Last Sunday, I attended the annual march to commemorate the events of Bloody Sunday, 39 years ago to the day when the British army shot unarmed civilians protesting for their civil rights in here Northern Ireland. As I walked up to the Creggan for the start of the march, I can recall praying that history would not repeat itself that day—a Sunday—as pro-democracy demonstrators continued to make a stand for their civil rights and freedom from an oppressive government thousands of miles away, in Cairo. Since the previous Friday, I had been glued to the news from Egypt, so it felt especially healthy for me to leave the flat to get some fresh air and take part in this historic and meaningful commemoration here in Derry.
This was the first commemoration march since the Saville Inquiry was released, which cleared those killed on Bloody Sunday of wrongdoing. In June 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized on behalf of the British government, and it was reported that the families and communities of those injured or killed largely felt “vindicated.” As such, for the first time, this year’s march was to continue to its intended destination, Guildhall Square, as a symbolic tribute that the demonstration could finally end. Not all accept this alteration; some families disagreed and want the march to continue annually. This disagreement raises some deeply philosophical questions about dealing with the past and pursuing difficult, dissonant ideas such as truth, justice, and reconciliation, concepts that I am continuing to contemplate.
(My video of the march. Special thanks to Flipcam and Cisco):
The march began amidst marching music, flags, and banners. Last semester in one of my core modules on the Northern Ireland Conflict, I learned a great deal about the significance of events surrounding Bloody Sunday. However, marching amongst thousands of people connected the event with the human voices and stories that can often remain obscured by “big-picture” elements (e.g., political battles). Certainly, the combination of the two made the event even more moving for me.
I found a friend in the crowd, a pleasant chap in his late-30s and veteran of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland named Deaglán, who had me over to his flat a few months ago for dinner. After our meal, I examined a few prized items on his mantle. What missed my eye at first was something Deaglán picked up and showed me. “This was a rubber bullet I was shot with,” he said. “During the Troubles, I had a German journalist friend who got caught up in the crossfire. I had to go out and pull him back…”
He handed me the rubber bullet. The weight of it caught me off guard—it was heavy and it was huge. I shook my head at my own ignorance; I had previously imagined rubber bullets as a mere annoyance that protestors might brush off. Not so. The object I held in my hand was capable of serious damage. Deaglán confirmed this; “When I was running back filled with adrenaline, I didn’t feel anything, but I must have been shot in the back. For the next two months this was all black-and-blue,” he said, motioning across his entire back.
As I walked home that evening, I reflected on the sacrifice those that fight for their rights and freedom make. Months later, I would think about the use of rubber bullets on demonstrators in Cairo and shudder in pain, recalling the bullet I held in Derry. Sometimes the downside of an academic approach to learning about peace and conflict is that it can miss these moving stories, the ones that touch your heart and soul.
Back at the Bloody Sunday march, Deaglán walked next to me for a while, asking in a low voice about the situation in Cairo (where friends, family, and my girlfriend all live). I explained what I knew from the news and from on-the-ground stories, and what I hoped might play out in the coming days. He listened quietly and nodded, knowingly, at parts. Rather than responding with an unexamined cheer for “The Revolution,” his first-hand knowledge of struggle resulted in a more grounded reply, wishing the people of Egypt strength in their long struggle ahead, and voicing his belief that unified people can never be defeated. As we parted, he did say words that I have been turning over in my head since, “These are good times, too. They are fighting for their freedom, and that is a feeling of being truly alive.”
That Sunday, thank God, there was no “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Cairo. The people of Egypt continued to demonstrate in overwhelmingly positive and peaceful ways, cheering and chanting with their newfound freedoms, and demanding their rights and their freedom. The atmosphere at Midan Tahrir (which means “Liberation Square” in Arabic) was joyful and festive and filled with the beautiful diversity of Egypt’s demographics side-by-side: rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, women and men, old and young. Families were out, picnicking and singing, and hope was in the air.
In the days following, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The oppressive ruling regime sponsored a brutal, violent crackdown on the demonstrators and journalists that continues as I write. With new media (e.g., Twitter) I am able to feel connected directly with those on the front lines and hear their voices as events unfolded. The struggle for freedom against tyranny has produced a candid array of voices of fear, panic, and appeals for help, which tear at my heart as I read and listen. Yet, at the darkest hour, there are moments that display the deepest goodness of humanity—compassion and unity that can overcome the hunger, the pain, the fear. Much of my hope lies in what Deaglán told me, words I continue to turn over in my mind, that the fight for dignity and freedom is to feel alive.
I heard echoes of this idea in a February 3rd email to The Guardian by Amr Sabry, an Egyptian demonstrator: “My last visit to Tahrir Square on February 1 was like a dream, the most beautiful dream I do not even have the ambition to see in my sleep. After yesterday’s very scary crackdown, I am shocked to the bones… I have seen a corridor leading to the light of day, I tasted freedom for one day, and it was like discovering a sixth sense. Tonight the Egyptian people all will not sleep, fear is occupying their beds, a large monster, but the millions who has come out on February 1st, can give you a definition to freedom, that I am sure you don’t even know exists, you the people of the civilised world.”
This is not to romanticize the struggles for civil rights and freedom in Egypt and in Northern Ireland, but rather to offer the humble notion of just how significant a barrier the status of an outsider to conflict can be. This is troubling to the notion of studying peacebuilding, as lived experiences of those within the conflict are difficult to grasp by those outside of it. We might use the same concepts/words (e.g., peace, freedom) but suffer from a cognitive dissonance in meaning. Moreover, we can walk away at the end of the day and decide to stop listening; those within a conflict do not have that luxury. The families of those killed on Bloody Sunday may not be able to “draw a line in the past” as quickly as those not directly affected are able to; the demonstrators fighting for “freedom” in Cairo must have a channel to express what that concept explicitly means for them. While I can see possible, meaningful roles for peacemakers outside of these conflicts, the limitations should not be underestimated.
With that, I leave you at the midway point of my degree in Peace and Conflict Studies: generally at peace, but internally conflicted.