Imagine – being a short female youth worker, and desperately gripping the legs of a young person who is trying to hang himself outside your youth club. Pushing up for all your might to stop the life slipping from him.
Imagine, being told to choose between being shot in the knees, ankles and hands with a low calibre bullet or instead being shot in both knees with a high-calibre bullet.
Imagine being a teenager facing down the barrel of a pistol for challenging a local ‘leader’ on his hypocrisy in shooting drug dealers when he is a drug user – and hearing the click of the trigger.
Imagine desperately trying to stop blood oozing from the wounds of a 15-year-old bleeding out on the ground, when one of your fingers slips into the gaping wound left by a bullet fired by angry men moments before.
Sadly none of these stories are just stories. They are the real experiences of young people and youth workers I have spoken to who are dealing with the consequences of our collective failure to support vulnerable children and young people, and to deal effectively with criminality in local communities.
The young person hanging, had been ‘punished’ a few weeks before with shots to his legs. He is tortured by the memory even though at the time “it didn’t hurt as much as I expected”. Without structured long-term interventions this is unlikely to be his last such attempt.
The young person making the choice of ‘punishments’ made the wrong choice. Whilst it seemed like the least worst option – the wounds were catastrophic – exploding arteries in both legs. Were it not for the skill of Belfast’s surgeons – he might not still be around. He is likely to live with pain and trauma for the rest of his days.
The bullet jammed in the barrel of the pistol. The young person has nightmares about it. It is a memory that is unlikely to ever stop haunting him.
The woman whose hand slipped into the wound has many such stories to tell – of young people terrorised and terrified by the self-styled guardians of her community. Around here, her trauma seems ‘normal’. Every worker in the club has their own stories, their own horrors.
So – next time you hear or read a story of a ‘paramilitary-style assault’, don’t shrug and think ‘they must have deserved it’. No one deserves this.
Next time you think – ‘they are hardened to it. It is like a clip around the ear’ – think again. The injuries aren’t always life-threatening – but they are always life-changing. Many young people who have been shot, beaten or are under threat from paramilitaries have taken their own lives. Many others have tried and will likely try again.
Think instead about how we can spot and intervene constructively with these kids long before the paramilitaries inflict their brutality upon them.
Think about how we can develop new, just and non-violent approaches to dealing with anti-social behaviour and crime so that communities don’t feel that they have no alternative to this brutality.
Think about what effective community based policing really means and how we make it work and hold it to account.
Think about how we help those wedded to paramilitary structures to find new roles within communities, or ensure that they face prosecution and legal sanction for their criminal activities.
Let’s put these stories in the past where they belong and move forward to imagine something else – something better.