Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

How Paris attacks have brought back memories for Troubles' bereaved

When terrorists massacred 129 people in the French capital on Friday night, the scenes proved chilling reminders for those who had lost loved ones in Northern Ireland’s own dark past. They talk about coping with shock, grief and anguish

By Stephanie Bell and Helen Carson

The terrorist atrocities in Paris on Friday night when suicide bombers and gunmen attacked young people enjoying a rock concert, football fans at a sports game and diners enjoying a meal at a restaurant have shocked and disgusted the world.

Now 129 people are dead with many more fighting for their lives. As people all over the world try to come to terms with the outrage, victims from the Troubles talk about how the horrifying killings have brought back painful memories of their own loss.

We talk to two people who had loved ones murdered by terrorists and find out their reaction to the victims in the French capital.

‘Thirty years on I’ve flashbacks about my sister’s murder... sudden noises scare me’

Ann Travers

Having witnessed the horror of seeing her dad and sister lying on the ground after being hit by a hail of terrorist bullets Ann Travers can appreciate more than most just what the trauma in the aftermath of the Paris massacre will be like for the victims.

The mum-of-five, who is a voluntary member of the Victims and Survivors Forum NI, says she still suffers flashbacks and nightmares over 30 years after her family came under attack.

Ann's sister Mary (22) died and her father Tom, a magistrate, was hit several times and survived when the IRA ambushed them as they walked home from Mass with her mother Joan on April 8, 1984.

As Mrs Travers lay on the ground with the body of her lifeless daughter on top of her, their attacker coldly put his gun to her head and fired twice. She only survived because the weapon jammed.

Ann's brothers, were at home with her at the time, and after they heard the gunshots they all ran immediately to help their loved ones. Ann was only 14 when forced to witness the devastating scene of her mother kneeling in tears over her critically injured father as her sister lay dead nearby.

She says: "You don't ever forget it; even now talking to you I can remember it in every detail as if it happened just a few minutes ago. People say that time is a great healer but it is not. Your brain learns to accommodate the trauma and grief but you never forget.

"At the moment the survivors of the Paris atrocity will probably be full of complete disbelief about what actually happened.

"There will be numbness for a while and those who survived will have survivors' guilt.

"They will replay it over and over again and they will need help and support and it will have to be for the long-term.

"The next year will pass and before they know it there will be the first anniversary and they are going to need an awful lot of support in the months and years ahead to cope with the horror of what they have experienced."

Like everyone who has watched the shocking pictures unfold from Paris over the past few days, Ann has been horrified by the scale of the senseless killing of so many innocents.

Having had her own world shattered in the name of terrorism, she still finds it hard to grasp how anyone can take another person's life.

She also pleaded for understanding of the many Syrian refugees who she said were simply fleeing from the same sort of terror witnessed in Paris.

She says: "I heard a young man on the Stephen Nolan show say that these men are not Muslims, they are animals and he is right. You can't be a human being and calmly take other human beings' lives and plan that. This is what the refugees are trying to get away from and we need to support and fight against evil together."

The pictures of Paris did bring back the trauma of Ann's own experience and as she watched the full extent of the horror unfold her heart went out to the people caught up in the shootings.

She says: "Your heart breaks to see somebody going through that experience and losing people in such a violent way. To experience that violence is something which nobody believes or can imagine will ever happen to them.

"I thought of my own sister and I just think about the poor people who survived and had to leave others behind, it's just horrible."

Ann had gone to an earlier Mass on the day the IRA murdered her sister and she believes that her entire family would have been wiped out had they all decided to go to church together.

She says her dad, whose life had been threatened due to his job on the judiciary, suffered terrible guilt about his daughter Mary until the day he died.

Even though she wasn't there Ann (46) has also struggled over the years with survivor's guilt.

She says: "Mary was a primary three teacher and her class was taking their first confession that afternoon which is why she went to the 12 o'clock Mass with mum and dad. I went to the earlier 11 o'clock Mass.

"I have thought many times if I had gone instead of Mary to that Mass things could have been different and it could have been me dead and Mary would still be alive.

"I do get flashbacks and sudden noises still scare me. That's what terrorism is, it causes you terror. I will never understand it just like I can't understand what happened in Paris. How can a human being take another human being's life in such a violent way? It is so cold and so heartless.

"I still have nightmares and dream that I am drowning and that's the feeling of being out of control.

"I really hope the Paris victims get help or seek help and talk about what they have been through. To ask for help is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of being human.

"They will eventually learn to cope and live with it and at some stage they will laugh again and they will feel guilty for laughing again and getting on with their lives but the pain will never ever leave them, it will be with them for the rest of their lives."

'Those who lost people in Paris will go through hell, they'll need a lot of support'

Double loss: Alan McBride

Alan McBride (51), who lost his wife Sharon and father-in-law Desmond in an IRA bomb attack at Frizzell's fish shop on the Shankill Road in 1993, recalls the "pandemonium" and "chaos" when he arrived at the scene.

Alan, who is currently single and lives in east Belfast, is Belfast co-ordinator for Wave Trauma Centre, says: "I was living in north Belfast at the time of the bomb and a friend told me what had happened after they heard about the bomb on the radio. I went down to the shop which was owned by father-in-law Desmond and where my wife Sharon had been working that day.

"It was half an hour after the bomb had gone off and it was chaos, it was absolute pandemonium."

The bomb killed nine people including two children.

Alan and Sharon's daughter Zoe was two at the time. Now 24, she lives in Belfast and is studying for a post graduate degree in accountancy at the Ulster University in Jordanstown. Alan explains: "The shop had been targeted because it was believed there was a UDA meeting going on above the shop - my understanding is that meeting never happened. While all violence is senseless the attacks on a rock concert, a restaurant and sports stadium in Paris are completely random in their nature and there is a big difference between what happened there compared to the Shankill bombing.

"However warped and perverse the bombing of Frizzell's was, the shop was targeted for a specific reason.

"Afterwards, the then Prime Minister John Major said as long as acts of terrorism like that took place there would be no talking to terrorists - yet we know now that he was talking to them."

The charity worker believes the violence of IS is more extreme, adding: "I think when it comes to IS there is no talking to them. How do you reason with a suicide bomber who is prepared to strap explosives to himself? Some people have said the Shankill bomber who died (Thomas Begley) was a suicide bomber, but I don't think for one moment that it was his intention to die himself.

"The terrorist attacks by IS are wanton and I believe that it will get worse. What people don't realise is the great debt of gratitude we owe to the security services who have thwarted so many planned attacks worldwide to date."

He says news of terrorist attacks elsewhere do bring back bad memories. "When I hear about terrorist attacks it would be wrong to say I have nightmares because I have had so much support following the loss of Sharon and Desmond I have learned to deal with it. It does, though, remind me of the bad old days of Northern Ireland of security checks - and that was just to get into the city centre, not just to go into a shop.

"For those who suffered in Paris I think short-term the people must get all the necessary emotional and financial support they need to get them through the next few days because it will be hell for them. Long-term there must be understanding and a strategic response so the people affected don't suffer further trauma. Ultimately we have to realise the senseless nature of violence for political ends.

"I am glad the England versus France football match is going ahead because the minute we give into terrorism is the day they have won."

The way to move on from trauma

Siobhan O'Neill, who is a professor of mental health services at Ulster University

A leading local research academic has said the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday are all the more catastrophic because of the randomness of the violence which has left 129 people dead with many more still fighting for their lives.

Siobhan O'Neill, who is a professor of mental health services at Ulster University based at Magee campus, was a co-ordinator on a World Mental Health Survey published in 2011 which revealed that Northern Ireland had the world's highest recorded rate of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to 30 other countries, including Israel and Lebanon.

Professor O'Neill stresses, though, despite the horrific nature of violent attacks most people do recover.

She points out, however, a society unused to terrorist attacks, such as Paris, may be prone to suffer more in the aftermath of a terrorist incident. "While terrorist events became part of life for people here, for those in Paris, bomb attacks and shootings are a massive change," she says.

"For people all over France who have no significant experience of terrorism in their country this could well result in increasing levels of fear. There will be a feeling among people 'that could have been me' which is a very frightening idea. After catastrophic attacks there is often resilience among people and there is evidence of this happening in France," Prof O'Neill explains.

And the best approach for those caught up in the atrocities is to talk to family and friends while maintaining their daily routine rather than immediately seeking out professional counselling.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph