April 2009, Rome
This was probably the first time I tried to cover an event as a photographer and create a comprehensive photo essay. The occasion was a Communist rally on a warm spring day in Rome, where I had arrived days before for the second leg of a study abroad program. I can’t remember how my friends and I heard about the rally, but it was a Saturday morning, and we took the worlds’ worst metro system to the Pyramid stop, where we emerged, wide-eyed, to a sea of red flags and hammers and sickles. It was overwhelming for my midwestern senses, which were still adjusting to a world outside of Minnesota, much less the USA. But then the adrenaline kicked in and we started to follow the parade towards the Colosseum.
I stayed on the outside of the parade, working my way toward the front. I took a lot of pictures of people’s backs and sides, much to my irritation nowadays. Nearly an hour into the march, I found the beginning of the pack and the leaders of the action. They were riding in the back of this white pickup truck which was advancing at a crawl down the middle of the street. One shouted into a megaphone in Italian. An old man wearing a red scarf walked on the passenger side of the truck. But most of all, I was transfixed by this young woman who seemed to rally the crowd with ease, starting chants and directing the fists of Italian youth. I read her as a symbol of the movement. She was young, maybe as young as I was, and her behavior was a fascinating split between powerful and frail, anonymous and strangely familiar.
As the parade approached the Colosseum, the men in the very front produced giant sparklers which gave off a tremendous amount of smoke when lit. It was the climax of the entire morning and emotions ran high. I began a flat out dash to the very front, planning to throw myself in front of the marchers to get the shot: the men with the angry red sparklers against the backdrop of the Colosseum. Suddenly, other photographers were there, all with giant lenses. I jockeyed with professionals for space, also for the first time, watching to see where they would try and shoot from. And then, my camera ran out of battery. Just like that. Dead. No more photos. I never got the shot. Although the friends I came with were behind me, at least a few of them snapped photos that could have ran on AP with ease. Most of the work is showing up and finding the right place at the right time, but it doesn’t count when your equipment doesn’t show up with you.
I learned a hard lesson that day, but since then, I’ve never ran out of battery at an event. However, I still hate photographing flags, fundamentally fickle in the wind.
The most famous of the Peace Walls, a menacing structure on Cupar Way, is a frequent stopping point for tourists who are encouraged to ‘add a message of peace’ to it’s already graffiti-strewn face. The Berlin Wall was also a well-known drawing board, and after all, who doesn’t want to be part of history? After spending an hour taking in as much as possible and analyzing the scribblings, I can safely put them in three distinct categories:
1. “I was here.” Nothing fancy, just names, dates, a record of a visit.
2. Religious stuff. Bible quotes, a lot of John 3:16, some Corinthians. I skimmed as they tended to be quite long, but they struck me as appropriate for the context.
3. Actual messages of peace. By far, the most popular was some variation of “make love not war/walls” but a significant number fell into a sub-category I will term “condescending messages of peace.” Below is the worst one, I actually felt enraged when I saw it.
This graffiti strikes me as insensitive, ignorant, intrusive, and a hundred other things but suffice to say this sort of message really bothers me. People just waltz in, take a look, put their thoughts in ink, and leave, returning to houses that will never be threatened by petrol bombs or be in danger of having a 60-foot wall block their sun.
And in general, I’m uncomfortable with the extent to which the Peace Walls and the Troubles have become a tourist attraction. All day along Cupar Way, open-topped buses whiz past, the guides shouting about how they are now crossing the frontline of the conflict. The doors fly open and people spill out and up to the wall, break out their permanent markers and add to the mass of words on the wall. Belfast’s open-topped buses would have been an inconceivable addition to the landscape 15 years ago, but today they blend into daily life oh-so-naturally. The same people will likely not speak to those who actually live in the area, spend time in the neighborhoods, or walk anywhere near the interfaces. They will not take the time to achieve a fuller understanding of Belfast’s past and present with the Peace Walls.
At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I fully acknowledge that my own time here has been incomplete, intrusive, and unusually focused on seeing the worst places in this otherwise beautiful city. I cannot claim separation from this system.
And of course, it’s all right for tourism. Belfast is booming with the Titanic commemorations, a sparkling and busy city center, and becoming a reasonable tourist destination like other European cities its size, for the first time in 40 years. And the people who go on these open-bus tours and the like are certainly learning something about the conflict and its current manifestation. Surely that’s better than sweeping it under the rug entirely?
To make another comparison to Berlin, the biggest question tourists ask of the city today is: ‘where is the Wall?’ I’ve met some Berliners who bemoan the passionate and irreversible destruction of the Wall, thinking of the tourism and educational opportunities that slipped through their fingers. But this is of course wildly inappropriate because the conflict here is not entirely over, and these walls remain a massive problem for the city. Even if the Berlin Wall had been left intact, or more pieces of it, can you imagine the inequalities this would have created in the modern urban landscape? The East would have remained the East solely because of the presence of the Wall and all the mental walls it reinforced.
But I believe the point stands and the question remains: how do we encourage people to visit Belfast, learn about the Peace Walls and the Troubles without people’s lives and neighborhoods becoming an unholy spectacle? How do we achieve a style of tourism that is both respectful and educational? Maybe we could start by putting some of the 7 pounds for a bus tour toward bringing down the Peace Walls they drive by.
Before I arrived in Derry/Londonderry last week, I posted this tweet: “When in Derry/Londonderry do I….A. Avoid saying either name. B. Awkwardly say both. C. Know exactly who I’m talking to and what they say??” I got a helpful response from my friend Dave telling me I could refer to the town as ‘stroke city’ if I wasn’t sure of my company but felt a pressing need for accuracy.
Ah…What’s in a name?
As you may have guessed, the name of this smallish city in the west is a point of contention between Loyalists and Republicans. In fact, the prefix “London” was added in 1613 after the town received a royal charter, so you can see where that might hit some nerves. The official name is Londonderry, but as I rolled through the countryside by bus, I saw countless signs where “London” had been defaced or painted over.
This quiet city was the site of Bloody Sunday, and its residents have not forgotten their not-so-distant past.
There is just one Peace Wall in the town: this anonymous-looking structure, reinforced with dark green mesh fencing. There’s a secondary fence behind this, providing a second layer of protection against bottles, rocks, and heaven forbid, petrol bombs.
The Fountain neighborhood looks like a little suburban fortress, shielded from surrounding enemies by a few fences and walls, and gentrified by small pathways, nice gardening, and identical townhouses. Despite these territorial markings, my Catholic-born, Atheist-in-practice host said he didn’t feel too uncomfortable walking around the area.
I met a Protestant student who refused to accompany us to a bar because he said, half jokingly that “some ex-IRA member will speak Irish to me” and realize his affiliation when he couldn’t respond. I went anyway, and was not surprised to see Palestinian flags and Bobby Sands magnets amongst the decor. I met a Catholic student who works as a door-to-door salesman. He told me he changes to “Londonderry” when hawking at Loyalist homes. You could say that this divide doesn’t seriously affect lives here anymore. Are these examples ‘serious’? An impeded social life and and the slightest shift in vocabulary? The students didn’t seem to care too much, it’s just the way things are. Half a mile from campus, the entrance of the police station was blown up last year with a car bomb. You can see where they have repaired the wall.
This cannon is aimed at the Catholic Bogside neighborhood from the height of the city walls. Historically, Protestants lived inside the city walls while Catholics were confined to slums on their outskirts. The fort remains a symbol of oppression, its black walls, painted with slogans still loom menacingly over the houses.
This statue in the city center is meant to symbolize bridging the divide between the Catholic and Protestant communities, a representative from each side reaching out to the other. My host suggested that the remaining gap between the stoic figures is more significant, answers and questions in the negative space.
There’s a lot more to Belfast’s division than the Peace Walls. In addition to the snaking lines of brick, fence and concrete, physical division comes in the form of dual resources that allow people to shop and exercise without leaving the neighborhood, murals and flags that mark territory, and the urban geography itself, which has developed and conformed to the tune of polarization.
Today I did an experiment. I walked out of the city center with a very simple premise. Start in the Falls, take every right turn. If you cross to the Shankill, take every left turn. See where you end up. See if this movement is possible. This map shows the lay of the land, and where photos were taken.
I started my walk on Divis Street. My first right turn took me into Finn Square, a quiet collection of houses on a dead-end cul-de-sac. There were brick walls between the houses, and a full-fledged, 50-foot-high Peace Wall behind that. Strike one.
The second turn took me into the Ardmoulin neighborhood. Same story. The wall ran behind houses and crossed the street in the form of a fence that doesn’t open easily. This fence sits perpendicular to a huge Flour Mill complex. This barrier is just as effective. I had to turn around.
I walked next to the ‘International Wall’ on Divis Street, painted with colorful Republican murals frequently alluding to human rights struggles around the world. (Note the reference to Palestinian hunger striker Khadner Adnan in this photo.) It surrounds the rest of the industrial complex.
Finally, I took a right turn that got me somewhere. I followed Northumberland Street through the gates of a Peace Wall that are open by day. I was surrounded by industrial buildings, and the New Life City Church that straddles the no-man’s land. They were holding a vigil when I passed. I took a left on North Howard Link, and quickly came to a sort of horrifying, fenced-off wasteland between the Protestant neighborhood and the Cupar Way Peace Wall. The Catholic community could really use land like this for housing, but it’s on the wrong side of the wall and Protestants won’t hear of it. So it remains a dump, a buffer zone between the neighborhoods. Broken glass jingled at my feet.
I turned right onto Cupar Way. Tourists came and went.
I turned left on Lanark Way and again passed through massive, heavy gates in a Peace Wall. Back on the Catholic Springfield Road, I continued west.
The next opportunity to turn was at the pedestrian gate on Workman Avenue. I crossed into a small neighborhood and, to my dismay, found there was no way to keep moving west. I was being shuffled sideways, back east through the quiet streets. The way is shut. I could not pass.
Back where I started on Lanark Way, the severity of my discovery hit me. Within the distance I covered, there is no way to pass between the Shankill and Falls neighborhoods that is not through a Peace Wall. Every street access point is cut off, whether it be by “Peace Walls,” industrial zones, the layout of neighborhoods, or a combination of all three. The physical division here is much worse than I realized before doing this walk.
Another observation from today’s walk: whose movement do the Peace Walls restrict? Sure, you can get around this massive interface, as I’ve pointed out before, but you have to go to the city center, or farther into the suburban area, tacking on two miles or more to your trip. No problem in a car, but on foot, skateboard, or by bike, this has a significant impact. The interface here restricts pedestrians, people without a car. People who are too poor to own a car. It’s no secret that interface areas also have higher unemployment rates, incidences of violence, and are overall more resource-deprived than almost anywhere else in Northern Ireland. Dare I suggest an element of class discrimination in this scheme?
And so how do we define “Peace Wall?” If the walls around a Flour Mill have the same dividing function as the official walls, should we count it as a barrier? If there are two “Leisure Centers” within half a mile of each other (as there are in Shankill and Falls), I believe that counts as a structural means of separation, too. Division runs deeper than these walls, it oozes out of every aspect of the urban landscape.
This is a Peace Wall in Alexandra Park, North Belfast. It stands perhaps 7 feet high, an inch or two thick, and the other side is supported by wooden beams. This gate is open every day from 9am to 3pm. The entire structure can be circumvented by walking a little ways in either direction.
Compared to the towering, 30-foot-high concrete barriers in Palestine and the barbed wire and minefields of Cyprus, this is nothing. You could jump this fence, probably knock it down with a crowd of people, or just go through it during the day, around it at night.
And yes, there are more intense Interface Areas as well, like this fence that was designed to catch petrol bombs.
Or this crossing point near the Shankill Road.
Yet the point remains that you can get across easily. Compared to the Israeli Separation Barrier, constructed to be a tight net that stops individual terrorists from crossing into Israel (although I don’t think it works that well), or the UN Buffer Zone in Cyprus, a militarized area to prevent armies from advancing across it, the Peace Walls, physically, look like child’s play.
But context is everything and the Peace Walls in Belfast have a vastly different purpose than the walls I have seen thus far, and therefore a completely different appearance. We’re talking about stopping clashes on the street, bombs underneath cars and shootings in bars. We’re talking about defusing tension that explodes into violence at random. We’re talking about physical separation as a desirable goal, if only to prevent people from tearing each other apart.
But what you can see on the ground is only the beginning of what’s going on in people’s heads. The Peace Walls were originally a community-based initiative. People living by them wanted, needed their protection to feel safe during the Troubles. This is legitimate, but a stark realization. Can you imagine the fear that would drive you to build a 30-foot high fence between you and your neighbor?
Today, the fighting is all but over. There were some bomb threats earlier this year, and isolated incidents still occur. But luckily, this is a rarity. Yet tensions can still flare, and the ink on the 1998 peace agreement is way too fresh to be forgotten.
And so it is easy to see why the Peace Walls remain standing. They physically define territory, they keep people in their place without actually doing too much. The walls don’t need to be huge, impenetrable structures because the wall in everyone’s heads is so much stronger. People don’t go ‘over there.’ Bus routes stay within neighborhoods. Schools are either Catholic or Protestant, with few exceptions.
What will it take to reintegrate? Will the Walls come down? And what will that do, if anything, to the ‘wall in the head?’ I’m hoping to get some insight this week from meetings with organizations and activists working to overcome the violent legacy of the Troubles.
Last week, I had an amazing opportunity to visit the Buffer Zone in Nicosia on a UN-escorted tour. For an hour on a chilly morning, Michal, a peacekeeper from Slovakia, showed me the rarely-seen parts of the world’s last divided capital. Photo opportunities were limited, and I was told very seriously, “do not point your camera at the Turkish positions,” but even so, I came away with lots of fascinating stories and pictures. Here’s a sampling:
The view of the Buffer Zone from the edge of the Venetian Walls. Decrepit buildings dominate this heavily militarized strip of land, while everyday life continues no more than 50 meters away.
This building served as a high school until 1974. Now its sandstone walls are riddled with bullet holes as it falls into ruins.
The flags of Greece and Cyprus fly amidst tall grass and crumbling structures. Any changes to the Buffer Zone create military advantages and disadvantages, so it has remained largely untouched to preserve the terms of the cease-fire, if not the historic buildings.
A bathroom in shambles. Residents fled their homes when the fighting started, never to return.
UN Peacekeepers maintain a collection of footballs that have been lost to the Buffer Zone.
An elderly woman named Annie continued to live in this house long after fighting divided the city. Special arrangements and checkpoints were made to accommodate her. When she finally died, soldiers from both sides of the conflicts attended her funeral to pay their respects.
UN Peacekeepers have left their mark on the Buffer Zone, taking advantage of soft sandstone walls to carve a slogan, or the name of their lovers.
Bullet holes still mark the intensity of street-to-street fighting that took place during the Turkish invasion. The entire Buffer Zone feels as though it has been lost to time, and it is easy to imagine a sniper peering through this window as we walk past.
My informative and protective escort, Michal, pauses during the tour. He will serve in Cyprus for another year and enjoys his work, but is not especially optimistic that the Cyprus Problem will be solved anytime soon.
This border might as well be the edge of the world. Maps do not penetrate its mystery and people do not pass through its few gates. I am sweating profusely as I walk toward it on a misty afternoon. My ears take in only the rustling of my raincoat and I feel vulnerable with my hood drawn and my hearing hampered. There is a tightness in my chest and I cannot decide whether I would be comforted or alarmed by the appearance of another human being on this quiet road. And I am all too aware of the absence of my passport (the hotel needed to keep it during my stay) every time a UN car or a Turkish Army truck passes my lonely hike.
The farm buildings I pass are dilapidated, cinder-block structures, their sides splattered with mud from where drivers have careened through puddles at the edge of this dead-end road. A Coke can rotates of its own accord in one of these pools of murky water, a bright spot of color in an otherwise dreary collection of houses. Turkish flags fly on a few of the patios, limp and faded. Slowly, I come into view of an ugly, ramshackle collection of huts that look like they had spilled down the slopes of the surrounding hills, and were now choking an otherwise beautiful valley. I can go no further, and instead set a route parallel to the border.
Every step I take on this road feels ill-advised, but there is a magnetic force pulling me along, just to see around the next curve, and the next, and the next, and the next… I am intensely aware of a watchtower atop the tallest hill, commanding a view for miles around. Certainly, they have been watching my progress, and for a moment that does not pass quickly enough, I contemplate the possibility that there were, at this very moment, rifles trained on my bright blue raincoat. Unable to recover my mental footing, I slip into a series of scenarios in which I am stopped by soldiers, questioned, asked for my passport, my equipment confiscated. I justify these day-nightmares by telling myself I need to decide how to react should these situations arise, but the truth is I am trapped by the thoughts, struggling to relegate them to the background.
The road now slopes downward, into a small and disheveled village and I can spot the flags that fly near the border. I am met with an odd sense of relief when I realize that the end of this particular walk is in sight and I will soon be able to turn my back on this haunted place. My heart is beating faster than before, despite the easier terrain as I pass the first of the houses.
Two old women stand near a car, staring unabashedly at me as I make my way toward them. I offer them a smile that more closely resembles a grimace and say hello. After I have passed them, the older of the pair speaks loudly in Turkish. My heart has leaped into my throat. I know that the border is just around the corner. I turn around and try to smile again, and explain that I do not understand. The woman frowns and says slowly, “No….going.” Doing my best impression of a dumb tourist, I feign surprise and exclaim, “Oh…that’s the…the…” My voice trails off and I instead wave my hand to mime a line, wall, border. They nod and look satisfied that I have grasped their warning. I would rather hear it from an old woman than a gruff soldier, so I do not hesitate before turning around and begin to put distance between myself and the border. This was something I needed to see and feel, but I am undeniably relieved as I walk away from the unknown, the decrepit, the dangerous.
On the trip back, it occurs to me that as long as a border is the edge of the known world, it will also represent the edge of our minds, and all the fear, doubt, and lack of reason that lurks there will manifest itself in these lands. Borders are where things fall apart. So we build walls to contain the frayed edges.