Ireland commemorates Srebrenica

Our call on Ireland to officially mark the Srebrenica genocide was answered on Tuesday 7 July. That day, members and friends of the Bosnian community arranged to hold a small commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of this atrocity. We gathered at 1pm on Molesworth Street, just across the road from Leinster House (the Irish parliament building). Many of the Bosnians who attended had suffered greatly during the conflict in their country and had come to Ireland as refugees. Some of them brought their children – the new generation of the post-war diaspora – to this memorial event. I was glad our three daughters were there. It’s essential that young people learn about their history. It’s even more important that they learn from the past. Among us were Irish activists who’ve campaigned for Bosnia since the early nineties. Other friends, from Ireland and beyond, added to our number.

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The skies were ominous. The forecast of ‘scattered showers’ soon translated into a torrential downpour. We took refuge on the porch of Buswells Hotel. Trying to sort out posters in a stiffening breeze, I asked the doorman if we could leave our bags at the side of the steps. Assuring him that we wouldn’t cause an obstruction, I told him the purpose of our event. He said that he remembered Srebrenica… that it was terrible. His comment struck me. Twenty years on, the name of that tortured Bosnian town still lingers in the memory of all of us who watched it fall. It was time to honour the 8,372 victims – the sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, uncles, grandfathers – of the genocide at Srebrenica.

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We waited, rather nervously, hoping some politicians might drop by over lunchtime. We’d been to Belfast on Sunday 5 July, and joined with the Lord Mayor, Arder Carson, the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum and representatives of other cross-community groups in commemorating Srebrenica. One of the survivors of Srebrenica, who now lives in Dublin, had spoken powerfully about the trauma he’d experienced. On Tuesday he was with us, before going back to bury a close relative who was killed in the massacre. This year, 136 recently identified victims will be laid to rest at the annual ceremony of commemoration at the Potočari cemetery on 11 July. The youngest of them aged just sixteen.

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Teenagers, in Europe, at the end of the twentieth century… We owed it to them. We owed it to all of them – to call on the Irish government, to call on every member of the Oireachtas to hear the cries of the mothers of Srebrenica who, for twenty years, have begged the world not to forget. And, this time, Ireland listened. On 7 July the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan, issued this ‘Statement on 20th Anniversary of the Genocide at Srebrenica’:

In July 1995, one of the most appalling atrocities ever to take place in Europe happened in Srebrenica. As we approach the 20th anniversary of that dark time, we remember the 8,000 men and boys who died in that terrible massacre, and their families and wider community, whose lives were irrevocably changed by those days in July 1995.

It is important that we challenge and condemn any attempts to minimise or deny the genocide that took place at Srebrenica.

This genocide took place within living memory. The tragic impact of the conflict on its many victims should serve as a stark reminder of the need to learn the lessons of the past. We must redouble our efforts to promote tolerance and respect as fundamental values.

Ireland continues to support the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the wider region in their efforts to build a sustainable peace and achieve economic and social progress. We encourage them on their path to accession to the European Union, a community which is founded on the principles of justice and peace.”

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We read the statement just minutes before our event was about to start. By remembering the victims of Srebrenica and recognising the genocide that occurred there, it sends out a strong message from Ireland to the world. This expression of solidarity with those still affected by the war in Bosnia was also reflected at our memorial on Tuesday. Despite the inclement weather, many TDs and Senators (26 at the last head-count) came in person to remember Srebrenica. All the major political parties – both government (Fine Gael and Labour) and opposition (Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin) – were represented, as were Independent members of the Oireachtas. The Minister for Education and the Minister for Employment, Community and Social Support attended. So did officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs. At the end of our short ceremony we met with Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Tánaiste Joan Burton. She too lent her support to the Bosnian community in its efforts to commemorate Srebrenica.

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The event was quite impromptu, but very poignant. It began with a minute’s silence in honour of the thousands who were murdered in Srebrenica. This was followed by a poem in their memory, which was read by a Bosnian teenage boy. Then a speech recalling the horror of July 1995, but also appreciating Ireland’s role in ensuring that Ratko Mladić – one of the main indictees on charges of genocide at Srebrenica – is brought to justice. Links were made to the current focus on commemoration in Ireland, as the centenary of the 1916 Rising approaches, and verse by W.B. Yeats was recited in this, the year of the 150th anniversary of his birth. The rain lashed down relentlessly. We concluded with a prayer which was delivered by the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the burial ceremony in Srebrenica. Its lines transcend all religions and beliefs. It ends with words now inscribed in marble among the long rows of headstones in the Potočari cemetery…

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‘That Srebrenica never happens again’. Throughout we emphasised that the world must strive to prevent such acts of violence. We paid our respects, on the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London, to all victims of terror including the three Irish people who died in the recent attack in Tunisia. We remembered Syria – a place which has become more forsaken today than Bosnia was in the nineties.

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No words can ease the pain of those whose dear ones were slaughtered when the promise of international protection was broken. Nevertheless, we can’t forget their loss. In 1995, the screams of Srebrenica were ignored. It may be two decades too late, but at least now, by officially marking the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Ireland is atoning in some way for its past silence. After our event, one of the Bosnian women told me, ‘we’ve waited twenty years for this’. She was right.

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In addition to the Irish government’s announcement on 7 July, the cross-party Joint Foreign Affairs Committee which, as a result of our call, had raised and discussed the commemoration of Srebrenica, issued this further statement on 8 July:

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade this morning marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. The killing of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in July 1995 was one of the darkest days of the terrible conflict that engulfed the former Yugoslavia.

Noting that this was one of the worst atrocities to take place in Europe since the Second World War, and the failure of the international community to prevent the genocide, the Committee reaffirmed support for the international efforts to bring to justice those responsible. The Committee stands with members of the Bosnian community in Ireland in remembering those killed, and acknowledges the loss of their families and loved ones.

The Committee supports Ireland’s commitment to a European perspective for Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with the other countries of the Western Balkans. The Committee encourages those countries to continue implementing the democratic, political and economic reforms that will advance them on their respective European paths.

The official ceremony of commemoration takes place in Srebrenica on 11 July, and Ireland will be represented by Ireland’s Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina Mr. Patrick Kelly.”

The Committee’s tribute to the Bosnian community in Ireland – whose members have survived Srebrenica, the siege of Sarajevo, death-camps and other horrific forms of torture – is indeed appropriate. We hope that these statements will strengthen our efforts to keep the memory of Srebrenica alive in Ireland.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Thank you to:

  • The many politicians who read and responded to our postcard appeal, who corresponded with us and asked parliamentary questions to the Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • The members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs who were particularly active in relation to Srebrenica
  • The Senators who spoke on this issue in the Seanad
  • All at the Department of Foreign Affairs who took an interest in Srebrenica
  • The members of the Oireachtas who attended our gathering of remembrance
  • The Tánaiste for taking the time to meet us
  • The journalists who covered this story (please see media links below)
  • The Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum and everyone involved in the commemoration of Srebrenica in Belfast
  • Remembering Srebrenica UK for their support

Above all, hvala puno to:

  • The members of the Bosnian community in Ireland who came to the memorial event and spread word about it
  • The three speakers from the Bosnian community who made such an impact at our gathering
  • The wonderful poster designer (and one of the three speakers above) who also contributed so much to organising this event
  • The one-woman powerhouse and human rights activist extraordinaire who founded Ireland Action for Bosnia in the 1990s and is a tireless supporter of the Bosnian community
  • All our friends who braved the stormy conditions to commemorate Srebrenica
  • Anyone else I’ve inadvertently forgotten while writing this at 4am (the norm in recent weeks)
  • My Bosnian-Irish offspring who now accept that mealtimes are very movable feasts (i.e. in between emails)
  • The Bosnian I live with

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And huge thanks to all of YOU who contacted your TDs/Senators or shared information about our appeal. Or even just read a little about Srebrenica… And remembered.

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Media links:

“We owe these victims, we are their voices now”. TodayFM News, 7/7/15:
Irish Bosnian community commemorates Srebrenica genocide. Newstalk, 7/7/15:
Srebrenica genocide remembered 20 years on. The Irish Examiner, 7/7/15:
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Srebrenica 2015 – events in Ireland

11 July 2015 is the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Please join in efforts across Ireland to remember the victims of this atrocity which still haunts Bosnia and Herzegovina, Europe and the world.

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 5 JULY – BELFAST

A memorial ceremony for Srebrenica will be held on Sunday 5 July at 6.00pm in the Belfast City Hall. This event is organised by the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum, with the support of the Lord Mayor of Belfast and the charity Remembering Srebrenica. We’re hoping to attend along with other Bosnian guests. This is the first official commemoration of Srebrenica to take place on the island of Ireland.

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The First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland have also made a joint statement on this issue:

“As we mark the 20th anniversary, we mourn those who were lost and share our thoughts and prayers with those who were left behind and most importantly, respect their ongoing pain and share their hopes for a better future.

We must keep the memory of the victims of Srebrenica alive and work to eliminate prejudice and discrimination. It is important we all learn from the past so we can create a safer, better and more hopeful future for everyone.”

Kudos to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness! The leaders of Northern Ireland don’t always agree, so their harmony in relation to Srebrenica is all the more welcome. Anything Belfast can do, (we hope) Dublin can do equally well. Which brings us to the next event, south of the border…

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7 JULY – DUBLIN

On Tuesday 7 July, from 1.00 to 2.00pm, members of the Bosnian community in Ireland and Irish friends are organising a solemn gathering for Srebrenica in front of Leinster House. Twenty years ago, we stood outside government buildings, calling on Ireland to urge powerful international institutions to save the people under attack in Srebrenica. Two decades later, history compels us to remember the terrible fate that awaited those who’d taken refuge in this UN ‘safe area’.

The least we can do in Ireland is to honour the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. We’ve gathered in a similar way in previous years but this twentieth anniversary is particularly significant. Please stop by and express your solidarity with survivors of the Bosnian war. We’re inviting both members of the public and members of the Oireachtas to spend a few minutes with us.

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We deeply appreciate the efforts that many Irish politicians have made in response to our call for Ireland to officially commemorate Srebrenica. The cross-party support this appeal has received has been truly heartening. Hopefully, it’ll lead to a positive outcome. But keep asking your T.D.s and Senators to raise this issue!

If you’ve ever been to Bosnia and Herzegovina or you’ve got an interest in the country, you’ll be aware of its difficult recent past. Irish history further informs us that remembering in a respectful way is a vital part of any reconciliation process. Commemorating Srebrenica is thus essential in dealing with the painful legacy of the 1990s in the Balkans. Bosnia’s living memory is also a reminder of atrocities perpetrated in current conflicts – contemporary war-crimes that, in a decade or so, will no doubt be recognised as acts of genocide. We can never forget what happened in Srebrenica in 1995. To our shame, it’s still too relevant now.

Looking forward to seeing you at these Srebrenica memorial events in Belfast and Dublin!

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Useful links:

Eventbrite link for event in Dublin: 20th anniversary of Srebrenica genocide

Press release for event in Dublin: Srebrenica 20th anniversary event in Ireland

To contact politicians in Ireland see: Commemorating Srebrenica

Remembering Srebrenica website – features Belfast event and N.I. statement: Remembering Srebrenica

Press Release: Srebrenica 20th anniversary event in Ireland

Bosnians in Ireland mark 20th anniversary of Srebrenica genocide

Date/time: Tuesday 7 July 2015, 1.00–2.00pm
Place: Leinster House, i.e. end of Molesworth Street (due to new regulations), Dublin 2

Bosnians in Ireland will mark the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide with a solemn gathering in front of Leinster House from 1.00pm to 2.00pm on Tuesday 7 July 2015. This event will commemorate and honour over 8,000 Bosnian men and boys who were brutally killed when the UN ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica fell to Serbian forces, led by Ratko Mladić, in July 1995. This massacre has been recognised as genocide by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It is the worst single atrocity to have been perpetrated on European soil since the Second World War.

In its resolution of 15th January 2009, the European Parliament called on EU states and countries of the Western Balkans to ‘commemorate appropriately the anniversary of the Srebrenica-Potočari act of genocide by supporting Parliament’s recognition of 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide’. This resolution highlights the need for Europeans to remember the victims of Srebrenica and all who died in the wars across former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It also acknowledges that recognising the Srebrenica genocide is an essential aspect of any effort towards reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Given the failure of the international community to protect people who sought refuge in Srebrenica, it is important that countries around the world mark the anniversary of this genocide. Ireland will be represented at the main commemoration ceremony which will be held at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Centre and Cemetery in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 11 July 2015. It is also hoped that the Irish government will follow the example of Britain and other states by officially commemorating the Srebrenica genocide in an appropriate way here. The Bosnian community in Ireland invite members of the Oireachtas and members of the public to join them in their gathering of remembrance for Srebrenica on Tuesday 7 July.

– Ends –

For further information please contact:
Bronagh Ćatibušić via this blog http://www.bronaghcatibusic.wordpress.com or via Twitter @BiHIrishcoffee

Red apple rock

The first I heard of Crvena Jabuka was from a Bosnian girl in a refugee camp in Croatia. ‘Red Apple?’ The teenager explained that music groups from former Yugoslavia often had strange names. As they do all over the world… She wrote out the words of one of the band’s songs, Zovu nas ulice – the streets are calling us. I tried to learn them. The tune was a catchy little earworm.

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An uspomena… it was among the tracks on the Crvena Jabuka album she taped for me. I took the cassette back to Ireland. Played it, treasured it. When I should’ve been concentrating on my studies, I was decoding those handwritten verses and chorus. Their meaning wasn’t too deep, a typical laddish response to spurned love: ‘idemo na-napolje’ – ‘we’re going out’. Sugary eighties pop with a Balkan twist. Yet they taunted me with questions. Why had I returned to Dublin after that summer volunteering with kids who’d fled a war that still raged through their country? Maybe it was just guilt, but I knew I couldn’t forget. In college, I raised funds and awareness for Bosnia, roping my friends into a range of madcap schemes. They thought I was crazy.

Probably they were right. Without doubt, I fell beyond redemption when I met another fan of Crvena Jabuka. It was a pity he was tone-deaf but he ‘sang’ their hits in his own sonorous way. And, while far from perfect pitch, the lines were full of emotion. ‘Kad sat zazovni…’ Just over a year later, I found myself under that bell-tower by Begova džamija – the mosque at the heart of Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s Ottoman bazaar. The war had finally ended. The city gleamed in July sun, harrowed yet glorious. Or so it seemed to a dazzled visitor. I couldn’t comprehend it. Perhaps I was too much in awe, in love, blinded by someone who’d led me to the water that, myth says, draws you eternally back to this enigmatic place. The temperature was close to forty degrees Celsius. I was thirsty.

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Whispers… sensuous, bewitching. They get drowned in our mundane interactions. Acrimonious yells stifle them. Sometimes we need reminders. My crooner’s birthday. The clock has chimed through times good and bad, twenty years have disappeared since I was serenaded with an off-key rendition of Crvena Jabuka. By chance, on Twitter, we hear they’re coming to Dublin. Hmm… two tickets to the gig might be a better present than the annual sweatshirt. It turns out to be the Best. Gift. Ever. Even if I’m not sure that he deserves it. Plus there’s a new movie about Kurt Cobain that I’d prefer to see on one of our rare nights out.

I’m still threatening to ‘go to Nirvana’ – more my genre and generation – on the evening of 14 April. The cinema isn’t far from the concert venue. Should we diverge? ‘Oh well, whatever, never mind’… the smell of youthful spirit wafts through the air. It’s decadent bliss to swan round Temple Bar at 7p.m. on a Tuesday. Usual routine at this hour would be making dinner and checking the kids’ homework. This is a welcome escape! And it’s supposed to be a double celebration – our wedding anniversary is less than a week away.

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Nostalgia guides us to an Italian restaurant called ‘La Gondola’. Venice in the springtime… our honeymoon. Before we took the ‘smugglers’ ship’ from Ancona to Split on our way back to Sarajevo. After the meal, a charming Polish waitress asks us where we we’re from and tells us she recently wrote an essay about Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. It was part of her course in International Studies at an Irish university. Wars slip into history, become assignment topics. This accomplished young woman is about the age I was when I first went to the Balkans.

Yikes! Now I’m wondering about the wisdom of my mini-dress. Wondering why I’m heading to an ex-Yugo rock revival. No, I’m off to Nirvana again! Let him have his mid-life bromance with his diaspora buddies. Dilemmas on the Ha’penny Bridge. Still, I end up at The Academy and my arguments prove purely academic. Idemo… into this den of iniquity! We spot some people we know, Bosnian friends from years ago. Though there’s not much time to catch up for, once the gig begins, it’s too loud to talk. To be honest, I’m more in the mood for music than for banter. So a medley of 1980s gold, from a country that no longer exists, sounds oddly appealing. Especially when it’s belted out with such gusto by a band whose average age must be twice that of One Direction.

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The audience – which appears to be 99.99% Balkan – sings along. The birthday boy knows all the lyrics verbatim. Quite a feat! I’ll forgive his lack of melody. Anyhow, this is no place for cultural snobbery… it’s for getting up and dancing.  Even the two of us, with our four left feet, shed our inhibitions. The atmosphere gives us rhythm, hides our clumsiness. As Crvena Jabuka energise the crowd, jazzing up old favourites. They certainly have a flair for live performance.

Then they play our special song. From the opening twang, it holds something beyond words which, so often of late, have failed us. Memories, significance… the feelings we feared we’d lost are re-released. The critics may label it cheesy, dated, Eastern European. Translation robs it of context, it doesn’t make much sense. But it flows, like that legendary water in Sarajevo. It brings us back to who, if not where, we used to be. Until the streets are calling us… the long road home, perhaps the tentative steps of a new start. Yes, music can fill the gashes that scar our maps and hearts. It can’t heal every wound, but its notes might be a balm. The sound of what we share, our common chords. ‘Sa tvojih usana…’ i mojih.

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Many thanks/hvala puno Vox PROmotions for organising the Crvena Jabuka concert: https://t.co/ksvktgjBoj

And ‘that song’ from yesteryear – Sa tvojih usana/From your lips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrzG6FaIHdQ

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly, Novo Vrijeme, on 30/4/15: http://novovrijeme.ba/bosnian-music-red-apple-rock/

 

Food, fun and faith for funds

Climbing hills, dressing up as Celts, weaving trendy accessories… Over recent weeks, my family and I have learned a few new skills – all for the sake of the Irish Red Cross ‘Balkans Floods Appeal’. Internationally, the extreme flooding witnessed in May in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia is no longer deemed ‘newsworthy’. But for the many thousands of people now struggling with its aftermath, the consequences of the disaster are very real.

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The world’s cameras have zoomed out. They’ve taken their shots of the torrents and their aerial pictures of settlements submerged in muddy water. There are horrors breaking elsewhere or popular distractions like sports and show-biz to be filmed. As reports wane, assistance often follows a similar pattern – any immediate surge of interest tends to fall off fast. In our case, though, we simply couldn’t forget. My husband’s uncle and aunt live in Bijeljina and they were personally affected by the floods. This brought the crisis home to us. We had to try to help in whatever way we could… hence our series of events for the Balkans Floods Appeal.

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Our efforts were small-scale. They began with our daughters’ bracelet-making scheme around our neighbourhood and our trek over a windswept Irish mountain (see previous post). The success of these early endeavours, which raised almost €600, inspired us to do more. Phone calls and email enquiries ensued. Plans were hatched in between late night World Cup matches. Football became addictive viewing but, far from being a diversion, it strengthened our commitment to our fundraising campaign. Supporting Bosnia can’t just be about yelling at a screen beaming 90 minutes of excitement from South America. Nevertheless, like millions in the worldwide Bosnian fan club, we celebrated the team and lamented their premature exit from the tournament.

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Bosnia’s sojourn in Brazil may have been brief but, in our house, it was memorable. The children took huge pride in their father’s country, especially as their mother’s hadn’t qualified.  And they loved the pre-match parties featuring blue and yellow ice-cream sodas, Irish attempts at ćevapi, and Fox’s biscuits on which I’d inscribed best wishes to the ‘Dragons’. Few of the neighbours could’ve missed the giant flag fluttering from one of our upstairs windows as we put Bosnia and Herzegovina on the local radar. Through football banter, we also talked about current issues in the Balkans and let people know about our fundraising.

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We continued on 26 June – the day after Bosnia’s victory against Iran – with a coffee morning at my husband’s workplace in Dublin. His employer, the Irish Medicines Board (IMB), has a welcoming attitude towards charities and many of his colleagues offered to bake for us. This was just as well because domestic science lies beyond my comfort zone. As a person who only willingly cooks for ‘cultural occasions’, such as the World Cup and major feast days, I must admit that the prospect of producing fare fit for public consumption was pretty daunting.

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I opted for my tried and tested ‘hurmašice light’ – a reduced-sugar version of the traditional Bosnian recipe. Luckily, my limited repertoire also extends to shortbread cookies. So I rustled up three dozen of these and decorated them with the flags of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. (Chef’s tip: ready-to-roll icing, dyed with tinted food gel, works a dream.) My ‘Balkan’ treats looked cute but the staff of the IMB proved true culinary geniuses. Their scrumptious chocolate cakes, lemon drizzle slices, profiteroles, caramel squares and other delicious goodies formed a mouth-watering array. In addition, they were unbelievably generous – donations received at the coffee morning amounted to €820.

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Two days later, we were fundraising again. Though, this time, it was much closer to home. I’d spoken to one of the priests of the small, rural parish in which we live – Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth – about our ideas to help flood victims in the Balkans. He gave us great encouragement and suggested we hold a church-gate collection in aid of the Irish Red Cross appeal. Having obtained the required Garda permit, we were able to proceed with this on the last weekend in June. We started at the evening mass on Saturday 28 – a date of particular historical significance, exactly one hundred years after the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was killed in Sarajevo. Due to this anniversary, Bosnia got a quick mention in the media (including a few moments of TV news in Ireland) as the centennial commemorations of World War I began. But while academics and journalists debated the region’s past, our focus was on its present problems.

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By coincidence, June 28 was also the first day of Ramadan. My husband – probably the only Bosnian Muslim to have manned a charity bucket outside an Irish Catholic church – was hungry as sunset approached. Both of us were heartened, though, by the response to our collection… and ever-so-slightly nervous about its next stage. Prayers were said that the fine weather we’d been blessed with would last. Fortunately, it appeared that someone ‘up above’ was listening because Sunday dawned with divine radiance. This was a relief since we had four services to cover in the two churches of the parish. At each, people showed incredible goodwill and altogether we collected €610. The inter-faith dimension of the event was also important. It touched on what should be at the core of all religions – concern for humankind and generosity of spirit. These are values rarely emphasised in a world that seems to thrive on division.

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Our final event took place in the Marshes Shopping Centre in the nearby town of Dundalk on Saturday 5 July. The administrator of the centre kindly provided us with this opportunity to collect on the premises. And I became ‘well-known to the Gardaí’ – not for involvement in serious crime but for seeking police permission for a second collection in rapid succession. We made an attractive display with information about the floods and their impact on the Balkans. But to really grab the attention of passing shoppers our daughters wove more ‘loom’ bracelets. This kept them occupied (and out of trouble) through the first week of their summer holidays. Industrial quantities of tiny bright hoops were turned into awesome wrist-bands. Glitter, glow-in-the-dark and metallic designs were available. Colour combinations to represent Ireland, countries of the Balkans and surviving World Cup nations, catered to the tastes of both boys and girls.

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The shopping centre was rather quiet on Saturday morning and, yes, that freaked me out a bit. However, I needn’t have worried as it got much busier in the afternoon and our stall, which was in a prime location, drew many visitors. Children coaxed their parents to stop by and were thrilled at our range of bracelets. We gave these as ‘thank you’ gifts for donations. Teenagers made their own contributions and adults took considerable interest too – from our local senator, Mary Moran, who was very supportive, to a young couple from Croatia who’d recently come to live in Dundalk. It was lovely to talk to people, not just about the Balkans but about their experience of fundraising for various causes. By the end of the day we’d collected another €340 for the Irish Red Cross. Our daughters were especially pleased that they, and their handiwork, had played a crucial role in this achievement.

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This collection brought the total raised from our action for the Balkans Floods Appeal to €2,360. It multiplied by almost forty times the €60 we’d already donated online. In five weeks, with a little effort and a lot of enjoyment, we’d increased far beyond our expectations the help we could offer as a family. We’re extremely grateful to all who contributed. They’ve demonstrated that Ireland’s capacity for altruism hasn’t been crushed, that humanity remains a powerful force. From a practical standpoint, we’ve also seen that by organising simple, replicable activities it’s possible to maximise the response to any appeal.

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Regarding the floods in the Balkans, we can only hope that external aid will flow to the affected areas and that this will target those who are most vulnerable. Meanwhile, we’re preparing to go to Bosnia next week. We’re not sure if we’ll be able to travel to the flood-hit regions – logistics, children and time constraints will determine this – but we’ll try. Even if we can’t, we’ll bring with us a positive message from Ireland. We’re glad to say that some people here are aware of current challenges in Bosnia. Better still, they’ve shown that they care.

Please continue to support the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Here’s a summary of our fundraising:

31 May – children’s sale of bracelets, Blackrock, Co. Louth: €125

7-8 June – Táin March, Dundalk and Carlingford, Co. Louth: €465

26 June – coffee morning in the Irish Medicines Board, Dublin: €820

28-29 June – church-gate collection in Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth: €610

5 July – display stand in the Marshes Shopping Centre, Dundalk: €340

TOTAL  raised for Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: €2,360

Thank you/hvala to everyone who helped!

Read more about our fundraising in my previous post: 
 

Luck (?) o’ the Irish!

Green… It was everywhere. On coats and caps, on grannies’ headscarves, on kids dressed top to toe in it. Irish flags were aflutter in a stiff east wind. There were dancers jigging along to pipe bands and accordions playing the length of O’Connell Street. A troupe of Yankee majorettes in skimpy skirts raised goose pimples (and eyebrows, no doubt) among even the hardiest of anorak wearers. Sleet fell on these baton-twirlers of the diaspora, the parade’s barest nod to multiculturalism. But new faces were already visible in the Ireland of ‘95 and soon they’d be swept up in this homage to St. Patrick.

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Within a few years, 17 March would feel more like Mardi Gras. Papier-mâché giants would saunter into Dublin to a samba beat. Though back when the Celtic kitty was just a tiger-striped cub, things were still traditional. I can’t remember if there was a formal salute as the nation’s military hardware trundled past the GPO, reminiscent of Red Army surplus. Or if the reservists of the FCA primed their shovels, ready to save Ireland from Klingon attack. But then, I wasn’t paying too much notice. My unpatriotic aim was to circumnavigate the entire show. Instead of simply nipping over the bridge to Aston Quay, I had to go straight ahead until I’d bypassed the spectacle. Pushing through the throngs, I cursed the fifth-century bishop who’d forced this detour. Finally, I was able to cross at the junction of South Great George’s Street, jostle my way down College Green and make it to the Liffey… to the bus stop.

By this time, the crowd was beginning to disperse – drifting off to ‘drown the shamrock’ or heading home with herds of noisy children. The 78A to Ballyfermot was full of face-painted kids licking their tricolour lollipops and sticks of what the Americans call ‘candy cane’ – prosaically known as ‘rock’ on this side of the Atlantic. The stuff of dental ruin, but the boys and girls didn’t seem to care. Buzzing with sugar and the day’s excitement, they laughed and yelled and fought with smaller siblings. Tired mothers roared at them to sit down as the bus juddered to a halt. I swayed to the front, as giddy as the hyperactive lads who were swinging from the handrails. The doors inched open. I leapt out.

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Reason tried to tell me to ‘cop on’. Officially I was going for a lesson… in one of Europe’s newly defined languages. (Spoiler alert/warning: women thinking of embarking on obscure linguistic pursuits, please choose a female teacher if you can!) My mentor was disarming but I was determined to learn Bosnian. And I’d been a diligent student, doing all my homework. Although, unbeknownst to me, it transpired that the assignment I’d been set was designed to test much more than my command of the present tense.

Unaware of this breach of pedagogical ethics, I almost ran to the entrance of the reception centre. Then, innocently (OK… maybe enthusiastically), I let my native-speaking tutor lead me to his room. We started the session with me reading aloud a composition I’d written on the title he’d prescribed: ‘My ordinary day’. It wasn’t world-class literature and my vocabulary was rudimentary, but I felt I’d made a fair stab at the task. Whatever its grammatical mistakes, it impressed the listener. From trivial details about getting up in the morning and going to college to the lines referring to my group of friends, my self-appointed expert in semiotics was riveted by every word. Apparently, his approval stemmed less from my actual effort than from one telling omission. The outstanding feature of my account was the absence of any mention of a ‘meaningful’ other. And that signified…

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OK, let’s just call it a green light. There’s an awful lot of subtext između redova which guys from Sarajevo can easily detect. As I discovered… to my delight! The hypothesis which had freaked me, following our previous classes, was proving correct. It explained the mirth with which I’d skipped through the inner city at midnight, on the way back to my flat. Such risky behaviour couldn’t have been inspired by my out-dated textbook, ‘Colloquial Serbo-Croat’. Now, it seemed due to something other than insanity. My affliction was indeed a different sort of disorder. Though not one to which I thought I’d ever succumb.  Men were a waste of time… weren’t they? Yet why had I kept that photo of us – taken a few days after our first encounter at a protest for Bosnia – tucked inside the cover of my student diary?

Of course, he didn’t know that until… The narrow room illuminated. Sunshine struck through squalls, invaded what had been a sanatorium. It masked the urban decay across Cherry Orchard and, for an instant, the name of the area sounded less incongruous. Rainbows stretched between the showers of hail. And, while there was no sign of leprechaun-hidden crocks of gold at the ends of them, our fates decreed we’d find much dearer treasure.

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Nineteen years have passed and the spectrum of life since has been psychedelic. Our trajectory more roller coaster than arc-en-ciel, we’ve hurtled from exhilarating heights to darkest nadirs. Three ‘little people’ have joined the ride and grown, scarily fast, along the way. Though not yet fourteen, our eldest is already taller than me. Bless her Bosnian genes but, standing beside her, I’m craving stilettos. Just one of the twists on this journey from when Doc Martens were footwear du jour. Et de la nuit…

The evening we made our debut as couple, my style was steel-tipped boots and a woollen patchwork creation crocheted in a palette of shades… including emerald. A perfect garb for Ireland’s feast day. And where better to flaunt it than at a ‘cultural event’ organised to give uninitiated Bosnians an insight into Irish festive rituals – a night of line dancing in the Garda Boat Club. The turbo-country music would’ve driven the druids of yore to sheer despair! To salvage my reputation as a person of any taste, I’ll have to stress that neither I nor my escort partook in this ‘entertainment’. Both of us being left-footed and well… otherwise occupied. Luckily, the frogmen of the elite sub-aqua unit were off-duty so ‘crimes’ of passion went unpoliced. An unlikely setting for a first date but, corny shenanigans aside, Patrick triumphed as our patron of romance.

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Our only surviving picture from 17/3/95… clearly pre-Photoshop!

However, no saintly powers could help me with my bosanski. Once my instructor and I became ‘an item’, our lessons quickly slipped from his schedule… like they’d been nothing more than a ruse for seduction. The double entendre in jezik (language/tongue) was a joke translated with relish by his witty friends. Unfortunately, I’d soon realise that, despite his numerous skills, Don Juan has always lacked an essential quality for good teaching – namely, patience. As a result, my subsequent learning has been largely ad hoc. Still, there’s one phrase I know I acquired on 17 March 1995. Two simple words that have seen the pair of us through our many crises… They mean as much to me now as they did when I first heard them. Even if it sometimes hurts to admit their truth, even if we’re hopeless versions of those younger selves who told each other on a cold St. Patrick’s Day… ‘Volim te’.

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Sretan Dan Svetog Patrika!

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!

Guess who’s meeting the parents…

It started in a Dublin pub. Two odd bods, not your typical punters, huddled over a table. One spoke with a Slavic accent – unusual for Ireland in 1995. The other dressed in a flamboyant ensemble, hot off the Oxfam rails.

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We must’ve looked nervous. Sipping pineapple juice and Coca Cola, our drinks gave no Dutch courage for the task ahead. But, at least, the place was quiet. It was early enough in the evening – May or June, so barely dusk. And the phone was tucked away in a snug corner. We shoved a few coins into it. I grabbed the receiver, waited… until my mother answered. Here’s the gist of the conversation that followed:

‘I’m coming up at the weekend.’

At that announcement, Mum expressed surprise. During my college years, my visits home were infrequent. Female students – unlike their male peers – generally do their own laundry. And I enjoyed my independence, beyond the radar of ever-anxious parents. Still, there comes a point when generations must merge in a new way. But dealing with this, for the first time, wasn’t easy.

‘And eh… is it OK if I take someone with me?’

‘Who?’ I sensed apprehension at the other end.

‘Eh… like… a fella?’

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Maternal palpitations pulsed down the line, along with implorations to divine powers. This was unchartered territory for my mother – hearing from her eldest about what, she’d immediately guess, was a serious relationship. Never before had a boyfriend been brought home… No ‘passing interest’ would’ve been worth the effort and, in truth, I’d steered clear of amorous attachments. There’d been offers, but I’d tended to fob them off – the last thing I needed to impede my youthful dreams was a man. Or so I believed, until I met a certain Bosnian… and discovered I might be the world’s only ‘romantic feminist’. Naturally, Mum was curious about my obviously ‘special’ companion. Interrogations began. And I remember saying:

‘Well, he’s not exactly Irish.’

A second or two of silence… my mother paused for deduction. At moments like these, I think she’s possessed of an uncannily strong sixth sense. Although sussing out the secret lives of daughters is a skill I’m trying to cultivate myself. Anyhow, she suspected a Balkan connection. She hadn’t approved of me spending the previous two summers in refugee camps in that conflict-torn region. Apparently I was ‘mad in the head’ for going there. Yet she knew the experience had left its imprint, even if I hadn’t filled her in on my subsequent involvement with newly-arrived Bosnians in Ireland. As far she was concerned, I was supposed to have buckled back down to my studies. Nevertheless, presuming an old beau from my travels, she asked:

‘What, is he from Croatia?’

‘No, but close… Bosnia.’

Mum’s response was muted – a whispered litany pleading for heavenly intercession. I blithely told her the name of my beloved and, no doubt, sang his praises. Then the pips… I’d run out of ten pence pieces. A blessing, really. My mother could digest the facts, before we resumed with Part II of ‘telling the parents’. Meanwhile, we sauntered across inner-city Dublin. After stopping at a shop for some spare change, we finally found a phone-box that hadn’t been wrecked by vandals.

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‘Hi, it’s me again…’ On the far side, Mum still sounded out breath, so I breezed on: ‘There’s just one thing I forgot to tell you. Don’t cook ham – or any kind of pork – for dinner.’

‘Why?’

‘’Cause he’s a Muslim…’

My mother might’ve already worked this out. The mid-nineties were pre-Google days but, from years of war reports, the ethnicities of Bosnia and Herzegovina were infamous. Whether or not she’d figured, panic crept into her tone. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were invoked, as I recall. It wasn’t prejudice, just the shock of confronting the unforeseen. And information overload… I’d thrown a lot of stuff at her in less than an hour. Getting over the concept of ‘boyfriend’ was the greatest hurdle. Now, with three girls of my own, I can understand her turmoil. When the first of my daughters tells me about her ‘Chosen One’, how will I react? It must be a seismic jolt to the parent-child dynamic. The differences of nationality and religion were further tremors. Significant, though, on the worry scale of a woman who’d always lived in rural Ireland. I reassured her that everything would be fine. Then, I asked if she’d break the news to my father…

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Our visit to my homestead ‘passed off peacefully’, as they say of tension-charged events in the north of Ireland. There were some isolated faux pas… My dearest had to learn that taking photos of British army helicopters was not a good idea, while my Dad’s questions about life in the ‘former Czechoslovakia’ had me cringing with embarrassment. Reading Aleksandar Hemon’s wonderful ‘The Book of My Lives’, in which he traces his displacement from Sarajevo to Chicago, I laughed at similar queries he received from clueless Americans. Nowadays, though, my parents often get on better with their Bosnian son-in-law than with his wayward wife. To claim that they’ve embraced interculturalism is, perhaps, an exaggeration. But they’ve had their eyes opened to ‘otherness’ over the years.

Likewise, in Sarajevo, it took time to get used to the ‘blow-in’ addition to the family. Ironically, compared to Ireland, I found less fuss was made about religion, despite how it’d been exploited to stoke hatred during the war. Although Bosnian society was becoming segregated, people still had friends of different faiths. Occasionally, while living there, I said, ‘it’d be easier to be a Protestant’ – a ‘neutral’ denomination in the ex-Yugoslav states. But overall, I was accepted, especially by those who cherished Bosnia’s multi-ethnic heritage.

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For my other half, being a Muslim in Ireland was somewhat ‘exotic’ back in the 1990s. In certain parts of the country, where religion and politics fuse, our relationship was preferable to one between a Catholic and a post-Reformation Christian. Foreigners also escaped some of the internecine censure which native ‘mixed’ couples often faced. However, after 9/11, it’s become a bit tougher… Thankfully, Islamophobic incidents are relatively rare here. But public attitudes towards Islam sometimes appear more negative, particularly as Ireland’s Muslim population increases.

Intolerance stems from preconceptions based on narrow stereotypes. And these are best overcome by meeting people. In our case, for both families, getting to know us as individuals tempered assumptions derived from raw indicators of identity. Of course, there’ll be instances of contention – integration demands negotiation. But it’s a worthwhile process, for the commonality among humankind, whatever our diverse backgrounds or beliefs, is so extensive.