Terrible legacy of the past
Steven McCaffery, Irish News | 02 May 2006
Republican violence took a heavy toll on the ranks of the Ulster Defence Regiment. One former member was among those who counted the cost ... MEMORIES of the Troubles revisit Reatha Hassan every night. "I have to take a pill to get to sleep," she says. "I have dreams. There is one where I see someone strangling another person. I never witnessed anything like that but it must have something to do with my experiences."
The sitting room of her home in the Co Armagh village of Markethill is filled with family photographs. Sun streams through the window. It is peaceful but the past is never far away. The former civil servant joined the UDR in Armagh in 1973 and took up a welfare role in the regiment. Throughout 22 years of service, she was frequently touched by death. "You had to go out to the homes and break the sad news to the widows, wives and mothers. "It was difficult. But I find it more difficult, believe it or not, now, thinking back. You seemed to get strength in those days."
Today she chairs a victims group that includes security-force families. The ages of its 500 members are surprisingly diverse, stretching from 80 to eight. Mrs Hassan has seen the impact of violent bereavement rippling down through the generations, where young children, who never knew the Troubles, still feel the pain, or the resentment, radiating from older relatives. "I always say we might be victims of the past but we should not become prisoners of the past," Mrs Hassan says. The years of violence hold disturbing memories for her. Many of the more than 60 UDR members killed in her area were neighbours or friends.
Private Paul Sutcliffe (24) was a Lancashire-born soldier who joined the UDR in 1989. Mrs Hassan remembers teasing him over his mop of dyed blond hair. "It wasn't a good colour," she says. "I remember saying to him, 'Sutcliffe if your mother could see you'." In 1991 he was patrolling in a UDR Land Rover when the IRA deployed a new weapon, a horizontal-firing mortar. Witnesses said the vehicle was "ripped apart". Mrs Hassan was asked to identify the young soldier's remains. She was warned to prepare for the terrible smell.
"When I went into the room I smelt nothing, but I remember his hair - it was all scorched and curly, tight to his head." Years later she was in a clothes shop in Newry at the time of the foot-and-mouth crisis when a girl behind the counter remarked at cattle being burned on her farm. "I remember she said: 'I can't get the smell of the burning flesh out of my nose', and all of sudden I could smell young Sutcliffe in that room."
Recalling the UDR members murdered in her area, she recounts example after example of death and near-death. "He was at home reading his Bible when they broke-in and murdered him...." "One fella had lost his leg and the other man was very bad with blast holes...." "From the office I could see young soldiers practising carrying a coffin, knowing the next day their friend's remains would be in it...."
Similar UDR stories are recorded in 'Legacy of War', a booklet published by the Conflict Trauma Resource Centre.
A former soldier recounts training his children to answer the front door by standing to the side of it and shouting 'who's there?' He noticed his 11-year-old grandson is now doing the same. Others recalled the trauma of burying friends, or explained how soldiers received no 'deprogramming' for the civilian world and so still live restricted lives, obsessed with security and unable to trust others. There is also anger. One former soldier says: "We knew who was involved in the IRA, not them all now but a fair few, and it would have been so easy to have went and took revenge..." That soldier said he acted within the law but others did not. There were UDR members who were directly involved in paramilitary activities. Mrs Hassan says that if such crime went on "it must have been well hidden". "I never served with, or knew anyone involved in anything like that." She adds: "If things like this come out, and they're true, I honestly can't believe it." If the government knew of wrongdoing, she says "they should have done something". "There must be a certain amount of evidence there but the whole 22 years I was in the UDR there were two occasions on which I heard [soldiers] were charged. They were put out [of the UDR] and had to pay for their crimes in prison."
The former UDR and RIR member says her colleagues were trained to preserve life. "I think in the back of most people's minds was hope for a better, peaceful country. "You took it that the IRA, or whoever it was, were out there to kill the people... but it would never have meant that you should kill." She hopes for a return of power-sharing government and stresses the need to build a new future. "You'll never forget the past but I think it's now time for people who really want peace to go for it and commit themselves to it. "I would hate to see those things happening again."