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.
“I am a Greek-speaking Cypriot.”
This is statement is a surprising rarity in Cyprus. This man chooses to emphasize his Cypriot nationality, and keeps his language and background a separate part of his identity. Most people who live here integrate their language and background into their national identity, creating the labels Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot. It has always been this way. Lack of integration between these communities is the heart of the Cyprus Problem, exacerbated by the de facto division created by the Green Line, but existing more intensely in people’s minds. The militarized Buffer Zone is merely a physical manifestation of this deeper and more complicated psychological division.
Since I got my first map of Nicosia last week, I’ve been fascinated by how Cypriots visually conceive of their cities and country. My map, as well as other representations, usually highlight the division, but also do not show any detail on the other side of the Buffer Zone. It’s blank space, uncharted, unknown, and unimportant. The discourse is everywhere, from official maps to graffiti on the street. I’m working on a series that explores and documents this theme.