My first trip out of my own country was to (London)Derry Ireland in October 2001. It was also my first experience in a conflict zone. From the moment I arrived I was confronted by a new reality of what it means to live with the constant threat of violence and the remnants and artifacts of the violence both past and present. The city of Derry is a walled city, surrounded by a medieval, defensible fortress. Armored police vehicles crawl the streets after dark. The shop windows close their eyes at night, cold metal eyelids shuttering out the world. Any windows not covered have spiderwebs of cracks or shattered holes. Concertina wire adorns the tops of fences and walls. Surveillance equipment seems to follow your every step along these ancient streets. Graffiti and vandalism scar much of the visible facade of Derry, never letting you forget that death and violence are walking nearby in the hearts and minds around you.Well it was Sunday bloody Sunday
When they shot the people there
The cries of thirteen martyrs
Filled the Free Derry air
Is there any one amongst you
Dare to blame it on the kids?
Not a soldier boy was bleeding
When they nailed the coffin lids!
There is sanctuary from the street, the pub. At night the residents of Derry take solace in jolly camaraderie. I joined in, eager to imbibe the stories of these people. How did this happen to them and why? And more importantly why does it keep happening?
By the late 60s the "Troubles" of Northern Ireland found the Roman Catholic nationalists and the protestant unionists openly fighting one another. January 1972 the people on the bogside of Derry organized a peaceful protest against the violence. The protest ended in bloodshed when the British soldiers opened fire on the protesters. These were fatal shots for 11 people, while two others were run down by armored vehicles. By firing on a peaceful gathering the British radicalized the youth of Northern Ireland, sending them to the doors of the IRA (Irish Republic Army) to pick up guns for their retaliation. Violence began to escalate, spilling the blood of many innocents. No one felt safe in their yards and homes. Everyone became suspect and neighbors lost trust and hope of each others humanity. If only Nonviolent Peaceforce, or other unarmed civilian peacekeeping, had been available to them then, much suffering might have been avoided. The walls of this city have witnessed bloody battles since the 1600s, and it was clear that it was not yet to see peace.
Few in Northern Ireland have escaped the harm of the Troubles. Nobel Laureate Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were deeply affected by the violence in Belfast when the three children of Mairead's sister, Anne, were run down by a member of the Provisional Irish Republic Army (PIRA). Betty Williams witnessed the event. the grief stricken mother, Anne, ended her own life. This event galvanized the women to action and they began "Women for Peace" which later became the "Community of Peace People", winning them the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. The group began the modest work of re-education, planting the seeds of peace and nonviolence in hopes that one day these concepts would grab hold the collective imagination of the people.
I sat in my hotel room in Derry in 2001, watching the local news. Martin McGuinness, a Derry local and leader of Sinn Fein, was making an announcement to the people of Northern Ireland. McGuinness is highly respected in the local community, he was also one of the youth that had been driven to join the struggles as a member of the PIRA after Bloody Sunday. After so many years of violence, he stated, the IRA was ready to begin disarming and handing over their weapons. I sat in disbelief. As I spoke with locals I found this skepticism to be the norm. Yet there was hope. Could these people, after so many decades of fear and mistrust, learn to live in peace? Most seemed weary of violence and ready. This was a big moment. As time passed it has happened, but not until 2006. I guess it takes time for those seeds to sprout, but unless they're planted nothing will ever happen.
My five year old daughter brought in the mail the other day. Inside was a coupon booklet from Bi-Mart. It had hearts on the front for Valentine's Day. She flipped through the book to find other sweet gifts of love on the pages. She came up to me with a very concerned look on her face and showed me the page that earned this sad look. There were guns. She said "Aren't guns for war, for killing people and animals?" I told her yes, that is what guns are intended for. We both agreed that guns should not be a gift for a day dedicated to love. We will write a letter to Bi-Mart, stating of protest of their sale of guns. The members of the IRA had to obtain guns illegally, yet in our country we have the "freedom" to walk into a large box store and buy a lethal weapon. Some claim that owning a gun keeps them free, but I'd suggest that the people of Derry discovered otherwise. That the more guns on the streets, the less free they were. The more concertina wire, surveillance equipment and shuttered windows are the cost of that kind of freedom and it's not the kind of freedom we should be asking for. Let's disarm our hearts and our homes, and truly be free.