from the pages of
A Raid in Londondderry, Northern Ireland
By Malcolm Garcia
Eammon Kelly lives in a Catholic neighborhood in Londonderry, Northern Ireland located about seventy miles outside of Belfast. On August 26, 1996, he began his day as usual by going to work. That evening he arrived home at five o'clock in time for tea. His sister and brother were home, as well as a friend of the family with her three year old boy. Fifteen minutes later the raid began.
Eammon, 23, was slumped on a couch in the living room when he spoke to me less than an hour after the raid. His face was pale and he continually crossed and re-crossed his arms and legs. "We were sitting in the house," Eammon said in a shaking voice, "and the next thing we see is about fifteen police officers busting in the front door. No, they didn't knock, jeez no. They just ran in and started shouting, 'ye bastards get on the ground. Get on the ground. We'll blow your heads in."'
I was in Londonderry as a free lance journalist when my landlady told me about the Kelly raid, only one block away. I arrived at the Kellys as the police were leaving, filing out of the house in pairs carrying rifles. I counted ten officers. More were loitering behind a military land rover. I was not allowed to enter the house until the police had departed.
The Kelly's were raided under Title 14 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which permits wide powers of arrest, detention and search by the British military and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (R.U.C.), the local police force. The Act not only criminilizes the use of violence for political ends but also many other activities as well; belonging to banned organizations, collecting money or materials for a banned organization, encouraging others to support banned organizations by, for example, having a public or private meeting with more than two people present. Any one of these allegations can prompt a raid.
"I was raided persistently for over a period of five years and then it seemed to stop and I wasn't raided for about three and a half years," recalls Daisy Mules, a neighbor of the Kellys. A school teacher and a member of Sinn Fein for 14 years, Mules says "raids mean coming into your house without your permission with a warrant detailing what section [of the Act] they're coming in on, and proceed to search your house which means any time they raid you, you can't prevent them from doing anything really. I've been lucky in that any time I have been raided they've never knocked my front door down."
Paula Devline, 19, another neighbor of the Kellys, experienced her first raid the previous week. She describes the experience as "humiliating."
"They searched everything," she says. "Took everything apart. Wrecked the whole house. They were very cheeky. Very crude. They had these m- mirrors they used to check for things under the floor. They're very handy aren't they? one officer said to me. And I said, Why, what do you mean? And the next thing I know he's holding it beneath the hem of my nighty. I wished I had been more assertive like. They just took me that much unawares I didn't know what to do. "
Standing outside the Kelly home, I watched youthful-looking British soldiers standing staunchly alert in neighboring yards on trampled flower beds. Many of their faces were scarred with acne. Children scrutinized the soldiers. One boy asked me if I threw stones at "Brits." It began to rain. I saw the frightened, distorted faces of the Kelly family through a hall window.
"They dragged me off a chair by me hair and threw me to the ground," Eammon said pointing toward the kitchen. "Put me hands behind me head. Made me kneel down. Put straps around me wrists. The marks are still there," he said showing me the red half moons chafed into his wrists. "They put a white hood over me head and entire body."
The living room was a jumbled mass of sofas, chairs, cans of paint and drop cloths. The Kelly's had been redecorating their house. New counter-tops had just been fitted in the kitchen. Freshly stained wood gleamed in the faint lamp light.
During the raid at the Kelly's home nobody, not even a visitor and her three year old boy, was spared the rough treatment by the police. Eammon shook his head in amazement as he told me how the police terrorized the boy as he cried in the living room.
"My sister was trying to calm the child down," Eammon said. "At that time the police were grabbing the mother of the boy. The boy was on the sofa and the police were pointing their AK-47s at him. The mother tried to throw herself in front of the guns in case they were going to shoot him, you know, she just wanted to save her child. Her response was to throw herself in front of the guns. The police were still shouting at us, obscenities, you bastards."
The Kelly raid is an example, critics say, of how the Prevention of Terrorism Act allows the British military and the R.U.C. to operate with very little accountability. The R.U.C, for instance, was called "the untouchables" in a recent Helsinki Commission report, "Irish Terrorism or British Colonialism? The Violation of Human Rights In Northern Ireland." In the report, the Commission, a European human rights organization, charged that out of nearly 1400 complaints of harassment by security forces in 1989, only three officers had been disciplined, two of whom were acquitted on appeal. In that same year 328 civilians were killed by security forces.
According to this same report, house raids increased dramatically in the past decade. In 1988 over 5,000 such raids were carried out, 1, 100 in December alone. Of the 1,717 people held in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act that year, 1,343 were released without charge.
Violations of this kind are so common that the Committee On The Administration of Justice (C.A.J.) in Belfast has two information packets available to Catholic and Protestant families victimized by the police; "Killings By The Security Forces: An Information Pack For Families Of Victims," and "Cause For Complaint: The System For Dealing With Complaints Against The Police In Northern Ireland."
"The Prevention of Terrorism Act has done nothing to create peace," Martin O'Brien, a lawyer with the C.A.J. told me. "It has simply fueled resentment and has led to many victims of miscarriages of justice. In a sense it's about resorting to the same tactics as to those it is meant to be defending society against. That's always a very slippery slope and people should think more than twice about it."
Although the R.U.C. press office refused to be interviewed for this article, an R.U.C. officer patrolling the streets of Londonderry and, who, fearing possible retaliation by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), spoke to me only on condition of anonymity, said the PTA is absolutely essential because it is the only way for the police to disrupt support for the IRA
"The IRA recruits from Catholic nationalist neighborhoods," he said. "Therefore we are forced to wage the fight at the community level."
But a Catholic priest active in the peace movement says anti-terrorism legislation only increases community resistance against British rule.
"The [British] ask what community supports the IRA," says Father Raymond Murry, an organizer for the Committee To Tell the Truth, a human rights advocacy group in Belfast. "Where do they get their shelters and all that sort of thing. Obviously it is the nationalist community. So, the more we punish them the more they'll put pressure on the IRA to stop and bring them to heel.
"The opposite is the case. The more they wreck homes, the more they invade homes, the more people they imprison without trial, the more hard-line people become. So, what do we end up with? We end up with the police violating the law themselves. We end up protecting ourselves from their secret services. If you use a sledge hammer, even a dog in the street will not have confidence in any law."
Families caught in the crossfire have little leverage on their own and often seek legal assistance. In this instance, the Kelly's filed a complaint against the police and retained the services of Padraig McDermott of McDermott & McGurk Solicitors.
"There are some house searches where the police simply leave without any problem," MacDermott told me. "But you also have house searches where the police shepherd all the people in the house in one room and basically rampage through the house wrecking things, pulling out things and throwing things on the ground.
"That would be the word in many cases," he said. "Rampage. There have been times that the police know nothing is going to be found, yet they still carry out this destruction on houses."
According to one criminology expert, the entire police force needs to be restructured if police abuse is to be addressed.
"Harassment is endemic in Northern Ireland," says Kieran McEvoy a professor at Queen's University. "It's part of the police culture. It's difficult not to have to deal with this abuse. Ordinary policing skills have fallen by the wayside in the war against terrorism. There needs to be more democratic accountability and actual real accountability to the criminal justice process. Policemen have to be accountable to the criminal justice process because currently they're not. "
According to Vivian Harvey, director of Starting Point, a social service center serving children in Belfast, the shaky but on-going peace process has made the disposition of the R.U.C. a point of contention.
"The major debate in the communities at the moment is the role of the R.U.C.," Harvey says. "The R.U.C. is trusted by working class nationalists or loyalists. There have already been a number of conferences about the issue, with Sinn Fein demanding that they disband and the loyalists demanding that they become more accountable.
"It may well be a coincidence," she adds, "but there has been a huge rise in media reporting about muggings, attempted child abductions and violence against women. The R.U.C. proving they are needed? I try really hard not to be cynical, especially regarding child abuse and violence against women, but it's not easy, having lived through 30 years of misinformation and propaganda."
When the IRA ended its cease-fire last February, the history of violence between sectarian paramilitary units and the R.U.C. returned to haunt the 1,600,000 residents of this rural province.
"Belfast is very strange at the minute," Harvey says. "It is as if we're all holding our breath. Talk of the future is minimal. Changes are slow, and suspicion still rules."
Heavy wooden doors protect entry ways and iron-grilled gates are posted within many homes. Sealing off stairways, hallways and all other vulnerable interior spaces, the gates serve as deliberate obstacles should paramilitary death squads or police burst through the barred front doors. These "security doors" effectively convert houses into bunkers. The inhabitants exist behind bars, prisoners in their own homes, obliged to open and shut gates as they move from room to room.
During my six week stay I saw neighborhoods like the Kelly's under constant surveillance. Military helicopters hovered overhead sometimes making it difficult to talk. Land rovers with British soldiers in gun turrets drove through the city day and night. In Belfast I listened to soldiers shout taunts at a woman belittling the size of her breasts. Huge stockade-like watch towers with cameras, microphones and other electronic gear impressed their bulk against the tallest buildings, fine-tuning electronic observations on individuals, neighborhoods and homes. I was told by a friend to think positively when I passed a watch tower as if my thoughts, as well as my movements and conversations, could be exposed.
Protestants and Catholics alike were afraid of gathering in groups lest they become targets of opposing paramilitary forces or raise the suspicion of the police. I realized how fearful people were when I approached a Catholic acquaintance who sharply urged me to move about six feet behind her so we would not attract attention.
I saw patrolling British soldiers abruptly spin around in neighborhood streets and aim their rifles in the direction they had just passed, reminding me of the news footage I grew up watching of American soldiers searching Vietnamese villages.
Two days prior to the Kelly raid I had been standing at a bus stop in Belfast. I glanced behind me and was horrified to see a British soldier sprawled out on his stomach on the front door landing of an apartment building focusing his rifle at the back of my head. A woman next to me tried to put me at ease.
"He's pointing it at you, but he's not aiming it. It's not that personal."
It may not be personal, but it is impossible not to take it personally. Another day as I was walking to lunch a British soldier stopped me, pressed the muzzle of his rifle against my neck demanding identification.
My encounter with the British soldier lasted five minutes but the raid at the Kelly' took three and a half hours.
"Typically, raids can last up to a maximum of four hours," Mules says. "Once you get to four hours they have to renew the warrant, so they tend to just do you up to the fourhours. "
As in other raids on the Kelly's house, nothing was found.
"They went through every personal item people had," Eammon said indicating some papers on the floor. "Letters, correspondence of friends we had met on holiday. They read every letter. Checked along the seams of our clothes. Examined girls underwear.
It was really nerve-wracking."
At one point, the Kelly's thought they were going to get shot.
"It could have been a mock execution because they put our faces to the wall and guns to the back of our heads so we didn't know if they were going to shoot us," Eammon's 19-year old brother Kieran said. "We didn't see their faces. All we felt were the guns and punches and kicks," he said his voice trailing off.
Due to health problems, Kieran suffered greater risk than the rest of the Kelly family.
"I have a chronic heart complaint," he explained to me. "They put the handcuffs on me, tied me hands behind my back, put the white sheet over my head. Punched me in the head, punching me, pushing me, kicking me, asking me questions. I needed me medication then. They wouldn't allow me to start off with. They wouldn't allow me my medication. Then they allowed it. I had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance." He raised his shirt and showed me four white circular nitroglycerin patches stuck across his chest for his heart.
His face and hands started to turn blue. Gasping for air he was. Tears, various stuff," Eammon said looking at his brother. "It was bad, jeez. Jeez, it was bad."
Eammon said after the handcuffs were removed the officer in charge asked if they had any complaints about the manner in which they had been treated. "I says, how can you ask us that sort of question when you're pointing guns at all of our heads and you told us we were going to be done? And you're pointing guns at a three year old child's head. He said he was doing his job. Orders from the top.
"I'm still nervous, you know," he said. "It is a hard thing to comprehend to someone when you think your door is getting shoved down to get shot. All we saw was guns and people charging in. It was just kick in the doors and everybody get on the floor, you bastards. Anybody who was in the room was getting the verbal abuse. It didn't stop at fellas, it didn't stop at girls or children. I heard one of them call my sister a whore."
Eammon's 20-year old sister Anna sat on a chest of drawers, her hands tucked under her legs, rocking nervously. "When they called me a whore," she said softly, "I didn't know what to say. I was embarrassed. I can give as good as I take, you know what I mean? I hate them. Hate them," she said again, her voice rising. "They're scum. Hate them!"
Boiling fog tumbled and twisted above my head as I left the Kelly's and began the short walk back to my room. The sidewalks were empty. The quiet of parked cars emphasized the silence. Several times I was stopped at gun point by British soldiers stationed at roadblocks requesting identification.
Dark narrow streets dampened from a light drizzle wound down from City Center to the outskirts of Londonderry. Stone and brick houses squeezed up in rows throughout the neighborhood, pressing in on the streets, creating a sense of confinement. Drifting smoke coiled casually out of chimneys.
The house was cold and I smelled soup simmering behind the closed kitchen door. There was also a much sharper, irritating odor. A security door that opened out into the back alley behind the house had been constructed two weeks after my arrival. I was smelling shellac recently applied to the newly honed wood to protect it and those of us inside from the elements.
"They talk of peace," Anna said to me as I left her home. "What peace have they given this house today?"