Yesterday, on what was a surreal day, the 115 Romanians forced from their homes in south Belfast by racists first sought sanctuary in a church hall, then a leisure centre, before finally being taken by bus to a refuge in the Queen's University area. Jamie McDowell joined them on their travels
On the outskirts of Ormeau Park in south Belfast is the Ozone Leisure Complex. It's normally a place of recreation and fun, ranging from tennis to laser-tag.
But early yesterday, within the four walls of the ageing building, 115 Romanians — hounded from their homes by racist thugs — were waiting. If there was an initial sense of relief at being out of reach from their attackers, there was also fatigue, anxiety and fear of what might yet be to come.
After all, while this place offered a strange kind of sanctuary, it was also clearly a makeshift solution. What would the next few hours bring? Indeed, where would these people — many of whom have young children — be spending the night?
Outside, the media circus was well underway with politicians from every party jostling for air-time. The soundbites came thick and fast, but largely articulated the same sentiment: shock at the attack on these families the previous night. Still, for all the Press's interest in the story, none of its representatives were being admitted into the inner sanctum of the leisure centre — the tennis hall, to be precise — where these ousted people had taken up temporary residence.
They tried to gain access, however, and the reception area was thronged with cameramen, each trying to catch a picture of the victims that would convey their hurt, anger and bafflement.
Finally, they got it. At one stage a Romanian girl was moved from one room to another via the reception.
A teenager, and visibly traumatised from the events of the past few hours, she pressed her forehead against the back of the man who was leading her through the room, afraid to show her tears.
She may have hidden her face, but she could not conceal how her body was shaking as she passed briefly in front of the cameras.
Beside the entrance to the hall, Paddy Meehan (22) had been standing for hours. He'd repeatedly asked the police officer manning the door to grant him entry. “I'm a resident. I'm with these people,” he says. Paddy explained to us how residents, who have given their support to the Romanians, have been faring throughout the ordeal.
“Maria, one of the women who speaks English, was staying with 17 others at the house on Belgravia Avenue. Local residents |and I were keeping watch from Saturday and Sunday onwards. Police arrived last night and stayed at the top of the street for a while then went away. We went to check on them later on and the front windows had been put in.
“All of the residents are incredibly tired. And now we're the ones who are getting threatened. I have been getting text messages and phone calls from people all day who are saying they are from the BNP. They're saying that we are dissident republicans and that we'll be attacked.
“One of the residents who lives just down the street from me on Belgravia was also threatened. People from the Greater Village Re-generation organisation, Sandy Row and Donegall Pass have been fantastic and very supportive.”
As we talked, a teenage boy came from the tennis hall to speak to Paddy. He'd only a slight grasp of English but knew a true friend when he saw one, and greeted Paddy warmly.
“The only word the two had in common was ‘casa' – the boy wanted to know how his house was. Paddy gestured with his arms to try and make it easier to understand. He explained to the boy that his house had been pelted with eggs.
The boy stared towards the Press pack with weary, forlorn and reddened eyes before returning to the sanctuary of the tennis courts. Paddy bade him goodbye. Over the last week he has built a relationship with the Romanians — a friendship in which few words are spoken, but raw emotion speaks a thousand words.
On a mild June day, the amount of people crammed into the building — Press, staff and refugees — had evidently created a humid atmosphere.
When we walked to the back of the building we found a few had opened royal blue doors of the fire escapes to get some fresh air. One man, Couaci Gheorghe, was willing to talk. Again, his English was basic and he relied mostly upon hand gestures.
Couaci talked of his fear for his family. “I live on Belgravia Street. I have three children. The oldest is 10 and the others are two and four years old. I am frightened for them. We want to go back to Romania but now we are waiting for parliament to do something about it.
“There are over 100 people in here. They are all families.”
Couaci gestures with his hands to describe the attackers.
He lowers his hand about one and a half metres from the ground. “Some were this size.” Then he lifts his hand quite high to show that some were very tall as well.
We returned to the reception area where a woman was standing with her two children. Such is the level of terror these people feel, that she insisted she did not want to be named. But she told us that she was once happy here.
“I liked it here. We like Northern Ireland. My kids go to school here. This is our home.” She lifts her hands with tears in her eyes and repeatedly exclaimed: “Why?”
And it is this one word that essentially summed up what politicians and others sympathetic to these people's plight have been trying to say all day, to make some sense of the inexplicable.
At the moment, though, there is only one answer to the woman and her two boys. And that is that nobody knows why.
She gestured repeatedly with a fist towards her shoulder and said: “They hit my sister.” Then, she added in broken English: “I have been here for six months but only in the last week have they come. I can't even go to the shop. This is every day.”
After a few hours we re-located to Belgravia Avenue to assess the damage. Four large windows had been shattered with bricks.
Glass was scattered around the pavement outside number 14. A poster displaying a message in capital letters ‘VILLAGE RESIDENTS SAY: STOP RACIST ATTACKS' was plastered across the new wooden panelling that now filled an empty window frame.
Across the Lisburn Road, at the bottom of Wellesley Avenue, there was more window damage at number 113. The street was eerily quiet for mid-afternoon. Neighbours were nowhere to be seen. One woman, fetching something from her car, turned on her heels as soon as she glimpsed a photographer.
Two cars pulled up beside us. Three men stepped out of the first car. One of the men was leading loyalist Jackie McDonald. Colin Halliday and Colin Patton, from the Ulster Political Research Group and Village Re-generation Group, were with him.
We asked McDonald if he thought paramilitaries were involved. He tried to distance racist attacks from sectarianism.
“We have been consistent in our condemnation of these attacks,” he said. “We are calling on the perpetrators to open their eyes to the real world.
“We're afraid someone will get badly hurt soon. These attacks don't have anything to do with sectarianism. Take a look at the disturbances in the Holyland area. It's not about sectarianism. It's anti-social behaviour that's the problem.
“The younger people behind these attacks may have wanted to join paramilitary groups when they were younger.
“But now there is nothing there. Where there once was sectarianism they are filling the void with racism. We need to stop treating young people as nuisances and start teaching them about the moral fibre in society.
“Young people need space. They do not need to be led by bigots. Loyalist paramilitaries are starting to shift from sectarianism into racism.”
Later in the afternoon, back at the leisure centre, a yellow school bus arrived. Two women lifted boxes from the sliding side door. They were filled to the brim with sweets, crisps and orange juice. The food was bought by the staff and students at Loughshore School on the Shore Road in the north of the city.
Teacher Carolyn Lenaghan and a helper, Jason Moore (15), show us the card the students have made. Carolyn explained: “We were all in agreement at the school that we should club together and do something. It's just a gesture to show our support.”
And then just after 4pm, this odd convoy started to form up again. Buses began to roll in to the car park to relocate these people once more.
Inside, the Romanian families hastily started to pack their belongings and gathered in the reception area. Some had suitcases, some had makeshift hold-alls made from bed linen. It was a pathetic and depressing sight.
As the leisure centre closed its doors on perhaps one of the strangest days in its history, what must have been going through the minds of these people?
They said they wanted to go home. But for now they will have another crowded, uncomfortable and largely sleepless night.