Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Seventieth Party

© 2012 Nuala Ni Loinsigh

On entering Big Dan's lounge in Sliabh Luachra, on Saturday June 9th, the blaze of coloured balloons and various bright candles set the atmosphere for this enjoyable party, when Hannah celebrated her seventieth birthday. Nobody was in any doubt about which birthday it was, as the number was conspicuously placed  on each wall and on the balloons. Her age was no secret. In fact, she was proud to proclaim it to all the sixty people who attended, between family, extended family and good neighbours. There were various plates of food, salads, meats and mouth watering confectionery, all prepared by themselves.

On the night, with her natural curly grey hair framing her face, Hannah was dressed elegantly in a silk-like floral dress. She cut a dash as she entered the room.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Grandmother's Walking to Mass Story

by Sarah O’Mahony© January 2012

One day as I was visiting my grandmother. She sat back in her chair and started to tell a story about long ago when she was a small girl. She used to walk to mass every Sunday with her older sisters, mother and father. Her face started to light up and her eyes had a tiny sparkle in them.  I knew that she was about to share something that she really loved doing when she was small.
She lived in a small farmhouse that had lovely little green fields around it. The house looked out to the sea. The walk took them over the little narrow boreens (in Ireland these are narrow roads with a ridge of green grass going through the centre of them) and paths across the hills to the village. The journey took place every Sunday morning in wintertime and summertime. It was very long walk indeed. It took over three hours at least to do. She would be tired and very hungry by the time they made it back home later that day. 
The part of the journey that she liked the best was on cold wet wintry and very windy days she and some of the other children would either hide under or behind the big enormous skirts that the older women of the peninsula used to wear. It was really warm and cosy to shelter in these skirts! The women’s skirts were so big and long and warm they went all the way to the ground, the material that they were made from was very strong and the rain never got through. 
The skirts were called frieze skirts (pronounced like fry’s). The women made the material themselves at home. They used the wool from their sheep. The sheep were always glad of having their woolly coats removed. This would happen before it got too warm in the summer time. Then the sheep were free to grow a nice new coat again for next winter.
The women washed the wool and removed anything stuck in the wool. There could be briars, thorns, and even insects like flies and smelly maggots tangled in it. They spun the wool on a spinning wheel to make the woollen thread. Then the spun wool was put on a loom. The women pushed and pulled the handle of the loom and this magic machine turned the thread into material for the skirts. The material was a kind of coarse woollen cloth. 

In those times nearly all of the people that lived there didn’t have a “motor car” and people used horses and “cars” (carts) or walked mostly. There were parts of the road that were sheltered by a “high stone ditch”. Or there could be a hollow in the road before she would have to climb up steeply. The women walked and talked to each other about “women’s matters” such as children, relatives that were sick and dying, cows, baking cakes and “all other important farm matters.”
The sky could be dark and there could be a heavy shower of rain coming in from the sea.  So shelter had to be thought about quickly! It was important to keep warm and cosy. The children got nice rosey red cheeks from the cold sharp frosty wind. They would have to keep their heads down and face into the wind.
That was the journey west-ward home. There was a lot to see “going west the road”. Looking over the little stone ditches. The cows and cattle would be out on the fields munching grass. 
So on Sunday morning each week and in all sorts of weather this journey would be made. What a journey to make each week! Once one Sunday was over, it was time to get ready for the next Sunday’s adventure out again.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Going through Saddam's Ring of Steel

by Dan Coakley     © 2012    

An Irish Engineer passes through the Iraqi Military Area on the Borders of Kurdistan.

I was on my way to the Autonomous Kurdish Region in early 1998 to assess the Electricity Sector there. I was apprehensive, as I left Kirkuk, at the unpleasant prospect of going through Saddam's exit procedures. I soon passed through the northern city military checkpoint, left Kirkuk behind and headed for the border with Kurdistan. On the road north I soon began to realize what my mission was all about. Some High Voltage Transmission lines followed us all the way up and for a distance of 70km each mast was either wholly on the ground or broken in two with the upper half leaning drunkenly back to the ground. It looked as if the tops were pulled down by tractors with wire hawsers. The destruction was complete. For the entire route not one mast remained intact. I estimated that to replace one line alone would cost $8.25 million and for parts of the route there were many parallel lines. 

A damaged high-tension power line tower. 
(Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Sean Riley, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division Public Affairs)

Imagine similar damage to every mast on a line 60 or 70 Km long  in the sanctions era of 1998 and the work required to reconstruct it.
We then drove through a barren area with many ruined villages. However they were not devoid of life. One could see rows of tank gun barrels poking out over the ruined walls as Saddam's Tank Brigades nestled in the homes they destroyed during Saddam's savage campaign against the Kurds. Now they were menacing the precarious Autonomous Region of the Kurds to the North. The scene was replicated in every former village we passed. One could see Iraqi conscripts walking along the road leading donkeys with panniers of water, filled from the adjacent streams, to service their comrades in the large camps dotted across the landscape. In many instances the conscripts were barefoot and wore their berets in a very casual manner like chefs' hats. They certainly did not give any indication of being an elite fighting force. We passed many Soviet type T54 tanks broken down on the road. The T54 had a notoriously un-reliable engine and the old Iraqi ones would not pose much of a threat to any potential modern adversaries. Further north the wide open plain was dotted by earthen-walled square forts each about an acre in extent and guarded at the four corners with small  Chinese made ZPU-1 and ZPU-2 anti-aircraft guns constantly manned by conscripts. Not much of a defence against supersonic planes with air to ground missiles I thought. Any future conflict with a modern western army would result in slaughter for those poor souls and I felt genuinely sorry for them and their families. It must be remembered that this was a conscript army that endured sadistic discipline and as it contained Kurds and Shia was ruled by terror. I have seen videos of a line of Iraqi soldiers being forced to shoot a line of their comrades who were sitting on the edge of a pit (their future grave) with their backs to their executioners. I also noticed that the senior officers on their constant visits between the various units traveled in battered civilian cars. This was obviously an army in decline. As we passed the destroyed villages and the Army that wrought such devastation on their countrymen the Kurdish drivers remained stoic and drove on without comment. At that time Saddam was still very much alive and the Kurds had to rely on the guarantees of Powers that reneged on their promises in the past (Britain after World War 1 and the US after the first Gulf War). What must have gone through their minds as they saw their powerful oppressors right on their border, choking the life out of their little country?

Shewi Qazy, a destroyed Kurdish village. 
(Photo source Twana Mardowkii)

The former inhabitants of this village are probably mouldering away in some mass grave in the desert.

Soon we came to the last Iraqi military checkpoint before we crossed the border into the Kurdish autonomous zone. This checkpoint was the real thing and stretched for about 200 metres along the road. It was the lock on Saddam's Ring of Steel. Each vehicle was minutely searched by armed soldiers. There was an open shed where the men were body searched with an equivalent closed tent-like structure for searching the women. Nobody seemed to mind as they joined long queues snaking back from the search units, the women in their long black chadors chatted away as they awaited their turn. Once or twice an army deserter was discovered. I saw one of these unfortunates being kicked the entire length of the checkpoint area by an Iraqi army NCO. One could only speculate at the poor boy's fate as he was thrown into a military truck and carried away. The people at the checkpoint, overwhelmingly Kurds, pretended not to notice and averted their gaze as their compatriot was brutalized in front of them. This was their reality in Saddam's Iraq.

Tankers being inspected prior to joining an American Army convoy in post-Saddam Iraq. 
(Photo by Brandon Questor US Army)

I noticed the long line of massive sanctions-bursting oil tankers cruising slowly past. Lines of tankers were at every checkpoint during my time in Iraq. One Iraqi soldier was positioned along their lane and as each truck passed him the driver dropped a number of Iraqi 250 dinar notes into his hand. It was said that this oil trade was a tripartite trade run by Saddam's son Uday and the profits were shared three ways between Uday, the Kurds and Turkey. Our papers had to be processed by an officer and again the Irish passport evoked a friendly response. Soon we were on our way and crossed into the Kurdish Autonomous area.