Belfast Telegraph

Punishment shootings are hidden from view to conceal the shame of terrorists who maim without fear

By Malachi O'Doherty

The most common of paramilitary crimes throughout the Troubles is the one that we all see least. All of us who are old enough to have been through the Troubles have been close to an explosion, even if only a controlled one.

I don't know how many times I have stood behind a police barrier, waiting for the road to be cleared by that slick robot blowing a suspect, or real, bomb apart.

I have been close to gunfire, too, some of it loud and incessant, but most of it doing very little damage to anything but the nerves and eardrums. But how many of us have seen a paramilitary shooting?

I have spoken to some who have been there. I remember the story of Wurzle - a lot of the joyriders in west Belfast had nicknames. Wurzle had come out of Hydebank and was involved in a community drama project in Twinbrook. The gunman took him out of the group and, in front of these shocked young theatre people, laid him down on the ground and shot him in the legs, then coolly picked up the shells of the bullets, pocketed them and walked away. But I have never seen that.

I have spoken to many of those who have been shot like that. One, in Ballymurphy, demonstrated how the gunman had pressed the barrel of the gun into the back of his knee, then pulled up his foot, so that the lower leg clenched the gun before he fired. He showed me the bullet hole and the scarring below where, for years, he needed skin grafts, probably because the circulation no longer reached the shin.

I remember Pip, who lost half of his foot. The bullet appeared to have ricocheted in some way, diverted, or bounced back, and compounded the damage.

And I have interviewed young men in hospital beds, often with a police officer at the door, and heard them tell how they had felt nothing at first, or had vomited afterwards.

I have also heard so many versions of the story about the boy who wanted to take off his new jeans to spare them, both on the Shankill and the Falls, that I believe it to be a modern myth.

There is no single type of paramilitary operation that was more common than shooting young men in the legs. The IRA and the UDA did far more of that than anything else.

Kevin Scott's extraordinary photographs (I know, all of his photographs are extraordinary) show the mundane character of such a shooting. The wounded boy props himself on his elbows and talks to the paramedic, who shines his torch on the damage. If you saw that from the other side of the street, you might think the boy was showing him a blister, or a bee sting.

They are discussing a bullet. And in parts of Belfast still, that is an ordinary thing to be happening.

The paramedics appear curious and helpful, but not surprised, or alarmed. The boy is wheeled on a trolley to the back of the ambulance, conscious and apparently in no great pain.

Then in come the forensics officers in their white overalls to search for the shell casings, so that the gun can be identified, so that the details of this shooting can be added to a file of previous shootings from the same gun, probably by the same man.

At the height of this carry-on in the 1990s, there were a few IRA men in Twinbrook and Poleglass, known to nearly everyone, who shot dozens, perhaps even hundred, of boys.

Why? Because paramilitaries feel they ought to be shooting people. They could rationalise it around an argument that the police were not doing anything about young hoods, but like Wurzle and Pip, most of the hoods were shot when they came out of custody, after serving their sentences.

The damage done - to the limbs and mental health - of young men is appalling. But we don't see it. We don't even hear it. The victims are almost never named, unless they die. They never have a face.

We should have a big mural to this carnage somewhere. Why not, if the paramilitaries are proud of their work?

Kevin Scott's pictures would be good material to start from.

Belfast Telegraph


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