`If this is peace, what is war?'

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The Independent Online
THE BOMB was so devastating that most of the anger has not yet burst through. Omagh is still at the stage of shock, numbness and bewilderment about why such diabolical savagery should have been visited upon it on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

The grief is in its early phase, for few in the town can really comprehend the scale of its loss. The grief will build over the coming days, accompanied by anger against the bombers and what they did.

They killed nine children, 14 women and five men, snuffing out a total of 28 lives. Eleven people are still critically ill in hospital. Northern Ireland has had many bad day, but this was the worst of them, a new record death toll, a new low.

Yesterday came the VIP visitors, including the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Irish President, Mary McAleese, to signal their sympathy and support. Next came the lists of the dead, reminiscent of the casualty lists posted up during the First and Second World Wars.

Then will come the full details of how families have been affected, some losing more than one member, some suffering more than one injury.

One family has lost three generations: Avril Monaghan, 30, heavily pregnant with twins, her 18-month-old daughter, Maura, and mother Mary Grimes, 65, were on a shopping trip when the bomb exploded; three schoolboys, two aged 12 and one eight, from neighbouring Co Donegal, were killed alongside two Spanish friends on a shopping trip.

Next will come the funerals, too many for one small town, too many for one community to bear, a day or days filled with nothing but burials. The sense of loss will be communal as well as personal: that shared burden may make the funerals slightly easier to get through.

But after that will come everlasting loss for so many families: the chair where a mother used to sit, a father gone for ever, a child's empty room.

The recent emphasis on looking after victims of the Troubles has brought to light just how many people never really get over the effects of violence, even decades after the event. Many who think they have recovered find that years afterwards they go through flashbacks and nightmares.

The Omagh bomb has condemned hundreds more people to the status of victims. Two hundred were injured and hundreds have lost loved ones; some will now go through life as orphans, or amputees, or bearing terrible physical and mental scars.

Until the bomb went off, at 3.10pm on Saturday, Omagh might have been rated a reasonably lucky town by Northern Ireland standards. Like many towns it had its share of killings, and had residents killed elsewhere, but most of those deaths occurred back in 1973 and 1974, with another outbreak of killings around 1979.

While not trouble-free in the years that followed, it was only occasionally touched by violence. Most of the casualties have been members of the security forces killed by the IRA in or near the town. There are many republicans in the vicinity, but somehow they were never quite as active, or as militant, as those in comparable areas elsewhere.

It has its social problems, with a developing drug culture, and its share of deprivation. As is the case almost everywhere in Northern Ireland there is a degree of religious segregation: its residents talk, for example, about "the Protestant end of the town".

It is about 60 per cent Catholic and 40 per cent Protestant, a balance reflected in the fact that the council has a Sinn Fein chairman with a Unionist deputy. Relations between the two communities are not totally harmonious, but nor are they poisonous.

One Omagh man said: "Okay, it's not a shining example, but it's not the worst place either."

On Saturday, though, the centre of Omagh became the worst place imaginable for its people. The narrow street where the car bomb had been parked was busy, housing as it does a coffee shop, a couple of clothes shops and a pub. It became even busier as police shepherded people towards it, a telephone caller having warned of a bomb at the courthouse some 250 metres away.

The fact that the street was packed helps explain why the bomb caused the highest-ever death toll. The new school term begins in two weeks time, and some of the women killed were buying uniforms for their children, uniforms which some children will now never wear.

The explosion left little of the car and little of many of the victims. The blast, the disintegrated car, the glass from the shop windows, masonry from the buildings, scythed the people down, lacerating and dismembering. Those first on the scene told, shocked, of the details we would rather not hear: of battered prams, of the blackened bodies of children, of detached legs, arm and hands.

The rest of Northern Ireland looked on in steadily growing horror. First, came television newsflashes asking off-duty doctors to report urgently to Tyrone County Hospital in the town; then reports that several people might be dead; then rumours that 12 could have died.

People could hardly believe it when the official death toll reached a dozen: why on earth should Omagh be attacked? Who would want to cause casualties on such a scale? Aren't the Troubles supposed to be on the wane?

The focal point of horror had, meanwhile, shifted to the Omagh hospital, where wards and corridors were running red with blood. A surgeon described it as "a battlefield". A nurse said people were "running, screaming, crying". The hospital took in 96 women, 22 children and 30 men, some of them arriving in busloads.

By yesterday patients had been dispatched to five other hospitals. Distraught people spent many hours awaiting word of their relatives and friends: some had to wait all night, hoping against hope, only to be told yesterday the news they had dreaded hearing.

The worth of the whole peace process will now be re-examined by the public. One tearful and upset woman in Omagh asked yesterday: "If this is peace, what's war?"

London, Dublin and nearly all the major parties, north and south, were already doing their best yesterday to shelter and protect the political progress which has been made.

With the exception of the Real IRA and the Rev Ian Paisley, few major figures in Ireland want to see the abandonment of the peace process and a return to the drawing-board. The process is a long and difficult road but, the body politic reckons, it is the only road ahead.

The Real IRA is held responsible for the bombing, though nobody can fathom what it hoped to achieve. Attacks which cause major civilian casualties are regarded by republican groups as counter-productive setbacks. The Real IRA has tried to kill soldiers and police before now with mortar attacks on security bases, but until Saturday it had never taken life.

Its speciality has been attacks on town centres with large bombs, though to first give warnings and depend on the efficiency of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to clear the area. The police view is that Omagh was a deliberate effort to take life, but this leaves questions unanswered.

If inflicting large-scale casualties was its intention it is more likely to have targeted a Protestant town rather than a mixed one such as Omagh, where the dead were bound to include nationalists. Dead nationalists are bad for republican business.

The organisation has also left itself open to the most stringent police and Army response, for the near-universal sentiment is that the security forces should go in after them, and go in hard. This sentiment is visible among nationalists as well as Unionists, and in the south as well as the north.

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, has already spoken of "crushing" the group and of "ruthlessly" suppressing it.

British ministers are talking in similar terms. Mr Blair said there should be "no hiding place" for the bombers. "We must make sure not merely [that] we are taking all the security measures we can, but that we build up such support that we allow these people to be driven out. There will be people that know who are responsible for this atrocity. We have got to create a climate in which there is no hiding place for them."

But it really hardly matters to the citizens of Omagh whether the Real IRA meant to kill all those people, or whether the deaths flowed from some sort of foul-up. Everyone knows who is to blame for the carnage: the Real IRA is the cause of all this present misery and all the future suffering.

The buildings of Omagh can be replaced and repaired, but murdered people cannot be, and the injuries of many will never fully heal. The families of the dead have been left to salvage what they can from the ruins, to try to divine some meaning or purpose in it all, and somehow to try to make sense of so much senseless murder.