Don Mullan: I shall never forget the silence that descended on my native town

Eyewitness
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The Independent Online

It was the first civil rights demonstration I had ever taken part in. As I left my home that sunny Sunday afternoon, little did I realise that I would find myself in the vortex of a military operation which would leave 13 civilians dead, 14 wounded and a nation in turmoil.

I was at the corner of Glenfada Park and the rubble barricade on Rossville Street when the 1st Battalion Paratroop Regiment advanced. I have very clear memories of the Paras fanning out across the waste ground to the north of the Rossville flats complex. I can still vividly recall one Para, about 20 metres away, firing a rubber bullet which bounced off the barricade.

Another took up a firing position at the corner of the first block of flats diagonally across the road. Behind him I could see three paratroopers viciously raining the butts of their rifles down upon a young man they had caught.

Then the unmistakable cracks of high-velocity SLR [self-loading rifle] shooting started. I distinctly remember a youth clutching his stomach a short distance away, his cry filling the air with despair and disbelief. For a moment we were stunned. People ran to his aid while others, including myself, sheltered behind the barricade.

Suddenly the air was filled with what seemed like a thunderstorm of bullets. The barricade began to spit dust and it seemed to come from every direction. The wall above me burst. That's how it appeared as bits of mortar and red brick showered around us.

Our nervous systems reacted simultaneously, as though a high-voltage electric shock had been unleashed. Absolute panic ensued as we turned and ran. Doors and alleyways choked as waves of terrified adults and children tried to reach safety. "Jesus, they're trying to kill us!" "Jesus, let me through!" "Get out of the way!" "Ah Jesus, they're after shooting a wee boy!"

I escaped through Glenfada Park but there are several minutes of that afternoon of which I have absolutely no memory. Five young men died at the barricade and four between Glenfada Park and Abbey Park. As many again were wounded in those locations. What I know is somewhere hidden in my subconscious.

All I know is that three-quarters of a mile later a woman's voice brought me back to reality. "What's happening, son?" she asked. "Missus," I answered, "there must be at least six people dead."

I don't know why I said that, but I did. Her face registered disbelief and I knew she thought I was exaggerating. I didn't wait to explain or try to convince her. A primeval instinct had taken possession of me and I was, unashamedly, running home to safety.

The entire west bank of Derry was deeply traumatised by the attack. It must be something akin to the aftermath of an earthquake. I shall never forget the silence that descended upon my native town.

The rest of the evening was spent with my family listening to the radio and watching an old black-and-white television set for updates. The pictures of Father Edward Daly from the cathedral parish, waving a white bloodstained handkerchief as he led a group of men carrying the limp body of a teenager, were very distressing.

There was something surreal about watching television coverage of a bloodbath I had just escaped, at the bottom of the local hill. This was something that happened in Sharpeville or Soweto, but not in Derry. Certainly not to neighbours and friends.

Sleep did not come easy that night. We knew that the angel of death had entered many homes in our estate and throughout Derry. Tomorrow, 13 homes would have a brown box delivered, containing the packaged remains of loved ones with whom, just 24 hours before, they had sat down to their Sunday dinners.

We were stunned and grieving. The next three days would be not just a time of community mourning, but a national wake.

Don Mullan is an international humanitarian activist from Londonderry who, at the age of 15, witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday

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