The lady doth…

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/

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To the place I love

It started on my birthday. I’d just turned eleven and, on 8 February 1984, I was probably more interested in presents and cake than in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. Within a few days though, Sarajevo was on the family map and we were glued to the bobsleigh, the slalom and, best of all, the ice dancing. Despite sporting prejudices ingrained at an early age along the recalcitrant border of Northern Ireland, we were captivated by two English skaters. Torvill and Dean were magical. Their rather risqué take on Ravel’s Boléro mesmerised audiences – live in Zetra Hall and across the planet. It even reached a houseful of kids watching in Technicolor (our geriatric black-and-white TV had finally been replaced) in the wilds of South Armagh.

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We hadn’t a clue about what might constitute artistic impression but, for one rare occasion, we hoped the Brits would win! Willing the purple-clad pair of them on, we awarded them 6.0 scores from the instant the rink swelled with music until the tumbling climax. The judges endorsed our opinion. The BBC commentators almost exploded with patriotic pride – grating to Irish ears but, in retrospect, understandable. Boléro wasn’t your average chart hit but it featured on Top of the Pops. While, like many’s the schoolgirl, I had a crush on Christopher Dean. It didn’t last too long though. And, ten years later, I’d realise he’d never been my type. But Sarajevo lingered in my memories. Yet little did I know that a teenager who was then helping out with the biathlon would become my partner through the lutzes and twizzles of life.

After only another two Olympiads, the spectators of the world gazed again at Sarajevo. Astounded… but this time not by skating expertise. Instead, viewers were shocked at the horror wreaked on the city by those determined to destroy it. For three and a half years, humanity’s suffering was synecdoche, Sarajevo. But, through the longest siege of modern military history, Bosnia’s capital didn’t surrender. Even when 68 of its citizens were killed in a brutal attack on its central marketplace on 5 February 1994. Despite the dithering of the international community, which added further fuel to the war. The deal that eventually halted this bloody conflict was hammered out in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995. It was met, initially at least, with relief among Bosnian people. For my ex-Olympic-volunteer and I, it meant tears and kisses. The war was over, that was all that mattered.

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However, the structures created by this agreement were never uncontroversial and these have since hampered Bosnia’s peace-time progress. Tensions between the country’s two Dayton-drawn entities (the ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ and ‘Republika Srpska’), lack of co-ordination among the cantons of the Federation, reams of bureaucracy and ubiqutious corruption have brewed dysfunction. Though this seems to be to politicians’ tastes… It ensures that the ‘ethnic card’ can be played to secure election and block essential parliamentary business. From the perspective of citizens, as oft reiterated by family and friends, politics in Bosnia is an expensive farce. Its chief posts rotate within an elite all-boys’ club, which likes to engage in well-paid games of (six or seven) musical chairs.

Meanwhile Bosnia is stuck in a political and economic quagmire. The government, irrespective of which parties are in power, is chronically unwilling to agree on legislation. Even when this relates to fundamental matters such as the issuing of identity numbers to new-borns. The impact of this quarrel on children’s health was a catalyst for demonstrations in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities in June 2013. For a month, the peaceful and multi-ethnic protests of this ‘Babylution’ raised hopes. Though, within weeks, momentum dwindled. Was it because of politicisation, or that a souped-up version of the necessary law was drafted, or did those involved simply run out of steam? Analysts can ruminate over the reasons. But prolonged demonstrations are difficult to sustain and, considering the financial pressures and the risk of intimidation faced by people in Bosnia, it wasn’t surprising that this movement for change fizzled into coffee and ‘šta ćeš’… back to paralysis.

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Still, although last summer’s events wrought few ‘achievements’, they were a baby-step in a positive direction. Bringing thousands of people together for a common cause set an important precedent. Protests are nothing new to Bosnia – over recent years, groups of farmers, redundant employees, war invalids and others have held demonstrations and camped outside public institutions calling for their rights to be respected. They’ve never got much hearing from the powerful. The protests in June were, at least, more prominent. And, since then, dissatisfaction has only grown. On Wednesday, 5 February, it flared up again in the industrial city of Tuzla, when workers who’d lost their jobs due to the privatisation of state-run companies, took their grievances to the local authorities. A heavy-handed police response stoked citizens’ ire. By Thursday, larger protests had spread to Sarajevo and beyond. The next day there were demonstrations in most major cities – mainly in the Federation entity but a gathering in Banja Luka, the administrative centre of Republika Sprska sent a message of solidarity across the boundaries of ‘ethnicity’.

But now there were no cute babies with symbolic soothers smiling at the cameras. Instead the protests on Friday were charged with a Swiftian sense of ‘savage indignation’. Confronted by riot-ready police, some participants turned to violence. Government buildings and the premises of political parties were burned in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Mostar. Part of the National Archive was housed in a gutted section of the Presidency in Sarajevo and, though the damage to records is still being assessed, documents of historical value may have been reduced to ash. Stories of this apparent loss aroused the concern of the international media. Threats to cultural treasures, from Timbuktu to Damascus, tend to garner such laments while human strife is often less bemoaned. Nevertheless, scenes of Bosnia ablaze, broadcast on the main Irish news (all 20 seconds of coverage) revived old nightmares.

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Graffiti, government building, Tuzla: Stop nationalism, stop the national division of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), united BiH

Naturally, political leaders in Bosnia seized on these acts of arson as a convenient means of undermining the protests – condemning those responsible as ‘hooligans’ and worse. But what outsider can judge the disenfranchised youth of a post-war generation whose future has been eroded by a self-serving ruling class? While last Friday’s rioting was regrettable, it can’t diminish the huge social injustice behind this latest, and predominantly non-violent, wave of discontent. Nor should it divert attention from the thuggery of politicians who crowds across Bosnia openly label ‘thieves’.

Subsequent daily demonstrations have been peaceful. Citizens in several cities have organised public meetings and compiled demands addressed to their political representatives. Some officials have resigned – although it remains to be seen whether this will lead to genuine reform. Nationalistic rumbles could splinter the fragile unity evident in these popular manifestations. Disillusionment and the practical strain of maintaining what might be a fruitless effort could stifle the protests. As a foreigner, it’s not for me to speculate. Yet the reports emanating from Bosnia, even the sketchy accounts in the Western press, can’t be ignored by anyone with a connection to that country.

Protest poster: We are hungry in three languages (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian)

On the internet, I’ve been looking at people thronging through Sarajevo, reading placards which express what voices there have said for years. Views we heard and shared when we lived in the city over a decade ago, declared on streets I know well. Streets I walked down to the school where I worked as an English teacher or pushing my eldest daughter in her buggy to see her grandparents. She’s probably the only Bosnian-Irish kid who’s ever made a snow-dog in the grounds of the cantonal buildings… without a permit. Just as, now, I’ve got scarce licence to toss my tuppence worth into the blizzard of comment on current developments that’s been blowing in from afar. All I’ll say is the austerity we’re still struggling with in Ireland bears no comparison to the hardship endured by so many in Bosnia.

This is a short and bitter month. But, maybe because I was born in it, I find it a kind of watershed. A time when snowdrops and crocuses battle into bloom, the beginning of the ancient Celtic spring… A season of change – as a metaphor it’s being married by hashtag to ‘Bosnian’. History will decide if this link is premature. Its annals for Bosnia already attach significance to February: from Sarajevo’s agony of twenty years past, to Olympian moments which still rank among that city’s finest. Torvill and Dean returned there this week for an anniversary performance in a stadium rebuilt after its destruction in the war. World focus has done a strange figure of eight as Sarajevo reclaims a brief spot in the news. Now the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve to emerge as winners. Though the ice they skate on is thin and the results are far from certain. Like on Valentine’s Day in 1984, I’m here in distant Ireland, watching Sarajevo. Half hopeful and yet anxious… Wishing something good may come out of what’s happening in Bosnia, the country of my beloved.

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The second of my three daughters decided to make her own poster – an eleven-year-old’s message!

This post was published in Balkanist magazine on 16 February 2014, please see: http://www.balkanist.net/to-the-place-i-love/

It also appeared in Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 28 February 2014

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