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The Personal War

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She remembers hunger, 12 years without a single piece of meat, three years behind an iron door, walking silently in circles inside a women’s prison. The pain seems heavy in her bones, and a piece of Bridie Letzer’s heart lies buried in all the graves of Northern Ireland.

It will take more than a peace agreement to heal such wounds, to balance generations of strife and suffering with cohesion and acceptance. It will take amends, says Letzer, 74, a Catholic from Northern Ireland now living in Northridge. It will take justice, and it will take forgiveness.

Peace is not like war. It cannot be legislated. Jerry Jordan, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Cincinnati, says the proposed peace agreement in Northern Ireland, if approved, will be effective only if more personal issues are addressed in the lives of people who have lived so long in conflict.

“Because a number of politicians endorse an agreement, does that mean that on a personal level people will start getting along? Is that sufficient reason by itself for people who have been engaged in violence against each other to all the sudden start not wanting to kill each other? The answer is clearly no.”

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Something else must happen on a more personal level, Jordan says. It must happen when Catholics sit next to Protestants on buses in Belfast, when unionist children play with nationalist children on the playground.

“You can’t just throw people together and expect them to get along, but if you can get them in situations where they really perceive their interest to be shared or perceive themselves to be working for some common goal, then that will work.”

If voters in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland approve referendums on May 22, the sense of cooperation between political leaders, between north and south, east and west, Protestants and Catholics must filter down to neighborhoods, where many live and pray in a divided land.

Sean Byrne, a professor of conflict resolution and international relations at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., grew up primarily in the Republic of Ireland. His family lives in Northern Ireland.

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A key point in peace building will have to do with grass-roots community empowerment, he says, part of a holistic process that addresses economically sustainable development, education, religion, culture and gender.

As with racism in America, it involves breaking down stereotypes, structuring interaction between communities, establishing shared goals and common tasks. In 1991, Byrne did a study of school integration in Northern Ireland and found that initially Protestant and Catholic students viewed each other in accordance with stereotypes handed down through generations: “They’ve got devil tails. They’ve got devil horns.”

But by the time they reached their final years in school, students were able to see each other through new eyes. The schools were established, says Byrne, because parents wanted to reach across historical barriers.

In such ways, changes already have begun, and it is the political leadership that has lagged behind.

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“My own feeling is that the people have willed this to happen, and the politicians are the ones who are struggling to catch up,” says Kevin O’Neill, co-director of the Irish Studies Program at Boston College.

“I don’t want to take anything away from the politicians. It has taken great courage and creativity to do what they have done, but the real lesson that will be drawn from this by historians is that the Irish people, Catholics and Protestants, both saw the futility of protecting or advancing their positions through violence, and it was that recognition, and sadly, I think, it was recognition that partly comes out of exhaustion of 25 years of mayhem.”

O’Neill says attitudes have changed in those 25 years. The struggle has changed. And if, in fact, there comes lasting peace to Northern Ireland, it will be forged by forces greater than bullets. It will come from an unsettling and universal reality, as evident in Belfast as in the streets of Los Angeles: Children are waging war.

“People my age, in their 40s, are saying that although they had been willing to participate in struggle through their entire adult lives, they were unwilling to subject their children to the same process,” O’Neill says. “And it was because of that that these mature, hardened people were interested in pursuing a negotiated peace instead of a victory.”

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Bruce Kagan, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and former director of the Specialized In-Patient Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Unit at the UCLA Medical Center, says children are more deeply affected by violence and trauma than adults.

“They bear long-lasting scars and some would even say personality changes,” Kagan says. “It’s why many of us are so concerned about the violence that goes on here in the United States in urban areas, because we’re concerned we’re raising a generation of extremely scarred children.”

Ask Bridie Letzer about such scars.

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When she came to the United States in 1946, the wife of an American soldier, Letzer would go each day to the British Consulate, hoping to address the conflict and injustice in Northern Ireland.

In 1939, when she was 15 years old, Letzer’s brother was imprisoned in much the same way that many people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned in the United States during World War II, unilaterally considered a threat to national security.

Letzer was left with her mother, two sisters and a younger brother. One sister worked at a factory sewing uniforms for the British soldiers, providing the family with its only income.

On Thursdays, her sister was paid, and on Friday mornings, the family would go to buy food. “My mother would go to the store and spend the entire 25 shillings. She would see a piece of cake and say, ‘Oh, look at that lovely piece of cake,’ and I would say to her that she should leave a little money for tomorrow. I’ll always remember what she told me. She would say, ‘Daughter, dear, tomorrow’s a brand-new day.’ ”

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There was always hope, and there has always been a strength from story and song, she says--the ability to laugh, the camaraderie that allows people to help one another through hard times.

And times were never harder than one day later that year when she was handed a flier denouncing the internment prisons, demanding the release of those jailed for no crime. She put it in her pocket.

“It was only a flier, like the ones that announce garage sales, and they stopped me for no reason, which they did to many people, and they found the flier in my pocket and immediately arrested me. It took three minutes for them to sentence me to three years of hard labor.”

She would never let on that she was suffering, she says. It helped her maintain what she felt was the one thing that could not be stripped away: her dignity. But she did suffer, and she has never forgotten the pain.

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Letzer has spent a lifetime fighting injustice: apartheid in South Africa, racism in America. Four years ago, when she learned that Latino families in her community were going to be displaced by construction of a gated community, she rallied support and helped saved their homes.

It is a fine line between fighting for the rights of people, the futures of children, and ceasing the fight for the same reasons. The one constant, says Letzer, is that the target must always be injustice.

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Judith McMinn is 17 years old, a Protestant from the countryside of Northern Ireland. She is one of six students who arrived in Chicago on Tuesday as part of a youth exchange sponsored by Rotary International to examine conflict resolution.

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She was chosen partly on the merit of an essay she wrote, which she began with a poem that touched her deeply when she first read it:

For every evil under the sun,

There is a remedy, or there is none.

If there be one, try and find it.

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McMinn attends a school with both Protestants and Catholics. In daily life, she says, Northern Ireland is far different from the way it is portrayed in the media.

“Certainly there are troublemakers on both sides,” she says. “They are the ones that the media writes about, but most of the people want to get along, to let bygones be bygones.”

Simona Sharoni, a professor of peace and conflict resolution at American University in Washington, D.C., is in London with a group of students after spending two weeks in Northern Ireland.

In London, she says, the students have found most people to be “extremely apathetic and ill-informed about Northern Ireland.” In Belfast, she says, the people seemed hopeful yet afraid to be too excited and to trust, having suffered so much disappointment in the past. Individually, she says, change will occur slowly.

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“People get used to the reality of conflict,” Sharoni says. “When it’s all you know, when you are born into a conflict, anything else, even if it appears to be change for the better, may appear threatening. This agreement, if it is passed, will be successfully implemented only if they resolve the issues, the negative effects that the conflict has on daily life.”

And one of those effects is pain. Bridie Letzer is not optimistic about the peace agreement. It is, she says, such a small step. For her, the agreement “will not be worth the paper it is printed on if in the end we do not get a whole country and England does not get out.

“What they have done to my parents and my mother’s parents before her, the sadness and the horror that you live through. . . . I am willing to go along with these crumbs they have given in order for peace to become freedom, but if there is no justice or freedom with the peace, then it’s nothing.”

Perhaps it will not come in her lifetime, as it did not come in her mother’s, but the hope that has brought her strength, the songs and stories of the past also offer a vision of what may someday be, she says. It is global and timeless.

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“There are a lot of memories of pain in America, and people go on with their lives,” she says. “Look at how many children are shot in the streets of America. People have to live with that pain privately and alone, and that’s what the people of Ireland will do. They will grieve for their lost ones. They will grieve for the pain that they suffered. They will still have their awful memories, but new songs will be written, and new songs will be sung.”


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