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[Postcard]

The Troubles at Home

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Syrian brothers seek refuge in Belfast

At Milltown Cemetry, in West Belfast, marchers who took part in the republican People's Parade gather to hear speeches marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. Photograph by the author.

At Milltown Cemetry, in West Belfast, marchers who took part in the republican People’s Parade gather to hear speeches marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. Photograph by the author.

On a gray Sunday in Belfast, police stood cross-armed in front of a line of armored jeeps, primed like racehorses in the stocks. They formed a barricade across a wide shopping street in the center of the city, starting at Poundworld and cutting off the KFC from the Disney Store one door down. The street was an eventual meeting point of the famous Falls and Shankill roads, the thoroughfares of West Belfast’s predominantly Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, divided by a looming peace wall. A solid concrete barricade topped with metal fencing, the wall runs for miles along the lonely bend of Cupar Way, rising higher than a double-decker bus. One of many peace lines built up more than four decades ago to prevent clashes between the two communities, on one side of the wall, fenced-off estates fly the English Cross of Saint George, while on the other, houses hang the Irish tricolor. Spike-topped security gates stand at the point at which the peace line crosses Lanark Way, traffic streaming through during the day. But the gates still shut automatically at designated times, barricading one side from the other.

That morning, Khaled Berakdar, his head and face freshly shaven, nipped down a back alley lane, making his way through empty streets and past the line of police, to meet his younger brother Ibrahim. With slicked-back hair and a thick beard, Ibrahim was sporting a rubber bracelet that read “Syria.” They embraced before making their way towards the Falls, where a crowd was mustering for a parade in honor of the Irish uprising against the British.

“It’s like being back home,” Khaled joked. The peace wall’s thick metal gates reminded him of the checkpoints and barricades in Syria, since the protests broke out there in 2011, leading to civil war. “When my sister left Syria with her kids it took her fourteen hours to reach the border in a taxi, because of the checkpoints, a journey that usually takes an hour,” Khaled said. “Now, there is Hezbollah checkpoint, regime checkpoint, Daesh checkpoint.”

A helicopter buzzed overhead, and he caught himself flinching.

The Falls Road is an artery through West Belfast, a predominantly Catholic area of the city where the streets are lined with murals immortalizing Republican heroes and houses along the side lanes proudly fly the flag of the Irish Republic from their windows. Khaled and his brother had come to join the parade commemorating one hundred years to the day since the Easter Rising, an armed rebellion in Dublin city that proclaimed Ireland an independent nation. Though the uprising failed, it was the catalyst for the years of war waged by the Irish Republican Army that led to Ireland becoming a free state. The treaty signed in 1921 made official the final break from hundreds of years of British rule in the south, but resulted in a bitter compromise, with six northern counties left under the British crown, creating what is now Northern Ireland. In the years that followed, the south was locked in a civil war.

Republicans were split between those who supported the treaty and the independence already won, led by Michael Collins, and those who rejected the treaty in favor of a united Ireland, led by Éamon de Valera. As a boy, my granddad in Dublin had refused to shake the hand of de Valera, by then a head of state, calling him a “Spanish onion” to his face, because my great grandmother was a sworn supporter of Collins.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, the bitter sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, was just a couple years from erupting. Similar to the grassroots demonstrations in Syria, it began with a civil-rights campaign—in this case to end discrimination against Catholics and repeal an act that allowed internment without trial by a mainly Protestant government loyal to the British crown. In 1969, the British military was sent in to quell widespread protests and riots, but instead the situation escalated into an armed conflict. Between attacks by Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups and crackdowns by British forces—who were targeted in turn—over three decades, more than 3,600 people, at least half of them civilians, were killed. Car bombs, armed men in balaclavas, British soldiers patrolling the streets, stone-throwing youths, the bleeding bodies of protestors, and political prisoners dying on hunger strikes dominated the news. By the end of the Nineties, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, declaring an official end to the conflict. But peace lines continued to be built at what became known as interface areas between already divided communities, and reports of sporadic killings that appear to be paramilitary linked continue.

Belfast is now better known for shopping trips than sectarian shootings, with tourists taking black-cab and bus tours of the peace walls and the old front lines. But for many, divisions remain raw. A few years ago, Loyalist protests erupted across Belfast, with petrol bombs and stones thrown, after the city council voted to limit the days the Union Jack would fly over Belfast city hall to the same number of days as other government buildings in Britain, instead of year round. Every year, Loyalist and Republican parades still march through the city, mostly peaceful, with some still carrying paramilitary trappings. This year, the centenary of the rising was followed a couple months later by a parade through the city center to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, commemorated mainly by Loyalists. The exit of Britain from the European Union, which the majority of people in the north voted against, has raised both hopes and concerns of a new push for a united Ireland.

A hundred years after the rising, Khaled and Ibrahim made their way up the Falls Road, lampposts plastered with posters for Sinn Féin,an Irish Republican party that shares power in the north. Theypromised that a vote for them was “a vote for united Ireland.” On the International Peace Wall, amid a patchwork of murals dedicated to revolutions across the world, the silhouettes of a man, a woman, and a little girl were painted across the bricks above a defiant declaration that refugees are welcome. Up the street, men and women in old-style green military uniforms marched holding rifles for show. Kids in green berets and yellow neckerchiefs struggled to keep in time to the beat of the marching drums and whistling flutes. Pinch-faced teenagers in sweatpants and hoodies carried flags emblazoned with “Irish Republic.” In the city center, a small contingent of Loyalists held a counterprotest behind a row of barricades and police, waving the Union Jack, middle fingers swinging.

A man we met during the parade mentioned that one time, during the height of the Troubles, the ceiling of his office collapsed on him during a bombing “You got used to it,” he told us. “I know that sounds weird, but you did.” Khaled knew what he meant. Two years ago he was living for a few months in northern Syria, hoping to work as a volunteer teacher in Aleppo. He stayed with the family of a friend and every night until the early hours of the morning, the sound of the barrel bombs by pro-regime forces had kept them awake. They lay there wondering if they would be hit. The next month, he heard the institute where he would have been teaching had been flattened in an airstrike.

“We thought it would end quickly,” said Khaled, speaking of the civilian uprising in Syria. “Now it’s five years and a lot of blood.”

Even though the brothers grew up in Syria, the Irish rebellion and the conflict in Northern Ireland was part of their heritage. Their mother was from West Belfast, born and bred near to the Falls Road. They all were entitled to Irish and British passports, as well as Syrian. When they were growing up in Syria, his mother rarely spoke of what was happening back in Belfast, her city turned conflict zone, at the height of the Troubles. Sometimes, Khaled remembers, he would see her crying in front of the TV, pointing at the screen and quietly repeating “that’s home, that’s home.”

Khaled had come to Belfast on family visits since he was a young kid, with his three brothers and older sister. When he was nineteen, at the end of the Nineties, he came back on his own and stayed for months with his granny in West Belfast. She would tell him stories about the Troubles, how one of the houses she had lived in had been destroyed in a bombing. Khaled had gone to an Internet café one day and tried to join the Irish Army down south. He came home a few weeks later to find his granny standing at the front door, slapping a thick, ripped open envelope against her open palm and telling him to come straight to the kitchen. “I got this in my door. What do you want people to say about me?” she had asked him. “I’m no traitor.” Somehow, he had been sent an application pack for the British Territorial Army.

Back then, Khaled remembers the Irish tricolor draped out every window along the streets of Catholic areas, until it met with the British Union Jack, each territory marked out edge to edge with flags. As if to strengthen the divide, Protestant areas would hang Israeli flags and Catholic areas would fly the Palestinian colors. More recently, Khaled had passed a muralist in West Belfast painting a tribute to Palestine. He suggested he paint something for Syria. “Which side?” the man had asked him. When Khaled said he supported the revolution, the painter told him, “Walk away from here, kiddo.” He supported Palestine, siding with Hezbollah against Israel. Hezbollah supported the Syrian regime against the revolution and so by default so did the muralist.

Before the revolution in Syria, divisions simmered beneath the surface. “They lived in some kind of harmony, but a hatred was still there,” said Khaled. In 1982, a mainly Sunni uprising in Hama been crushed by the Syrian army, under the rule of Assad’s father. It ended in a massacre. For Khaled, this revolution was not religious, but a political uprising against a long oppressive system. “It felt like it was coming from people desperate to have a dignified life.”

Khaled and his brothers were raised Sunni, but never felt divided from the Alawite or Christian kids they grew up with. Their mother, who passed away from cancer when they were young, had converted to Islam, but their father was never particularly religious. In school, Ibrahim shared a desk with a boy who was Alawite. But when Khaled posted a video of a protest in his neighborhood in Lattakia, Khaled said some friends who were Alawite began to criticize him for not being Syrian. Their father, still in Lattakia, is now confinded to a small Sunni enclave surrounded by pro-regime areas. Once a ship’s captain and a keen fisherman, now checkpoints often keep him from the sea. “He tells me, ‘I am ready to die in my house, but I won’t give it to anyone,’” said Khaled. 

Their youngest brother, Abdullah, a lanky twenty-four year-old, was in Syria in 2012, during crackdowns on his neighborhood by government forces. One by one, people close to him were arrested or killed. “I lost my best friend,” he said. “The security forces didn’t allow me to go to the grave.” While their father refuses to leave the country where their mother is buried, he made sure all his children got out of Syria before the war worsened. One brother went to London and the three others returned to Northern Ireland. Abdullah moved in with his sister and her two kids in West Belfast. He now works at a Pizza Hut in Lisburn, a mainly loyalist city next door where Union Jacks fly proudly. With his red cap and tracksuit, and every other of his sentences punctuated with “mate,” you would think Abdullah grew up in Belfast all his life. On his Facebook, a photo shows him in the stands at Old Trafford, the hallowed ground of English football, holding up the flag of the Syrian revolution. But he told me matter of factly that his last visit to Syria haunts him everywhere he goes—the face of his dead friend resurfaces in his dreams.

Khaled and Ibrahim followed the parade up the Falls Road, past a Palestinian solidarity mural and a souvenir shop bursting with green, white, and orange paraphernalia. At Milltown Cemetery, where hunger striker Bobby Sands is buried, the marchers tiptoed around the edges of old graves to form a crowd around the small stage setup, a man with a loudspeaker reading out a copy of the Irish proclamation.

“Six counties are still under British rule,” another speaker’s voice crackled out, reminding those gathered of the continuing campaign among some for a united Ireland. “We still have men, women, and youths languishing in jails because of their beliefs.” 

The brothers stood in silence. A year after the protests in Syria began, while working as a diver in Abu Dhabi, Khaled had been detained after trying to board a plane back to Belfast for Christmas. Ibrahim was also arrested shortly after. They were questioned repeatedly about why they were sending money home to their family in Syria. They described how their interrogators would hit them on the soles of their feet with metal bars over and over. Eventually, they were put on a flight together back to Ireland, heads shaven. Ibrahim finds it hard to sleep now. He thinks of the endless violence back home, the countless activists and civilians imprisoned or disappeared. They watched the ceremony, wondering what would be left to commemorate back home if the war ever ends. As they walked through the cemetery on their way home, Ibrahim flicked through photos on his phone until he found the one of his mother’s grave back in Syria, the last time he had visited her.

“Northern Ireland and Syria, it’s the same. Everywhere, it’s always the same,” said Khaled. “One day, there will be arguments over which date to remember for our revolution.” Maybe in the future, they will celebrate both the Irish uprising and the Syrian uprising in the same month. They wonder whether their country will be split into divided territories, whether the sectarian divides will be permanently entrenched.

After the parade, we went to Khaled’s sisters house in West Belfast for tea. When it was time to leave, he asked a taxi driver to take us to Lisburn. “What are you going there for,” the driver asked. “Khalid explained he was visiting his brother at work. “Does he support England does he? In football?” he responded.

On the drive into Lisburn town, a massive poster celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday, which fell the same week, draped the side of a building. British flags floated from lamp posts on a roundabout and along the streets. “It’s just tit for tat, that’s what it is,” the taximan snorted. “They put this up, we put that up.”

A few days earlier, while in London, President Obama had weighed in on how the peace process in Northern Ireland was a blueprint for countries dealing with sectarian conflict. He encouraged young people in Northern Ireland to forge “a new identity,” to decide “the country as a whole is more important than any particular faction or any particular flag.”

After playing football for a local team in West Belfast, Abdullah joined a club in Lisburn, which because of its location had Unionist allegiances, just as teams in West Belfast are tied to Republican groups. “People say, ‘How do you live with the IRA, support ISIS and play for the UVF?’” Abdullah laughs, having no allegiances to any. “You’re Muslim, but are you Catholic Muslim or Protestant Muslim?” If anyone gives him a hard time on the side of the peace wall in Belfast where the houses, isolated behind high metal fences, are flying the English St. George’s flag out their window, he says, “Don’t worry mate, I’m a Protestant Muslim!”

Abdullah refuses to buy into religious divisions. “My mum was Christian, I had friends who are Shia, we don’t judge on religion,” he said. “Religion is just a face, these conflicts are about money and power.” The guys he plays football with are his teammates, regardless of where they live.

“At the end of the day, we’re all human,” Khaled says. “It’s taken so many years here and some people still can’t get over this fact, but it’s true.”

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