“The struggle of man against power,” Milan Kundera wrote, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’’
As I walked out of the museum of Free Derry I tried to remember Kundera’s words, but instead I got them messed up in my head. I couldn’t remember them. I’d just interviewed John Kelly, one of the guardians of the museum, for over four hours. John keeps alive the memory of all those killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972. He works everyday on the site where they were shot and killed, and it’s personal for John, very personal. His seventeen year old brother died from a bullet to the stomach on Bloody Sunday, at seventeen he was the youngest to die:
“It’s embedded in my mind, embedded. Everything which happened in those two or three hours is embedded in my memory. It will never go away, never. It changed everything. For me, there was before Bloody Sunday, and then, there was afterwards.”
The museum John guards is a physical manifestation of the moral necessity of remembering that day’s cataclysmic violence. An attempt to remember the silences imposed on peoples’ experiences by time and traumatised memory, and, most of all, murderous rampage. And of course, if those left behind do not remember who will? It certainly will not be the guilty.
The rules for who is a legitimate target, and who is not, have been blurred to meaninglessness by 21st century war technology. The armies may be different from Bloody Sunday; but the innocent civilians are always the same- all the dead share moral equivalence.
John is intelligent and struck me as incisive in nature – a no nonsense type of guy, with a mischievous and quick sense of humour. Decency and toughness emanate from him in equal measure, he’s also a survivor. I’m sure he would be mortified at being described as being a working-class hero, and a humanitarian hero at that. Nevertheless that is what he is. For four decades he’s been fighting for truth and justice for his family and others, he deserves the title.
A few years ago in an interview with the BBC he described himself as a ‘walking artefact’, a self- description he’s now slightly embarrassed by, yet there’s truth in it. His adult life has been honed and moulded by a 30 minute explosion of state killing forty one years ago in Derry, Northern Ireland.
As a consequence, the search for that day’s many concealed truths has come to dominate much of John’s existence ever since.
And incredibly, against all the odds, thirty eight years later, on the 15th of June, 2010, John’s family and the other ‘Bloody Sunday families’, as they came to be known, achieved something which many thought highly improbable, if not impossible. Collectively they compelled power to reveal some of those many truths and to say sorry by means of a public judicial inquiry.
The political and legal organs of the British state, Tony Blair’s government at the time, initiated the Saville inquiry – which ran from 1998 to 2010 – found that the killings were ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’, and that all the dead were ‘entirely innocent’, after almost forty years of official denial and successive government obfuscation. The Saville Inquiry finally published its findings in June 2010. The report concluded that the paratroopers were responsible for the causing the deaths of 13 people and injury to 14 more, “none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.”
Finally, the veil of pernicious doubt was lifted off the victim’s memories- the veil of guilt, of being bombers, of being terrorists, of being guilty, was consigned to history at last.
Little equivocation on the face of it in the legal language, yet still, the report’s language did not characterise Bloody Sunday either as a massacre, or indeed even as an atrocity.
So, it begs the question: what does constitute a massacre? What is an atrocity? Why is one such event a war crime, the other a terrible ‘tragedy’? Why is one crime an accident, ‘a regrettable mistake’ but rarely a crime against humanity as understood in international legal terms. In truth, does the definition of the act depend on who is committing, and critically, interpreting and disseminating for public consumption, the crime? Surely all highly relevant questions in the early 21st century, as Western powers seem more and more intent on bombing faraway places for ‘humanitarian’ reasons.
Still, the families’ exoneration is a human rights achievement that resonates across the world. Across all conflicts where the innocent are afflicted by state killing, and then left with unresolved anger, embedded and persistent memories, and little or no recourse to justice. The findings of the Saville inquiry stand as a moral and legal precedent for the many hundreds of thousands of dead civilians in El Salvador, East Timor, Sabra and Chatila, and elsewhere, who will almost certainly never extract any acknowledgment of the truth, or even an apology from those responsible.
The families’ very public vindication outside Derry’s Guildhall in 2010 was the result of a communal effort by ordinary people who had to live with the ‘shocked’ memory of half an hour of concentrated state violence for four decades. It was also a cathartic release for a city which had seen the forces of the state kill its own citizens with impunity.
‘Ordinary people’ just like John Kelly: shop assistants, taxi drivers, engineers, butchers, and carpenters- elicited an apology from the state for the shooting of its own citizens. The truth that murderous indiscriminate killing took place was finally acknowledged by power, a truth long known by those who had witnessed it. Almost uniquely, they compelled power to confront and apologise for its sins, and even more exceptionally, to publicly remember them.
In Derry, on the 30th of January 1972, at about ten past four in the evening as dusk approached, four working class men frantically carried the slumped body of a seventeen year old boy who had just been shot in the back out of the vengeful mouth of Chamberlain Street. Blood poured from the boy’s mouth. A middle-aged woman wearing a cream coloured head scarf tentatively directed them towards army lines. Echoing bursts of staccato gunfire engulfed them. Monotonous helicopter blades cut the sky wide open as cordite lingered threateningly. Like gunfire, someone shouts, “hold your fire’’. Another snarled, “get away ya buck eejit ye,’’ in the distinctive local accent. Another, “get away ya bastard,’’ to a soldier. The soldier confronts the group, aggression in his stance, finger on his gun’s trigger. A hand-held camera, zigzagging nervously, panning in and out, captures the tension. Suddenly, a fifth man runs into the scene and immediately cradles the boy’s dangling left arm, he says something to the soldier but it’s not audible. They turn right up Harvey Street, a steep, narrow Victorian lane built in the nineteenth century, all the while surrounded by other soldiers with blackened faces carrying SLRs (self-loading rifles), some of the guns still aimed at the dying boy. A few seconds later they laid the boy’s body on Waterloo Street, a commercial thoroughfare near the heart of the city centre named after a British military victory over Napoleon in 1815.
In front of the group, a balding catholic priest in his mid-thirties with a diffident country face waved a bloodied white handkerchief, a smart black hat in his other hand, his crouching body-language terrified. He looks a lot like an archetypal Irish priest from a saccharine 1940s Hollywood film, horrendously out of place in the paroxysm of violence let loose all around him. Think Bing Crosby in Going My Way or Spencer Tracy in Boystown perhaps, the kind of priest Irish grandmothers loved, the kind of Irish priest you could be proud of-brave, dignified, and compassionate.
By the end of the day the priest would anoint many more of the dead and would have their dried gelatinous blood on his black clerical clothes as he walked home to his presbytery in the encroaching winter darkness.
There, on the cold pavement of Waterloo street, outside McHugh’s shop- surrounded by a BBC film crew, British soldiers, international journalists, and local men and women with flat caps and head scarves who had came out of their two-storey, red-bricked, working class houses to help-the promising young amateur boxer died of gunshot wounds, fired by a soldier from the elite parachute regiment moments earlier. Father Edward Daly anxiously said an act of contrition- the catholic prayer for repentance for the dead- for the deceased boy. It only took a matter of minutes from the time the boy was shot in the Bogside to his death on the street named to commemorate a famous military victory. Jackie Duddy was 17.
The whole scene was captured in photographs, virtually still by still, and also on live film, in grainy black and white and in monochrome 1970s colour. It is one of the most iconic and enduring images, not only of Bloody Sunday and the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, but also of urban conflict and civilian death in the late 20th century- a visual tableau perfectly capturing the fundamental essence of the day: the killing of the innocent, the naive and the unlucky, and ordinary people performing extraordinary heroics under constant gunfire. The scene has been shown thousands of times in documentaries and news reports such is its dramatic and shocking power to signify the early years of the Ulster conflict in shorthand and in graphic form. Along with the stark images of a terrified naked young Vietnamese girl running from the effects of burning chemicals on her skin caused by napalm bombing in 1972; Sarajevo citizens skirting Serbian snipers and a lottery of death in 1993 in ‘sniper alley’; and the Palestinian man and his dead son in the Gaza strip horrifically stranded in the middle of a gun battle in 2000, it is one of the most potent images of the impact of war on the innocent and defenceless. It is visceral, immediate and harrowing and it is burned into the collective consciousness of Derry, Ireland, and Britain.
Although we may want to, we cannot avert our eyes from these images. They’re too compelling, too real for that. Maybe that’s the attraction, the hyper reality and intensity of human suffering. We see it, but are not directly affected by it. There is an emotional and psychological detachment between what we see on screen- urban warfare- and what most of us will probably never experience, at least in the West. But it’s also a dark attraction, almost a guilty attraction even; after all it’s not us suffering. Yet, we would do best to remember these images in the early 21st century where there is much artificial light and chattering noise obscuring and camouflaging official crimes.
Watching the twenty four second scene on the internet in preparation for this story it never loses its power to shock, or to instil in me a sense of dreaded anticipation about what is coming next. It was after all merely scene one of the killing fields of Bloody Sunday. More killing by well armed and well trained killers will inexorably unfold in the next few scenes. Soldiers trained to defend the state, now exposing a civilian population to indiscriminate lethal force. The body count will grow. ‘Kills’ will be made. Derry on ‘that day’ was transformed into a micro Vietnam, a micro Chechnya, a micro Fallujah. Or, indeed, the ‘collateral aftermath’ of a drone hit on a Yemeni village against the inevitable and ubiquitous ‘suspected Al-Qaeda militants’- as much of our unsuspecting western media would have it. The rules for who is a legitimate target, and who is not, have been blurred to meaninglessness by 21st century war technology. The armies may be different from Bloody Sunday; but the innocent civilians are always the same- all the dead share moral equivalence.