Bitter tide of violent racial hate recalls the worst of the Troubles
LARA BRADLEY in Belfast A BEATING meted out by a gang of thugs. Graffiti daubed on homes in Co Antrim. Petrol bombs and bottles hurled at one man's house in south Belfast.
Sounds like life during the Troubles. Except this is the ugly face of 21st century Northern Ireland, where only a few brave individuals are prepared to speak out about a growing tide of racial hatred.
Immigrants who came in search of a better life have instead been met by hate. And things are getting worse. The attacks which began in the most deprived loyalist areas of Belfast are now spilling out into the middle-class heartlands. From low-level assaults to petrol bomb attacks, the fast-spreading cancer of racial hatred has already culminated in murder.
Indian shop-keeper Brij Sharma, 37, died from head injuries after an attack outside his friend's home in the village of Moneymore, Co Derry in April.
Ten years after the IRA ceasefire, the face of the North is changing. Relative peace and prosperity attracted people from around the world who once would have been scared to come to this damaged corner of Ireland.
The North is, at last, starting to look multicultural, with different races now visible on the streets of the province. But sectarianism is increasingly giving way to racial hatred.
Far from getting a traditional Irish welcome, if you are anything other than white, you would now be safer living in England or Wales, than in Northern Ireland.
Figures from the NI Equality Commission show racist attacks target 16.4 per 1,000 of the minority ethnic population in Northern Ireland, compared with 12.6 per 1,000 in England and Wales.
A recent spate of attacks on homes shows even those who care for the frail and infirm are being targeted by racist thugs. Filipino nurses at the Royal Victoria Hospital have reported constant low-level harassment and intimidation, ranging from verbal abuse to stones and bottles being thrown at them.
Last week, two female health-care workers in the tiny Co Antrim village of Cullybackey woke to find their windows broken and racist graffiti daubed near their home on the Tobar Park estate. But Sma Ndaea, from South Africa, and her four-year-old son Ndusimo were persuaded to stay in their home by appalled neighbours. Mrs Ndaea said: "I cannot say why anyone wanted to attack me. I am not a threat. I work for the community at a nursing home. There has never been any complaint about me."
The same night, an Indian colleague and close neighbour of Mrs Ndaea's suffered the same fate when her windows were broken. A swastika and "C18" (fascist group Combat 18) were sprayed on a wall behind Mrs Ndaea's home.
Cullybackey is less than 10 miles from Ballymena - the heart of NI's bible-belt - where the White Nationalist Party (WNP) has its Northern Irish headquarters. The fascist group has openly handed out leaflets outside schools and supermarkets calling for "Rights for Whites".
The pretty seaside resort of Portrush, the harbour town of Larne, the shopping district of Coleraine, the farming town of Ballymoney, the small city of Lisburn and bitterly divided Portadown have all been targeted by the WNP.
Pictures of First World War soldiers with the words, "They did not die for a multi-racial Ulster" and pamphlets referring to "hordes of asylum seekers" and "spongers" have been distributed in the towns.
An estimated 30,000 people from ethnic minorities now live in the North. From April 2003 to April 2004 there were 453 racial incidents reported to the PSNI, but community leaders say this doesn't reflect the true extent of the terror.
President of the Belfast Islamic Centre, Jamal Iweida, 35, says attacks on the 5,000-strong Islamic community have dramatically increased since September 11, but "the majority of these are not reported as most people feel there is no point".
He said: "A few years ago it was mostly verbal, now it is getting increasingly aggressive and physical. We have had people admitted to hospital with broken legs, facial injuries and this year a man was stabbed in the chest."
Mr Iweida has personal experience of the sharp end of racial hatred. He was forced to flee his home in Finaghy, south Belfast, with his Irish wife and one-year-old son when he started to fear for their lives. Mr Iweida said: "There was continuous verbal abuse and intimidation and my car was vandalised regularly. A neighbour set his dogs on me one day when I was carrying my son. I explained that in my religion we shouldn't allow ourselves to be touched by a dog and that he had insulted me, but he started shouting and let them jump on me.
"My son was crying so I rang 999, but it took the police 45 minutes to arrive and when they did they were not at all interested. One night I was told to get out or there would be trouble, and the next morning my car was destroyed. We left that day."
Mr Iweida and his family now live in a more middle-class area of Belfast where racism is more subtle. He said: "Racism is a daily experience. I just have to walk down the street and people shout 'Osama bin Laden', 'Darkie' or 'Bloody Muslim'. I can see the looks on their faces, some stare out of curiosity, but others I can see are looking down at me."
The PSNI has come in for heavy criticism for apparently failing to get tough with racist thugs. Of the 453 incidents reported, 258 were deemed to "require no further police action" and there were eight prosecutions with two pending. A spokesman said: "We can't do anything if people don't report the crimes."
But a fortnight ago a Bangladeshi man, Mohammad Hossain, his wife and five-year-old daughter were forced to flee the loyalist Village area of Belfast after petrol bombs were thrown at their home.
It was the 20th attack on Mr Hossain's home and he had reported every incident to the PSNI. He said: "I don't know why these people are doing this to me. I have never done any harm to them."
Since January, there have been 123 racial incidents reported to the PSNI in Belfast alone. The vast majority of these - 84 - occurred in south Belfast and predominately in the working-class loyalist enclaves of the Village and the Donegall Road.
Accommodation is cheap in the small terraced houses that make up these areas. Marked out by loyalist flags, murals and graffiti these have always been uncomfortable areas for Catholics, but they are close to the city centre and the major hospitals so the low rent has attracted a lot of non-national nurses, restaurant staff and other low-paidforeign workers.
But on the streets, the perception is that the ethnic community are mainly refugees. Last week several residents said they felt "overrun by foreigners", the loyalist community were "losing everything" and ethnic minorities had more money and benefits than Protestant neighbours.
A mile away at Feile an Phobail in west Belfast the contrast could not be starker, as hundreds of revellers enjoyed a magnetic performance by Zimbabwean musicians Albert Nyathi and Imbongi on Wednesday night.
The perception there is that racist attacks happen only in loyalist areas and are orchestrated by paramilitaries. The residents of west Belfast who spoke to the SundayIndependent said they feltan affinity with victims of racism as "we have been through it ourselves".
In this Republican stronghold, overt racism is rare and is swiftly dealt with. When anti-Muslim graffiti was recently daubed on a kebab shop on the Falls Road, CCTV footage of the incident was examined and the perpetrator quickly identified. But "there is no room for complacency as racism is everywhere", says Leish Cox of the Chinese Welfare Association (CWA): "I can't say this is confined to the Protestant community as there have been incidents in other parts, though not to the same extent."
Last month the CWA was warned by the PSNI that the Chinese community was to be targeted over the July 12 holiday. Many Chinese people closed their restaurants and, just as nationalists have done for many years, left Northern Ireland for the fortnight.
Such a threat suggests paramilitary involvement, but PUP representative Tom Morrow denies this is the case.
He has had "face-to-face" meetings with UVF paramilitaries who "categorically denied" having masterminded any racist attacks. Mr Morrow, who lives in the Village, said: "There are two groups of paramilitaries in this area and I know it's not them. Could it be the BNP or a couple of loose-heads? I don't know."
But DUP councillor Ruth Patterson confidently claimed the perpetrators of the attacks were "being looked for by paramilitaries". She said: "They [the UVF and UFF] have distanced themselves from this. They now see they were wrong to do what they did because it has resulted in the Protestant community being demonised."
Mrs Patterson said, "very ignorant, ill-educated people" carried out racist attacks. She said: "Ninety-nine percent of the Protestant community are totally against what is happening. The problem is they are afraid if they speak out they will become targets themselves."
But both the DUP and the PUP are uncomfortable with publicity about racist attacks and both are trying to counteract the negative perception of loyalism this has engendered. The DUP is involved with a "racism round-table" which was established four weeks ago to discuss and find ways of dealing with the problem, and the PUP has given its support to an upcoming community festival in Sandy Row which, Mr Morrow says, "will involve Chinese, Nigerians and whatever others".