Fear in the air of a Belfast street where Pakistani men were driven out by racial hatred
It's the street where fear is in the air. Behind the curtains and the blinds of Parkmount Street in north Belfast unfolds the story of an appalling attack on two Pakistani men, who have now been forced from their home.
Yesterday afternoon, Parkmount Street looked like any other residential area on a fine day of early summer.
Women and children were sitting outside their front doors and chatting.
On the other side of this bustling terraced street in the heart of the loyalist Tigers Bay area of the city, several men stood talking.
However, the presence of a police car with two officers sitting outside a house with a boarded up front window gave away the clue that all was not as peaceful as it seemed in this community.
The police officers were there to protect the two men inside, who were attacked in a racially motivated hate crime.
Last night the men, who are originally from Pakistan – Haroon Khan (38) and Muhammad Khattak (24) – found new accommodation after two separate attacks left them shocked, hurt and angry.
The university-educated pair are hurt and disappointed that not one of their neighbours in Parkmount Street called with them to ask how they were doing and to offer support.
"We have to move out from this place, our mental and physical health has suffered from this," said Mr Khan.
"It really is too much for us."
The facts are that, just a few hours after they attended an anti-racism event held at Belfast City Hall on Saturday afternoon, a bottle was thrown though the window of their rented house in the street.
While they were trying to tidy up the glass on Sunday afternoon, a man started to beat Mr Khattak outside the house; he ran into the house for protection as the attacker and two others forced their way into the property and began to hit him again in the bathroom, while Mr Khan made an emergency call to the police.
He was also beaten in the attack, but not to the same extent as Mr Khattak.
Police yesterday charged an 18-year-old woman with disorderly behaviour arising out of the incident, while a 57-year-old male was released on bail pending further police inquiries.
Both men say that their physical and mental health has suffered severely since the attacks, with Mr Khattak now using crutches for an injured foot.
They have been living in the street for the last six months and were subjected to racist comments when they walked outside, which suddenly escalated at the weekend.
The men yesterday received visits from controversial cleric Pastor James McConnell, who denounced Islam as "heathen" in a recent Sunday sermon, and the DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds.
Pastor McConnell offered his sympathy and support and left £100 with the men to help meet the costs of replacing their damaged front window.
Mr Dodds denounced the attack on the men as "appalling".
"I shared my shock and horror with others that they had been attacked, nobody deserves to be attacked in their home," the North Belfast MP said.
"These situations are very difficult and very tense and it's a terrible shame that has happened. But it's important to emphasise that this is not a community that is anti-immigrant, as there are members of other ethnic minorities living in the street," he added.
Many in the community are angry at the statements that Mr Khattak made to the media about anti-Muslim sentiment and feel that they are being unfairly labelled as racists.
Their next door neighbour Audrey Doherty said: "It's unfair and wrong to label the whole community as racist. While I do not condone what happened, when I read Press reports that they claim they were racially abused in the street, I wonder why as I certainly never witnessed it before." Several residents insisted they were never aware of any racial abuse of the two men while living there, and they did not understand how they came to be attacked.
They also insisted that other foreign nationals from Poland and Slovakia have lived quietly and harmoniously without incident in the street for years, often taking part in community-organised events, such as celebrating the annual Twelfth holiday.
Emma Johnston, who has lived in the street for 46 years, said: "This is a quiet street. Nothing like this ever happened before.
"We've had Polish and Slovakian people live here for years and there's been no trouble and they joined in our parties," she explained.