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

Red apple rock

The first I heard of Crvena Jabuka was from a Bosnian girl in a refugee camp in Croatia. ‘Red Apple?’ The teenager explained that music groups from former Yugoslavia often had strange names. As they do all over the world… She wrote out the words of one of the band’s songs, Zovu nas ulice – the streets are calling us. I tried to learn them. The tune was a catchy little earworm.

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An uspomena… it was among the tracks on the Crvena Jabuka album she taped for me. I took the cassette back to Ireland. Played it, treasured it. When I should’ve been concentrating on my studies, I was decoding those handwritten verses and chorus. Their meaning wasn’t too deep, a typical laddish response to spurned love: ‘idemo na-napolje’ – ‘we’re going out’. Sugary eighties pop with a Balkan twist. Yet they taunted me with questions. Why had I returned to Dublin after that summer volunteering with kids who’d fled a war that still raged through their country? Maybe it was just guilt, but I knew I couldn’t forget. In college, I raised funds and awareness for Bosnia, roping my friends into a range of madcap schemes. They thought I was crazy.

Probably they were right. Without doubt, I fell beyond redemption when I met another fan of Crvena Jabuka. It was a pity he was tone-deaf but he ‘sang’ their hits in his own sonorous way. And, while far from perfect pitch, the lines were full of emotion. ‘Kad sat zazovni…’ Just over a year later, I found myself under that bell-tower by Begova džamija – the mosque at the heart of Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s Ottoman bazaar. The war had finally ended. The city gleamed in July sun, harrowed yet glorious. Or so it seemed to a dazzled visitor. I couldn’t comprehend it. Perhaps I was too much in awe, in love, blinded by someone who’d led me to the water that, myth says, draws you eternally back to this enigmatic place. The temperature was close to forty degrees Celsius. I was thirsty.

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Whispers… sensuous, bewitching. They get drowned in our mundane interactions. Acrimonious yells stifle them. Sometimes we need reminders. My crooner’s birthday. The clock has chimed through times good and bad, twenty years have disappeared since I was serenaded with an off-key rendition of Crvena Jabuka. By chance, on Twitter, we hear they’re coming to Dublin. Hmm… two tickets to the gig might be a better present than the annual sweatshirt. It turns out to be the Best. Gift. Ever. Even if I’m not sure that he deserves it. Plus there’s a new movie about Kurt Cobain that I’d prefer to see on one of our rare nights out.

I’m still threatening to ‘go to Nirvana’ – more my genre and generation – on the evening of 14 April. The cinema isn’t far from the concert venue. Should we diverge? ‘Oh well, whatever, never mind’… the smell of youthful spirit wafts through the air. It’s decadent bliss to swan round Temple Bar at 7p.m. on a Tuesday. Usual routine at this hour would be making dinner and checking the kids’ homework. This is a welcome escape! And it’s supposed to be a double celebration – our wedding anniversary is less than a week away.

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Nostalgia guides us to an Italian restaurant called ‘La Gondola’. Venice in the springtime… our honeymoon. Before we took the ‘smugglers’ ship’ from Ancona to Split on our way back to Sarajevo. After the meal, a charming Polish waitress asks us where we we’re from and tells us she recently wrote an essay about Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. It was part of her course in International Studies at an Irish university. Wars slip into history, become assignment topics. This accomplished young woman is about the age I was when I first went to the Balkans.

Yikes! Now I’m wondering about the wisdom of my mini-dress. Wondering why I’m heading to an ex-Yugo rock revival. No, I’m off to Nirvana again! Let him have his mid-life bromance with his diaspora buddies. Dilemmas on the Ha’penny Bridge. Still, I end up at The Academy and my arguments prove purely academic. Idemo… into this den of iniquity! We spot some people we know, Bosnian friends from years ago. Though there’s not much time to catch up for, once the gig begins, it’s too loud to talk. To be honest, I’m more in the mood for music than for banter. So a medley of 1980s gold, from a country that no longer exists, sounds oddly appealing. Especially when it’s belted out with such gusto by a band whose average age must be twice that of One Direction.

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The audience – which appears to be 99.99% Balkan – sings along. The birthday boy knows all the lyrics verbatim. Quite a feat! I’ll forgive his lack of melody. Anyhow, this is no place for cultural snobbery… it’s for getting up and dancing.  Even the two of us, with our four left feet, shed our inhibitions. The atmosphere gives us rhythm, hides our clumsiness. As Crvena Jabuka energise the crowd, jazzing up old favourites. They certainly have a flair for live performance.

Then they play our special song. From the opening twang, it holds something beyond words which, so often of late, have failed us. Memories, significance… the feelings we feared we’d lost are re-released. The critics may label it cheesy, dated, Eastern European. Translation robs it of context, it doesn’t make much sense. But it flows, like that legendary water in Sarajevo. It brings us back to who, if not where, we used to be. Until the streets are calling us… the long road home, perhaps the tentative steps of a new start. Yes, music can fill the gashes that scar our maps and hearts. It can’t heal every wound, but its notes might be a balm. The sound of what we share, our common chords. ‘Sa tvojih usana…’ i mojih.

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Many thanks/hvala puno Vox PROmotions for organising the Crvena Jabuka concert: https://t.co/ksvktgjBoj

And ‘that song’ from yesteryear – Sa tvojih usana/From your lips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrzG6FaIHdQ

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly, Novo Vrijeme, on 30/4/15: http://novovrijeme.ba/bosnian-music-red-apple-rock/

 

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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From the Latin Bridge

Heads turn here. No longer for a glimpse of visiting royals… Not at the shock of shots. One hundred years since the wearer of a feathered hat slumped against his dying wife in their open-topped car, this is history’s junction. The silt-heavy Miljacka flows past, too shallow to drown an assassin and his bungling accomplices. The disturbance as the culprits were apprehended, choking on non-lethal doses of cyanide, has dissipated among the city’s ghosts.

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Now there are just pedestrians, checking the traffic. The impatient gauging their distance from the oncoming tram before they dash across the road. Those prepared to wait glance to make sure the boy racer roaring along the quay in a turbo diesel hits the brakes at the red light. You never know. He could be the son of a politician. Festina lente, as it says on the new bridge downstream – požuri polako in Bosnian tempo. At least dodgy drivers are ordinary hazards. Unlike the sniper-fire that hailed on Sarajevo in the nineties. Or the bullets that heralded the Great War.

They stand at ‘the street corner that started the twentieth century’. So the poster wrapped around the museum proclaims.

‘But it started in 1900.’

Their eldest child questions the logic of the notice. Yet she grasps its metaphor. She’s five years younger than Gavrilo Princip was when he raised his weapon. And took aim. He glowers – a hollow-cheeked teenager – above the entrance. Franz Ferdinand’s whiskers curl on the other side of the building. His stare inspects the river as it gurgles through the capital of his empire’s annexation.

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A thunderstorm threatens. The air has grown oppressive. The vibe between the couple on Latinska ćuprija is tempestuous. That’s become their norm – a dynamic of power and revolt. It wasn’t always like this. But difficult years have led them to their July crisis. She feels she’s borne the brunt of it… as a woman, as the mother of his children. The balance that was vital to their marriage has been shaken.

‘You’re as smug as he was.’

‘Who?’

She casts a rueful eye at the archduke. ‘His highness.’

‘Tito dragi!’

Exasperated, he invokes a dead dictator – now icon whose omniscience may extend to secessionist wives. As if that’ll stop her launching into another of her tirades… She blames him, by default, for much of what’s gone wrong. These days he hasn’t a clue what she wants. Nor does she.

Freedom? Or maybe just to be free to be lovers again. Like the first time they came together to Sarajevo. It was 1996. He was returning to his war-wrecked hometown. She was enthralled by the indestructible beauty beneath the ruins. The city was rooted in him and they were joined by its trauma. But, full of joy, they were reckless. At the crenellated husk of the national library, he’d pulled her away from the dust of incinerated words. Even today, you must be wary of the unexploded. Especially in more isolated areas.

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‘Don’t pee on a landmine.’

She’d instructed their youngest daughter a few days earlier. Half joke, half advice for the inevitable emergency as they reached an ancient fort atop a peak in Herzegovina. The thrills of travelling with kids! From flying back like swallows every summer, their children are familiar with the drill. The chances of detonation by urination may be slim. Particularly for girls. If you’ve got to the point of squatting, you’re probably OK. As a rule, though, it’s safer not to walk on the grass. Unless you’re with someone who knows the territory.

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Bosnia remains a wounded country. Under the arched doorway of Vijećnica, a plaque testifies to an attack at the end of August 1992. The text is short but rancorous. It states that over two million books, periodicals and documents were consumed by flames. Irreplaceable thought and learning lost. But the edifice has finally been restored. The former city hall, which later became a repository of literature, gleams anew. An architectural jewel – connoisseurs remark on how its Austro-Hungarian grandeur adopts a ‘Moorish’ style. That meeting of East and West, a taste of the Orient in Europe… It’s been lavished with such stereotypical praise. The bricks are striped in shades of Bajadera nougat – hints of almond, hazelnut. Inside, the foyer rises to a hexagon of sky. She looks up, into its stained glass floral patterns. Dizzy, she sniffs back tears.

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This was where Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were received. In between two attempts to slay them – the second of which was successful. Some say that carelessness was their graces’ downfall. Flouncing around, they seemed blasé about security. You’d wonder why they headed to this peripheral province. It’s fanciful, but did the Habsburg heir and the humbler Duchess of Hohenberg think of their trip as a romantic break? A myth, yet it wouldn’t have been a bad way to escape Viennese snobbery and Emperor’s disdain for his niece-in-law. Poor old Soph… She always felt sorry for the forgotten collateral spouse. The role of snaha – female relative by marriage – isn’t easy.

Maybe she should’ve rebelled. Although often struggles only cause more pain, even if this was never their intention. Take Princip. His motives might be debatable, but he didn’t set out to spark a worldwide bloodbath. Hapless lad or terrorist, he died one-armed and tubercular – a prisoner in Theresienstadt – before the end of the war his actions had ignited. While millions of young men like him were gunned down, shelled and gassed.

‘Can we go to see the statue?’

‘What statue?’

‘The one they put up this year.’

She saw it on the news in Ireland. The British channels covered the story at the kick-off of their World War I commemoration fest. Most cameras focused on the assassination site on the Latin Bridge. But some lenses zoomed out further, to a monument erected in East Sarajevo. Aka Lukavica. Across entity lines, après la guerre, this erstwhile suburb appropriated the city name in a manner sounding rather Berlinesque. It’s not too hard to bypass. After a scattering of buildings, the road melts back among farms and thicketed countryside. This is the chunk of Bosnia defined as ‘Republika Srpska’ by the Dayton Peace Agreement. Detached red-roofed houses accommodate generations, floor upon floor.

Quiet, she gazes out the passenger window. Thinking of the unsaid between the pair of them… Cornflowers and bindweed mingle with garden gladioli. Errant petals brighten fences that can’t enclose roaming hens. In pastures beside some farmhouses a few cows graze. At one driveway a guard dog lies chained. Lazing in the heat, he shows no interest in his charge – an incarcerated beast.

‘Oh my God, a bear!’

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The children jump at her shout, straining to see if she’s right. But they missed it. They’re clamouring to go back. Their father isn’t pleased about having to do a U-turn on a dangerous bend. He doesn’t believe her. Now she’s hoping that the creature really is ursine. Otherwise he’ll devour her. Though who could imagine something so bizarre? They pull in tight along the verge outside the residence of – yes – a captive bear. It seems crazed, pacing up and down an iron cage. He gets out for a closer look. The animal lumbers into the hut at the top of its rusted confines. As if it’s scared of humans.

‘And wolves! Vukovi!’

The kids yell at two wildish dogs slinking across the overgrown lawn into wooden kennels. They’re leaner than the German shepherd sprawled on sentry duty. Grey-backed, buff at the chest, their legs are longer than those of domestic mutts. Their snouts are pointier too. Čuvaj se psa – ‘beware of the dog’ – reads the sign at the gate. An understatement, considering the menagerie, but they’re more nervous about the pet collector. One of those ‘bear-like’ Balkanites who populate foreign commentary on this region? Luckily it appears that nobody’s at home. So they won’t have to explain their borderline trespass. This mini-zoo isn’t open to the public.

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Then they resume their search for Princip. Though there’s no way it can compete with the attraction of neighbourhood fauna. But first, a stop for coffee… In a café called ‘Dublin’. It’s got the Irish flag printed on its sugar sachets and a window adorned with a scene from O’Connell Street. The waiter has no idea what inspired its Hibernian theme but he gives them clear directions to the statue. They find Gavrilo lording over a park across from rows of apartment blocks. He’s been upgraded from the sullen waif with a pistol stuck in his pants or drawn from the worn lining of his jacket. Here he poses, broad-shouldered, above his Cyrillic name. A wilting yellow bloom in one hand and ribbons in Serbian colours in the other, he seems a bit too burly, too mature.

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A pensioner in a blue singlet addresses her as ‘young lady’ – a welcome compliment for a mother of three kids. The old guy wants a photo with his hero. It’s a quaint request in the selfie era. She takes a couple of snapshots. He’ll bring them back to America, where he’s lived for fifteen years. Questions about why he left his homeland float unuttered. She guesses he’s more ex-communist than war criminal. She could be misjudging him. He might be neither. Or both. They talk about Ireland. She tells him the First World War was virtually deleted from Irish history. Until it got a retro-trendy revamp. Mostly for the sake of diplomacy, so that heads of state can honour… what? Heinous waste. The futility of fighting is tangible in the damage still visible throughout Bosnia. And lodged in innumerable hidden scars.

Any hope of ‘Stoljeće mira nakon stoljeća ratova’? ‘A Century of Peace after the Century of Wars’ – the title of a multimedia spectacle performed on 28 June. Back in the city centre its promotional banner hangs across the main street. Almost one month later it’s beginning to sag, eclipsed by an advert for the Film Festival and a Bajram greeting from the Islamic Community. A few more days until the end of Ramadan… At sunset each evening, cannon-shot rings out from a mosque in the old town. There’s an intake of breath before the muezzin’s call confirms it was fired in worship, not in warfare. Or maybe that’s just her over-reaction. Based on what she remembers – the blast of homemade explosives, the numbing thud of mortars. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a girl from ‘bandit country’ got involved with a guy from Sarajevo.

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Their birthplaces are, officially, at peace. Armed conflict has shifted from Bosnia and Northern Ireland, back to the Middle East. Gaza under bombardment, Iraq riven apart… After over three years of carnage, Syria’s cries are ignored. So are those of other neglected ‘civil’ wars. The ‘fortunate’ get a fast-fading media spot, a flurry of hashtags – #PrayFor all in the plane that was blown to scraps of fuselage over Ukraine. They die as images ogled in cyberspace. But does the world give a toss about these viral martyrs, any more than it does about those who are mourned off-line? And even when outrage goes beyond a ‘share’ or a ‘retweet’ it seems so ineffective. The cronies of today’s great powers protect their interests regardless. As people are slaughtered.

‘Like in Srebrenica.’ He stubs out his cigarette.

‘Yeah, it’s happening again.’

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The headstones in the cemetery at Potočari date lives cut short in July 1995. White marble, except for the green wood stumps which mark where remains were buried on the recent anniversary – the earth is still fresh around them. The youngest of this year’s 175 identified victims was only fourteen, the age of their first-born. Over 6,000 others have already been laid to rest. Of the 8,372 known to have been massacred. The men and boys of entire families wiped out in a ‘safe haven’… under the watch of the United Nations.

They’re recorded in lengthy columns bearing the same surnames. Even if they can be seen and heard no more, their existence is inscribed on a crescent of giant slabs. Graves stretch into the hills and the horror can’t be counted. But there’s a presence. And its weight is what visitors carry with them. Forever. A reminder. In front of the rose-rimmed gathering space, a fountain gently weeps. He holds out his hands in Muslim prayer. She blesses herself. Useless gestures… Yet this place demands them. Humanity has failed here. So has God, many would argue, though men did the killing.

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Confronting the reality of genocide stifles personal strife. They leave in silence. Their children are no strangers to Bosnian graveyards, but the little one whispers at the exit:

‘Mama, are there any wars in Ireland?’

‘No, lovie. Not now.’ She hugs the worried child. ‘There used to be… A long time ago.’

The twentieth century is aeons away for kids of the twenty-first. Though, with her Arabic name and big, dark eyes, their youngest could pass for Palestinian or Syrian. And all three of them look Bosnian – post-war by the serendipity of the decade of their birth. A peaceful childhood, it’s the least that they deserve. Everyday disputes seem so petty in Srebrenica.

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A land of tough love – the spectre of war gives a sharp sense of perspective. In Bosnia, you don’t quarrel about what can still be mended. They want to fix things but, when passion sours to bitter accusation, it’s impossible. Enemies are often those who had the most in common. Rebuilding any relationship, whether intimate or international, needs trust… and commitment.

‘You must be strong.’

She’s been told. She resents the implication that stoical strength is a female obligation. Along the lines of ‘stay alive for our children’… or whatever Franz said to Sophie when she was fatally injured. But, by then, he was also doomed. Perhaps, for all their aristocratic flaws, there’s truth to the legend of their closeness.

‘This might be my last time in Sarajevo.’

He doesn’t listen, doesn’t want to hear. It shatters her to admit this about a city that’s seduced her, somewhere so ingrained in their children. A place that’s been their link for twenty years, since the siege… They could surrender to the friction that’s escalated between them. Break up. Balkanise. Be done with each other for good. She’s barricaded her heart in self-defence. Yet she wishes she could grab his sun-steeped hand and waltz away with him. To rediscover their kiss, to try to reconcile.

‘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/

To the place I love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland’s solidarity with Syria

Forgotten people die forgotten. They’re tortured, raped and shelled without anyone noticing. We’ve seen their unremembered faces, their dismembered bodies. They’re on our screens daily, but we’re not watching. After almost three years, gore becomes boring. The world has tuned out from the war in Syria. Victims of chemical weapons can’t compete with Miley Cyrus in the annual internet ratings. Who wants to recall hundreds of poisoned children? The kerfuffle over US intervention dissolved into anti-climax as the story just got bloodier. Devoid of any clear script, it’s now portrayed as extremists killing each other.

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An estimated 130,000 people have died since the conflict began as a popular uprising in 2011. While this peaceful revolution met brutal oppression from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, its spirit survives among many Syrians who strive for a democratic, tolerant state. However, in the turmoil of war, such aspirations have been hijacked and thwarted by fundamentalist groups with foreign links. Opposition forces are a disparate bunch, increasingly at loggerheads. The situation appears too complex to resolve.

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Of course, this has served as a perfect excuse to ignore it. Russia’s clever manoeuvres on behalf of its tarnished ally enabled Western leaders to sheathe their unenthusiastic sabres. Global powers selectively forgot the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ – a commitment to act against mass atrocities which was made by the United Nations after its failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia. Meanwhile, the crisis in Syria has continued to escalate. Agencies such as UNHCR are struggling to deal with its human consequences – over 2.3 million refugees, half of them children. The impact of the conflict on Syria’s youngest citizens has been severe. By November, it was reported that over 11,000 children had been killed in the fighting. Since then, more have perished. Cases of polio, particularly among infants have been confirmed by the WHO, while curable diseases have proven fatal due to lack of healthcare and sanitation. Children are now dying from starvation and freezing winter temperatures have taken their toll.

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The facts are tragic. But how can Ireland respond? Syria may have slipped from the headlines, but donations from Irish people to organisations providing humanitarian assistance have contributed to a relief effort of historic proportions. As individuals, it seems we haven’t entirely forgotten Syria’s plight. It must also be acknowledged that the government has given significant aid to help those living in refugee camps in surrounding countries. However, at state level, Ireland could do more. Millions are displaced within Syria’s borders, with many in desperate need of food and medicine. Donor nations should insist that aid reaches civilians most at risk, especially those trapped in besieged towns.

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Furthermore, Ireland, along with other EU members, must be prepared to resettle a substantial number of Syrians. Amnesty International has described Europe’s response to this immense refugee crisis as ‘pitiful’. Thus far, the Irish approach to it has been disappointing. Last year, Ireland accepted only 35 people from Syria with a promise to take 90 more in 2014. This figure is negligible compared to, for instance, the 10,000 places pledged by Germany or the approximately 15,000 Syrians admitted by Sweden since 2012. Contrasting present Irish policy with that pursued in relation to past conflicts, our official attitude seems to have lost any vestiges of ‘fáilte’. In the 1990s, more than 1000 Bosnians – refugees and injured people requiring urgent treatment – were brought to Ireland. My husband, who had been seriously wounded in Sarajevo, was one of those medical evacuees. In many ways, we owe our family to the resettlement programme devised for Bosnia and Herzegovina at that time. Two decades later, Syria holds personal reminders.

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That’s why we, together with our three daughters, went to the gathering to mark the Global Day of Solidarity with Syria which took place in Dublin on Saturday 11 January. Attended by people of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds, it was part of an international campaign to refocus the world’s attention. The military blockades imposed on areas under siege were highlighted, with some participants fasting in support of Syrians who are starving as a result of this tactic. Above all, the need for a speedy end to the conflict, followed by a just resolution process involving the investigation of war-crimes and prosecution of their perpetrators, was emphasised. A petition expressing these objectives was signed by many passers-by while a symbolic ‘refugee tent’ added an eye-catching attraction. The Irish event was inevitably smaller than the marches and manifestations held in larger cities but, in front of the Spire on a busy afternoon, it made a striking impression. It also issued a powerful statement – saying Ireland won’t forget the Syrian people. Now we must act on this message and encourage our government to do likewise.

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You can still sign the petition online at:

https://www.change.org/petitions/petition-for-the-protection-of-the-people-and-human-rights-in-syria?share_id=gXkcOQnRzC

For more pictures of the event in Dublin see: http://www.demotix.com/users/robin-english/profile