Passing Time: An Evening in Ulster
April 2003

by Steven Trent Smith

This war with Iraq is being covered like no other conflict in the history of the world. How truly bizarre it seems, today, to watch reporters talking to us live on camera while riding in a column of tanks on the road to Baghdad. Of course, in the next war this will all seem commonplace.

Martha and I were not invited to this war. But we’ve had our share of armed conflicts over the years. Here is a story about one of those.

“Things have been bad in Ulster for the past nine hundred years. But they’ve only been really bad for the past three hundred.” So said CBS correspondent Tom Fenton back in 1981 about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. There are a few things the reader should know about that strange and gloomy place.

The capital, Belfast, was a somber, gray port city slung between two dull brown mountains. A third of its residents were Catholics, and though British subjects, considered themselves Irish. The Protestant two-thirds ruled Northern Ireland. And therein lies the rub– sectarian violence has been responsible for more than three-thousand deaths in Ulster since The Troubles began in 1969.

Belfast’s working class people don’t live in neighborhoods, they live in districts: the Catholics in places like Falls Road and the Ardoyne; the Protestants along the Shankill and Crumlin Roads. Where one district borders another the “Peace Line,” a giant barrier of sheet steel, had been erected to keep the factions separated. To pass through, cars had to slowly thread their way through zig-zag mazes of concrete bollards. The streets were patrolled constantly by three separate forces: the British Army and the Ulster Defense Regiment, patrolling in dark green armored vehicles called Saracens (an ironic name, for the Saracens were the religious enemies of the Crusaders); and by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in grey armored Land Rovers. Twenty-five thousand men in all– always armed, always on the alert for the slightest hint of trouble.

Our assignment this day is “petrol bomb patrol.” We cruise the districts on the lookout for flare-ups of violence. We stop on Albert Street, in Catholic West Belfast. On one side of the road sits the squalid dark monotone hulk of Divis Flats, a huge public housing complex and major trouble spot. Opposite Divis, in stark contrast, is a long row of new council-built terrace homes. It is a warm summer’s evening. Dusk is descending. The super-bright mercury-vapor street lights begin to pop on, one by one. Supper is over. The dishes have been washed. Parents retire to their porches for a smoke, while their children frolic in the quiet street. Girls play hopscotch and jump rope to lilting Irish chants. Small boys collect loose stones and dump them atop growing piles. Older boys fill empty milk bottles with gasoline and stuff rags into the necks. Others cart in sheets of corrugated steel and railway ties, erecting a barrier in the middle of the street.

At the top of Albert Street, where it meets the Falls Road, two grey Land Rovers pull to a stop. RUC men, in dark blue uniforms and thick bullet-proof vests, jump out the rear and take up positions beside their vehicles, eyeing the children at play a hundred yards down the hill.

Many of the older boys, those in their early teens, quickly don balaclavas or bandanas to hide their faces. They begin to pick stones off the piles and hurl them towards the RUC. The policemen dash behind their vehicles for protection. The games have begun.

The aim of the rock throwers is remarkable. The lads possess an uncanny ability to hit the Land Rovers from a distance the length of a football field. The stones bounce harmlessly off the sides of the vans. The RUC men show restraint. Those with rifles take aim through their scopes, cautiously monitoring the situation. Those with baton-firing weapons are more wary, for they know they will be the first line of defense.

Emboldened by the lack of response from the police, the lads slowly begin moving up the hill, throwing larger stones, paving blocks and bricks. They carry garbage can lids as shields, as though pretending to be knights of the Round Table out to slay the wicked dragon. The girls, ignoring the action, go on with their own games. As the boys approach to within fifty yards of the Land Rovers a voice blares out from a loudspeaker: “We warn you not to come any closer. If you come any closer we shall be forced to take action against you.” The boys continue to lob projectiles. The warning is repeated. The boys, perhaps two dozen ranging in age from seven to seventeen, continue their march up the hill. Without warning a third RUC Rover suddenly squeals around the corner, past the other two, and drives straight down Albert Street at top speed, sending children scattering for the safety of porches and alleys, and smashing the wood and tin barricade the boys had erected so diligently. At the bottom of the road the Land Rover spins a one-eighty and charges back up the hill, taking out a pile of stones. The Land Rover’s recklessness brings on disapproving jeers from parents gathered to watch the spectacle from the comfort of their stoops.

The RUC waits for the lads to retaliate. It is not long in coming.

As one group of boys rushes to repair the flattened barricade, another begins hauling petrol bombs from their hiding places. Lighters flick to life. The sky is suddenly filled with flaming bottles. As the bombs come to earth they explode in sheets of flame around the RUC vans. In response the police fire a volley of baton rounds– plastic bullets. You may think the use of plastic bullets is a humane way to control an unruly crowd. But the standard British-issue baton round is not some small ball of rubbery compound that merely stings when it hits its target. It is a piece of hard plastic, one-and-a-half inches in diameter and four-inches long, that has maimed and killed. As the plastic bullets scoot down the road kids dodge around them, keeping up their barrage of petrol bombs. Sitting on a porch, witnessing the give and take up and down the hill, reminds me of watching a tennis match. My eyes are glued to the bombs and batons just as I might follow the tennis ball flying between one end of the court and the other. It is a bizarre scene, like some primitive tribal ritual. Yet it’s replayed nearly every evening somewhere in Ulster. It is a game, seemingly a child’s game. But children and grown-ups alike get hurt– some die– in this give and take of petrol bombs and baton rounds. There is something indescribably frightening, and at the same time fascinating, about the reactions of the participants. They make it seem such a natural part of their daily lives. I conclude both sides have been at it so long they cannot bring themselves to live in peace. Tom Fenton’s quote rings in my ears.

One of the Land Rovers takes a direct hit, its roof on fire. It takes a second hit on a wheel, setting it alight. Wounded, the Rover retreats. An RUC man steps from behind another of the vans, holds his finger in the air and, and with a grin, makes a “chalk one up for your side” motion. The lads cheer. The parents cheer. The battle goes on.

For a time the kids on Albert Street have the upper hand. The initiative is theirs. Then enemy reinforcements arrive– two sinister Saracens full of regular army troops. The balance of power shifts.

There is a lull while the kids regroup. Playing with the RUC is one thing, but the British Army, well, that is something altogether more serious. The older teens, the ones with covered faces, vow to continue the fight. Some of the younger ones retreat homeward. And some of the porch-bound parents decide it’s time to go in and watch Dallas on the telly.

A petrol bomb arcs through the darkening sky, landing near one of the Saracens. The army holds its fire and lets the RUC launch a few plastic bullets. Another bomb flies across the void, bouncing off the hood of an armored car, exploding on the pavement behind. A volley of baton rounds follows. A volley of petrol bombs follows that. Hostilities resume with full vigor. For half an hour the fighting rages. The supply of petrol-filled milk bottles seems inexhaustible. The government’s supply of plastic bullets is, in fact, inexhaustible.

Then the most extraordinary thing brings the warfare to an abrupt halt.

A very brave woman enters the battlefield, stepping into the middle of the crosswalk along the Falls Road. She raises her arms in the air, calling aloud for a cease-fire. “Me mum's taken ill,” she shouts. “We’ve got to get her to hospital. Please let us cross. We must cross”

The soldiers stare incredulously at her, then at one another. Down the hill the lads, lit petrol bombs in hand, stand dumbfounded. The woman stands her ground, awaiting signs from both sides that it will be safe to pass.

The army and RUC pull back their weapons. The kids lay down their stones and bombs. The woman, looking much relieved, beckons her family, hiding behind the house on the corner, to hurry across before someone changes his mind.

It is not a small family. There is an old woman, looking unwell and clutching at her stomach. And there are seven children, from toddlers to teens. Mom stands in the cross walk, directing them like a traffic warden. When they are safely on the other side she turns to the soldiers and thanks them, then turns to the lads to thank them. She darts off after her family. The scene seems almost comical.

Moments later havoc reigns once again. Bombs splatter the pavement, slowly burning themselves out. Plastic bullets fill the sky like a meteor shower. Suddenly the mother reappears in the crosswalk.

“I’m sorry,” she shouts to both sides. “The baby dropped the keys.”

The fighting stops for a second time while the woman drops to her knees and begins to comb the battle debris. No one rushes to her aid. The army fears a trap. The lads know better than to get too close to the enemy. For a few minutes the woman searches the rubble. She cries out, “Found them!” stands up holding the keys in the air, brushes the dirt off her clothes, thanks both sides yet again for their patience, and disappears. The clash recommences, to continue until well past dark.

Casualties are light this evening. One Land Rover requires a new tire. A soldier gets a slight burn from kicking a petrol bomb away from a Saracen. A few kids have bruises and scratches. No one dies. No one goes to hospital, except the old woman with a stomach ache. There are no statistics for this evening’s fighting.

We retired to our hotel to recharge our camera batteries and ourselves. We were witnesses to a society gone mad– at least by our own standards. And yet, the more time we spent in Ulster, the more we too come to accept the daily routine of violence. It began to seem so normal that armed men should do battle with ten-year old children. Ulster grows on you, even though you know in your heart there is something very, very wrong with the place. In the end, you make your peace with Ulster. You too are consumed by nine hundred years of history.

© Steven Trent Smith

Steve Smith is a cameraman for CBS News and 60 Minutes. He and his wife, Martha, founded Videosmith, a Philadelphia-based company that sells and rents professional and consumer-level video equipment.


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