in crying as they were transposed into clashing keys of torture. Though maybe tears flow faster at what we know is essentially unreal. Drama. By definition, a staged reproduction. A bunch of Belfast fellas driven away in a minibus falls far short of representing Srebrenica. It’s not My Lai we’re watching, or the Holocaust. We bought tickets for what’s labelled ‘entertainment’. Granted, of the ‘edifying’ kind, which means your toes grow numb from standing on cold concrete. Afterwards, you go for drinks or food… or home to bed, to families, to safety. More enriched than if you’d indulged in some escapist fluff. Perhaps more hypocritical… The cynics have a point.

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Yet, on the other hand, the performance stained. With its reminders – French complicity in the Rwandan genocide, American manoeuvring that treated Cambodia’s people as sacrificial pawns, Ratko Mladić rounding up men and boys while a blue-helmeted soldier stood aloof. The facts it threw out incriminated global institutions, respected powers, politicians, military personnel. Then, they accused us. Because, as onlookers, we also have a role and, most times, we’re the characters who ignore. And in doing so, facilitate. ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing’ – thus observed John Stuart Mill, another pedlar of philosophy, in 1867. They speak a lot of truth, these sages.

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But can words, in our weapon-glutted age, conquer oppression? Is it not a luxury to be happy when suffering is rife? The title of Pašović’s show sounds like a misnomer in a world which Russell acknowledged to be ‘horrible’. It’s derived from a tome that’s been classified a self-help book written by a pacifist thinker. Yet Russell’s work focuses on active engagement rather than introspection. His sense of humankind’s connectedness, in confronting evil that often seems endemic, infuses the drama inspired by his ideas. So is The Conquest of Happiness a call to transform? Or am I just a sap who wants to believe that art can have social purpose? And would looking outward make us any happier? I’m not sure. Though it might be easier to live with than knowing we did nothing.

There were many questions I would’ve loved to have asked the director when we met him, very briefly, at the end. But the show was moving to London. And, even if he’d had time, his creation didn’t court deconstruction. It was too raw for subtle subtexts. The reaction it elicited went beyond the cerebral, the aesthetic. Its impact was emotional. Deep but unpretentious as Haris himself, in his leather bomber jacket and furry hat. Like a cuddly ex-airman whose panache glinted unexpectedly in the sheen of his bronze-lined scarf. We were star-struck, gobsmacked as he thanked us for travelling north to attend. The journey was his, after all. The privilege of being there was ours. We were grateful for the memories.

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Thoughts of conflict, past and present, filled the frosty skies over the lough. Triggering insecurities as we drove off… Can we risk getting lost in East Belfast, in the dark, in a southern-reg car? Why is the city centre so quiet on a Saturday night? Eventually, we found a Chinese restaurant, just before last orders. It was nearly empty and a bit too brightly lit. Though, as evidence of the diversity spreading through this divided town, it was a perfect place to stop. For our first chance in a long time to talk about what united us. Things we’d almost forgotten under the pressure of daily toils. The struggles that brought us together, from a spark of chemistry at a protest… We’ve still got to face them, whether or not they’re conquerable. But sometimes they give us strength and make us aware of our wider responsibilities. We all have chorus parts in the epic of human existence. In playing them to the full, maybe there lies ‘happiness’.

A version of this post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 29 November 2013

Official website of the show: http://conquestofhappiness.com/

Opening our fortress hearts

My first real kiss – the fireworks and fairy-dust kind – was in Cherry Orchard. And, though the setting wasn’t too Chekhovian, the sky was rainbow over Ballyfermot. Planet Earth tilted on its axis as Venus skewed her orbit closer to it… OK, even if nothing cosmic happened, the walls of the former fever hospital heaved. But then, they had ears. Clearly, privacy hadn’t been high on the architect’s agenda. Other occupants of the building knew, no doubt, before the ‘official’ announcement. That I loved a man in a refugee reception centre, in a run-down part of Dublin… During the nineties, it was temporary home to several hundred Bosnians.

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Because this was how European states responded to the war. Their leaders dragged their well-heeled feet. They condemned atrocities while sweet-talking the masterminds of aggression. Humanitarian aid was provided but, overall, Europe’s inaction helped prolong the bloodshed. However, as the conflict in Bosnia worsened, the EU had no choice but to accept victims of ethnic cleansing and treat some injured people. For thousands of Bosnians, including many who’d been badly wounded, crossing borders was the sole alternative to the daily risk of death. So the resettlement programmes established by European countries in the 1990s offered lifelines. These schemes could never absolve international culpability for the loss of over 100, 000 lives and the suffering of countless survivors. Nonetheless, they were a significant aspect of what was, otherwise, a minimal reaction to a crisis on the continent. ‘Fortress Europe’, opened its doors a chink to the desperate at its ramparts. Then it quickly slammed them shut.

The Bosnians who came to Ireland (eventually numbering over 1000) represented a tiny percentage of those who found refuge in the EU. Compared to other states, whose intake was higher, their experience was relatively favourable. They were granted refugee status and were gradually able to rebuild shattered lives. Surely that’s the least a more peaceful and prosperous nation can offer those who’ve faced persecution, genocide? Sadly though, in Ireland, this chance of a new start in a non-hostile environment isn’t available to all arrivals fleeing from such horrors. Over recent weeks, serious injustices in the Irish treatment of asylum seekers have been publicised. People may manage to leave their conflict-stricken region and travel here via treacherous escape routes – the heartbreak of Lampedusa and other drowning tragedies in the Mediterranean have highlighted the peril of their journeys. But, once on Irish soil, they’re likely to be ‘welcomed’ with years of institutionalisation akin, in many ways, to detention.

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The Irish government’s system of ‘direct provision’ for asylum seekers confines them to accommodation centres which, unlike Cherry Orchard in the 1990s, are now mainly outsourced to the private sector. To businesses which, inspections have shown, frequently fail to meet basic health and safety standards. Adults are not permitted to work. They’re denied even the freedom to organise their own meals and forced to subsist on a weekly allowance of €19.10. Families are often crowded into single rooms and children’s rights are compromised. People must remain in this limbo until their cases have been processed. And this can take a considerable length of time – on average three years and eight months, although sometimes it’s much longer. But the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter, seems satisfied with this arrangement. He argues it’s cost effective and to adopt a more humane approach could create a ‘pull factor’ which would render Ireland too attractive a destination.

In contrast, the Irish figures suggest that we’re not doing our fair share. Presently, around 4,600 people are accommodated through ‘direct provision’. About 1000 asylum seekers came to Ireland in 2012. A marked reduction on the total a decade previous – in 2002, over 11,000 entered the state. Furthermore, the acceptance rate in asylum cases is extremely low (less than 10% result in positive outcomes). Compare this with the Swedish record. Sweden’s ratio of refugees per 1000 population is one of Europe’s highest at 8.81, while Ireland’s is 2.04 (UNHCR 2011). In Sweden, this looks set to increase, following the decision to admit all who arrive from Syria – already, since 2012, over 14,000 people. Yet few EU countries, Sweden and Germany being notable exceptions, have heeded calls from international aid agencies for Europe to accept more Syrians. Especially the most vulnerable – the young, the ill and the injured – who’ve borne the brunt of the anguish in what the UN has declared ‘the twenty-first century’s worst refugee crisis.’

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Neighbouring states can no longer deal with an influx of over 2 million refugees who’ve fled Syria since the war began in 2011. The majority of them are stuck in sprawling, under-equipped camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. For the 5 million people who are internally displaced inside Syria, conditions are even more horrific. Not only have children been killed and wounded in the fighting, they’re now starving in besieged towns, dying due to lack of medical supplies. In October, the WHO confirmed an outbreak of polio. The disease has re-emerged after years of eradication in Syria and is impacting most viciously on infants. Sexualised torture is also widespread, with rape being used as a weapon of war. UN resolutions on sexual violence in conflict, which deem such abuses war-crimes, are flagrantly scorned. But, in our age of information overload, we barely listen to this news. Similar headlines about Bosnia once breezed through our consciousness and, likewise, went ignored.

Hearing these stories from a Syrian activist, who’s been striving to bring the plight of her country to the world’s attention, makes them harder to forget. The words of Rafif Jouejati – director of FREE-Syria (the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria) – in her talk in Dublin on 30 October, are still prodding my conscience. Rafif spoke about The Jasmine Tent project which seeks to support women who’ve experienced trauma and to empower them with long-term skills that may prove vital in post-conflict Syria. Hopefully, Irish people will be able to contribute as much as they can to this grassroots initiative. Whether it’s by way of money or time – donations, campaigning or organising events – there’s a lot that we can do (please check out the link to Irish Friends of The Jasmine Tent). At this meeting and in her subsequent radio and TV interviews, Rafif also gave a thorough analysis of the complexities of the Syrian war (accessible through the RTE website, see below). The ‘onus’ she said is now on the international community to address what has become ‘a humanitarian disaster of almost unprecedented proportion’. Global indifference and the flip-flopping of power-brokers have allowed the death-toll to rise to over 115 000.

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Huge quantities of aid are urgently required. In this respect, it appears that Ireland is delivering. On 16 October, after returning from a visit to the Middle East, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Joe Costello, told a meeting of the Irish Parliament’s Joint Foreign Affairs Committee that Ireland has provided €14 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria. He said this means the Irish are ‘one of the world’s most generous donors to the Syrian problem on a per capita basis’. While this news is encouraging, it’s crucial to ensure that aid reaches the people in greatest need – particularly civilians trapped in towns and suburbs under siege. Also, it’s time Ireland accepts a substantial number of Syrian refugees. Organisations such as Amnesty International emphasise this as an EU-wide imperative. However, thus far, Irish efforts have been feeble. In September, Minister Shatter had nothing to boast about when he acknowledged that Ireland has taken ‘approximately fifty’ Syrians since the start of the war. Given the severity of the situation, a scheme of equivalent scale to that devised for Bosnians in the 1990s seems appropriate. But there’s little definite commitment. Beyond Minister Costello’s comment to the committee that next year’s cohort of ‘programme refugees’ – an annual (generally small) quota agreed with the UNHCR – will come entirely from Syria. The minister estimated this would comprise between 92 and 100 people. It sounds much less impressive than what he praised as the ‘outstanding job’ Sweden is doing in this regard.

Giving people a chance – perhaps of survival – is a point that’s easily missed or buried beneath an avalanche of statistics. As Rafif stressed in Dublin, figures can be overwhelming – too colossal to contemplate, too sterile to be human. The personal struggles of Ireland’s few thousand asylum seekers are erased in numerical arguments, which can be biased to construe them as a ‘threat’. Syria’s scattered millions blur into a faceless mass, so vast it’s unimaginable. But how do we, as individuals, reconvert these strings of inanimate zeros to people? To realise each one of them could be my lover, sister, brother, parent, child… They could be my friends or colleagues, or passers-by on the street – in other circumstances. Does life’s roulette mean that we, who’ve been spared the ordeal of war, can simply forget?

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We too belong to the ‘international community’, even if we don’t rank among its powerful members. So the ‘onus’ to take action isn’t just on our leaders. We must break the chain of apathy around our mighty hearts. This could be through getting involved with projects like The Jasmine Tent. Or appealing to politicians to reconsider the rules that control the gates of our gilded states… To see the man seeking asylum in Ireland, the woman deeply traumatised in Syria. And, here, I’m thinking of how I can respond. Knowing I’ve got no right to look away. Because the beginnings of my family trace back to meeting a Bosnian who lived, for a while, in a place called Cherry Orchard.

Useful links:

Syria and The Jasmine Tent:

http://www.free-syria-foundation.org/the-jasmine-tent.html also check out the FREE-Syria homepage for news of other projects

https://www.facebook.com/irishfriendsofthejasminetent how to help from Ireland

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10218424/ (1.04–1.08: until end November) RTE Morning Edition (TV 3/11/13)

http://www.rte.ie/news/morningireland/player.html?20131031,20463987,20463987,flash,232 RTE Morning Ireland (Radio 31/10/13)

Asylum seekers and immigrants in Ireland:

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/in-opposition-shatter-was-fiercely-critical-of-direct-provision-for-asylum-seekers-1.1587414

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/state-fears-reform-of-system-will-attract-asylum-seekers-1.1575210 and see other articles relating to asylum seekers in Ireland throughout October 2013 – series in the Irish Times

http://www.newstalk.ie/A-Migrant-State-of-Mind (link to podcast)

http://m.mixcloud.com/AthloneCommunityRadio/trauma-tears-hope-part-1/ (link to podcast) two excellent radio documentaries highlighting the challenges faced by asylum seekers and immigrants in Ireland

Verses / War

‘Mad Ireland’, as W. H. Auden called it, has been mourning. It keens well at the death of oracles. As seen this week in the gush of obituary that marked the passing of Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. Social media flooding with banal tributes – legend! The commentariat striving to out-elegise one another, adding their spake to the national wake which followed a bard back to his country churchyard. To restful peace in an erstwhile troubled region… I wonder how the great man would’ve regarded it. Perhaps with wryness? But even in leaving, he was generous – the gift of his poetry tuning the airwaves and glistening through the columns. His presence on the time-lines and tongues of everyone who’d recited his verse at school. Thank you, Seamus.

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He reminded me of my father. He wasn’t much older, born into a Europe on the brink of self-destruction in the tense spring of 1939. My dad was a child of World War Two. His family moved from Belfast, away from a blitzed city whose shipyards were Luftwaffe targets. An hour or so down the road there was no war. The then ‘Free State’ of Ireland had only an ‘Emergency’. A gem of understatement, but anything stronger would’ve breached neutrality. Back across the border, my father grew up among the flax-dams and sheep-grazed drumlins of rural Ulster. He still speaks the dialect. A bog language native to Heaney, who alchemised it, imbued it with the wisdom of antiquity.  A true saoi, almost a seer, he may have ‘escaped from the massacre’ but he never evaded its burden.

One of those writers of witness. Some of them can’t help it. Days before Heaney died, I found a poem flurrying through the cybersphere. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’. A curriculum classic, learned in quotable quotes, barely imagined because it’s unimaginable. The trenches of Flanders, the primitive masks, blood ‘gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’ of a comrade. These are the sights and sounds Owen foists upon his readers. Divided by a century, history tinges it with the patina of aesthetic. But today, it’s far too palpable. The children of Syria afforded less chance than the soldiers of the ‘Great War’ to avoid killer gas. The images are clear, beyond unverifiable. So, instead, there’s hugger-mugger to verify whom to blame. Late August, given heavy shelling and sarin… to paraphrase the opening of Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’. Though even his bramble fruit, with its taste of innocent pleasure, rots to waste. The world these days seems steeped in ‘rat-grey fungus’. Not a poetic place.

WW1 (b)

Yet, perhaps, a place for poets? Maybe the subtleties of verse offer more than political bombast. From the tortured cris de coeur to the onlooker’s unease. Can poets rake the no-man’s land that lies between the poles of intervention/isolation? Stubbornly, I still believe they can. Poetry led me to Bosnia, via the not-so-scenic route. Remembered lines niggled while my eyes absorbed newspaper photos, video footage. The ghosts of stanzas lingered as my ears heard the reports. It forced contemplation, provided a context for thought. A student of English, I was the type who always veered from the reading list. A literary nerd, I suppose. But the volumes I opened felt red-hot. They chided against apathy. From Martin Niemöller’s incantation ‘first they came for the Jews… the communists… the trade unionists’ to the Holocaust horrors in Elie Wiesel’s ‘Never shall I Forget’.

A collection which I read and re-read at that time was called Klaonica – an international anthology put together as an ‘immediate if inadequate response to the suffering in Bosnia’. Its title, appropriated from Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, is translated as ‘slaughterhouse, abattoir, butchery, shambles’. I dusted it off yesterday. It’s easy to dismiss it now as well-meaning arty-fartiness which, apart from the contributions of a handful of bona fide former Yugoslavs, was just an outlet for wordsmiths to say their erudite penance. And get on with their intellectual, privileged lives… possibly reaping kudos for their ‘engagement’. Reading with an older, more cynical eye, I flick through the pages. A lot of the poems still move me. Some ring too true. They may not be the cleverest or best crafted, but their themes are as fresh as twenty years ago. Connie Bensley’s description of a restaurant discussion among the chattering classes:

‘the air-strike supporters

were at odds with the pacifists…

The humanitarian-aid-only

contingent banged the table.’

This stingingly humorous piece ends with the waiter asking ‘what are you fighting about?’ The question may as well be ‘what country are you talking about?’ And this poem brings a little light relief. Most of the entries in Klaonica are written from, or looking into, the darkest depths of terror. Many are by those who survived past wars and sieges, those who knew dissidence and exile. Their voice of experience seeps beneath their challenges to the reader. Like Czesław Miłosz’s ‘Sarajevo’:

‘Now that a revolution really is needed, those who once were fervent, are quite cool.

While a country, murdered and raped, calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.’

And Joseph Brodsky’s ‘Bosnia Tune’ – so impactful, it must be read in its entirety. I’ve added a web-link below to its audio-recording. Please listen to what could be a hymn for Syria.

Sidran

Yes, often the most powerful are the words of those who’ve endured. From my limited dabbling with Bosnian poetry – something I’d love to have more time to explore – I’ll mention just one of its voices. My sister-in-law once gave me a collection by Abdulah Sidran, a poet of Seamus Heaney’s generation. An established writer in Bosnia before the war, he lived through the conflict and inscribed it in his verse. His ‘Planet Sarajevo’, written in 1994, breathes an endless struggle between good and evil, asking with its whispers of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden:

‘How many times have we

uttered

in tears

our ardent prayers for peace?’

Sidran captures the world’s indifference – how we watch and allow ourselves ‘become poorer by a whole people’. Years later, his work tells of aftermath – searing words that touch the pain of the survivors of Srebrenica. Their search for ‘a crumb of justice and a grain of truth’ is expressed, to the reader, as an imperative.

There’s much exhumed by poems like these… and much response demanded. Perhaps their meditation is an alternative to the present barrage of media opinion – ‘debate’ in which we too readily participate. Though our input ‘makes nothing happen’… to rob from our old friend Auden, cited inappropriately, ad nauseum.

Yeats

But where are the poets now? What Syrian Akhmatova will emerge to pierce our hearts? Will she live to share her verse? What lines of ours will join hers in a tome that may never be written? For who would read them? Does poetry have any currency in an age defined, more than ever, by those who ‘fumble in a greasy till’ as Yeats lamented in ‘September 1913’. Will only the dead remember our silence and our words? And the dead, Tadeusz Różewicz warns, ‘will not rehabilitate us’.

This post is penned, with raw emotion, in a world starved of tranquillity. I’ll end with no sense of amen, more a plea for misericordia. With last words that have been repeated, reprinted and retweeted maybe a million times in recent days. But they haven’t lost any of their potency. Seamus Heaney here relates the poet’s return, as an ambassador, from the ‘republic of conscience’. One whose role is a life-long call

‘to consider myself a representative

and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.’

Link to audio/text:

‘Bosnia Tune’ by Joseph Brodsky: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4n7rDbwuYM