31 May 2006

The forgotten victims of the Troubles


(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

They're the forgotten victims of the Troubles. While the stories of those killed in the conflict are familiar, those who survived gun and bomb attacks, but were left with serious injuries, are ignored. Their names are unknown, their voices unheard.

More than 40,000 people were injured in political violence in the North in the past 35 years. "They're over-looked," says Sandra Peake, chief executive of the victims' group WAVE. "They perceive that they're neglected in comparison to the bereaved. They've been left to pick up the pieces of their lives, suffering mental trauma and debilitating injures, with little support. This entire area remains under-researched and under-funded."

An independent study has begun into the lives of those seriously injured in the conflict. Here are the stories of three of them:

Joe Gaston, 79, former UDR soldier

His spare room is full of artificial legs. For nearly 30 years now, he's been searching for a replacement for the real leg the IRA bomb blew away. He always knew he'd never move the way he once did. But maybe, he reckoned, he'd find something which would let him walk a bit further, or sit in the same position for more than a few minutes, without pain.

And so Joe Gaston travelled, all over Ireland and Britain, and bought. Two dozen legs or more. Some, he later sent to Africa, for limbless people even worse off than himself. "That leg was a torture chamber," he says, pointing to one unwieldy construction. Another was "too roomy", the next "too rigid and hard".

"I'm nearly 80 and I've given up searching. This is as good as it gets," he says, pointing to his current leg. Within a few minutes of sitting down, it's slipping forward. Standing up is an ordeal. It creaks when he moves. In the summer, it's uncomfortably sweaty.

Joe walks slowly across the front room of his home in Glarryford, Co Antrim, cluttered with family photographs and knick-knacks. 'If all else fails, asks granda', a plaque suggests. "That's where it happened," he says pointing to the now disused farm-yard across the road, "that's where I lost my leg".

It was a fortnight before Christmas 1977. He was a part-time UDR man but the land was his passion: "I'd 100 dairy cows, I was building up the farm." He started the tractor. "A wall of heat hit my face. A bomb had been attached to the clutch or break. There was a bang. The tractor was blown to bits. It was the worst pain of my life. I put my hand down – there was nothing where my right leg used to be. They found my foot in the shed.

"I just lay there, saying a wee prayer for God to give me strength. I thought of the wife having to rear five children on her own. The eldest boy Samuel was in the yard when the bomb went off. He came running over. It was a blessing the younger ones were at school. My mother, who was 80, was in the living-room. The blast brought the window in around her. She lost her mind after that."

Photographs taken in hospital before surgery are horrific. Nerves and muscle, bleeding and raw, hang from the stump that is left of Joe's leg. His wife wants him to burn the photos "but I think it's important to remember". In the china cabinet, a glass jar holds a piece of the tractor the surgeons removed from his leg. It's Joe's nature to hold onto things. "When we got married, a man said to the wife, 'you'll be alright with Gaston girl, he keeps whatever he gets'."

They used to dance, Isobel and Joe. "None of this shaking and rattling they do now. The quickstep was my dance. The wife would never get a chance to sit down, I'd have her up on the floor all night. She wouldn't be fit for a thing afterwards." His grand-daughter Julie is getting married next month "and that'll hurt, not dancing at her wedding".

He had to stop farming but wouldn't sell the farm: "If I gave in, the other boys would have won." He'd loved walking on beaches, up the Antrim coast to Portstewart where the sands are wild and deserted, but that became impossible too.

His hearing was seriously impaired. Surgery hasn't improved it. A hearing aid makes one-to-one conversations possible, but he's lost when several people talk at once. His blood pressure "went haywire" after the explosion. He had a stroke. The bomb damaged his kidney, then cancer set in, and the kidney had to be removed. "There's a dull thudding pain constantly in my leg. It takes me three or four hours to get to sleep at night."

He thinks the North's younger generation don't realise what their elders suffered. After the explosion, he threw himself into politics to keep busy. He was an Ulster Unionist councillor but lost his seat in last year's swing to the DUP. As an Orangeman, he has a novel way of 'marching'. He leads Ballymoney's parade from a motorised scooter, "and I haven't been rerouted yet!"

His proudest moment was receiving an MBE from the Queen. "They wouldn't let me take my walking stick into Buckingham Palace for security reasons. I'm not too good without it. You have to walk up to the Queen, then take a few steps backwards, which is difficult with an artificial leg. But I managed it!"

He received £58,000 compensation, "enough to get by but it's no life of luxury". He thinks the security forces were expendable: "After we were injured, we were of no use and the authorities discarded us." His son Hugh wanted to join the police. "The wife tried to talk him out of it but Hugh prevailed."

Joe says he knows the identity of those who planted the bomb on his farm: "Some of their relatives had worked for me. I employed everybody, Protestant or Catholic, I never cared. I had the information and I'm sore nobody was ever prosecuted." Not that he wants revenge – "that would make me as bad as the IRA but I can't forgive because they show no remorse". Yet, he's a gentle, reflective man. "Do you think I'm bitter?" he asks, his voice soft and low.

Sam Malcolmson, 57, ex-policeman

Even now he hates confined spaces, and he's always opening curtains and blinds. He has to be able to see a way out. He was in a restaurant in Newcastle, Co Down, with his wife the other evening. All the window seats were taken. They had to sit at the back. "It was awful, I felt enclosed. I wanted to get up and walk out".

When the IRA gunmen opened fire on the police car in south Armagh, there was nothing they could do. "We were trapped inside. When the bullet hit me, it was like being pierced by a hot poker. My colleague slumped over the wheel. I saw blood seeping up through his corduroy jacket. He was drifting in and out of consciousness.

"I lost the power in my body but my mind was working. The survival instinct kicks in. I told him to weave along the road, making it harder for them to hit us again. We drove like that for two miles, into Crossmaglen. We crashed into the barrack gates. I remember nothing after that."

He learned, much later, that his mother rushed to his bedside where she dropped dead, of a heart attack. She was 48. "I accept the risks I took as a police officer but my mother was a civilian. In my book, she was murdered by the IRA.

"If peace depends on my forgiveness, then peace is a long way off. The attack made me turn away from religion. I'm sick hearing ministers telling me to 'move on'. I'd like to ask the IRA if they regretted my mother's death, or did they think 'two hits for the price of one'? Nobody was ever prosecuted for the gun attack.

Part of the bullet lodged in Sam's spine, paralysing him from the waist down on the left side of his body. While his motor nerves were damaged, his sensory ones remained intact – the result is chronic pain. "I'm still on morphine, 34 years after I was shot. I take 16 pain-killers a day. My wife divides them into four boxes – 'morning', 'noon', 'evening' and 'night'. Sometimes I feel like throwing those boxes against the wall. The tablets have strong side-effects.

"I wear a leg calliper. It's like strapping on a ball-and-chain every morning. Six years ago there was a glimmer of a chance that spinal implants would ease my pain. They didn't work. Allowing myself to hope was a mistake. There was a pit of depression afterwards. It was hard to climb out. Before, I'd never been sympathetic to people depressed or suicidal. I am now."

For a while, he bred pheasants: "It calmed me down, going out and talking to the birds, but looking after them got to be too much." When he's depressed, he thinks of a Charlie, a fellow officer, blinded in a bomb attack. "I close my eyes and walk about the house and imagine living in darkness all the time. I find driving through beautiful scenery helps relieve my pain. Sometimes I'll take Charlie out with me, describing everything I see to him."

Sam envies other officers who joined the RUC with him. "I was 22 when I was shot. My career was over. I never got to do the job I loved. I've found life very boring." After the shooting, he visited the Mournes to watch the lads with whom he once went cross-country running. "I began crying when I saw them on the starting-line. I had to walk away. I realised I'd never be there again, never be on top of the mountain either. I was condemned to being a spectator."

Deception has been necessary too: "When you're injured, many people presume you're a paramilitary. If you admit you're ex-security forces, it can be dangerous. When my four daughters were growing up, I told them I'd been a plumber and crashed the car drink-driving. That was the story for them to give their friends."

He received £25,000 compensation from the British government. He says payments to those wounded in the 1970s, when people didn't know their rights, were pitiful. "Awards in non-Troubles cases were far higher. You'd get more for losing a toe in a car crash than losing a leg in a bomb. Sometimes, the government challenged the courts' awards, turning it into a cattle-market.

Even if somebody got a decent settlement, the money would be gone in a few years if they needed private medical treatment. I know one police officer considered selling the medal he'd won for bravery." Sam thinks the government doesn't want to hear awkward voices like his anymore. "And we victims are getting old and worn down. We're tired fighting. Soon, we won't be heard at all. They'll be glad to be rid of us."

Eddie McGarrigle, 40, ex-INLA member

It was raining and he was running – big, long strides – to open the back door so his girlfriend wouldn't have to hang outside getting wet. She was a real looker, a former Miss Strabane. They'd been walking home from a date when the heavens opened. He gave her his coat, before darting ahead.

The gunman was waiting in the doorway. Eighteen-year-old Eddie McGarrigle saw a figure in the darkness point what looked like a rifle at him but he couldn't take it in. Thinking a friend was "acting the eejit", he shouted "f**k off!'. When he realised, it was too late. He started to run away but the gunman shot him in the back.

"I crawled along the street, calling him a bastard. My girlfriend arrived and started screaming. I thought I was dying. I told the ambulance driver not to tell my mother." McGarrigle lost consciousness and woke up, three days later, in hospital. "Nobody ever told me I was paralysed from the waist down – I just sort of found out."

Twenty-two years on, it's hard catching up with him. One evening, he's playing basketball "and I'm not stopping when I'm winning!" Next, he's on a hunger-strike march in the Bogside. Then, he's out with his dog, Troy. Never mind the raft of First Communions, odd for a self-proclaimed Marxist.

But McGarrigle confounds stereotypes. When he was an INLA prisoner in Long Kesh, comrades who didn't know him, presumed he'd been shot by the security forces. They didn't realise it was his own organisation, the INLA, which had put him in a wheelchair.

He became an "active republican" during the hunger-strike. In 1983, a woman told him a man had sexually abused her daughter. Another INLA member warned the man McGarrigle was asking questions. The man stole an IRA gun, shot McGarrigle, and the INLA claimed responsibility.

The man was later convicted of sex abuse. The INLA apologised to McGarrigle. "It was hard but I accepted the apology. The INLA had been in disarray at the time. I wasn't about to change my politics because I personally had a rough deal.

"The Brits were my enemy. I wouldn't be distracted from that. I'd loved sport. I was a big lad, 6"1. I was Tyrone boxing champion, I played hand-ball, I ran cross-country. All that stopped but self-pity is a waste of time. Too many people in the Troubles wrapped victimhood around themselves. I was just glad to be alive."

Out of hospital, the security forces "tortured" him. "I was arrested every few weeks. They thought the wheelchair was my weak spot. They'd sing 'You'll never walk alone' at me. They'd stop my car and open the boot and bonnet, knowing I'd struggle to get out and close them, and then they'd walk off.

"One day, the Brits demanded I get out of the car and open the bonnet. I refused. I told them I'd give them five minutes if they genuinely wanted to search the car, otherwise I was off. They stood laughing at me. So when the five minutes were up, I just started the car and drove at them." McGarrigle was convicted of knocking down a soldier.

For legal reasons, the extent of his "republican socialist activities" can't be disclosed: "I'm not saying I was Dan Breen but I played a full and active role. I wasn't restricted to sitting at home planning things. In terms of disability, the INLA was an equal opportunities employer."

Being a paraplegic didn't destroy his personal life: "I pushed my girlfriend away emotionally because I reckoned everybody thought, 'He'll have to marry her. He won't get anybody else now'. But I didn't love her and wouldn't have married her anyway. I'd no trouble getting women. I'd be on the dance floor, wheelchair spinning – though now I'm older, they'd have to forcibly push me out there!"

In 1990, McGarrigle was arrested following the attempted murder of a UDR man. "At night, the cops carried me to the cell bed. But, on the last three nights, one cop abused me, talking about the need to "cook you vegetables". I wouldn't let him touch me. I sat in the wheelchair, three days and nights. I fainted during interrogation.

"The doctor told me to say I was unfit for questioning. I refused. That would have been crying for special treatment. I was convicted of conspiracy to murder. I should have got 10 years but the judge took a year off because I was in a wheelchair. I was raging at the old c**t for making a big deal about that."

Belfast's Victorian Crumlin Road jail was an inhospitable place. "They held me in the cell for infected diseases, the only cell wide enough to take a wheelchair. It was 24-hour lock-up, solitary confinement.

"The toilet and shower room wasn't wide enough either. They said they'd carry me into it. I refused so for two years I'd no washing facilities and a newspaper on top of the bed became my toilet. It was hard. I wrote poetry about drowning and coming up for air. After the Crum, Long Kesh was heaven – a modern building and all on the flat!"

McGarrigle supports the ceasefire but is anti-Belfast Agreement. "The war's over; republicans lost. Adams and McGuinness settled for what could have been achieved in 1974."

He's married with two children, Liam, 9, and six-week old Paiti. "I can't play football with Liam so I take him to see Celtic instead. I don't want to burden him with politics. He thinks I fell off a motorbike. My wife's a special person. She says I'm softer and more compassionate than most men. I'm the best vacuum cleaner in Strabane. Anything like putting up shelves, or cutting the grass, her brother does."

McGarrigle met disabled ex-security force members during treatment in the spinal unit. "On a human level, I feel for them, but we've nothing in common. The reality is I'd have put them in a wheelchair, and they'd have put me in a wheelchair if they'd had the chance. It was a war. We were on different sides."

He never fought his disability, "just tried to get on with life" as best he could. Sometimes, though, things are different: "When I'm dreaming, whatever I'm doing, I'm never in a wheelchair."

May 31, 2006

This article appeared in the May 28, 2006 edition of the Sunday Tribune.

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