Growing up in Belfast with bricks, bombs, and British soldiers

"Here it comes!" Garry seized a brick from the dozens scattered across Falls Road outside Provisional IRA headquarters. He raced toward the ugly khaki armor of a British Army Saracen vehicle as it lumbered toward him.

Shouting abuse, he and a friend nicknamed "Doofer" hurled their bricks, which clanked against the bulletproof driver's window and thudded back into the road. The Saracen did not stop.

Just another scene in violent west Belfast? Well, yes. . . .

Except that Doofer was 12 years old. Garry was 9.

They were two tiny figures in battered jeans and sweaters, black hair cut short, dirty; their whole lives spent in an atmosphere of violence and hate.

As they darted in and out of traffic, throwing rocks at the khaki of the Saracens and the blue of armored police Land Rovers, they piled up bricks in the roadway in a mini-barricade. They symbolize much of the tragedy and the futility inherent in the violence here today.

Two of my own children are about the same age. They are in school -- also in Britain (in London) -- but in a different world. You can read about the children of west Belfast, see pictures of them, but until you watch two of them stoning armored cars as naturally as mine would ride their bycycles, you don't really confront what's going on here.

Garry and Doofer were just two of the streetwise children caught up in the violence of west Belfast. Those under 12 have known nothing else since the current troubles began in 1969.

"Why do you put bricks on the road?" I asked Doofer as he paused from his labors.

"Stop Saracens so's we can brick'em."

"What good does it do?"

A pause. A shrug. He stared straight ahead, the top of his head barely above my waist. "Nothin'."

He looked up at me and suddenly became a child again: "Lend me 2p [2 pence, about 4 cents]."

"Why?"

"Sweets [candy]."

It is children like Garry and Doofer who worry both Protestant and Roman Catholic parents, social workers, government officials, and others here as the violence continues year after year. Many efforts are being made to bring Protestant and Catholic children together in community homes and other centers outside the city, and to send older children together on vacations to the Netherlands and elsewhere.

I asked a 15-year old Protestant girl in the front room of her mother's house , only yards from the corrugated iron fence separating their street from a Catholic area, what she thought of a recent trip to the Netherlands with Catholic children.

"Holland was quiet," she said. "Not like here."

Did she get on well with the Catholic children with whom she traveled?

"They were fine when we were in Holland," she said, "but as soon as we got back here, they went to their side and I went to mine and it was all just the same."

Nonetheless, pioneering work is being done by such organizations as the Corrymeela Community which takes young people out of the slums of Belfast for vacations by the sea on the tip of northeast Ireland.

A group called the Harmony Community Trust also brings Catholic and Protestant children together to a house set in its own grounds near the sea in County Down.

The work is slow, but much needed.

On a tour around Protestant and Catholic areas of west Belfast on the night of the day Bobby Sands died from his hunger strike, local taxi company proprietor John Reid and I were stopped near the Catholic Springfield Road by a young soldier in battle dress and black beret. The soldier stood in the rain juggling the black barrel of his self-loading rifle, my identity card, and the portable radio he used to check our license number.

Two Saracen vehicles, rifle barrels poking from narrow slits in their armored sides, rumbled past us toward the road. Another blocked a side street. Two teen-aged Protestant girls skylarked on the street, trying to catch the eye of young soldiers stopping cars coming from Springfield Road.

Not far away, the red glare of Protestant bonfires defied the rain to mark the death of Bobby Sands. A mother came to the door of her two-story tenement, followed by a tiny blond-haired girl no more than five years old.

The little girl looked out at what to her was a familiar scene -- armored cars, rifles, a line of stopped traffic -- and yawned.

Why weren't Garry and Doofer in school?

"I go when I want to," muttered Doofer.

Did he know where his mother was? "No."

His father? "No."

Where did he live? "In a house." With his parents?"Yes."

What did his father do? He shook his head --stranger would ask: Unemployment in the Falls Road area runs as high as 40 percent or more.

One Protestant mother near the Shankill Road echoed many other mothers here when she told me: "For my kids and others, this violence is a way of life, so to speak. They play out on the street and if there's trouble over there [she pointed toward a Catholic area only a few yards away] they are off and away toward it and I can't stop them.

"When one of my boys was 15, he was picked up and interrogated by the police and we were advised to have him plead guilty. So he did. And he has a record and so do all the kids around here. It's no way to start your life, but what can I do?"

Bobby Sands himself was only 15 when the violence broke out in 1969. He was raised as a Catholic in a Protestant housing estate in west Belfast. He and his family were reportedly forced to move out to a Catholic area, and although he had lived in a mixed Protestant-Catholic community until then, sectarian hatred surrounded him for most of his life.

Many of his fellow inmates still in the Maze Pr ison lived the same kind of lives --both Catholic and Protestant.

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