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'Losing a child to murder is the worst thing that could happen... I called on God as I didn't think I'd survive it'

The mother of one of the soldiers killed at Massereene Army base 10 years ago opens up about death of her son

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Geraldine Ferguson

Geraldine Ferguson

Sapper Patrick Azimkar, who was murdered in 2009

Sapper Patrick Azimkar, who was murdered in 2009

Police officers lay floral tributes at the gates of Massereene Barracks after the attack in 2009

Police officers lay floral tributes at the gates of Massereene Barracks after the attack in 2009

Pictures of Patrick growing up with his parents and older brother

Pictures of Patrick growing up with his parents and older brother

Patrick growing up

Patrick growing up

Pictures of Patrick growing up with his parents and older brother

Pictures of Patrick growing up with his parents and older brother

Patrick Azimkar’s parents and brother at the unveiling of a park bench dedicated to him

Patrick Azimkar’s parents and brother at the unveiling of a park bench dedicated to him

Pictures of Patrick growing up

Pictures of Patrick growing up

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Geraldine Ferguson

Ten years on and the pain has not diminished for Geraldine Ferguson; it never will.

She won't ever forget that dreadful date, March 7, 2009, when her world came crashing down. When her beloved son Patrick Azimkar (21) and his colleague Mark Quinsey (23), both soldiers, were shot dead outside Massereene Army base in Antrim.

The friends were brutally murdered that Saturday night by dissident republicans as they waited at the gates to collect a pizza delivery.

Tomorrow marks a decade since Geraldine lost her youngest child in such horrific circumstances; with a heavy heart she will revisit the spot where his young life was so mercilessly extinguished by Real IRA gunmen.

"It's extremely difficult to go to the place where Patrick was killed; it stabs me right in the heart and throws everything up again," she said.

"But it feels good that the three of us - me, my husband Mehmet and our other son James - have survived and we've got through the last decade.

"Spending the anniversary in Northern Ireland at the spot where it happened brings everything into sharp relief again.

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"It's extremely difficult. It's very emotional."

While the passage of time has allowed Geraldine (65), Mehmet (68) and 35-year-old James to get used to living with their loss, it has also served to amplify the futility of Patrick's murder.

"It's a very difficult thing when somebody murders your child," Geraldine said, her voice cracking.

"It's not easy to find your feet after that and it wasn't for any of us. Somehow, we found our own separate ways of getting through it but we've got through it as a family, supporting each other.

"We've also had fantastic support from other people and that's made a huge difference."

The child of a mixed-faith marriage - her father was a Protestant from Northern Ireland while her mother was a Catholic from the Republic - Ms Ferguson is no stranger to our political history.

But she admitted that religion only became important to her in her darkest hour.

"Losing a child, for me, it's the worst thing that can happen to you, and especially losing a child to murder," she said.

"It's not an accident, it wasn't an illness, bad and all as those two things would be. It was a murder and it was a very senseless murder. So losing a child to a completely senseless murder that you can't make any sense of because there isn't any sense to it is very difficult.

"Personally, I found the strength because as an almost lifelong atheist I found faith... in the days after we lost Patrick I actually called on God because I didn't think I was going to survive and I knew I needed to survive for James.

"I didn't want him to lose his brother and then his mother and so I called on God, not believing there was such a thing, but from there, gradually, I found faith and I found strength in that faith, and hope."

Ms Ferguson, a social worker, and Mr Azimkar, a carpenter, retired early after what happened to their youngest child. She revealed that they also moved from London to live near the seaside in Kent.

What hasn't changed, however, is their ability to delve deep into the comforting cache of memories they have of Patrick, who had even talked of living in Belfast with his girlfriend before his death.

"We tried to go back to work but it was very, very difficult so we carried on for a couple of years and then we just decided that we would leave," she said.

"Patrick was doing carpentry and joinery in the Army. He always had an interest in carpentry - since he was about three years old he was interested in following in his dad's footsteps.

"He loved wood and he loved the smell of wood. And, since he died, we've heard from the boys he trained with in the Army that Pat was the best." Geraldine said she believed Patrick was "thinking about focusing on carpentry when he left the Army", not that his departure from a career he loved was in any way imminent.

"He was very happy in the Army. He had very good friends and he liked it," his mother said.

"He liked the life, it was a life that suited him."

To mark the 10th anniversary of the murders of Sappers Azimkar and Quinsey, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council will unveil a memorial bench and plant a tree in recognition of the young men at a private service tomorrow morning.

That will be followed by a public ceremony in Antrim town centre in the afternoon at the war memorial, where a stone has been erected in memory of the two soldiers.

Wreaths will be also laid there by the Royal British Legion, the Army, the council and the Azimkar family, among others.

"We always hoped to have a plaque in the place where Patrick and Mark fell so that it would be marked," said Geraldine, who will be there with her husband and son, as well as James' fiancee Gloria (26).

Friends of James and Patrick from their nursery school days will also travel with the Azimkar family, as well as Geraldine's brother Aidan.

Kate Carroll, the widow of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll, who was shot dead by the Continuity IRA in Craigavon, Co Armagh, two days after the Massereene Barracks attack, will also be in attendance.

"It's a very difficult place for us to go, being the place that Patrick was murdered, so it's going to be a hard thing to do," Geraldine said.

"But we're very grateful to Antrim council, who've been absolutely fantastic from the very beginning, for doing this because I don't think there is another council in the UK where, 10 years on, they would mark that anniversary publicly."

Geraldine revealed that she recently spoke to Sapper Quinsey's sister Jaime, who is originally from Birmingham but now lives in Australia.

She also said she believed the death of Jaime and Mark's mother Pamela Brankin in 2013, aged 51, was "definitely" linked to the murder in March 2009.

"Jaime got in touch with me because she was thinking of coming over for the anniversary, but she was very torn," Ms Ferguson said.

"She hasn't been coming and going like we have over the years, so for her it would be a very big step to come.

"She didn't just lose her brother, she also lost her mum. And her mum was definitely another victim of the Massereene attack, without any doubt at all.

"Jaime was worried that it might throw her right back. I told her that in time if she wanted to go to Northern Ireland I'd be happy to go with her if she wanted me to."

In 2013 the conviction of a man for the murder of Sappers Azimkar and Quinsey was overturned in a retrial.

Knowing that no one else has been charged with the killings - and that nobody seems likely to be brought to justice over their murders - Geraldine grapples with her uneasy ties to this troubled part of the UK.

"We've been coming and going to Northern Ireland now for 10 years and we've had nothing but warmth and kindness and friendliness from all the people that we've met," she said.

"It's a beautiful place but we can't get away from the fact that it's where Patrick was murdered."

The barracks were shut down in 2010 as part of the reduction of the Army presence here, but tomorrow Geraldine will be catapulted back in time to when her "beautiful son" Patrick lost his life there.

Both he and Mark, who were off duty, were wearing desert fatigues when they were killed and were due to be deployed to Afghanistan the following day.

But Geraldine will nevertheless take comfort from the 21 years they had together.

"When you're a mother you remember everything from day one. I remember Patrick in a million different ways... at every stage of his life," she said.

"My mind and my heart are full of him and his memories. They're all there. He had a great sense of humour, he could also be quite contrary - he could drive us mad sometimes with his contrariness.

"Even now he makes us laugh, which we love. Sometimes we're thinking of him and we all laugh."

Geraldine doesn't need a ceremony to remember her son but tomorrow, 10 years after his senseless murder, she will draw comfort from the public commemorations that show her he has never been forgotten.

She wants to mark his anniversary in a special way but she's dreading it in equal measure.

"It churns everything up and brings everything back into sharp relief again... when, in a way, it's more muted over 10 years," she said.

"We see that Northern Ireland people don't forget. It's extraordinary. Northern Ireland is a funny paradox.

"It's divided but an incredibly united sort of country at the same time."


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