People in Belfast pretend the soldiers are not there

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

December 28, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Impressions of a city that could have been invented by Samuel Beckett:

Breakfast takes an absurd turn when you look up from your sausage and eggs and see armed soldiers patrolling the pretty little square below.

They wear camouflage fatigues and carry assault rifles. They move warily in a disciplined diamond formation.

The rear guard occasionally walks backward, like a man who might expect to see a sniper in the second floor conservatory that is the hotel restaurant.

People on their way to work seem to be studiously ignoring them.

The soldiers are as much a part of the morning scene as the fountain in the square. They look very young.

Nationalists call them 16-year-olds and cite the indignities of middle-aged men being searched by kids with guns.

A British army spokesman says none of the troops on the street are under 18, most are 20 or so.

This patrol, possibly a combined unit of the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), turns the corner past the Crown pub, whose lovely Victorian bar is famous as the set for "Odd Man Out," the haunting 1947 movie of the "Troubles" of 70 years ago.

The present "Troubles" throb like a low-grade fever, occasionally bursting into real pain when a bomb goes off on the Shankill Road or someone machine-guns a country pub.

But despite atrocities and massacres, Northern Ireland, with 1.6 million people, is considerably less violent than Baltimore. Eighty-three people have died in the "Troubles" this year. Seventy were "civilians," 13 from the British forces. The homicide toll in Baltimore was 347 as of Friday.

Throughout the day armored Land Rovers painted a sinister gray-green roam Belfast streets while prime ministers and bishops talk of a peace process.

The gunmen of the Catholic and Protestant guerrilla bands discuss their offers in secret. And the people stand by like characters in Beckett's play "Waiting For Godot."

The armored cars all but display a toll-free phone number in case you'd like to report a bomb or perhaps inform on your neighbor.

The downtown bustles with activity. Shoppers swarm the streets in numbers any American city would envy. Pubs, bars, discos, restaurants are all full. You can eat Indian, Thai, Chinese and French food, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

But after 11 p.m., when shops and pubs and restaurants have closed, the downtown is deserted except for a few autos and prowling armored cars that slither quietly through the streets, two soldiers on top manning heavy machine guns.

On the Falls Road the next afternoon, armored personnel carriers and a squad of soldiers cordon off a block while twittering schoolgirls in brown uniforms and white stockings wait on the next corner for the bus home.

The Falls Road is the main street of Catholic west Belfast. It's separated from the Protestant east side by a 30-foot concrete, steel and wire "Peace" wall.

To cross you pass a border station that rivals Berlin's late and unlamented Checkpoint Charlie for dehumanized control. Two high concrete block baffles interrupt traffic, then a red light stops you at a remotely controlled road block.

In a bunker 50 yards away, someone or something scrutinizes you and your car to see if you are fit to pass through.

On the east side you're in a Protestant housing development covered with spray-painted graffiti.

Behind a barricade of boulders on the Falls Road is the headquarters of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

At the end of Falls Road, the Catholic dead lie beneath a forlorn memorial in Milltown cemetery. The celebrated dead date from 1792.

A cold west wind rustles weathered plastic and silk flowers. It blows down Falls Road past the "Peace" wall in damp waves toward the loyalist dead scattered in the Protestant cemeteries in the east.

Across from the arched Victorian entrance to Milltown cemetery, a walled and fortified police station at the crossroad peers down the road through remote cameras like a guard post at a prison.

And in the pub the locals call the "Gravedigger's Arms," a man with a round, ruddy face talks patiently of peace, with little hope.

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