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Fourth Way Perspectives

The Age of Terrorism & The Black Cab Tour

Belfast murals

We have entered an Age of Terrorism. It is global, not local. No longer is it confined to Northern Ireland or the Middle East, Kashmir or Sri Lanka, but the bitterness and recklessness of its rage spreads throughout the world. The impressions of a world eating itself alive can be seen in these photographs taken last year in Belfast, Ireland.

I am in no way qualified to talk about Irish politics. I was merely there and this is what I experienced. I'd been backpacking in Europe for six months when I flew from Amsterdam into Belfast. I was the last person off the plane and the only one not an EU citizen. The customs lady, as a result, had all the time in the world for me. She looked over my boarding card and started pelting me with questions: "Where are you going?" "Why?" "How long?" "What for?" "How much money do you have?" "Can you get more?" "You know you are not allowed to work here, right?" On my card she wrote down anything that struck her. Nowhere in my travels had I been grilled like this.

Belfast murals

I took a bus into town for five pounds. The driver told me of a couple good hostels, and I was on my way. I walked through downtown Belfast staring at the pubs, clubs and greasy fish and chip joints. After some wandering about I finally found my way to Arnie's Backpackers, a normal home in a residential neighborhood. It was really mellow and had a nice fireplace. A couple of Australians lived and worked there. I asked about jobs. They lit up and said, "Well, there's always the medical trials." You could make up to 4,000 pounds by volunteering to be a guinea pig for drug tests lasting one to three months. And, as a bonus, the hospital was stacked with cute nurses, cable TV and good food.

Arnie asked if I wanted to do a Black Cab Tour. I said no. Then asked him what that was. He pulled out a yellow folder full of pictures of murals painted on the sides of tenements showing crazy-looking hooded figures carrying assault rifles. If five people would take the tour, then Walter, the tour guide, would show up in his black cab and drive us up into west Belfast. I asked what it was like living there in the time of "the Troubles." Just the day before I arrived, the postman was shot for simply delivering the mail (he was Catholic, in a Protestant neighborhood). The previous week there were three bomb hoaxes.

Belfast murals

The next day Chris, one of the Australians, asked me if I was going to do the tour. I said yes, and he said he could take me to neighborhoods where the cabs won't go. I agreed. I was going to take my Canon Eos 1n, a big bulky 35 mm camera. Chris shook his head. "Too dangerous, mate. Anything smaller?" I went back to the room and got my point-and-shoot, so small it fit in my pocket. He approved but warned me, "Take the photos bloody quick and keep your ass moving, or you might lose it!"

Belfast murals

Once there, the curbs made it obvious which neighborhood we were in. Protestants painted theirs red, white and blue. Instead of painting curbs the Catholics hung orange, white and green IRA flags off street poles. We passed a row of houses that were bombed out; they acted as a shield to the houses behind them, which were inhabited. The ones that were destroyed were on a main street that got a lot of traffic, which made them easy firebombing targets. As a result the people finally stopped moving back in.

As we moved into a Catholic neighborhood, I thought I saw smoke coming from an abandoned house. These people were not used to cabs coming there, so we definitely got some looks. I took photos as fast as I could; then we headed back out the way we came. When we got back to the abandoned house, you could hear people laughing inside while flames leapt from the roof. We got out of there fast and headed back to town. As we were walking, military hummers and smaller jeeps passed us with big guns attached. The police cars look more like armored vehicles, because they are, just a bit smaller than a Brinks truck you see collecting cash.

Belfast murals

The next day I took the Black Cab Tour. Walter, a talkative Catholic cabbie, arrived at Arnie's and five of us piled in. The first stop was the lower part of Shankill, a government housing complex, which is UFF, or Ulster Freedom Fighters, territory. Over 20 murals, all painted in intense colors, covered the entire sides of buildings. Walter stayed in the car. He had no intention of getting out. I had the feeling that if anything happened, we'd better be back there quickly or he'd be gone. We roamed around and took photos. Nobody took notice, but the murals spoke loud and clear. Men with ski masks, combat boots and assault rifles stared at you. In one mural a sniper is painted so that wherever you are, he's aiming at you.