Sunset from our hotel.
 I don't really know how to begin talking about Belfast, but here goes.

 You can feel the disturbing presence of conflict as soon as you come into the city. We got off the highway and were thrust into "Loyalist Sandy Row." There were British flags flying from the row of houses. Its awful to say, but we immediately started to wonder how safe it was. We found our hotel, and directly across there was a mural on the wall that read, "You are now entering Loyalist Sandy Row." It literally sent a shiver through me.

We ate dinner at the hotel and a very helpful supervisor suggested we take a black taxi tour. The black taxi's were used during "the troubles" as they are called, to shuttle people up and down town because the buses were being hijacked and bombed. The black taxis used to put a board across the back seat and then try to fit as many people as possible across the back. They would all split the fare. I was weary at first, but we went.

It picked us up in the morning and the man, our guide, we never caught his name, asked us if we wanted to see the murals and have that kind of tour. We said sure. Turns out our hotel wasn't far from the working class area, where he explained to us is where the brunt of the "troubles" are played out. The quick run down on the conflict is this, it is a political conflict first not a religious one. The religious part is completely secondary. Loyalists are people who would like to stay a part of the UK, and tend to be protestant, their paramilitary group is called the UVF. The Nationalists are people would like all of Ireland to be united and independent. Their paramilitary group is the IRA. Their political wing is Sinn Fein, which means "ourselves alone" in Gaelic. The conflict has been going on for 300+ years, and there are times of rest and there are times of "troubles." The most recent time of troubles started in about 1969 and continued on to various cease fires, and political agreements, that are still somewhat ongoing, even though there have been certain breakthroughs. This is all very basic, and I really need to read more about it.

We started out on the Catholic side right on the line of the barricade. The barricade separates the Catholic and Protestant working class neighborhoods. It was originally put up as a temporary barrier to stop the violence 30 years ago. It was to keep people in place at night and to protect each community. There are calls for it to come down, but our guide told us you can bet the people calling for it to come down don't live anywhere near the barricade. When you  look down the street and at the end you see a fence, large, metal and green with barbed wire at the top. You see it in pictures but you never really believe its there until you see it. We pull over up the road to look at the first bit of murals, there are six in a row promoting various causes. There are some telling the US to lay off Cuba, one with George Bush and straw sucking the oil out of Iraq, one showing solidarity with the Basque movement, the Palestinian cause and of course the Nationalist cause of Norther Ireland. It is stunning. I was surprised to see the office of Sinn Fein out in the open and so well marked on the street. He told us that it is not uncommon to see the MPs in and out on any given day.

All the while our guide is telling us that depending on what side of the barricade you are born on your views tend to be that of the side. He made sure to emphasize that it was a working class area and that it continues to be a struggle that the working class are more invested in. He compared it to being born in a house where your parents democrat or republican, and carrying on their views. He made sure to emphasize that the reason it stays that way is because these people stay in the neighborhoods and stay working class, and tend not to go out and get an advanced education. Whereas in other areas people would go to college and then decide for themselves. So the cycle continues.

Our guide, as he said, happened to be born on the Protestant side, but if he had been born on the other side of the barricade his views would be different. He said each side has merits and there is no right or wrong answer. He was obviously trying to give us both sides, but also let us know where he was aligned. He moved his family out of the neighborhood to a nicer residential area, but it still has self segregation. There is no state imposed segregation, it is all self imposed. He moved his family to a different protestant neighborhood because he didn't want his children to be pulling bodies out of a furniture store at the age of twelve as he had one afternoon. He said it almost in passing and matter of factly, but it was striking all the same. As if that wasn't enough, he went on to tell us that his brother had decided he couldn't deal with it anymore and went to live in London. His next holiday to London he was bringing his brother back in a body bag due to a traffic accident. We had no words. He said you can't dwell on anything because you will never get out of bed in the morning. You could see the wear and tear that a life of this conflict had caused. He was 47 and had experienced a large amount of the major troubles as a child and teenager. Both sides have gone through so much violence and pain that a person of one side can not feel sympathy for the opposing side. He made sure to tell us that all that he has experienced in his life is most likely the same for someone who was born on the other side of the barricade. Over 4000 people have been killed during the troubles.

The murals speak for themselves, and I will post them later (below). We passed through the barricade into the protestant side and it was hard to believe that a barricade like this still exists. All of the houses on both sides, that lie close to the barricade, fortify their houses with barbed wire and brick walls. I don't know who the governments are kidding, this conflict is alive and well. The barricade closes each night and you need to decide which side you want to be on because you won't be able to get back through it until the morning. It is not this way all over the city, the city centre is neutral territory and does not have a barricade. The middle and upper class areas while they have self imposed segregation do not have a barricade. You only feel the weight of the conflict in the particular neighborhoods, but the whole city has a haze of pain over it. There are old bombing sites all over the city. From what we saw they were rebuilt, but the scars are still there.

I felt almost embarrassed to be getting out of the car and taking pictures of the murals while people who live there everyday passed by with their shopping bags. They live it everyday and have been living it for years, while it is just a stop on my journey. With that said, when our guide first arrived he made sure that we had our cameras. I assume this is because he wants us to go home and share the knowledge and pictures with everyone we know, so more people can know the reality of the conditions.

To counter the emotional intensity of this day and all that our guide taught us we went to the botanical gardens at the University. They were quite beautiful and I highly recommend a stop at them if you have time. They were very peaceful and a great place to reflect.

Belfast Botanical Gardens