Our Primary 7 classroom shook silently for a second before the noise reached our ears. When it did, it was a low thud followed by a deafening grumble. We all knew what it was; we’d heard many explosions before. After the blast I turned towards the window of the classroom which looked out onto the Glen Road. Someone shouted,
‘That’ll be the barracks again.’
The Andersonstown RUC Station, known locally as ‘the barracks’ would become one of the most bombed stations in the North by the end of the Troubles. By May 1983 it had already been the scene of many mortar, gun and bomb attacks and so it came as no surprise to us that this seemed to be where the mushroom cloud of smoke was emanating from.
Soon after the bomb, we were sent home. I don’t remember much of that walk home or of my parents’ reaction once I was home. I’m told that they were very relieved to see me and my siblings- all of whom were younger than me and also at the school that day. After a while in the house, I asked my mother if I could go out if I promised to stay in the street, close to home and definitely not go any nearer to the bomb. Judging that the bomb had gone off some time before and with the time having gone on it was unlikely that there would now be a follow up gun attack, she said I could and I left the house, picked up one of my friends in the street and duly went as close to the bomb site as we could. As we did, we began to see pieces of masonry and metal, blown hundreds of yards through the air and now sitting incongruously in hedges and on top of sheds and car roofs. Everywhere smoke hung in the air.
We got to one street away from the barracks and we came upon a single soldier standing in the street. This was a strange sight indeed. Firstly, we rarely saw those guys on their own (they usually travelled in a group of 4 at least; I guess today was a different day for everyone). Secondly, his uniform was covered in dust and his face with a mixture of black smoke and red blood, emanating from a wound at the point where his soldier’s cap met his brown hairline. He was shaking- anger? fear? both? He stopped us by holding his hand up. We stopped. He held us with manic eyes and said,
‘That was meant for you, that bomb was.’
He ushered us back to where we came from. We returned to our street. We didn’t believe the soldier. We knew that the target of the bomb had not been us. It had been him. It had been his comrades. It had been the RUC. It had been that station that had come to represent British presence in a land where those who planted the bomb felt they had a right to kill people to rid themselves of such a presence.
It had been a 1000lb bomb, the biggest to date to have been planted. While no one was killed- almost a miracle- many people had been caught up in the blast with stories abounding of people being blown off their feet and through windows as well. There were lots of injuries. Houses were damaged. Some had to be destroyed. Business in the area suffered badly as they had to close until rebuilding took place. Many people were prescribed tranquilizers in the wake of this and other such attacks- their nerves shattered. The road was closed for 6 months while the barracks was rebuilt into a huge, fortified military base that would do well in the middle of Afghanistan or Syria in these times. Its walls were several metres thick and many metres high. It became an eyesore; a reminder of pain and suffering. The bomb might not have been aimed at us- but we all suffered nonetheless.
In 2005, the Andersonstown Police Station- the barracks- was once again destroyed. However, this time it wasn’t a bomb. It wasn’t an act of war. Ironically, peace finally brought its history to a close. It was dismantled as part of the ‘normalising’ after the signing of the peace treaty in 1998. Bulldozers and diggers moved in and took it all down.
My great Aunt Alice is 95 year of age. She remembers being a young girl and walking up into the countryside at the top of the Falls Road. There at the top of the road, at the junction of a few paths stood a small house: a police station. She has clear memories of the two police men stationed there, digging in the garden and tending to their flowers on the green grass outside the station. That would have been in the 1930s I guess.
Nowadays, I walk to the site of the barracks every day with my dogs. It is fenced in and once again grown over with grass and some flowers. It is used almost exclusively as a dog park, save for a few political demonstrations held on the ground each year- well, it’s still West Belfast!
Standing on ground once peaceful, then war torn and now peaceful once more, reminds us that we cannot take this time of relative peace for granted. Like the police men in the 1930s tilled the ground for their flowers, we too have to till the ground for peace. We have to sow its seeds. We have to water them with kind words and gestures. We have to nurture any small shoots of peace and reconciliation we see by sacrifice and generosity of spirit.
What can we all do right now to nurture the green shoots of peace and reconciliation?