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Monday, January 6, 2014

Two sides to every story

By: Jennifer Blank Hecht 

From a distance they may just seem like jovial Irish men with kind smiles ready to reveal their thoughts on the best nearby pub. But, as Charlie and James begin to share their stories, the room is eerily silent, as we all struggle to listen, and ultimately try to understand, how they have begun the healing process from the horrible events of “The Troubles” in Derry, Northern Ireland.

James grew up a Loyalist, but as a child he couldn’t tell one playmate from another until he went to primary school, where schools are segregated by religion. As time went by, he remembers being pushed more toward his own community, and civil disorder began. He recalls the fascination and fear of watching bombs explode, injured people sprawled on the ground and glass shattered in pieces across the roads. Succumbing to peer pressure from his friends, he placed one hand on a gun and one on the Bible and swore allegiance to the causes of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association), a Loyalist paramilitary group. In 1974, James was caught up in an explosive plan gone awry. His friend’s arm was blown off and the army who was waiting for them surrounded them both. After he was arrested, James sat in bloody trousers for three days in a cage. He was later sentenced to 15 years in prison. During that time, an inmate told him the story of how he killed a shopkeeper, his wife, and then became disappointed when he ran out of ammunition for the family’s eight year-old daughter. At that moment, James wondered if this is what the people of Northern Ireland had become— killing children as an act of war.
Charlie came from a family whose blood was infused with Nationalist viewpoints. Recently he discovered his grandfather was involved with the IRA (Irish Republican Army). He strongly believed in the freedom of small nations, and demonstrated his anger against the Loyalist perspective by hijacking a British train in order to destroy it. His grandfather was arrested—his home burned to the ground and family left without a place to live. Charlie lost friends in the tragic incident of Bloody Sunday in 1971. In 1978, when Charlie was 16 years old, police raided his home and he was arrested without any legal rights or parental involvement. Police tortured him for three days. Because of the suffering, Charlie cut both of his wrists, hoping to die. He survived and the doctor sent him back to be tortured. Charlie’s foundation of life was built on stories of anger. However, after he began to hear other stories, and share his own, he now declares, “I would never be in a situation where I would wish destruction and death on anyone”.

Both men fervidly believed in what they were fighting for. Each one lost loved ones. Each one gave up years of their lives, as they were inhumanely tortured in prison. Which man do you think was right or wrong? And does it really even matter?

How often do we believe our perspective to be the only one? The “right one”? When I came to Derry, I did not understand how this type of violence could occur in a first world country. My perspective has changed. I can honestly say that I respect both of these men and now understand how they might have made the choices that they did due to life circumstances.

James and Charlie are now on the same side for peace—teaching children and adults alike to respect themselves, as well as others.

Listening to each others' stories and truly understanding other perspectives, as well can help us grow individually, but also move forward together, in all kinds of situations.

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