Progressive Unionist Party city counsellor John Kyle was at an event Monday night to welcome a delegation of visitors from cities living through or coming out of violence and conflict.
Iraqis, Palestinians, Jews, Lebanese, Bosnians and Nigerians, as well as Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics came to Belfast under the aegis of Forum for Cities in Transition. On the first day of the event, they gathered in the grandeur of Stormont – that architectural throwback to the glory days of empire – to share their experiences of rebuilding after devastation.
It was grimly appropriate, then, that Cllr Kyle’s Monday evening visit was interrupted by news of unrest breaking out in East Belfast. For the second night in a row, teenagers threw bricks, petrol bombs and fireworks at police and at each other.
On Monday, a 15-year-old boy was left with a serious skull fracture. On Sunday night, it was a policeman who was injured. And Wednesday, it was an elderly woman who required treatment for shock following attacks on homes in the Short Strand.
While minor compared to the cataclysmic violence experienced by many cities represented at the forum, the fights breaking out along the East Belfast interface this week emblemized one of the very enduring problems faced by societies recovering from conflict: how do you stop young people from carrying on the old hatreds even after their elders have realised futility of violence?
This question popped up repeatedly at different discussions throughout the forum. On Tuesday, Edna Zaretsky from Haifa made what amounted to a plea to all: “It is very important that the young people are trained to be human beings, be exposed to the suffering of all the parties,” she said. “In my country it is not done, and here it is done only partially.”
But what if work is being done, and it’s just not getting through?
Interestingly, Ardoyne-based Rab McCallum from the North Belfast Interfaces Network expressed the same sentiments as loyalist Kyle about what is driving tensions among young people here. Teens in the interface areas are not acting in the service of a sectarian or even political agenda. Some of them are even classmates at the same integrated schools.
“It’s not entirely a sectarian issue,” said Cllr Kyle. These teens, he said “don’t want to engage.” And this despite efforts from parents, community leaders and churches to help them onto a better path.
Division and violence among the young are pervasive from the Balkans to the Levant. In Kosovo, some of the groups represented at the forum have worked with young people to change the culture of hatred in small but significant ways – in one example, changing the words of a football chant from “kill, kill Albanians” to “kiss, kiss Albanians,” according to Milos Golubovic, who is in Belfast from Mitrovica, Kosovo.
Each step is hard and good work is easily undone, as community groups here would surely agree. Pastor James Wuye, whose group Interfaith Mediation Centre has worked to bring back the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, warned against passing on old hatreds – “putting old wine in new kegs,” as he put it. And he left the group with a difficult question: “how do you change the narrative so they don’t inherit the bitterness?”
The answer from forum seems to be: bit by bit, step by step, with a lot of patience and hard work.