A cold coming

Another train arrives. About a thousand people disembark. Many families with small children, babies wrapped in blankets, lads with worn backpacks. The elderly and disabled are helped into wheelchairs. From grim carriages they make their way out onto the platform. Floodlit in the darkness, a thick layer of snow covers the ground around the tents and prefabs. It’s been snowing for several days. Temperatures have dropped to minus fifteen degrees. Then there’s a slight thaw. Gravel paths become a mess of mud and slush. Freezing rain starts to fall. A shadowy police cordon guides the emerging passengers towards registration.

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Train in which refugees travelled – taking photos in the camp was very much restricted

Welcome to Croatia. The Slavonski Brod transit centre is a brief stop-over on a route that begins in the throes of war. This trail of displacement involves risky voyages across land and sea, led only by the hope of a better future. Papers are processed. People enter the distribution area. It’s like a makeshift bazaar. At the doorway, sweetened tea is served in plastic cups. On one side of the railed passage through the tent, NGOs hand out health and sanitary supplies. On the other, volunteers distribute clothes. An array of donations is stacked on metal shelves and spread on trestle tables. Further items are sorted into labelled boxes – shoes and boots that quickly disappear, underwear, gloves, hats and scarves.

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Our work as volunteers in the distribution tent

Footwear is a high priority. Some people are wearing soaking trainers, wellingtons, even flip-flops. Socks are saturated, stuck to raw, chapped toes. One woman tries to squeeze into warmer boots. She winces with pain but doesn’t want to linger to get treatment for her chilblained feet. It’s all about moving, keeping going on adrenaline. The travellers are exhausted but they’re anxious to complete what is almost the last leg of their journey. Before borders close. Tense officers hurry people on.

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Some of the very necessary boots which I bought with donations from Ireland

They pause to gather essentials. We never have enough of what’s most needed – strong shoes for men and women, jackets, kids’ tracksuit bottoms. Generally, the people are thinner and of shorter stature than European sizes anticipate. As volunteers, we soon learn the Arabic word ‘asr’ar’, which is used to ask for something smaller. It’s a relief to hear ‘akbar’, meaning larger, as finding a bigger garment is easier. With gestures, guessing and a bit of humour, we try to meet requests as best we can. Strange linguistic combinations are coined: ‘geansaí’ sounds quite similar to the Arabic equivalent for jumper while ‘đrabat’, as it’s transliterated onto a piece of cardboard, and the Croatian ‘čarape’ are interchangeable terms for socks. ‘Shalwar’ – trousers – is our keyword in Farsi.

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Jackets and tracksuits for children from the Irish donation

New Year 2016… This is travelling through Europe if you’re sufficiently ‘lucky’ to be from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Only these nationalities are allowed to cross the Greek-Macedonian border and continue into Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and beyond. The right to seek asylum gets reduced to racial profiling. For those who are permitted to proceed, the mass movement is akin to the aftermath of World War II. People weary from conflict and near-drowning, trekking through ever-colder countries.

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Ready to give out New Year gifts to kids

A Syrian man describes the waves that almost claimed his family not far from the Turkish coast. A young woman from Afghanistan loses her phone with all her relatives’ contacts while she’s taking care of her siblings. Pregnant women look for stretchy clothes because ‘baby coming’. Mothers change and breast-feed infants in the UNICEF tent before they board the train again. Girls must cope with periods in unhygienic portaloos. Children have no chance of a hot meal or a bath. Yet their excitement at receiving a banana or a snack sends ripples of joy through the crowd. Moments of gladness… A mum’s delight when a pair of scruffy runners fits her little son. The charming guy who demands a ‘stylish’ jacket makes everybody laugh.

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The snowy road to the camp

‘Sister, sister!’ All we can offer are second-hand scraps of clothes, through smiles and elemental forms of communication that transcend our different languages, cultures and experiences. Humanity is expressed in these fleeting interactions between brothers and sisters. But now it’s time to go. People pick up the remains of their belongings. The rain has turned to snow. Feathery flakes drift down as the last groups are directed back to the platform. Three or four trains per day, with wagons often unlit and unheated. Volunteers from Croatia and across Europe wave goodbye. ‘Thank you!’ voices shout from open windows. Heading towards Germany or wherever their ultimate destination may lie. Those who pass through the surreal station that is the camp in Slavonski Brod are nearly there. Although who knows what reception awaits them when they reach their new home.

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Slavonski Brod, Croatia

Written after two weeks working as a volunteer in the Slavonski Brod refugee camp, Croatia, with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Refugee Support Initiative of the Centre for Peace Studies, Zagreb. For further details see: http://welcome.cms.hr/index.php/en/

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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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Fáilte, refugees, welcome!

Déjà vu. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and persecution. Like refugees from the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. But the scale of this movement is far greater. This is Europe, 2015.

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Most EU states have been reluctant to deal with this crisis. Countries of arrival and transit have been struggling to cope. Some leaders have used language tantamount to hate-speech. At the same time, across Europe, people are showing solidarity with our sisters and brothers who’ve made perilous journeys from even more dangerous places. Offering hands-on assistance and appealing to our governments to accept refugees.

Sadly, it took the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, almost two weeks ago, to finally awaken our collective conscience. The photograph of this Syrian boy, lying tiny and lifeless on a tourist beach in Turkey, has sparked a huge reaction. Yet, over recent months and years, many children have drowned in the Mediterranean as families – in the hope of escaping conflict – make risky crossings on routes run by traffickers. Just this weekend, another boat capsized near the Greek islands. Fifteen victims of this latest tragedy were babies or young girls or boys. Meanwhile, thousands of children have been killed in Syria and other war-ravaged regions. Without any public outcry.

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Now, prompted by both sympathy and shame, support for refugees among ordinary Europeans has galvanised. In Ireland, we’ve been signing petitions, pledging beds in our homes, getting involved in the aid effort, writing to the media and to politicians. We’ve attended protests in Dublin – at the Famine Memorial on 5th September and at the Spire last Saturday (12th). People have gathered demonstrations and events throughout the country, calling on the Irish government to do more. On Sunday, 13th September, hundreds of us stood on Sandymount Strand to form the message ‘refugees welcome’ for an aerial photo organised by a coalition of prominent NGOs.

Given its grim history of emigration, Ireland should have a particular affinity with those who are forced to flee. The country still has many recession-related problems, but these can’t be used as an excuse. Accepting refugees is a moral obligation for any state which claims to respect human rights. Indeed, a humane response to this issue could be a significant step in Ireland’s social recovery. It requires a shift in policy – to focus on people, not simply on figures. This approach could benefit the nation as a whole. Especially at a time when, though economic indicators appear positive, levels of disadvantage have grown.

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On 5th September, evidence of this need for overall change could be found not far away from the Famine Memorial. To conclude the protest, the crowd spread out around the bridge over the Liffey for a minute’s silence in memory of all who have lost their lives in desperate attempts to reach Europe. We followed the other participants to the opposite bank of the river. There, a group of homeless people were sitting on a bench. They were understandably upset about this sudden concern for refugees while they remain deprived of the right to shelter. Their objections were largely ignored. But, as chance would have it, we ended up in conversation. Together – Irish citizens who this country has badly failed, Bosnians who’d come here as refugees in nineties and their families – we agreed that we were ‘on the same side’. Because everyone deserves a safe place they can call home. Whether they’ve been displaced by war or dictatorial regimes, or whether they’ve been dispossessed by inequality in Western ‘democracies’.

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Public pressure can influence political proposals, so we hope the current momentum can be sustained. On 10th September, the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, announced that Ireland will accept ‘up to 4000 persons’ over the next two years. This is an improvement on the government’s previous commitment to admit a mere 600 of those presently seeking refuge in Europe and a further 520 Syrians from outside the EU. However, it’s vital to ensure that all of these people are accommodated in hospitable environments. They will also require access to services, particularly in relation to health and education. Appropriate English language support must be provided and counselling should be made available. Communities must unite to welcome these new arrivals who have come from such appalling situations.

The implementation of these programmes cannot mirror the degrading system of ‘direct provision’. This has left people who seek asylum in Ireland trapped in debilitating and restrictive conditions – often for years on end – while they await decisions on their status. As numerous human rights organisations demand, this system must be immediately abolished. Survivors of trauma should be treated with dignity, not subjected to institutional abuse.

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Ultimately, the causes of Europe’s refugee crisis have to be addressed. Stopping the war in Syria, which has now uprooted over half the country’s population and claimed at least a quarter of a million lives, must be a priority. To date, there has been very little political or public engagement in Ireland in this regard. The Irish Syria Solidarity Movement will hold a protest outside the Dáil on Wednesday 23rd September to raise awareness as to why Syrians are refugees. It’s important that, although their plight seems almost forgotten, we think of those who are still under attack inside Syria.

All of these issues – tackling homelessness, welcoming refugees, respecting everybody who seeks asylum here, considering Ireland’s role as an ally of people affected by conflict – could be part of a new agenda for this country. They call on us, as individuals, to take whatever action we possibly can. For history will judge us on our humanity. In July, along with other members and friends of the Bosnian community in Ireland, we commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. As well as remembering this atrocity, we pointed out that we’re witnessing similar horrors in Syria today. We can’t just turn away – we must do something (please see links below). And forgive me if I sound shrill, but this stuff is personal. Because, reader, I married a refugee.

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Some useful links:

What you can do – via Migrant Rights Centre Ireland – including links to organisations bringing to humanitarian aid to refugees across Europe:

http://www.mrci.ie/our-work/international-work/news-international-work/refugeeswelcome-what-you-can-do/

‘Refugees welcome’ aerial photo – via Irish Refugee Council:

http://www.irishrefugeecouncil.ie/news/irish-people-spell-out-their-welcome-to-refugees-ahead-of-crucial-eu-meeting/4143

Reflections of a medical evacuee from Bosnia who came to Ireland in 1994 on the experience of Bosnian refugees – RTE Drivetime 7/9/15:

https://vodhls.rasset.ie/manifest/audio/2015/0907/20150907_rteradio1-drivetime-irelandspl_c20842389_20842392_261_.m3u8

Also see RTE Player – Six-One News 7/9/15 and The Week in Politics 13/9/15:

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/

Letter to the Irish Times published on 1/9/11: 

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/seeking-refuge-in-europe-1.2335262

Down with all sorts of intolerance

Pillow talk, 1.30 a.m.. But it’s no night for sweet nothings. Not after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. This cold-blooded slaughter of journalists, artists and police officers has chilled the heart of Europe. Reading some reactions, it sounds like civilisations are clashing all the way from Paris to our bedroom. Maybe we should draw a line along the mattress between two rather errant adherents of the world’s most (deservedly) maligned religions.

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On one side of the bed, a tired ‘foreign’ soul is trying to get to sleep. A ‘native’ near-insomniac natters into the wee hours. Midnight browsing through Twitter is rarely soporific. Though this evening? Among the words of rightful condemnation, there’s a burgeoning and self-righteous streak of hate. Coming from erudite voices who’d consider themselves ‘liberal’. Comments from across the globe, from Ireland…

‘You’d love to say something. Like start a conversation about this.’

He stifles a yawn but, despite his fatigue, he’s worried. ‘So why don’t you?’

Submission. Fear of what others will think. Often we violate our freedom of expression by obsessing over perceived social norms. You wouldn’t want to be labelled as… Disrespectful? A crank? Some kind of sympathiser? OMG(od-or-Western-Values) no! The perpetrators of terror are a threat to everyone. Yet a little dialogue mightn’t hurt. Especially here in Ireland where there’s a tendency to brush over cultural difference with a laissez-faire approach that silently advocates assimilation. Fáilte… if you’ll act like us.

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It’s reminiscent of the ‘Father Ted’ show about the reception that people from China got when they arrived on godforsaken Craggy Island. Broadcast in the mid-nineties, while Ireland was at the beginning of a wave of immigration, this episode of the sitcom featuring three eccentric priests still sums up Irish attitudes. ‘The Chinese – a great bunch of lads!’ Ted declares at the conclusion of his ‘multi-ethnic’ slideshow in honour of the newcomers. His Asian guests are unimpressed – the presentation was held to make amends for the cleric’s racial abuse of them. But cross-community relations are salvaged by pints in the local pub, where Ted’s earlier gaffes are forgotten (until closing time). ‘More drink!’ Cheers ensue. Sure doing as the Romans do is grand.

The series, which ridiculed certain bizarre aspects of Irish life, was a huge hit with my Bosnian. It constituted a major part of his intercultural education. He learnt that ‘down with this sort of thing’ (written on a placard outside a small-town cinema) is a priceless response to any form of blasphemy. He still laughs out loud at the reruns – knows the lines better than I do.

‘Shows how much time you’ve spent watching TV.’

‘Careful now!’ quotes the Balkan Ted-head.

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In Ireland, Ted and Co. were instantly popular. Only the most conservative moralists objected to their irreverence. The rest of the country chuckled at this Anglo-Irish production. The main actors were Irish comics, so everything was fine. We were just slagging ourselves and the idiosyncrasies of an era which, by the end of the twentieth century, was on the wane.

More hallowed topics such as the tragedy of the famine of the 1840s could, however, prove less hilarious. At least in the minds of some who view a proposed British comedy about the ‘Great Hunger’ as a wound to Ireland’s psyche. How dare the ‘ould enemy’! Though, looking back, their aversion to this type of joke isn’t surprising. Historical portrayals of the Irish as simian drunks by English cartoonists don’t seem too funny. ‘Punch’ magazine, for example, printed masterpieces in the art of racist offence. But satire, even if tasteless, can never be something to die for…

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Two days later – further attacks in France. Concern at terrorism in our midst, rising Islamophobia. It’s strangely familiar. I’m telling the non-radical-Muslim in the house about sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. How it spread a similar sense of dread, how it unjustly implicated whole communities. The killing of workers in Kingsmills, the murder of musicians from a seventies show-band – the region where I grew up is haunted by such barbarity. And, also, the bombs in England which left Irish people who lived there the target of derision and suspicion.

Then we’re satirising each other again. No shortage of skit material in a ‘mixed marriage’. Yeah, it might’ve been easier if he’d met a Muslim girl and I’d fallen for a Catholic guy, preferably of our own nationalities. But probably there’d have been less dark humour. Anyhow, that’s not how fate operates. With us, it was coup de foudre… followed by a work in progress. Varying perspectives always need to be negotiated. Dealing with cultural diversity in pre-millennium rural Ireland, awareness of identity in post-war Bosnia, and after 9/11… It hasn’t exactly been a ‘garden of roses’ relationship but it’s forced us to challenge prejudice.

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Free speech. Well maybe now it’s time to talk. About the violence in Paris. About the brave blogger, Raif Badawi, who was flogged and imprisoned this week in Saudi Arabia. About those killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria. About Syrian refugee children dying of the cold. To question why some issues get prioritised by the media. To be liberated from our insulating ideologies and respect all people as equal brothers and sisters.

Because life is a constant lesson in trying to understand. Sometimes – perhaps through love’s smiles and tears – it makes us re-evaluate things we’ve taken as given. And that can help us create unique pieces in the mosaic of co-existence which illustrates humanity. Teaching us to say in a personal, meaningful way ‘Je suis…’

Water – the demo date

Like old times… meeting at a protest. On this occasion, Irish water charges have proven zadnja kap u punoj čaši vode. ‘The last drop in a full glass of water’ – Bosnian has a more aquatic way of saying ‘the final straw’. The smug commentators could add that phrase to the stream of metaphor effervescing from their descriptions of the largest demonstrations Ireland has seen for quite a while. It’s easy for them to make puns when they’ve never been trapped in the sinkhole of austerity. They don’t know the reality… that fear of another bill.

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After six years of financial torture, the cuts which had scarce impact on the rich are garroting the rest of us. But Ireland was Europe’s poster-child for bearing unequal pain. We weren’t like those bolshie objectors who took to the streets in Greece and Spain. We tended to vent our anger in private. Apart from a few who phoned radio chat-shows… as if presenters on fat salaries could empathise with their woes. Or those who shared their discontent on the internet and often had their honesty savaged by heartless trolls. Most of us just lay awake at night, worrying.

Now the powers that be are pouring acid on our wounds with their spiel that things are improving. For whom? Not for those of us who didn’t ‘lose the run of ourselves’ during the boom. We, the people, who aren’t implicated in any Luxembourg leaks… we, the ones who never wrecked this country. Unlike our former leader who’s been appointed by a national tycoon to the board of his petrol company. Mind you, the same mogul is also dabbling in the water debacle alongside the present government. Ah, the links forged by liquidity!

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Meanwhile we’re still submerged in hardship. Our penance for the bailout into which, the ECB letters reveal, Ireland was blackmailed. Stoically, we wore the hair shirts thrust upon us. We struggled for work. We got extorted – both by the banks and by the state. Water charges, the Troika’s legacy, are the latest in a swathe of penalties. From the ‘Universal Social Charge’, which hit low earners hardest, to a property tax that exacerbates the nightmare many face. The latter is allegedly required for local services – like repairing potholes, like supporting libraries. Like providing water? Not any more. Our H2O has been gifted to a quango that hires expensive consultants and promises hefty bonuses to its top brass. Finally, the people are saying no.

A huge demonstration in Dublin on 11 October was followed by protests against the water charges all over Ireland on 1 November. These were expressions of widespread public frustration and most of those involved were simply frightened citizens. Many were demonstrating for the very first time – the elderly, families – declaring that we’ve already borne too much austerity. Inevitably, some opposition politicians tried to exploit the event by shining the spotlight of attention on themselves. But, as a speaker in our town stressed, this was an issue that went far beyond political parties. It was about people who’d reached breaking point. About human rights and solidarity…. Our common despair coalesced in this act of defiance.

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It was lashing rain in the square. My husband had walked from the start with the gathering crowd. I’d driven back from Dublin, where I’d been that morning with our two younger kids. I’d been thinking about going to one of the city demos – there were plenty to choose from – when he rang. Instead, I headed homewards. Hoping no roadside cameras deemed my sense of urgency to be slightly over the limit. Getting yelled at by a man for ‘scaring his horse’ because I honked at his pony-towing car when he dashed into a newsagent’s at the traffic lights on the main street. As the lights turned green… then red again. The things you do to make it to a protest! And we got soaked. Although the multitude of umbrellas seemed appropriate. In our town alone, the figures ran to thousands of protestors. Estimates say about 150,000 people came out altogether, across Ireland. Perhaps more…

What will this achieve? Well, the government has been plunged into disarray. Still clinging to its plan for charges, it’s trying to appease the public with unspecified concessions. In recent days it’s also warning of a ‘sinister fringe’ to the popular movement because the installation of water meters has led to isolated skirmishes with the law. A typical tactic employed by those in power when the, usually passive, masses dare to voice their wrath. One that was used, for example, in Bosnia in February, when people who protested in their thousands against economic misery were dismissed by politicians as ‘hooligans’ after a minority rioted. However, given the unexpected strength of resistance in Ireland, the water controversy may have significant electoral consequences.

Mauerfall 1989 / Begrüßung einreisender DDR-Bürger am Grenzübergang Helmstedt

Whether the waves of dissent rippling through regions of Europe worst affected by recession will lead to any fundamental change is less certain. It’s clear though that, twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the continent is not a paradigm of successful democracy. In many ways, Europe is more divided than ever. Diehard capitalism has evidently failed us. We citizens need to come up with alternative ideas.

1989 may now be remembered as a historic ‘watershed’. But those images of Trabants traversing a border that had marked the Iron Curtain were soon followed by scenes of bloodshed in the Balkans. Though, as with the brutal conflicts of 2014, it was easier to tune out and ignore this. For the few who found that impossible, the least we could do was protest. November 1994. A small group holding placards and candles, we tried to remind Dublin of the horrors that were occurring in Bosnia. I’d stepped out from college and, along with a handful of Irish friends, some of the injured Bosnian lads arrived. And, yeah, I noticed a tall, black-haired fella as we displayed our posters. Apparently, he made enquiries – discovered that I was a student and, fortunately for him, over sixteen. I heard the whole story afterwards. That night we just stood in the cold, outside the city centre branch of the Bank of Ireland. An institution which would become our nemesis – saved at the expense of the country in the crash of 2008. Yet I’ll always associate that place with a special person…

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So fancy having a date with the same guy, at a protest, two decades later! Under the woolly cap he was wearing that afternoon, his hair has receded a little but it’s still pretty dark. And being there reignited our first flame of unity – a belief in speaking out against injustice. Finding what we’d cherished long before we were swamped with the trials of austerity. At a demonstration, in a downpour… Who knows what might happen?

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Glancing over my recent outpourings, 2014 is emerging as a year of protest. Real life is more mundane than an odd bit of blogging might suggest but, since my previous post, we’ve been on the streets again. Our venue on 22 February was the Russian Embassy in Dublin or, to be precise, the pavement outside its gate. Secluded in the valley of the River Dodder, finding this fine dacha amid its affluent environs was a navigational feat. I suspected cyber-espionage as its location flummoxed my phone’s omniscient ‘maps’ app. Being born without a Southsider’s silver spoon in my mouth may have further contributed to my disorientation…

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So why our Russian rendez-vous? At the close of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, we wanted to highlight how Vladimir Putin’s support for the Assad regime has fuelled killing in Syria. Our demonstration was appropriately timed. Later that day, news broke that Russia and China had finally lifted their veto on a UN Security Council Resolution to allow the passage of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian civilians. A positive coincidence… However, the UN’s decision came after three unsuccessful attempts at agreement and its enforceability is dubious. Also any ‘victory’ in ensuring the safe delivery of vital supplies may prove Pyrrhic if the war in Syria doesn’t end quickly.

This month, the conflict enters its fourth year. And, whether or not their stomachs are lined with rations, children will continue to die unless the bombing of their towns and villages stops, unless all combatants observe a genuine ceasefire. Then efforts must begin to forge a sustainable peace. It seems an impossible task, given the scale of the conflagration and the fact that the world’s become inured to it. A handful of people displaying posters in Dublin can do little more than amuse or infuriate the Russian ambassador’s CCTV operators. Though, by now, our ex-KGB monitors have bigger worries – the likelihood of Irish Ukrainian sympathisers (or whatever the Kremlin might call them) on their doorstep.

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The planet indeed turns at dizzying speed. Or the fickle gaze of the media switches fast. From demonstrations and their repercussions in Kiev, cameras have honed in upon Crimea. And everyone’s an expert on Ukraine. Gung-ho hawks are virtually summoning the Light Brigade, mixing martial metaphors, blending Balaclava with the Balkans of 1914. Tinderboxes and ancient ethnic whatsits are back in fashion… the cliché machine is churning at full steam. Meanwhile, the ‘great powers’ do their utmost to sound imperious, mumbling and braying about ‘concerns’ and ‘costs’.

Sadly, any damaging consequences of present tensions will be borne by the people of Ukraine, irrespective of their backgrounds. It might be naïve, but for their sake, let’s hope that Putin’s bravado is domestic propaganda – a revamping of his macho image for an audience which has grown disaffected. Nevertheless, the West is paying Ukraine more heed than other trouble spots. Perhaps because its population is over 45 million, its territory is expansive and it possesses valuable resources. Or arguably that it takes crisis in a large European state, whose citizens are white and (apart from those pesky Tatars) of nominally Christian heritage, to attract serious occidental interest. Victims from less ‘familiar’ cultures are easier to ignore, even though their lives – as nurses, farmers, engineers, grandparents or school-kids – aren’t far removed from ours. But, for now, the world gapes at a peninsula on the Black Sea.

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Still, unrest in Europe isn’t confined to Ukraine. While Bosnia’s short stint in the international limelight may be over, protests there go on. Throughout the last month, these daily demonstrations, and the ‘plenums’ or public gatherings that they’ve prompted, have sent out stirring messages. The articulation of popular demands doesn’t guarantee their fulfilment, but formulating ideas is a step towards actual change. For those of us watching from abroad, there’s inspiration to be gleaned from the spirit shown by the Bosnian people.

If only we could learn from it. Maybe my obsession with foreign affairs is just a diversion from home news I’d prefer to avoid because of its painful impact. I should be marching against austerity, saying ‘no’ to the banks that are still tormenting families, including mine. But in Ireland these are matters more of shame than solidarity. Although some groups and individuals have made courageous statements, the silent bulk of us won’t admit we’re floundering in Forbes’ ‘best small country’. Clearly, we don’t all fit the business model. Or is it that the needs of children, the elderly, the disabled and the long-term unemployed aren’t entirely compatible with the enterprise drive which our government views as Ireland’s salvation?

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Even ‘fortunate’ nations often have unfortunate priorities. And, while Irish woes pale beside those faced by the majority of Earth’s citizens, global problems seem to stem from similar sources – classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, discrimination of whatever form. They’re inextricably tied to the greed of the wealthy and to disconnects between leaders and the (mis)led. These inequalities spawn infinite configurations of misery. But how to fight against them? Alone, we’re powerless. Yet, by speaking out for justice, our weak voices may resonate with the calls of others. Challenges in our own lives can enhance our sense of empathy, forcing us to see beyond ourselves. This can help us notice links across a multitude of causes and enable us to act together, with human rights our common denominator.

It’s no fluke that there’s such female presence in grassroots movements. Women know from experience that prevailing social systems, even those claiming to be egalitarian, are never neutral. Personal awareness of gender-bias and the need to question patriarchal norms should sensitise us to all who are oppressed. Like on many occasions in the past, our small bunch of protestors for Syria was predominantly female. In contrast, despite a few exceptions, most of those controlling geopolitics are men. And when women ‘succeed’ in securing prominent roles, they tend to follow male-established protocol instead of hewing out fresh alternatives.

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Maybe that’s a quest for us – to seek to do things differently, to be creative and rewrite unjust rules. A thought, perhaps, for International Women’s Day… I first celebrated 8 March in Sarajevo, thirteen years ago. My students surprised me with bouquets of flowers, chocolates, soap, and a bottle of shampoo! I was overwhelmed, especially as – at that time – Irish knowledge of the event was pretty slim. Our calendar marked only Mother’s Day, a kitsch opportunity to extol maternal prowess. Thankfully, Ireland’s since caught up with Bosnia. But feminism is more than a one-day wonder. It’s a process of liberation through constantly defying hegemonies. And women are damn good at that – we have to be! So I’m proud of my placard-waving sisters and my feisty daughters who’d pass for junior members of Pussy Riot. Protest too much? Not possible! Until we make our world a better place, methinks.

Happy International Women’s Day / Sretan Međunarodni Dan Žena!

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

http://novovrijeme.ba/the-lady-doth/

Of war and waves

Shortly after our wedding in 1998, my Bosnian husband and I decided we’d had enough of Europe for a while. I’d been offered a job as an English teacher in Japan and – knowing that, on our budget, we’d never have such a travel opportunity again – we seized the chance. So, instead of settling down, we embarked on an odyssey. We spent two years in what we affectionately called our ‘safe third country’. Where, unlike in either Ireland or Bosnia, both of us enjoyed equal status as aliens. From the furthest galaxies, it seemed.

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Telling people I was from Ireland was often met with an enthusiastic response: ‘Ah… Iceland!’ Initially I was miffed that much less populous outcrop could be mistaken for the Emerald Isle. However, I soon discovered that whenever Japan’s TV channels had any ‘global’ focus it tended towards themes of national relevance – a shared geographical phenomenon, for instance. Hence numerous re-runs of documentaries about plate tectonics in the vicinity of Reykjavik. Lacking active volcanoes, my homeland barely featured on the Japanese world-map. Ireland was an unknown entity to all but a handful of music buffs who’d heard of U2 and, weirdly, the Nolan Sisters. And as for Bosnia… ‘Boston?’ was the typical reaction. A whole country, with a poignant recent past, relegated in the fame stakes to below the rank of a provincial city!

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We put the misunderstanding down to American influence. From baseball to fast-food, we saw how this permeates Japan. From its conurbations right into rural regions like Aomori, the prefecture in which we lived. On the cusp of the new millennium, foreigners were still a rarity in this northernmost district of the main island, Honshu. Off the tourist trail, Aomori was a pastoral place, renowned for gigantic apples and harsh winters. Its most prominent non-natives belonged to the US military base in the town of Misawa – one of the largest of those established after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Civilians of other backgrounds were frequently presumed to be GI Joes or Janes. ‘Amerikajin ja nai,’ became our catchphrase as we clarified our European origins. Coming from such mysterious parts of our quaint patchwork of a continent, we proved intriguing. And, perhaps due to this strangeness, we made many Japanese friends.

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The welcome extended to us was genuine and warm-hearted. Our friends clearly relished their ambassadorial role as they explained their culture to us in diverse ways. Hospitality appeared to be a matter of immense pride and the stories they told brimmed with resolute spirit. Among older people, this could often be traced back to memories of wartime. We listened to recollections of those who’d survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the lethal incendiary raids on Tokyo. These were tales of bare existence, near-starvation, long-term consequences. But they were generally crowned with a patriotic ending – reminding us of Japan’s post-war success. Despite the fact that its economy was floundering by the 1990s, determination to achieve prevailed as a motto. Even my high-school students vowed: ‘ganbarimasu’ – ‘we’ll do our best’.

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However, some elders worried that the youth had grown pampered. Too westernised… in a country which had built its modern image on technology and material wealth, emulating its Euro-Atlantic rivals. ‘A nation of imitation’ my boss used to call it. Yet Japan was also a place of contradiction. Its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples blended into an environment full of pachinko gambling parlours and ‘love hotels’ for privacy-seeking paramours. Tradition spanned the donning of ceremonial kimono and skinny dipping in sulphuric onsens (risqué for a former convent-schoolgirl but the ultimate in relaxation bliss). Trains ran fast and strictly to their schedules, life around hectic business hours had to be ‘convenient’… though the making of tea remained a timeless ritual. This land of Nikkei stock-brokers and paddy field farmers enchanted us. And gave us our first child.

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Meanwhile, back in the Balkans, conflict was breaking out again. The Japanese broadcasting networks, whose interests, we’d noted, were predominantly insular, began to report on atrocities occurring there. Things were bad when Kosovo was, news-wise, ‘big in Japan’. We watched with a terrible sense of déjà vu. This was just a couple of years after the Bosnian war. From the eastern edge of Asia we wondered what we could do – surely we could participate in the relief effort. But, being foreign and ignorant of the system, it was difficult to get started. Our city was somewhat less than cosmopolitan and public awareness of world affairs seemed limited. Also, the concept of fundraising for NGOs – especially those dealing with international disasters – wasn’t widespread. Japan’s contribution in overseas aid, drawn from its tax-payers, was regarded as sufficient. In Bosnia, we later saw evidence of this state-level support – it helped to restock Sarajevo’s bus fleet. Nonetheless, we managed to find two agencies which were running appeals for Kosovo – the Japanese Red Cross and the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan. Following a few phone-calls, we realised we could take action. Along with some dedicated friends, we launched into our campaign in Aomori.

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In spring 1999, we sold lapel badges that we’d made from silk cherry blossom. Attached to each flower was a paper leaf on which we printed the word Kosobo (the Japanese language has no phoneme ‘v’) in katakana script: コソボ. Next, we organised a ‘Balkan dinner’ in Aomori city’s cultural centre. This was indeed a gastronomic novelty. Nerve-wrecking too, as I had to instruct a group of far more proficient cooks on how to make burek from specially ordered filo pastry. It was all a bit surreal… though, according to our guests, very tasty. The historic town of Hirosaki then hosted our monster jumble sale. We weren’t sure if this idea would wash in a country where the sparkling new seemed so highly prized, but we were amazed at the positive response. Bargain hunting must be an innate human trait. For soon our stalls were empty and our collection boxes full. We talked at length about Balkan issues throughout this time, in particular, with my students at their school festival that summer. From their reactions, it was obvious that we’d taught them something of the world beyond the curriculum, something they might remember in future years. Finally, in December, we held a children’s Christmas party, with gifts from a beanpole Santa Claus who spoke with a suspiciously Bosnian lilt. Fortunately, he didn’t scare the kids!

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Altogether, we raised the equivalent of several thousand Irish pounds, or euro, guessing at the current exchange rate. The figure in yen – almost a million – was even more impressive. But the purpose of the venture couldn’t be measured in money. We were motivated simply by a responsibility to act, irrespective of distance, in relation to events that had personal significance. For us, the most valuable outcome was that so many people became aware of a situation about which they’d have otherwise known little.

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No-one involved in our Kosovo campaign could’ve envisaged that, twelve years later, Japan would be on the receiving end of international aid. On 11 March, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the country – its epicentre at sea, only 130 km from the city of Sendai. Worse, it generated a devastating tsunami which inundated an extensive stretch of populated coastline. Aomori was badly hit. Although our city was sheltered by a peninsula, other parts of the prefecture were less lucky. Along its Pacific fringe, a wall of water slammed down upon towns like Hachinohe. Boats were tossed onto land, cars swept away. Homes vanished and their occupants were drowned. All this destruction near the sandy beach where our baby daughter had once splashed her feet in the ocean…

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Over the years, we’d lost contact with Aomori – moving and the demands of work and kids meant our links went neglected. But after hearing news of this catastrophe, we had to get in touch. Trying old-email addresses, most no longer valid, I got a reply from one of the teachers from my school. Then we found another friend on Facebook. While the enormity of the disaster, exacerbated by damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, continued to emerge. Though better equipped for a crisis of this scale than the majority of nations and with a proud record of self-reliance, Japan requested outside assistance. The Ireland Japan Association (IJA) issued an appeal on behalf of the victims. From our village on the shores of the Irish Sea, where spring-tides are a warning of the savage force of water, we knew we had to respond.

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Our Aomori-born daughter turned eleven that April, so we used the occasion to make a contribution. She invited her schoolmates to a Japanese-themed birthday party held in the local community centre and, in lieu of presents, asked for donations to the IJA appeal. With karaoke, origami and an Irish attempt at sushi, the kids had lots of fun. There were games like a ’round Japan treasure hunt’ and a ‘chopsticks challenge’ – which required great dexterity to progress from picking up crisps and marshmallows to much trickier small sweets. For the adults, we also organised a pub-quiz which surprised competing teams with its Japanese twist! But the mental exertion was worthwhile, given the fine range of prizes we’d received from shops and businesses in the area. Their support was particularly generous as it came when trade was suffering as a result of the recession. Between these two events, we raised over €1800 – in cash donated to the Ireland Japan Association and a sterling draft made payable to the UK branch of the Red Cross. Again, it was just a tiny gesture – the only sign of solidarity we could offer the Japanese people from far-off Ireland. An arigatō for the concern they’d shown for refugees fleeing Kosovo.

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Two and a half years on, the legacy of the Tōhoku Earthquake still haunts Japan. The thousands of lives lost can’t be reclaimed. The chunks of coast swallowed by the killer wave can’t be restored. The north-east littoral is forever scarred. To this day, the Fukushima reactors remain unstable, leaking toxins in a radioactive nightmare that will likely last for decades. Yet our Japanese friends, in messages they sent us after the tragedy, emphasised their refusal to ‘give up’. Maybe it was a knee-jerk means of coping with collective trauma. Some might say it was merely echoing an official narrative readily absorbed in a place where group-think often stifles the individual voice. Possibly, to an extent, although there have been protests at the state’s handling of the nuclear fiasco and citizens are prepared to express their dissatisfaction.

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We read our friends’ comments as those of pure resilience. That strength in the face of adversity which we’d heard repeatedly when we were in Japan. Their words spoke their desire to reconstruct a broken country. Of course, it’s too soon to determine whether the Japanese authorities will honour their wish. And, no doubt, many people already feel disillusioned. But that attitude of striving together for the common good is one we Europeans should consider. It may sound naïve to cynical ears, including my own, though perhaps we could adopt a similar philosophy – telling ourselves: ‘let’s do our best’ to make things better. Ganbarimashō!

Austerity – tearing the spirit

‘It’s the death of hope that gets you,’ she said. ‘You try to keep on going. But in the end… there’s nothing.’

Her words are clipped, her tone self-critical. She’s to blame. Because, this time, she can’t come up with a solution. It started with the finances. Now it’s swallowed her whole… eroding her integrity, her family. Reducing her to bills and bank statements she’s afraid to open. Figures misrepresent the full story.

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Months waste into years. Stable employment? No chance. Only short-term projects that demand intense attention, then fizzle to zero. The contemporary curse of ‘casualisation’… Build up your portfolio – take on as much you can, for the least remuneration. A lot of her work is unpaid. To retain her ‘professional profile’ – whatever that is. She’s burning out in the process. But, of course, the worker has always been expendable. Today’s business ethos shows little change from that which underpinned the Dublin Lockout of 1913. Connolly and Larkin must turn in their Commie graves at its centenary celebrations. Or maybe they’ll have the last laugh… at market forces devouring the neoliberal masses.

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She’s tried recruitment agencies. They’ve told her she’s over-qualified. True, she’s rife with certificates – up to the fourth level. Studies completed while having kids, thinking it’d be best for them. Not in this environment. Ironic… she once lived in a ‘knowledge economy’. Based on the commodification of learning, skills, experience. Such a fallacy. She should’ve done something lucrative, though… sold her soul to technology. Stupidly, she wanted to ‘contribute to society’. But where are the opportunities? Even voluntary organisations have evolved into streamlined outfits. Hiring interns because, she supposes, it takes a few names off the live register. Makes the statistics look better. Paving her demise, she channels Dostoevsky: ‘deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence’. Robbed of meaning, ‘they go stark, raving mad.’

Emigration has been recommended as an alternative to insanity. By a careers advisor… by her doctor, when she finally admitted that stress was taking its toll. Headaches, muscle pain, stomach in constant knots and sleep murdered. Those were her symptoms a while back. Niggling, but they’re becoming drug-resistant. Ibuprofen doesn’t help. Nor do her pointless overseas applications. Never mind the rejections for the few posts she’s seen advertised at home. She tries not to view the latter as a reflection on her competence. They could’ve been decided in-house or snapped up by those with that vital attribute – a track record in ‘obtaining funding’. Otherwise, apart from rare cases of essential staff replacement, her area of expertise falls within a sector crippled by a moratorium.

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She’d love to leave. Were it not for the practical obstacles, she’d have gone two years ago. Though the fear of uprooting her children… And her husband, at least, has a job here. It feels like they’re marooned. Could they even return to city? That might be her salvation – a release from the hinterland in which she was ensnared by the boom. The buzzword then was ‘location’. But the fringe of the commuter belt was as far as their family budget ever extended – a three to four hour round-trip to ‘civilisation’. Her spouse makes the daily journey. He’s off in the morning before the kids are awake, gets back late. Reaps sympathy for endurance… ‘God help him, all that travelling’. It’s OK for a father, but for a mother it’s well-nigh criminal neglect. Plus childcare, in her locality, won’t cover those sort of hours. To an employer in the metropolis, her availability is questionable. The disadvantage of distance… and no options lie within her geographical radius. It’s an annihilating circle – a woman-trap.

Nonetheless, she has her family. She has responsibilities. So, as she’s been told, she ought to be content. Society seems better attuned to a man’s loss of identity. If he’s unemployed, or can only find scraps of work, there’s a modicum of understanding. Analysis of the crisis tends to highlight its impact on the guys. Leads to public concern at, for example, the rising rate of male suicide. Women, on the other hand, just bear it. Their screams are suffocated. Perhaps it’s the anti-depressants? That chemical asylum, its walls made of blister packs, not bricks. But it’s as incarcerating as the straight-jacketed institutions of the past. She guesses that its clients are predominantly female. It’s tempting – a couple of tablets to numb raw-edged emotions. She might be a bit more docile then, if somewhat zombified. No, she won’t be seduced by pills. Or therapy, or yoga… Rightly or wrongly, she’s chosen her mantra: ‘these problems are due to external forces, not to any imbalance of the brain’. She can’t let them corrupt her mind. Though she senses she’s running out of time.

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Her gapless CV is worthless. It won’t get the mortgage vultures off her back. She wishes she could throw the keys at them… except that they’re the keys of her children’s home. Arrears mount. They’re in massive negative equity. The house has depreciated to half-price in eight years. Debt. That’s all they’d carry away. And her rage. At those bankers who joked, in taped phone-calls, about ‘moula’ in the billions… and the smarmy politicians who still appear on their side. The authorities – so slow to prosecute when those in cahoots with them claim there’s no ‘smoking gun’. Those property profiteers who sold young couples a fierce breed of pup that’s now mauling its ‘owners’… She loathes herself for being fooled into buying. Because it was cheaper than renting and any form of accommodation was increasingly expensive, before the bubble burst. But who expected things to get so much worse?

No-one could’ve foreseen it. That’s what those in power say, as they instruct the average citizen to cough up and ‘share the pain’… when they’re immune to it. She hates the pettiness of complaining, adding her wails to the ‘squeezed middle’ whinge. It’s not like she’s on the breadline or in straits as dire as families on welfare. She’s aware – as UNICEF reminds – that, each year, over six million children die before their fifth birthday, mostly of preventable diseases. In comparison, Ireland’s difficulties are minor and her predicament is trivial. She isn’t in war-ravaged Syria, although she’s no stranger to conflict and that makes her feel more ashamed of her present weakness. Pathetic… D.H. Lawrence was right, ‘how beastly the bourgeois is’. And the female of the species is as abhorrent and hypocritical as the male. She tries to deny that she’s one of them. But when she signed for that house she joined their club… albeit in a très petit kind of way.

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She prefers to see herself as déclassé – a Gallic euphemism for abject failure. Dissolving into insolvency… She’s invisible, a ghost in her estate. Withdrawing from her marriage, building a barbed-wire fence between her and the man she loves. Resenting him because, despite drops in his salary, he’s still got his dignity. He has a social slot. While she’s accepting bail-outs from her parents, when – at their stage of life – it should be vice versa. She isn’t even grateful for their charity. And now it’s an effort to smile at her own children. That might be what’s affecting them. They’re acting out, more than ever. It’s her fault – she’s their mother. No longer coping… far too tired. She switches off the lights. Her hoard of worry spills into the night. Into that dark stream of hopelessness which seems, like Joyce’s snow, to be ‘general all over Ireland’. If she, and the sleepless others, only knew that they’re as numerous as the stars above the neon fug and damp, mist-smothered fields.

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After five years of austerity, this isn’t much of a tear-jerker. It’s just another chapter in what’s become an Irish legend… a grim sequel to the ‘fairy-tale’ of the Celtic Tiger. You can castigate the character, tell her to ‘catch herself on’ and be stronger for her kids. Diagnose her depression. Order her to ring a help-line or seek medical assistance. ‘Talk to someone’ as advocated by the state-sponsored campaign for mental health protection. You won’t hear it acknowledge that the recession (which, officially, has ended) has caused epidemic levels of stress-related illness. There’ll be no admission that untrammelled development and the harassment of beleaguered borrowers has already proven fatal.

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No, with pulsar-grade spin you’ll be told that things are improving. Ergo, if you’re not thriving, you’re a loser. The consequent self-torture is as effective in gagging dissent as the psy-ops of a totalitarian regime. This is the virtual gulag which the financiers and their cronies have created. We are among its growing number of inmates.

(Some of the pronouns may have been changed.)

A gallery to remember… Srebrenica

This post hasn’t been easy to write. Maybe I’ve no right to write it. As a foreigner, this dilemma is one I constantly face when engaging with Bosnia. Outside interpretations tend to over-simplify. While expert reports, through their lens of objectivity, sometimes eclipse the raw accounts of those who know things first-hand. What can a non-native say? Here, all I’ll draw on is my own experience, accepting my limitations as a stranger, a strankinja. These are just jagged pieces of reflection. My meagre contribution to an infinite jigsaw of remembrance.

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The most haunting aspect of our trip to Bosnia this year was our visit to Gallery 11/07/95. This exhibition centre, off the main street in Sarajevo, takes its name from the date of the beginning of the Srebrenica massacre. Its aim is to preserve the memory of the 8372 people brutally killed, over a couple of days, in that eastern Bosnian town. A place now synonymous with genocide. In Europe. In our time.

Spending an hour in a carefully planned display space can’t compare with making the journey to Srebrenica. Someday we’ll go there. When the children are a bit older – our youngest daughter is only six. Instead, we brought the three of them to the gallery. Despite Trip Advisor’s warning that the exhibition is ‘very difficult and clearly not to be recommended for kids’. But our children are half-Bosnian. Learning about war and its aftermath isn’t an optional subject, it’s their inheritance.

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The travel website was correct, however, in describing the gallery as a ‘must see’. It’s more than that. It’s a must remember. The layout is stark: walls covered with the names and faces of the men and boys who were murdered in July 1995. The date struck our eldest, she was born in 2000. Then the photos of survivors – people displaced to Tuzla or strewn to other countries. Many of these were taken in 2002. The year of our second daughter’s birth – still too recent to be history. But Srebrenica is an unfinished tragedy. A running sore, the black and white images remind. An unearthed skull stares out, admonishes. Among shots of cracked family pictures, decomposing clothes, forensically identified remains, legions of coffins… After almost two decades of burial, the search continues for traces of the missing.

SG2There’s a lot crammed into this wooden-floored tunnel of a room. In its annexes, multi-media installations are presented. Barbarism meets state-of-the-art technology in the interactive mapping of mass graves. While a video plays, on loop, its few minutes of documentary. Again the irony – Srebrenica caught on camera. But this was the mid-nineties. The advent of reality TV. Far too horrifically real… The testimony of mothers, sons, wives subdues the huddle of viewers. As they talk of last goodbyes and of farewells left unsaid, we pretend we’re not crying.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that Srebrenica was totally avoidable. It wasn’t some freak natural disaster. People made it happen. Through their actions: the footage shows Ratko Mladić seizing the town as a ‘gift’ to the Serbian nation he claimed to represent. And through inaction: that of the UN peacekeepers, who failed to protect civilians, and of the world’s leading powers, who let carnage engulf Bosnia in the three years before Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. The inadequacy of the international response was admitted in 1999 by Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General. In 2012, his successor, Ban Ki-Moon, visited the memorial centre and victims’ cemetery in Potočari. ‘We must learn from the lessons of Srebrenica,’ he said, making specific reference to the war in Syria. A year later, the conflict there still rages. And crimes against humanity are perpetrated on a daily basis in less-reported combat zones. Which town will be next to share Srebrenica’s grim accolade as a source of global shame?

SG1An outsider’s visit to Gallery 11/07/95 is nothing but a meaningless gesture unless it’s followed by a commitment to act. The gallery is envisaged as a place both for ‘the continuing remembrance of the innocent citizens of Srebrenica who were slaughtered’ and ‘for the articulation of voices against all forms of violence in the world’. It challenges its visitors to respond to this call for commemoration. To bear witness, to speak out, so that horrors such as 11/07/95 can never be repeated. Even the smallest effort – the writing of a letter or joining a campaign – could be significant. For each marks a personal step, it adds to the groundswell of human will that could finally relegate genocide to the past. It won’t ease the grief of the bereaved of Srebrenica. But it might spare another family from enduring a similar nightmare. To save a single life is to save the world.

When in Sarajevo, visit Gallery 11/07/95. For contact details see its website: http://galerija110795.ba/

Three baby girls

On a similar theme to ‘A gallery to remember… Srebrenica’, here’s a post I wrote for a previous blog-site before we left for Bosnia. The reflections are something of a maelstrom – remembering Srebrenica but also linking to recent events that sparked protests in Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their common thread is the impact of conflict and injustice on the world’s greatest hope – its new-born children.

I’m writing this on July 11, the eighteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. I’m writing as an Irishwoman who, as a European, must share the shame this day casts across our continent. Here on the far side of Europe, we’ve scarce right to speak of things too dreadful to comprehend. Yet silence breeds amnesia and words, however weak, are a weapon against forgetting. As the mother of three Bosnian-Irish daughters, I can’t avoid this part of my kids’ heritage – the recent history of their father’s land. Though these thoughts I’m jotting down are the only wreath I can lay. They’re just rushed notes – we’re preparing for Sarajevo. A few days to go until our annual trek to Bosnia… And I’m in charge of logistics. But dusting out empty suitcases and folding summer dresses, I’m reminded of another three little girls. Belmina, Berina, Fatima… their Bosnian names chime with those of my younger daughters.

SG3Fatima should be turning eighteen. On the cusp of adulthood, she should be full of life. Instead, her stillborn remains lie buried in Potočari. She’ll be known, solely from her headstone, as the youngest victim of Srebrenica. Her mother’s anguish of labour must’ve drowned in the screams of thousands – the slaughtered and the tortured, the bereft. Fatima couldn’t survive in a world of death. In a ‘safe haven’ where over 8000 men and boys were killed in an act of genocide because they belonged to the faith of Fatima’s parents. Eighteen years later, their identities are still being pieced together from fragments of bone and traces of DNA. 409 lost loved ones interred at this year’s ceremony. It’s too unthinkable… Maybe that’s why we can’t – or we don’t – think.

The Bosnian war ended in 1995, several months after Srebrenica. Either because the world was appalled or powerful nations decided it was prudent to enforce peace in their time. Eighteen years since the conflict that marked its birth, Bosnia and Herzegovina should be coming of age. It should, at least, be starting to face up to its past. Remembering with dignity and trying to reconcile. Although its leaders don’t appear that way inclined… They’re accentuating division, even at the expense of children’s lives.

JMBG3ATwo more little girls – Belima and Berina – were born in Bosnia this spring. Both struggling with serious illnesses, they needed operations which could only be performed in other jurisdictions. These urgent medical transfers were hindered by the infants’ lack of documentation, due to political squabbles over legislation to govern the issuing of ID numbers (Jedinstveni matični broj građana or JMBG) to new-borns. This is Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2013. The honchos of war-carved entities prefer to deny their most vulnerable citizens official proof of existence than to compromise. Their contempt for children’s rights thwarts the treatment of sick babies. It halts Berina on her journey to hospital in Belgrade. It leads to a fatal delay… Public demonstrations force stop-gap measures to be introduced in the case of little Belmina. But after what unnecessary loss of time? She’s fighting for her tiny life in Germany. It seems kids can still be sacrificed to the prejudice of rulers. Now, eighteen years since Srebrenica.

44 young boys were among those laid to rest on this anniversary. Some a year or two older than my eldest daughter… It doesn’t bear thinking – I throw my pen aside and pack with fury. Why do these horrors happen? How do we let them? In our age of information overload – when carnage is a screen, a page, a finger-click or a flick of a switch away? When we’re saturated with coverage? When we’re lapping up tragedy, almost voyeurs? Even the human stories – those child victims are always so emotive. They tug on our hardened heart-strings… for a second.

SG5The international media is giving Srebrenica a brief mention. Then its dwindling interest will wane until next year… Does anyone care about Europe’s 9/11? Despite the fact that the Srebrenica death toll was over twice that recorded in the attacks on the Twin Towers. Despite the massacre ranking as the worst crime on European soil since the Holocaust. Does anyone recall July 11, 1995? Not really, or the memory is uncomfortable. Eighteen years on, every European nation should have the maturity to remember. Britain, for the first time, is officially commemorating the atrocity. We’ve written to Irish politicians suggesting that, in coming years, Ireland might follow suit.

Another day passes before I type up my scribblings. Blame the packing…  My kids are giddy, counting the hours to Sarajevo. While the sun sets and rises on Bosnia and Herzegovina. With each new dawn, its war-torn past becomes that bit more distant. But does time heal or does it just seal deepening scars? Are Bosnia’s children – its baby girls and boys – growing any closer to a brighter future?

Subsequent dedication: In memory of the three baby girls, Belmina, Berina and Fatima. Belmina lost her fight for life in October 2013.