A cold coming

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

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

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

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Our work as volunteers in the distribution tent

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

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

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

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Jackets and tracksuits for children from the Irish donation

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

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Ready to give out New Year gifts to kids

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

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The snowy road to the camp

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

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Slavonski Brod, Croatia

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

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Together to live as one

Solidarity, solidarité, solidarnost… Perhaps it’s an instinctive human reaction to inexplicable horror. Shock at the appalling events in Paris on 13th November turns to grief, confusion. What vile brand of evil could target people enjoying a Friday night? In the city of love and light? At a rock gig, in restaurants and bars, at a football match?

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All across Europe, we were doing similar things. In our house, the whole family was watching the first leg of the Euro 2016 playoffs. Insofar as it could be seen through the fog in Zenica. The Ireland versus Bosnia game was heading towards a draw. We were joking that the result wouldn’t serve as grounds for a Bosnian-Irish divorce. Until, just before the final whistle, our screens began to fill with scenes of chaos. Paris… Sirens screeching, carnage unfolding in real-time. Unreal. Young fans at a concert, taken hostage, brutally slain.

We mourn for the victims. But our tears are crocodilian if they don’t flow for the quarter of a million Syrians slaughtered in almost five years of conflict. Those murdered by ‘Islamic State’ extremists, who’ve now added the attacks in Paris to their catalogue of terror. And the tens of thousands more who’ve been killed by the forces of President Assad and his allies. It’s no wonder that families trek to Europe to escape this. From Syria and elsewhere – fleeing bloodthirsty fanatics and oppressive regimes. What would you do if a hazardous journey was the only hope of a future for your children? If the other options were either the daily fear of death or indefinite displacement and destitution. When all you want, as a parent, is to give your kids a safe home. To ensure that they have health, education, peace.

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Photo: UNHCR

The chance of a new life. It’s the destination sought by the adults and children crossing the Mediterranean, the families and individuals making their arduous way through the Balkans. Up to 800,000 so far this year. And over 3,400 lost at sea. Like at least two Titanic-scale disasters in less than twelve months. Though drowned infants are no longer headline news. Numbers become numbing. Words seem, at best, useless and, at worst, sinister tools to redefine the innocent as threats. From refugees, back to migrants, now potential terrorists – the terms bandied about by journalists and politicians seep into public opinion.

But the people keep on coming. Although the waves are rougher and temperatures are falling. Despite an atmosphere that’s growing colder. After Paris, the challenges they face may be greater. Yet, if Europe is to boast of any ethical values, these must hinge on cherishing our brothers and our sisters. Treating them equally. Sharing with them the liberty that we take for granted. Not closing our doors and turning them away. As European citizens, we should play a part in shaping these critical moments in our history.

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Photo: UNHCR

On a personal level, I find it’s not enough merely to talk or write about this issue. I need to act. That’s why I’ve decided to go back to Croatia and do some voluntary work with refugees there. I’m travelling to Slavonski Brod at the end of December. It’s a town that I last visited in 1994 when I was volunteering with Bosnian refugees who’d fled to Croatia during the wars in the Balkans. Now, it’s the location of a new camp to accommodate people en route to countries, such as Germany, in which they hope to stay.

This tragic cycle of world conflict has prompted my plans to return. I might be twice as old but I’ve acquired significant experience since the nineties. In fact, the course of my life owes much to those turbulent times. I’ve spent the intervening years with someone from Sarajevo. He came to Ireland, for urgent medical treatment, through a resettlement programme established for people who were affected by the Bosnian war. My three daughters are the children of a former refugee. Thus, the present crisis hits straight home. I’ve got to put my energy into practical action.

So I’ll be joining volunteers with the ‘Dobrodošli’/’Welcome’ initiative which has been supporting refugees since their arrival in Croatia this autumn. Over the next few weeks, I’ll also be fundraising for donations to aid refugees in the Slavonski Brod camp. More on this to follow very soon!

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a small example of solidarity. On Saturday (14th November) I went to an event at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland. It was a festival of food hosted by the Syrian community and Human Appeal Ireland, an organisation which has done remarkable work in bringing essential supplies into Syria. From speaking to Syrians, Irish people and attendees from other countries, it was clear we were united in revulsion at the atrocities in Paris. We were also linked by concern for those still suffering in Syria and an awareness of the ongoing plight of refugees. Above all, though, we were simply fellow humans engaging in conversation. We talked about common interests over sweet Middle Eastern cakes on a wet afternoon in Dublin. Together – irrespective of our origins or beliefs. And this was welcome.

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Fáilte, refugees, welcome!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some useful links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down with all sorts of intolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the bleak midwinter

So this is Christmas… and my penultimate offering of 2014. The ‘elves’ in my house are planning to hijack this blog for a final yuletide message. Though, already, the making of their surprise post has sparked rebellions in elfdom. As the saying goes, ‘girls wreck your head’.

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Sometimes, so do places. Like my old ljubav, Bosnia. It’s been an eventful year there. The country has featured in international news for a range of reasons. Protests in February. Devastating floods in May. The commemoration of the assassination in Sarajevo which triggered World War I. Euphoria as the Bosnian football team played in its first World Cup. The hopes and hype of Rio gleamed… but soon faded. Reality gushed in again.

Elections in October saw the constellations of power in Bosnia and Herzegovina shift slightly, although nationalist parties remain dominant. Just another case of plus ça change? Or could 2015 auger progress for a country hamstrung by the legacy of conflict? An initiative seeking to kick-start Bosnia’s flagging EU accession process has recently been proposed by Britain and Germany. Understandably, after years of fruitless negotiations, scepticism prevails as to whether this scheme can prompt the reforms required for EU membership. However, any renewal of interest which might lead to a more effective European approach towards Bosnia is welcome.

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Bosnia’s present stagnation benefits no-one but its ruling elites. Instead of trying to build a functional state, they thrive on generating insecurity. Two decades since the end of the war, many of the divisions it caused are as raw today as they were in 1995. But despite undeniable differences, there’s much scope for unity. Demonstrations and plenums in the spring highlighted how most people in Bosnia face the same socio-economic problems – unemployment, poverty, limited prospects. The massive voluntary response which brought relief to those affected by flooding further proved that citizens from all ‘ethnic’ backgrounds can co-operate.

From a personal perspective, I’m glad my family and I were able to fundraise in our local area for the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal. In Bosnia during the summer, we witnessed some of the damage left in the wake of the deluge and spoke to people involved in dealing with its aftermath. It was clear that the country needs ongoing support to recover from this disaster. We also went to Srebrenica and were struck not only by the scale of the atrocity that occurred there but by the questions it still poses… How? Why? Is it possible that healing can follow genocide? Such queries hovered in the sultry air above a cemetery which is now lodged in our human conscience.

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No matter how many times you visit Bosnia, it’s somewhere that always astounds… and disturbs. This year more than ever, it’s plagued me with a yearning to forge connections that extend beyond family trips – a desire to do something constructive. I’ve been investigating a few potential avenues in this regard. So far without success… lack of finances being a major drawback. But I’ll continue to explore these ideas. Perhaps I should ask Santa to send me a wealthy philanthropist! Along with a helping of luck, a marriage counsellor and a good night’s sleep. Though, if these demands defy even the magic of Mr. Claus, a book token will do fine.

Well, now, I ought to get my Meryl Streep skates on and rustle up an Oscar-winning Christmas!  Writing often seems pointless, yet I’m not sorry to have ‘wasted’ time, amid the commercial frenzy of December, on this series of short pieces (see links below). They’re chronologically arranged, based on the events to which they relate, but their topics also reflect the symbolism of the Advent wreath.

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Entwined in pine, the first two purple candles signify hope and peace. Hopefully, 2015 will bring both to Syria. And, although we can’t stop the war, we can still show solidarity with the Syrian people by donating to humanitarian organisations which work with them and by raising awareness of their plight. Meanwhile, here in Ireland, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a rising thought wave. We’ve got a rare chance to challenge established currents. Are we ready to take risks to create an equal, harmonious society? Or will we just go with the flow and put up with the status quo?

Globally, 2014 was grim. Fighting in Ukraine, attacks on Gaza, institutional racism in the USA, floods in the Balkans, worrying predictions about climate change – there was little cause for rejoicing. Even on an individual level, I must admit, it was a year I’d rather forget. But when all seems dark, brief instants of respite become more meaningful. A pink birthday candle. Or this, the last of the purple ones… The candle that stands for love.

Please check out previous posts in this series at:

An Advent miscellany: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-ma

Happy Xmas (war isn’t over): http://wp.me/p3NO7M-md

We’re dreaming of a better Ireland: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mf

On a twelfth birthday at Christmas: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mh

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Happy Xmas (war isn’t over)

The first anniversary of the abduction of Syrian human rights defenders, Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wa’el Hamada and Nazem Hamadi, was marked in Dublin on 9 December. A few of us gathered at the Amnesty International memorial sculpture, on a traffic island near Busáras, to raise awareness about this brave group of people known globally as the ‘Douma Four’.

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Lawyers and activists, the four have striven to protect the oppressed in Syria, both before and since the uprising began there in 2011. For over a decade, Razan has defended political prisoners. Her husband Wa’el is one of the founders of the ‘Local Co-ordination Committees’ which, among other vital functions, deliver humanitarian aid to communities affected by the war. Samira has worked to help women in the city of Douma and has written about her country’s notorious system of detention. Nazem is another lawyer engaged in activism – he’s also a poet.

These are just snippets from the profiles of those courageous individuals who were involved in human rights monitoring with the Violations Documentation Centre in Douma before they were seized a year ago. They struggled for justice against all forms of terror in Syria – from the brutality of government forces to abuses perpetrated by organisations such as the so-called ‘Army of Islam’ which is believed to have abducted them.

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In the twelve months since December 2013, Syria has been steeped in even more blood. The barbarity of ISIS, whose emergence was in no small part facilitated by world indifference to Assad’s torturous regime, has wreaked further suffering. According to a new report published by Amnesty International, approximately 4 million refugees have fled the war in Syria. 98% of them are hosted by five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. These surrounding nations can barely cope with the influx. They’ve started closing their borders. The World Food Programme for Syria’s refugees, which aims to meet their most basic requirements, recently faced suspension due to underfunding. Families are enduring yet another freezing winter in exposed camps. While, within Syria itself, millions more are displaced and in dire need of assistance.

The crisis is now apocalyptic. But the response of the world’s richer countries remains pitiful. Calls on their leaders to accept at least 5% of the refugee burden have been ignored. On 9 December, Europe committed to admitting a further 38,000 Syrians – about 1% of the total. In 2014, Ireland has taken 90 people from Syria through a very limited resettlement programme and has pledged to provide a similar number of places in 2015 and 2016. Another 111 Syrians, who have family members already resident in Ireland, have been granted temporary permission to come here. Although, in the cases of those qualifying for this provision, their relatives have had to prove that they can fully support them.

Such reluctance to resettle Syrian refugees compares poorly with Ireland’s acceptance of over a thousand Bosnians during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. This previous scheme included medical treatment for the injured and fairer criteria for family reunification. Sadly, however, the current Irish effort mirrors that of most EU states. With official channels so restricted, Syrians – like many others from regions of unrest – have tried to enter Europe by whatever means they can. This often involves crossing the Mediterranean at the hands of human traffickers. It’s a dangerous journey – an estimated 3000 asylum seekers have drowned en route in 2014 alone.

The tragedy of Syria has become so huge, it’s almost unthinkable. Ironically, this seems to ensure that we deny it any thought. But imagine if around 80% of the population of the Republic of Ireland had to flee as a result of war… Where would we go? What welcome would we expect? Or if your partner, sister, brother or friend was taken captive for defending human rights… How would you feel? What would you do?

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Our plan to light candles at the Dublin memorial was thwarted by heavy rain and gale-force winds. It was hard enough to hold on to our posters! Yet, from within the sculpture which was commissioned as a reminder of prisoners of conscience across the world, a gas flame burned behind us. That stormy night, the chains and bars enclosing it represented the fate of Razan, Samira, Wa’el and Nazem. The dim light inside signified our wavering hope that Syria’s detained and disappeared will, one day, be free. It leapt with the warmth that Ireland could offer vulnerable Syrians… if our country chose to shine as a source of refuge.

For further information please see:

Irish Syria Solidarity Movement (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/IrishSyriaSolidarityMovement

Front Line Defenders – Syria: No word on four abducted activists; A year on, no information on Douma Four (9 December 2014):

http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770#sthash.cUz6zmh1.dpuf http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770

Amnesty International – Left out in the cold: Syrian refugees abandoned by the international community (December 2014):

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/047/2014/en/f9a8340f-d247-4c84-b3b8-ce4e8cbebf0d/mde240472014en.pdf

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‘Where the earth was soft for flowers’

There was warmth in the air – one of those rare April days in Ireland. The primrose-sprinkled verges were crowned with golden whin blossom, alive with birdsong. It felt like spring had resurrected Nature. A perfect afternoon to take photos. I’ve never had much patience with a camera, but my fourteen-year-old daughter wanted a few snapshots for her school project. She and her classmates had been given a history assignment to occupy them over the Easter break. The students could choose their own topics on condition that these had some ‘local’ relevance. Being a bit footloose in our area, my daughter found herself stuck for inspiration. Her Bosnian dad’s idea of the First World War as a possible theme was initially met with interest… then teenage scorn. While she was aware of WWI’s significance from her summers in Sarajevo, wasn’t the link to our locality rather tenuous? Or was this due to Ireland’s selective amnesia?

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An online search and a visit to the town library suggested the latter. A local historian had documented recruits from our county who had fought, across Europe and beyond, between 1914 and 1918. Many were killed in action in France and Belgium. Lads from along the coast, who’d joined the navy or who’d served as mercantile marines, perished in German torpedo attacks. Others faced death at Gallipoli. Or they succumbed to disease – pneumonia and, in one case, ‘malaria in Greek Macedonia’. Most were in their twenties, some in their late teens. Those who made it back to Ireland returned to a different country. Irish Volunteers who’d enlisted in the British army, in pursuit of Home Rule or adventure or just to escape poverty, didn’t get much of a welcome in a nation that, by then, was striving for independence. As their stories show, the experiences of the demobilised were often hushed up – the trauma they’d endured became their own dark secret. In keeping, perhaps, with a culture in which men didn’t talk about psychological problems. But, in the Ireland of that time, it was also politically prudent. Remembrance was something of a taboo. Still, there were reminders – graves and plaques etched in memory of the fallen.

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In the village down the road from us, a stone cross stands at the junction of the short-cut to the motorway. At a glance, it looks last century but its Celtic style harks back to an illustrious era of Irish ‘saints and scholars’. Although I pass it regularly, I’d never known that this monument is inscribed with the names of locals who were slain in the circumspectly entitled ‘Great International War’. Guarded terms were typically used for conflicts involving Ireland’s nearest neighbour. Gaelicised sculpture was a means of repatriating home-grown warriors whose imperial service, at a time of insurrection, left them in history’s limbo. Irish tradition is more associated with commemorating rebels. But the complexity of any attempt at national recollection is emerging. It’s almost one hundred years since the ‘Easter Rising’ – an event which came to define modern Ireland. And already there’s debate as to how it’ll be portrayed, revised, and ultimately branded, in advance of the centennial shindig in 2016.

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This anniversary will, no doubt, provoke controversy. During our president’s recent state visit to Britain, it was confirmed that a ‘senior member’ of the English monarchy will be invited to attend celebrations in honour of those who proclaimed an Irish republic, from the GPO in Dublin, on Easter Monday, 1916. The queen’s forebears would’ve likely disapproved and some revolutionary ghosts mightn’t be too impressed, but things have changed. ‘Changed utterly’… to recycle Yeats’ oft-repeated words. Aside from the pomp and media hype, the deepening royal and presidential rapport marks another step towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation. But achieving peace has proven an arduous process. And there have been brutal decades in between.

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Not only in Ireland. The incident deemed to have started the First World War – the assassination of the Habsburg archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie – took place in Sarajevo. Through the subsequent century, that city has been dealt an unfair share of suffering. Although intrigue still surrounds the teenager, Gavrilo Princip, who secured an infamous spot in history on 28 June 1914. Was he a terrorist or a nationalist, an idealist or a just a hapless misfit? His posthumous labels have blurred. Like those ascribed to the Irish soldiers caught up in the ensuing carnage. Fusiliers such as Francis Ledwidge – the poet who, in Heaney’s tribute, struggled with a torn identity ‘from Boyne water to the Balkans’ before he was blown apart, in Ypres, in 1917. Traitors, heroes, suckers for propaganda… or were they mostly young guys who had few other chances? And those who’ve ‘died for Ireland’ – or anywhere else – in the years since then? Should they be viewed as freedom fighters or fiends? It always seems a question of perspective.

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Whatever the ‘cause’ of conflict, youth gets conned or is conscripted into it. Young people are ruined in the resulting violence. But their lives are seldom remembered in jingoistic tales. Syria’s children are the forgotten ones of this millennium. There are no cenotaphs to these unknown juveniles. Only the heartbreak of families plunged into a human-created hell. Senseless… Or does it follow some evil logic? History tells us that war’s puppeteers are those who tend to gain from it. And, irrespective of its outcome, they can be tenacious – clinging to power, even chuckling with their former enemies. Often that’s how truces are agreed and treaties signed. The past, though, teaches more than this. It urges us to listen to the survivors. To those who defied the hate-stirrers, those who resisted oppression. To support all who take risks for justice today – the unsung history-makers of the world.

The title of this piece is taken from ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ by Francis Ledwidge.

For more poems and information please see the website of the Francis Ledwidge Museum: http://www.francisledwidge.com/

See also: ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge’ by Seamus Heaney: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-francis-ledwidge/

 ‘Easter, 1916’  by W. B. Yeats: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/247616#poem

‘The Unreturned Army: County Louth Dead in the Great War 1914-1918’ by Donal Hall, County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005.

The silence of the learned

Where are the ‘best minds’ of our generation? Defiant Beat poetry has drifted to the fringes of living memory. Its prophets have long burnt out in drug-addled debauchery or been sanitised by the system at which they used to howl. Even those who did rehab are past retirement age. The rebels of yore are eclipsed by today’s leading voices – an urbane lot who know what to say and how to say it. As guests on news shows or opining in the papers, their views are influential. And their arguments can be stimulating, once the listener or reader is ready to question. Columnists, academics, luminaries of the arts, high profile social commentators interpret the issues of our times. Though it’s worth wondering what determines which topics they discuss and from which angles. Then to ponder the silent gaps in the script and what might lie behind these lacunae.

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Take debate in Ireland as an example. For several weeks the ethics of the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána, have been scrutinised. Scandals over the annulment of penalty points for road traffic offences and the inappropriate recording of phone conversations have exposed perturbing flaws in policy. The Garda Chief Commissioner has resigned. The Minister for Justice is trying to save his skin by fudging apologies. Inevitably, the controversy has filled hours of airtime and acres of newsprint. Fundamental principles have been violated. There have been allegations of police corruption, attempts by those in power to discredit whistle-blowers. But if you’re not one of the ‘pillars’ of the local community who may have had the liberty of evading punishment for dangerous driving, the relevance of this story seems quite slim. While the more serious threats to judicial procedure resulting from tapped phone-calls become moot when they’re plucked to tedium on radio by the doyens of the law. Mere mortals heave a sigh and tune out.

It’s not that we don’t find the whole scenario ‘disgusting’, to use what’s currently Ireland’s hottest adjective. Frankly, it’s that no-one is surprised. The latest Garda saga is just another offshoot of the culture of nudges and winks which bred the crisis in which the country remains mired. It’s little more than a sideshow to the nation’s unresolved economic problems. For, however the government spins its claims of ‘recovery’, unemployment figures are still appalling and their true extent is masked by emigration. There’s no upturn for families harried to breakdown by extortionist banks or for people on welfare who face increasing hardship. Never mind that health, education and social services have been shorn to bail out kleptocrats.

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Eminent economists have forwarded countless theories to explain Ireland’s collapse. Now they’re engrossed in predicting future risks. This burgeoning analysis has evolved into a profitable industry. It’s served as raw material for lectures, articles, books. Hyper-numerate professors and business hacks have been rebranded elucidators. Begone boring fustiness! They’ve morphed into slick panellists, comedy festival hosts. Teaming their sharp wits with a touch of cool, they bandy about ideas in marquees at boutique gigs. These guys (they’re almost always male) have got talent. I marvel at their knowledge and their red-blooded passion for finance. But aren’t they merely bolstering their careers? Bar the odd exception, are these authorities really aware of the ‘pain’ about which they’re handsomely paid to speak, though rarely share?

Here I’m not writing out of philistine disdain but as a woman flailing against the effluent of recession, trying to keep my family afloat. And I’m luckier than most. At least I’m grasping some sort of life-ring – a recent doctorate from Ireland’s top-ranking university. Well, so much for the league tables… Qualifications obtained in this era of austerity have become tickets for entry into, often unwaged, insecurity or for one-way flights to find work overseas. Still, with any education comes responsibility. The more you’ve benefitted from your learning and experience, the more you should see these assets as something beyond tools for self-aggrandisement. Right?

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Wrong! OK, clearly my research area isn’t economics. Judging by present standards, it appears a liability to have a social conscience. Maybe it’s due to the shift towards a more corporate than collegial ethos in third level institutions – the emphasis on marketing, the managerial structures that value those fittest to achieve goals measured in money or prestige. Or perhaps it’s always been that way… alumni of hallowed universities aren’t usually inclined to challenge the parameters that scaffolded their success. Even among students (myself included) who scraped along on ‘free’ fees and scholarships, it’s easy to forget that access to higher education is far from universal. Instead of contemplating this underlying inequality, it seems to make greater sense to study those who continue to be excluded. After all, advocating for the marginalised can lead to rich professional rewards.

A climate of competition, in which personal gain is championed, can’t be conducive to dissent. The same also applies outside the education sector. Editorial slants are unlikely to clash with the interests of media owners, be these the state or billionaire tycoons. Consequently, issues of concern might be given a glib mention but not the probing they deserve. Recognised artistic endeavour is likewise largely confined to privileged circles. Themes demanding self-interrogation by those who engage with them often get no more than a superficial gloss. Polyphony, apart from the tokenistic leeway occasionally granted to voices beyond established cliques, is very limited. And, I suspect, not just in Ireland.

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What’s ‘in the news’ depends, to a substantial degree, on what attracts the focus of prominent critics. Discussion among these gurus frequently descends into political point-scoring, contorting statistics, and chattering about trivia which they deem to be of significance. In line with their perspectives and perceived audience, current affairs get calibrated. National topics take precedence over objectively ‘bigger’ stories further afield. International reports with domestic salience are prioritised over those which sound less relevant. Thus the impact on the price of gas in the EU can sex up a conflict that’d otherwise be neglected. Conversely, long-running, complex tragedies with unimaginable numbers of casualties don’t appeal.

Syria? Don’t talk about the war… It’s a stale subject. Why should our brightest spokespeople waste their genius on a situation that seems so irresolvable? It’s spiralled out of proportion, human rights organisations are now estimating over 150,000 fatalities. The UN has stopped counting. Death on this kind of scale is incomprehensible, even for the masters of comprehension. Also, it’s bad optics – too many disturbing images to foist on weary viewers. Apocalyptic pictures of Yarmouk’s starving or the naked corpses of tortured detainees draw gasps of revulsion, but apparently lack pathos.

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Whether it’s due to the world’s emotional numbness or its impotence, interest in the Syrian war has waned. Not without a dash of Islamophobic prejudice, it’s been dismissed as yet another Middle Eastern conflict. Furthermore, any search for a global response is marred by previous foreign incursions into the region, the legacy of Western belligerence in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the UN is neutered by the stultifying enmities of its key members. So the horror drags on… coverage reduces, donor fatigue rises. Poor neighbouring countries are left to cope with the vast majority of the 2.5 million Syrians who’ve managed to flee, while wealthy states fail to meet minimal quotas for provision of resettlement places. Things are even worse for the millions trapped within Syria. As António Guterres, the head of the UNHCR has said, ‘Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.’ But who has listened to him?

The impassioned statements of Syrians directly affected by the war and of people who are aiding its survivors have been ignored by those who might be able to make a difference. By political leaders and their governments, but also by respected thinkers whose silence or specious disengagement has been conspicuous. Except for a bit of bluster over chemical weapons, it’s as if there’s an embargo on intellectual discourse about Syria. Where are our wise ones when it comes to showing solidarity with victims of war-crimes? The academics, both within and beyond the flourishing schools of ‘peace and conflict studies’ or niches in departments of history and theology… How many of them have written or spoken (and not simply for a pay cheque or publication in a peer-reviewed journal) about the fact that today, as slaughter happens, we turn away? Where are the writers and other artists whose work is so esteemed – is Syria beneath their lofty thoughts?

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What about students? Should coming of age not mean more than passing exams and passing out on drunken binges? Since the start of my activist days, as an undergraduate, I’ve been amazed at the absence of that ‘revolutionary spirit’ which I’d once believed was part of college life. But I know from agitating for Bosnia that all it takes is for one person to speak out… then friends get involved and word begins to spread. So my advice to anybody (slightly) younger than me is ‘dare to try!’ Even if you ignite only a flicker of awareness, you can singe prevailing apathy. And isn’t that more offbeat than participating in societies or activities which ‘look good on your CV’?

There’s no point, though, in denying that the intelligentsia is extremely prone to educated deafness. It’s an ailment typically triggered by crises in places that are considered unimportant. Bosnia and Rwanda sparked outbreaks in the nineties. Now it’s again pandemic. Very few have adjusted their register to hear the wails of the persecuted in Syria or the cries of those caught up in emerging conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Reactions have been muted. The label ‘civil war’ has been employed to equalise blame and to justify the shrugging of erudite shoulders.

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Too clever to admit they don’t care much about Arabs or the inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa, the sages refine debate to ideological quibbling. But such dilettantish theorising does nothing to end mass murder or the torture and sexual violence perpetrated in campaigns of terror. These atrocities, which occur daily in Syria, require each of us who can to take a stand against them. And this demand should ring loudest in the ears of those who inspire, on campus or via broadcasters and publishers. It must resound with those who are regarded as our ‘best minds’. For it’s a call for them to say that, as human beings, we’re all interconnected. We’re not just individuals dealt arbitrary cards from fortune’s deck. Some of us are not more expendable than others. It’s finally time to stop the sacrifice of the silenced.

The Irish Syria Solidarity Campaign are organising events in Dublin on Wednesday 16th April, discussing the situation in Syria with one of the few academics who has devoted extensive time and thought to it, Dr. Thomas Pierret of the University of Edinburgh. These meetings, in Griffith College (at 12pm) and DCU (at 5pm), are open to the public and free of charge. Please see the poster below for details:

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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/

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