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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Bless all the dear children…

Speed-writing amid the madness of Christmas Eve – so this may be a stream of semi-consciousness! December has been hectic and the last few days were simply too short. Meeting deadlines and getting things sorted for the festive season… This year, though, it’s a different type of Christmas. Perhaps 2015 has forced us, across Europe, to wake up to the reality of our unjust world. To make us respond to those seeking safety and shelter. How have we reacted? Have we said ‘welcome’ or ‘there’s no room’? It’s a Christmassy kind of question.

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At a lovely ‘Santa Lucia’ feast-day event organised by a dear friend in aid of my appeal.

Anyhow, to answer it in a personal way, I’m heading to Croatia on Monday (28th December) to volunteer for two weeks with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Initiative, which has been offering tremendous support to refugees there. And, thanks to incredible help from many people in Ireland and beyond, I’m delighted to say that I’ve far surpassed my fundraising target of €2,000! This money will go to Croatia ADRA, which is bringing essential aid to refugees in the main camp in Slavonski Brod. Please check out this link for details of my appeal: https://www.gofundme.com/BalkansRefugees

Yesterday, I read about a Syrian woman who had just given birth to a baby in Slavonski Brod, shortly after she and her family arrived in the camp. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, her story has huge human resonance. But she’s not the only mother to have made this trek, not the only pregnant woman to have braved this difficult journey. Her children are lucky to have survived the merciless seas which claimed more young lives this week. The least I can do is spend a little time lending a hand of solidarity with people like her.

In the meantime, I want to make tomorrow special for my kids. I’d also like to wish you all ‘Sretan Božić i Sretna Nova Godina!’ with an image that my eldest daughter created…

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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

Srebrenica 2015 – events in Ireland

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

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 5 JULY – BELFAST

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

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

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

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

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

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7 JULY – DUBLIN

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

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

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

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

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

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Useful links:

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

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

To contact politicians in Ireland see: Commemorating Srebrenica

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

Ain’t no mountain high enough… for the Balkans

The rivers are receding. Their overflow is slowly seeping away. The extent of the damage caused by last month’s floods in the Balkans is now emerging. And the repair bill is expected to run to billions of euro. Homes and communities have been ruined. Large areas must be decontaminated, infrastructure requires reconstruction. The devastated regions of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia will need support for many years to come. The solidarity shown by people throughout the Balkans in helping those affected by this catastrophe has been inspiring. But, given the scale of the crisis, international aid is also essential.

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In Ireland, we watched news of the flooding and heard about it from my husband’s elderly relatives who live in one of the worst-hit parts of Bosnia. Our first reaction was horror. Our second was a question – what could we do? As a start, we made an online donation to the ‘Balkans Floods Appeal’ launched by the Irish Red Cross. Then we wondered how we could fundraise for this appeal in our locality. We contacted the Irish Red Cross and, with their approval, began a ‘wee’ campaign in County Louth.

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Our two older daughters led the way. The eleven-year-old, who’s nifty in the art and craft department and has a keen eye for all the latest crazes, made several dozen ‘loom’ bracelets. Apparently these rubber band creations, woven in a range of neon-bright shades, are this summer’s coolest fashion accessory. Along with her big sister, she sold her produce around our housing estate on Saturday 31 May. After four hours, they returned without any bracelets. Instead, they had €125 for the Balkans Floods Appeal!

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Meanwhile, a few days earlier, we’d read an article with a Bosnian connection in the Irish Times. It focused on a newly published biography, The Trigger, which looks at the life and legacy of Gavrilo Princip. The book’s author, Tim Butcher, discussed aspects of Balkan history from 1914 to the present. He also spoke about the war in Bosnia in the 1990s and its consequences. In response to the issues he’d mentioned, we wrote a letter which appeared in the Irish Times on Monday 2 June. It was another opportunity to highlight the floods in the Balkans, which already seemed forgotten by the global media. We pointed out how people in Ireland can help, hoping that our short epistle might reach readers with much fuller purses than ours.

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Writing and talking are certainly useful means of spreading the word. But ‘walking the walk’ can be even more effective. The following weekend we got a chance to literally take a hike for the Balkans Floods Appeal. We joined two stages of the Táin March – an annual event retracing the epic journey of Queen Maeve of Connacht across Louth in Celtic times. Dressed in our Iron Age best, we took part in a parade to the town square in Dundalk on Saturday 7 June. Under sunny skies, it was very pleasant… though this was just a prologue to the next day’s trek through the Cooley Mountains.

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On Sunday we set out – my ‘Bosnian Braveheart’ (OK, mixing eras and ethnicities but the poor guy almost believed he was Mel Gibson) and I, together with our older kids and a loyal comrade who’d come all the way from Dublin. Apart from us novices, the rest of the group comprised seasoned climbers and members of the Irish army. Gallantly, we advanced into the mist and what meteorologists had dismissed as an ‘occasional shower’. The rain became torrential. Battling against the wind tested our endurance.

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Despite the weather, the trail revealed its raw beauty. Crossing moors of heather interspersed with alpine flowers, we tramped over rugged stone and mossy grass. Further on, we squelched into bogland and splashed through trickling streams. Whenever the clouds lifted slightly, the view was stunning. Finally, for extra drama as we made our descent towards the coast, the heavens roared with a deafening clap of thunder. Maybe that was Nature’s way of reminding us why we were walking. Being absolutely soaked seemed appropriate when we thought of those caught up in the Balkan floods.

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Wet and weary, we arrived at our destination – the village of Carlingford. There, wholesome Irish stew was provided for the marchers and this quickly revived the spirits of the carnivores. While the fresh air and our sense of physical ‘achievement’ left all of us feeling exhilarated. We raised some more money by doing children’s face painting… until it started to pour again. From this activity and the generous support of friends and family for our outdoor pursuits, we collected €465 for the Irish Red Cross. This brings the total from our efforts so far for the Balkans Floods Appeal to nearly €600. And we’re still counting!

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We’re planning a few more events over the weeks ahead. So watch this space – and why not get involved? Join us… or take action wherever you may be. Fundraising isn’t easy, especially under current economic conditions. From our own experience, we know most people have very little to spare. But if many individuals donate a small amount, this adds up to really substantial aid. Every tiny drop of assistance matters.

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With World Cup 2014 underway, Balkan nations are back in the news. Though, this time, it’s for sporting reasons. Croatia opened the tournament – playing the hosts, Brazil. And Bosnia won hearts with its valiant debut against the formidable Argentina. We’re proud to be shouting for the Zmajevi! We’re also asking Irish fans to get behind Bosnia and Herzegovina, both on and off the pitch. When Džeko and the lads ‘give it a lash’ perhaps we could remember what’s happened to their country. Then think about all the people in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia who are trying to recover from the floods. Please support them!

Organisations helping the Balkans from Ireland:

The Irish Red Cross ‘Balkans Flood Appeal’ – donate online at:

http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Human Appeal Ireland – donate online at:

http://humanappeal.ie/blog/bosnia-floods-appeal/#.U4bwh_nMRCg

Whitewater Foundation  – donate online at:

http://www.whitewaterireland.ie/whitewaterfoundation/floods-in-serbia-and-bosnia/

Also read our letter ‘Crisis in the Balkans’, Irish Times (2/6/14):

http://www.irishtimes.com/debate/letters/crisis-in-the-balkans-1.1815660

And see the article ‘Made in the Balkans’, Irish Times (28/5/14):

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/made-in-the-balkans-the-man-blamed-for-starting-the-first-world-war-1.1811393

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 20 June 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

The fur coat fiver

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

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

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

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

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

APC passing the Presidency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All the very best / najbolje želje svima!