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

We’re dreaming of a better Ireland

‘Twas World Human Rights Day and, all through the centre of Dublin, the streets were awash with colour. The city was stirring on 10 December – it was alive with chants and laughter. From pensioners to babes in pushchairs, thousands assembled at Merrion Square for another mass demonstration against water charges. There was no sign of the ‘weather-bomb’ forecast the previous night – blue skies and crisp sunshine boosted the high spirits of the protestors. Not much evidence of trouble either. A few minor altercations with Gardaí caught the media’s eye, but these occurred beyond the main gathering. Marching from O’Connell Street, women tried to cajole police officers to join and, although their invitations were declined, the exchanges were good-humoured.

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The overall mood of the protest was jovial and welcoming. While certain political elements sought to score opinion poll points from their involvement, they couldn’t monopolise this display of public dissent. Community groups were by far the most vibrant participants, with their handmade placards and wit. Taking part, even for a short time, felt empowering. And meeting an ‘old flame’, demonstrating on his lunch-break, was a tiny bit nostalgic. Though amid a throng of folk who hailed from Cork, Clondalkin, Dundalk, and all the way from Detroit… there’s a fair chance you might find a lad from Sarajevo!

Large protests on this issue, which have been held across Ireland since the autumn, have forced the government into making concessions. In November, it promised that water bills would be capped until the end of 2018. But our leaders would be ill-advised to think that the problem is solved or to dismiss the concerns of the electorate. Demonising those who continue to object to these new charges is destined to backfire. Unlike prominent politicians, most families in Ireland don’t consider €160 a negligible sum. There’s also widespread fear that while payments for water may initially be fixed they will inevitably increase in coming years.

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People can’t trust an evasive, arrogant government. They’ve lost confidence in the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Although his view, however cynically expressed, that the protests aren’t just about water is essentially true. They’re about all the penalties imposed on the population of Ireland over the last six years of austerity. Repaying international lenders for the recklessness of bankers has been the official priority. Our ministers are now taking (faking) a sudden interest in the environment and conservation. After they poured taxpayers’ money – more than enough to repair every leaking pipe in Ireland – into the sewer of a bailout that has drained the country. Water charges are the latest in a series of cuts to household income which has impacted most severely on the poorest. Funds for public services have been slashed. The health of the nation has been jeopardised. Education has also been targeted, with children from Traveller and immigrant backgrounds and children with special educational needs among the worst hit.

The human cost of Ireland’s deepest ever recession is enormous. Its toll can’t be calculated in euro alone. Yet the government has the audacity to tell us our situation is improving, based on figures of little relevance to daily life. It crows about employment statistics without acknowledging that these disguise the frustration of thousands of capable people whose options are limited to internships and precarious positions that are often nothing more than exploitative. Meanwhile it woos multinationals with lucrative tax incentives. It boasts of job creation – in software, in finance, in financial software. The property market is buoyant again. Rising rents are forcing families into homelessness. But for landlords ‘tis the season to be jolly…

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Is this the most our country can aspire to – the glorification of greed and the growth of inequality? Events over recent months suggest a hunger for new ideas. Post-colonial politics, peddled by twentieth century parties for their own gratification, has failed. Approaching the centenary of the founding of our state, perhaps it’s time for reflection. Especially when, for many people – despite reports of booming sales – tidings of comfort and joy remain distant dreams.

There’s a well-known Irish tradition of placing a lighted candle in the window at Christmas. It’s worth remembering, though, that it originated from our history of oppression – it was once a symbol of resistance and solidarity. Maybe we need to revive this custom in our hearts. To fan flickers of inspiration which can reach out to others and kindle a brighter future for us all.

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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?

Some kind of tune

For a while, it seemed my pen was running dry. But recent reports about how women have been affected by Ireland’s financial crisis triggered this response. An attempt at a protest song and homage to Dylan… minus the mouth organ:

Tune 1

 

Subterranean Home Truth Blues

Have babies too young,

Get priced outta town,

Big suit sellin’

Houses on commuter belt,

Laughs with his banker friends,

You sign – thinkin’,

‘Roof over children’s heads’.

But the ink’s permanent.

Look out girl

Read the small print.

Guys in the government

Gamble with the balance sheet.

You work hard, puttin’ food on the table,

And it appears

That things are

Tickin’ over –

Just raisin’ kids, upskillin’,

When the crash hits.

Tune 3

Bailout – you’re screwed,

Equity is negative,

Banks make phone-threats

To families in debt.

Meanwhile the troika – the trinity,

The new church, the state’s

Right hand – is absolvin’

The filthy rich.

Look out girl

You’re livin’ in sin

If you don’t believe

The neoliberal creed

That money’s morality

And virtue lies in greed…

You’re to blame –

Should be ashamed.

‘Well, bless me patriarchs,

For I’ve been ripped off.’

Tune 5

Qualify, diversify,

Enquire, apply,

Pick up precarious,

Temporary projects –

Never mind no pay,

Must keep in the fray…

Embargo on recruitment –

What to do? Emigrate?

Look out girl

It’s grim for you,

Chief losers are women –

Bearing the brunt of

Austerity’s burden.

Impact on wages,

High cost of childcare –

Hey, what employer’s

Gonna hire a mother?

Tune 8

‘Got sick, gettin’ well,’

Politicians tell us.

But the ‘recovery’

Seems a bit chimerical.

Outside the quarters

Of power and privilege,

Still tough for people –

And it’s becomin’ more and more unequal.

Look out girl

Even though it hurts,

Better stop ‘em stealin’

Our verve, hope and love.

Wanna be a success?

Rise like a lioness…

From each knock-down.

Yeah, teach your children –

‘Don’t follow leaders

And watch the water meters.’

Links:

The peerless Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: 

Articles from 3/10/14 on ESRI study regarding women and austerity in Ireland: http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/married-or-co-habiting-women-hit-harder-by-austerity-1.1950132

http://www.independent.ie/business/personal-finance/latest-news/the-working-mothers-and-families-who-paid-the-bill-for-austerity-30634349.html

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/

Taking action – tips from Ireland and Bosnia

Despair. The world is awash with it this week. Blood staining the streets of Cairo as fumes of slaughter poison Syrian children. Leaders condemn… and do nothing. We’re watching with a sense of déjà vu. That’s how it was two decades ago in Bosnia. Happening over, sparking the question, what can we do? I wish I had some answers. All I know is that – whatever the issue – indifference can be a passive way of legitimating injustice. So here I’d like to explore a few practical responses. Based on how members and friends of the Bosnian diaspora in Ireland have been raising awareness of current concerns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ideas which could be applied to many contexts…

 Demo SGC

During the first six months of 2013, Ireland held the presidency of the European Union. As Croatia neared accession, the topic of EU enlargement was back in vogue. Attention spread to other Balkan countries which appeared to be making progress. In particular, Serbia and Kosovo were praised for their endeavours to bury old disputes, at least on paper. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, Bosnia and Herzegovina was languishing at the bottom of the EU candidates’ league.

Bosnian and Irish activists sought to put the country back in focus. They highlighted how, eighteen years after the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina still flounders. How the international community acquiesces in a political system which perpetuates division and leaves the state economically crippled. They stressed to Irish politicians that the EU, as a major player in this nexus, must act in the interest of ordinary Bosnian citizens. As a result, the situation in Bosnia was discussed in May by the Irish Parliament’s Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. It was also raised by a member of parliament, Deputy Patrick Nulty, in a parliamentary debate later that month. He questioned Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, about the EU’s engagement with Bosnia and Herzegovina. In reply, Minister Gilmore admitted this required a ‘comprehensive review’.

EU Irl

At this point, my husband and I got more personally involved. Over the years we’d always been active on matters Bosnian (as outlined in my post ‘Love in a time of protest’). Then kids arrived and the stratospheric house prices of ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland left us stranded far from Dublin. It was difficult to keep up with campaigns sustained by our stalwart friends. Or those were our excuses… but now they’d worn thin. We started by writing an article, examining the role of the EU with regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was published in the Irish Times and generated plenty of feedback. This motivated us. E-mails to the members of the Irish parliament’s Joint Committees for both Foreign and European Affairs were our first follow-up. We appealed to these politicians to do their utmost to place Bosnia on Ireland’s European agenda during the remaining weeks of the Irish presidency. However, as we were sending these messages, news of demonstrations in Sarajevo began to emerge.

By early June, public frustration in Bosnia and Herzegovina had reached fever-pitch. It finally erupted at the government’s failure to pass the ‘JMBG law’ – essential legislation to regulate the issuing of ID numbers (see my previous post ‘Three baby girls’). The JMBG debacle meant that a seriously ill baby, Belmina Ibrišević, couldn’t get a passport in order to travel abroad for medical treatment. Outcry ensued. Mothers of small children gathered in front of the parliament building in Sarajevo to express their anger. In subsequent days, protests spread to other cities. For a fleeting moment of history and the first time en masse since the war, people of all backgrounds were galvanised by a simple demand: basic rights for their country’s youngest citizens.

poster 2

As parents, we couldn’t but respond. Initially we followed threads which popped up on social media, adding to comments and images of support from across the world. On-line activism is easy in a cyberspace full of virtual Che Guevaras! Still, at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, making posters brought me back to the early nineties. Then, during the war, our slogan was ‘Let Bosnia Live!’ Now, we were uploading the JMBG movement’s message: ‘Svi smo mi Belmina’ / ‘We are all Belmina’. Different times… but, sadly, not much fundamental change.*

It’s one thing ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ from the comfort of your couch, but old-fashioned solidarity is hard to beat. To coincide with large-scale demonstrations held in Sarajevo on 11 June, we organised a small protest outside the Irish parliament. It was all pretty spontaneous, but the rain cleared for an eye-catching little spectacle. Tourists and school groups were attracted by our colourful mix of placards, flags and football hats, while the sweets on offer soon disappeared. More importantly, though, it gave us a chance to speak with representatives of Ireland’s main political parties. We delivered letters – explaining latest developments in Bosnia – to the Ministers for Foreign and European Affairs and to members of the Joint Committees for these policy areas. We also had an in-depth meeting with an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs who had responsibility for matters relating to the Western Balkans during Ireland’s EU presidency.

Demo Dail

After that, we thought we’d done our bit. However, by the next weekend, the tragedy of another sick baby filtered through the internet. Two-month-old Berina Hamidović died when her emergency transfer from Bosnia to a specialised hospital in Belgrade was delayed due to problems with documentation caused by the wrangling over the JMBG law. The death of little Berina forced us to renew our appeals to Irish politicians to use their influence, in whatever way they could, on behalf of the Bosnian people.

The visit of the international community’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, to Dublin on 25 June gave us further impetus to act. Addressing the COSAC Conference of European parliamentary committees, Mr. Inzko told a large assembly of parliamentarians from across Europe that it was necessary to ‘rethink’ policy towards Bosnia. Mr Inzko was challenged, however, by one of the Irish delegates – a member of both Joint Committees with which we had corresponded. Deputy Eric Byrne spoke for Bosnia’s ‘wonderful diaspora’ in Ireland by asking the High Representative why Bosnia and Herzegovina had been so ‘neglected’ in comparison to its Balkan neighbours. In his answer, Mr. Inzko conceded that a ‘mistake’ had been made in presuming EU ‘pull factors’ would be sufficient to persuade Bosnia’s leaders to co-operate for the common good.

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Other members of the Irish parliament, Deputy Robert Troy and Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan, also responded positively to our lobbying. They questioned the Minister for Foreign Affairs about Ireland’s position regarding the JMBG crisis. In a parliamentary debate at the end of June, Minister Gilmore described the Bosnian government’s handling of this issue as ‘deplorable’ and explicitly lent his support to the citizens’ protests. He reiterated these views in early July and expressed his condolences to the family of baby Berina Hamidović.

Of course, it’d be naïve to think these statements can impact directly on the realpolitik of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A cynic would say that foreign politicians are adept at criticising their counterparts in other countries while avoiding difficulties in their own. Yet raising awareness among public representatives – even if it gleans no more than a quotable phrase or two – is surely better than nothing. During the summer, we met some people who’d been involved in the demonstrations in Sarajevo and talked to international analysts working there. We learned a lot about the plethora of complex problems plaguing Bosnia. The JMBG outrage was just the tip of an iceberg of dissatisfaction fractured by underlying tension. From a distance, we can do little except, perhaps, to inform a wider audience.

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Last week we had the opportunity to meet the MEP for Dublin, Emer Costello, and to speak to her about challenges facing Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her personal interest in the country and her consideration of the matters we discussed was most encouraging. We hope she’ll convey our concerns to her colleagues in the European Parliament. Small mentions – they’re all we can contribute. Alone, they don’t change policy. But they could accumulate. So, maybe, communication is what counts. A constructive response instead of a sigh of despair… For every reaction can lead to positive action.

Read more about the Bosnian-Irish connection:

Irish Times, 3 June 2013 – Bosnia must not be left ignored on margins of EU: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/bosnia-must-not-be-left-ignored-on-margins-of-eu-1.1414957

Radio Sarajevo, 4 June 2013 – BiH ne smije biti ostavljena na margini EU: http://www.radiosarajevo.ba/novost/114604/nocache

Sarajevo Times, 6 July 2013 – Action in Ireland for Bosnia and Herzegovina: http://www.sarajevotimes.com/action-in-ireland-for-bosnia-and-herzegovina/

* Since this post was published in August 2013, baby Belmina, whose name became a desire for change in Bosnia, has passed away. The least we can do, in her memory and that of baby Berina, is to try to keep issues relating to Bosnia and Herzegovina from falling out of international focus. In recent months, we’ve followed the action outlined here by writing further reports and letters and sending these to Irish politicians.

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.

Love in a time of protest

From the frying pan into the… Balkans. A twist to the old adage sums up my background and, in this post, I’d like to sketch the path that’s led an Irish girl to a long-term involvement with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Just an overview – to give you an idea of where the coffee’s coming from, so to speak.

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OK, I’m a bit of a conflict junkie. I grew up along the border of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In a region which bore (with certain distinction) the moniker ‘bandit country’, geographically known as South Armagh. Back then, it was famous for all the wrong reasons – ambushes, abductions, snipers and the suchlike. Though we could lay claim to some unusual ‘attractions’. Europe’s largest heliport was a few miles down the road. The world’s most bombed bridge (well possibly, bar re-runs of the River Kwai) was a highlight of our Sunday walks. As kids, we got a terrifying thrill from sprinting under the rusting metal sheet that, for years, hung guillotine-sharp beneath its girders.

And there were incidents… Like the balmy night when, as we sat chatting, an explosion shattered the village. Chunks of debris were catapulted over my grandmother’s home and crashed through the roof of the house across the street. But normal life went on. Or life under the shadow of perennial violence became ‘normal’. You learned to tell the sound of a mortar, the question ‘was that shootin’?’ was usually rhetorical and a bomb-scare was a great excuse for turning up late for school. Society hunkered down – there was always that pervasive whiff of fear. So you stuck to your own ‘community’, you slipped into grooves hewn by distrust. The narrowness was stultifying and, for me, scarpering off to college in Dublin was both an adventure and a release.

This was the early nineties, though, and reports of the wars in the Balkans were daily news. And not the kind it was easy to ignore. The places were too familiar – holiday destinations, ancient towns like Dubrovnik. Then Bosnia, Sarajevo… The city of the Winter Olympics, the city from the textbooks: ‘where did the First World War start?’ Again making terrible history – but now on live TV. I was visiting my grandmother, back in South Armagh, when I watched the ITN broadcasts which revealed the horrors of Omarska and Trnopolje. This was happening no more than an Inter-rail journey away in the pre-Ryanair days of student travel. I couldn’t close my eyes.

I spent the summers of ’93 and ’94 as a volunteer in refugee camps in Croatia, where I worked with a lot of people from Bosnia. I also got involved with a solidarity group called Ireland Action for Bosnia and, through this, met many Bosnians who were arriving in Dublin at that time. Among these was a (rather dashing) young man from Sarajevo, who’d been seriously injured in the war and had been brought to Ireland for medical treatment. We fell for each other in November ’94, at a candlelit protest against the atrocities being perpetrated in the ‘safe havens’ of Eastern Bosnia. The romance of activism on a frosty Dublin evening! I’ll just stress that I was protesting, while he was busy checking out the talent…

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Over eighteen years later, we have three Bosnian-Irish daughters. We’ve lived and worked in Sarajevo, but are now based in Ireland. However, we make sure our children are aware of their two languages and cultures and, every summer, bring them to Bosnia. We’ve also tried to do whatever we can from Ireland to keep a focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Recently, this has included efforts in support of the demonstrations in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities which brought thousands of citizens to the streets demanding change. You can read about our activities in the ‘LINKS’ section of this blog (see below). We’re continuing to inform Irish politicians about the challenges facing ordinary people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the hope that they may raise these issues at an international level.

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So that’s the perspective I’m writing from, the Bosnian-Irish mix to this verbal java. Brewed through love, war and protest, with a metaphorical shot of uisce beatha… or rakija.

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 6 September 2013, available online at:

http://novovrijeme.ba/love-in-a-time-of-protest/

Note: just to acknowledge the journalists who took great personal risks to bring news of the war in Bosnia to the world. The work of Ed Vulliamy for the Guardian and Observer deserves particular mention and his latest book ‘The War is Dead, Long Live the War’ (2012) is a compelling, if gruelling, testimony to the barbarity of the Bosnian conflict and its unresolved aftermath.