Paramilitary gangs have never stopped terrorising Belfast. Nancy Gracey believes in telling the world about what they do. By Bridget Freer
Nancy Gracey smoothes her short blonde hair, flicks her cigarette in the general direction of the wastepaper basket and leans forward in her office chair. There is a sparkle in her pale blue eyes: she tells a good tale and she knows it. This, though, is one of the hardest tales she has ever had to tell, but the fact that she has been relating it and many similarly disturbing stories to anybody who will listen - including John Major, Mary Robinson and Bill Clinton - for the past five years, helps her on her way.

"In February 1990, myself, a lot of friends and a couple of my family went to a charity do to raise money for a cross-community home. We had a fantastic evening. On the way home two men got on the minibus. They were the worse for drink and one of them started singing republican songs, which didn't go down too well. My daughter, who is very much of the same mind as myself, said: `That's enough of that, we have mixed company.' The man grabbed her by the throat, and my son, Patrick, who was sat beside her pushed this man off, and that's what he got shot for.

"About four nights later, his house was attacked by men wielding baseball bats, but they had shotguns and handguns, too." Patrick, his girlfriend, Anne-Marie, and their son, Nathan, then four, were very frightened by the attack. The intimidation continued for months and Patrick went into hiding. "I watched my family being destroyed, psychologically destroyed," says Mrs Gracey, mother of nine, grandmother of 24. "Then Patrick came to me and said he couldn't cope any more, he wanted to sort it out. `Ma, I'm going to a meeting,' he said. `If anybody's going anywhere, I'll go,' I said, `you're in hiding, you'll go nowhere.'

"On the 13th of July 1990, the sun was shining and I'm a great wee woman for the beach, so I took some of my children, some of my grandchildren and my neighbours' children off for the day." That evening, she drove back into the Downpatrick housing estate where she still lives. Two of her daughters were waiting at her gate. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Look Ma," her daughter replied, "you might as well know, Patrick's been shot."

Distraught, she quizzed her daughters: when? where? how had it happened? But they knew nothing more. "There's a man known locally as the Godfather, so I went up to his door. `Answer me one question,' I says to him. `Is my son dead or alive?' He says, `I couldn't give you that information.' I says, `You're a liar, you sanctioned it.' I think I was the first person that had gone through his door and challenged him and he didn't know how to take me. `I'd be careful if I were you,' he said. `I could have you buried in that backyard and nobody would know.' `Go on ahead,' I said, `but my whole family knows I'm here, apart from the one that's been shot, so go on ahead.' " Seeing that she was getting nowhere, she left. Her parting shot was: "See your television? Well, you are going to be sick of seeing my face on it. I am going to go public on this."

"They never thought for a million years that anyone would get up against them, especially a woman five foot and a granny and coming out of a nationalist area." Mrs Gracey was determined to speak up. The day after the shooting she went to the newspapers and told them the whole story: how her 22-year- old son had been taken to a patch of waste ground and made to lie down, how a gunman had shot a bullet into the back of his knee and then tried to shoot him in the other leg and at the base of the spine, how the gun had jammed for the later two shots, and how his girlfriend and Mrs Gracey's grandson had been forced to watch.

A few weeks later, she was warned by the Royal Ulster Constabulary that her house might be firebombed; it didn't happen, but she was determined to do something to resist intimidation. People in her situation had nobody to turn to, so she set up an organisation and called it Fait - Families Against Intimidation and Terror.

Five years on, Fait has a two-room office in Belfast High Street, one full-time development officer, two part-time staff, a pool of voluntary workers (including Mrs Gracey) and a phone that never stops ringing. "Mostly we get about three or four cases a week," she says, "though I've seen weeks when we've had 10 and it's as many as 10 a day right now, the place is humming."

This unusually frantic activity was triggered by the IRA's renewed bombing campaign. "The paramilitaries are desperate," says Mrs Gracey. "They lost their grip on people during the 17 months of peace and now they have gone back to the beatings, exclusions and terror with renewed vigour."

Not, she says, that they ever really stopped. Last April, Fait got word that an organisation calling itself Direct Action Against Drugs had drawn up a list of people who were to be prosecuted by them. Over the ensuing nine months, six names were crossed off that list. The group claimed responsibility for each killing.

"Everyone - the peace movement, the RUC, the papers, the people on the streets - everyone knew this was the IRA going by another name," Mrs Gracey says. Fait then learnt that another new organisation, the Protestant Action Force, had issued a death list of 15 names. It seemed the loyalist paramilitaries, too, had chosen to operate under a different cloak during the ceasefire. Again the names were of alleged criminals and drug dealers, only this list included named people from both sides of the divide. Yet more organisations, Direct Action Against Football (which claimed responsibility for punishment beatings of those involved in friendly matches organised by the RUC) and Loyalists Against Thuggery (which claimed responsibility for beating a young Co Down man with baseball bats) sprang up.

Fait, during the time of peace, was inundated with calls from frightened families who had come into contact with one of these new groups. It heard not only from relatives of people on the death lists but members of the public who had been beaten, intimidated and ordered out of their homes by the paramilitaries.

But what can Fait do? It is government-funded, which has led Sinn Fein to dismiss it as a tainted and discredited body. "We're a human rights organisation," Mrs Gracey says. "We try to protect people's freedom of speech and support those whose families are being terrorised.

"A lot of them come to us for the courage to speak out about what's happened to them. But the main reason is that we are the only group in the whole of Northern Ireland willing to speak out against the paramilitaries and what they are doing to people within their own communities," she says.

"Our current campaign is to help people to stay and to help people that have been forced out of their homes to come back again. But if we have to, we get them out of the area where the danger lies."

According to Fait's latest figures, there are 307 people (201 republican and 106 loyalist) who have either been ordered out of their homes or are too afraid to continue living in them.

The paramilitaries on both sides claim that, with or without the ceasefire, there is a continuing need for them to police their communities. This is a claim Mrs Gracey rejects. "If you ask the ordinary person on the street ... they will tell you they would rather have the legal force not the thugs who will drag your son or your husband or even your daughter and beat her half to death and expect people to accept it."

The only way to change things, to loosen the grip the paramilitaries have on their communities, Mrs Gracey says, is for people to speak out. "We've had 25 years in which we've seen over three and a half thousand men, women and children buried and over 30,000 people maimed and mutilated. Throughout people stayed silent, in fear of their lives. We at Fait have given a voice to the voiceless people who have lain dormant for years."