Omagh faces its awful anniversary

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The suspects remain free and the politics of reconciliation have turned sour. A year after the horrific bombing, the town has a sense of grievance

The car bomb that blew apart the centre of Omagh last summer was the worst of Northern Ireland's many dreadful massacres. It was a sunny day, and peace was in the air: the Good Friday Agreement had just been signed. Even the hardened people in this tough garrison town were beginning to believe that the violence might be waning. But a bomb scare is a bomb scare, so when the police were warned to evacuate the area around the severe old courthouse at the top of the High Street, they drove the crowd of Saturday shoppers down the hill to the crossroads by the bridge. Which is exactly where the bomb was.

Five hundred pounds of high explosive ripped the crossroads to pieces. A bus-load of Spanish exchange students on their way to a theme park had stopped for sweets; a two-year-old girl was trying on shoes for a wedding; a grandmother was shopping for school uniforms with her pregnant daughter and six-year-old granddaughter; a boy was searching for a new pair of jeans. Along with everyone else, they were herded into the teeth of the blast. In all, 30 people were killed, and more than 200 injured. In a grisly inversion, it was women and children first: of the immediate casualties nine were children, and 13 were women.

After a while, the world's media went away and left Omagh to lick its wounds in private. A year has passed, and they are still raw. The first anniversary of the bomb falls next Sunday, and will be marked by many services and civic events in Omagh's 20 churches. It will also be marked by a fresh barrage of media interest. Two television documentaries are scheduled - one tonight and one next Sunday - which will trace how those affected have attempted to cope. Journalists from all over the world will prop up the bars and wonder how to ask people what their lives have been like these past months.

The subjects of all this well-wishing are grateful, but uneasy. Whether they like it or not, the coming week will be a time of remembrance, and the things they remember are things they wish they could forget: tiny incidents magnified into fateful omens by the blast. But if their stories might help to avert similar catastrophes in the future, then they know they have to sit down and tell them again. Almost everyone knew someone connected to the explosion; all of them have tales to tell.

Michael Duffy, now co-ordinator of the Trauma Unit set up to help victims of the bombing, had just driven out of Omagh for a holiday when the bomb went off. "We were not five minutes away when we realised we'd left our six-year-old's trainers behind. I was all for turning back to fetch them, but my wife talked me out of it. If we'd gone back we'd have been right in the middle of it."

Neville Hagen, meanwhile, was working in Watterson's clothes store in the High Street, half way up the hill. When the bomb warning came he went out through the back of the building into the car park. "It's what we tended to do in these situations. But you have bomb scares, and you never believe they're real. So we were out back in the sun, laughing and chatting, thinking maybe if it went on till teatime we'd be able to go home. And then we heard the bang." Three of his colleagues were not so lucky. They were trapped out front (two of them were helping a woman with a pram) and shepherded down the hill on that fateful march towards the burning shrapnel.

"The last thing I remember," said Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Adrian was killed that day, "was that my wife and I were in the kitchen. And Adrian was in the door, turning and talking. `I'll not be long,' he said, and he smiled. I'll never forget that - he smiled. As if there was something unusual. We were talking about it just last night, remembering. And as we build up to the anniversary we're a whole family again, remembering all the things that happened before the bomb. But we know that after the 15th he'll be gone again, and we'll be alone again."

Michael Gallagher has spent the last year campaigning on behalf of the victims from a portable office beside a car park, next door to Michael Duffy's Trauma Unit. Omagh has risen well to the challenge. The day the bomb went off, a terrible duty was born - the duty to remind Ireland and the world that what went on here must not happen again. Michael Duffy now has 14 full-time staff in his Trauma Unit. They have trained all of the town's 30 schools (only one is cross-denominational) and seen 474 "victims", of which half were self-referred. "That was the whole point," said Duffy. "To provide a service people could just walk in on. One man said he came four times, but just waited in the car park and went away again. If he'd had to go through the whole procedure of getting referred, he'd never have come."

It has been an impressive project. But amid all the sorrow, all the counselling, all the talk of reconciliation and bridge-building, Omagh nurses a quiet sense of grievance. The bombers have not been caught (the rumour is that the authorities know who they are, but can't establish the necessary forensic proof). And the political negotiations have snagged on the kind of nicety - the timing of decommissioning - that seems negligible to people who have lost a son, or a wife, or a leg. The professionals are careful not to sound rancorous: they are proud of their reputation for suffering in dignity and reluctant to be drawn into bitterness. But there's an edgy atmosphere in the town. The anniversary is a challenge, a hurdle, and almost everyone says they wish it was September already.

This edginess is sharpened by bad news from the political arena. There are hints that the IRA is stiffening its sinews once again. In Belfast last week a man was shot in the face; two pipe bombs were found in a hedge; there were punishment beatings in the night. Then came reports that three splinter groups (including the Real IRA, which claimed "credit" for the Omagh murders) were merging to plan renewed violence.

In Omagh, shoulders sagged. "The idea that the hard men are gathering is tough for people to accept," said Father Mullan. "We've tried so hard to push the vocabulary of anger to the back-burner. But this violence should not exist, these people have to stop, and that has to be said."

"We can hear what the politicians are saying," said Michael Gallagher, "but we can't see what they're doing. And it's just so sad, because after the bomb the atmosphere here was electric. It was as if everyone looked into the abyss and drew back. And now it feels like that atmosphere, that mood, might be slipping away."

At the Trauma Unit, Michael Duffy is worried that the second year might be even more difficult than the first. "After the anniversary we'll have something new to guard against," he said, "which is the natural desire of people to put it behind them and move on. It's going to be very hard and isolating for the people who can't move on. They're going to start thinking that no one cares any more."

It would be glib to say that there was a silver lining to last year's horror, but if the bomb represented the most malicious and sour element of human nature, the response exposed an equally touching depth of generosity and concern. The Omagh Fund now has nearly pounds 6m worth of donations. Last week both Chelsea and Manchester United came to play the local football team, winning 8-0 and 9-0 in front of packed crowds. And in Omagh's library Patrick Brogan is busy sorting the massive public response to last year's bombing into a coherent archive. It will be unique (fingers crossed). A small upstairs room holds more than 500 books of condolences, all crammed with signatures and sympathetic phrases. Above them stand rows of folders containing more than two million e-mail messages. "If this is what a united Ireland means," says one, from Australia, "then I want no part of it." Another, from Kazakhstan, is even balder. "I'm ashamed to be Irish," it reads.The world wants Omagh to be a symbol of hope, a sign that renewal is possible. But few in the town itself can afford to be so blithe. "I lost a brother 15 years ago," said Michael Gallagher. "He was killed by the IRA. So when people say that lightning doesn't strike twice, I have to say to them that it can, and does."

On the gaily painted children's play area opposite the RUC barracks, a single alarming piece of graffiti reads: "We're back." Surely not.