New victims of bigotry in Northern Ireland: Belfast's Africans, Muslims and Chinese

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The Independent Online

Paul, one of a growing number of Africans in Belfast, was so shocked to know there was a bomb at his house he cannot remember whether it was his wife or police who told him they had to leave. They grabbed their two sons and were hurried to safety by police, leaving the Army to deal with the pipe bomb beside their oil tank.

Paul is from the Sudan; his sons, who are twins, were nine weeks old when the bombers came. He talked of that night as though it were a dream. "I was in a deep sleep, then they are telling me, 'There's a bomb at your house'. We were in the police station about four hours, then we went to our cousin's place; but she was also being attacked that night. We were just so scared, so scared. In Sudan I lost my family. My family was killed in a house, like the way they were going to kill me."

He and his wife are more confused and bewildered than angry. He asked: "What do you get by blowing up folk who are black? What do you get by blowing up nine-week-old kids? What are you going to get? Do you go home and drink and laugh?"

For centuries sectarianism has caused strife in Northern Ireland. The violence has diminished and the weekend's traditional 12 July Orange Order parades passed off with little trouble. But while religious antagonism is on the wane, racial violence is growing. Attacks have been made on Africans, Muslims, Chinese, Portuguese and Filipinos.

In one attack last weekend a gang of up to 10 men with baseball bats and iron bars attacked a Muslim family's home in Co Armagh, shouting: "We are warning you to get out."

Plans to build a mosque in the district for the 300 Muslims there have been criticised in racist leaflets. Similar leaflets have been circulated where Paul lived, in the loyalist Village district of south Belfast.

Most of the more systematic assaults have been in hardline Protestant areas, which tend to be tough and suspicious of any outsiders. The paramilitary Ulster Defence Association has denied involvement, but the use of pipe bombs, a UDA weapon, means the organisation is under suspicion.

Some elements of loyalist groups have always had a certain crossover with white supremacist groups in Britain, but mostly organisations such as the UDA concentrate on sectarianism, not racism. One nationalist politician blamed the attacks on "loyalist Nazis".

Many members of ethnic minorities say Northern Ireland is generally welcoming, one prominent Indian saying: "From the Indian community point of view we have had a very happy home here." Professor James Uhomoibhi, a Belfast university lecturer and chairman of the Northern Ireland African Culture Centre, agreed. "We believe the attackers are just individuals acting in their own selfish interest, because we do feel welcomed by all sections of the community.

"Africans from here are good ambassadors; they go and tell people back in Africa and elsewhere that the bad image presented of Northern Ireland is the wrong image, that it is an open society, filled with warm, receptive people. We have experienced peace here, and we want to contribute to peace, happiness and co-existence."

But Donegall Avenue, where Paul and his family lived, is not a place of co-existence. It is a grotty, run-down street, with some of the cheapest homes in Belfast. Two-bedroom houses go for about £20,000. Parts of the street are festooned with Ulster flags and Union Jacks, while anti-Catholic and anti-black slogans have been scrawled on some of the many boarded-up homes. A crude swastika has been daubed on one wall.

Paul said: "People were not friendly. When we were walking along the street they were driving their cars up and down shouting at you, calling you names, black bastard, nigger."

Yet even in Donegall Avenue there was evidence that racist activity is confined to a minority. An Asian youth who was walking along the street, putting flyers through letterboxes advertising a local tandoori takeaway, walked unmolested through a group of five boisterous youths.

A local political activist insisted: "The community is not riven with racial problems. My impression is that it's a tiny minority, but it doesn't take many to cause a problem."

Dawn Purvis, who works with loyalist paramilitants, was more blunt. "They're sick people. These attacks are being committed by a few bigoted, racist thugs. They may masquerade as loyalists but have no part of principled loyalism."

Professor Uhomoibhi had one novel theory to explain the increasing problem. "The rise in attacks may be due to the peace process, because when you are not fighting those you have been fighting you look for an alternative. The Africans are the harmless alternative."

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