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Caoimhe Butterly speaks in Belfast

JM Thorn

2 February 2007

On 29th January the international peace activist Caoimhe Butterly spoke at a public meting at Queenís University in Belfast.  Organised by Anti-War Ireland it was the latest in series of meetings she has been addressing across Ireland since her return from Lebanon.  She has had been Lebanon for the last six months, a period covering the Israeli bombardment and invasion, and more recently the mass opposition to the Government and the growing sectarian tensions there.

Caoimhe began by describing the humanitarian situation in southern Lebanon which had bourn the burnt of the Israeli onslaught.  She said that many villages had been destroyed, people had no access to water and the land was littered with unexploded cluster bombs.  Despite this devastation there was a determination among the people of southern Lebanon to rebuild their communities.  This was seen as an act of defiance against the Israeli attempt to expel them.  The resistance to Israel was both military and civilian and crossed the generations.

Caoimhe went on to describe the nature of her solidarity work with the people of southern Lebanon.  She is part of a group of a grassroots activist and volunteer network called Samidoun.  Based out of Beirut, it comprises over 400 people, mainly volunteers, and also organises teams of doctors and engineers.  As part of this group Caoimhe was based in the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab.  It is near to Bint Jbeil, which was sort of scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the invasion.  The main activity of the volunteers in Aita al-Shaab is the distribution of aid, as well as doing workshops and role-playing activities with children and working with different Lebanese and international groups who are trying to de-mine the area.  Their objective is to raise awareness about the situation in terms of cluster bombs and try to teach children how to identify the different unexploded ordinances and to stay away from them. 

Caoimhe also spoke about the development of the mass opposition to the pro-US government in Beirut. This has taken the form of demonstrations and an indefinite sit out on the streets.  Recently there had also been a one day strike.  The focus of this protest was on the Governmentís perceived complicity in the war.  However, the defeat of Israel in the war had emboldened the Shia Muslim.  They have traditionally been the most oppressed section of Lebanese society, but they were no longer prepared to accept their second class status.  Caoimhe pointed out that while the backbone of the opposition was the Shia Muslims led by Hezbollah, it also included the Christian Free Forces movement, a Druze party and a breakaway faction from the Communist Party.  This movement therefore represented a cross section of Lebanese society.  It was also a movement that was raising social as well as political demands, opposing corruption and privatisation.   Caoimhe said that recent clashes between Muslims and Christians, and Sunnis and Shiites were exaggerated, and that there was in fact a deep desire for unity among the Lebanese people. The next part of the meeting involved a slide show of photographs Caoimhe had taken during her time in Lebanon.  These showed the scale of the destruction in southern Lebanon, and also the human face of the suffering.  There were also photos of the demonstration in Beirut.

The meeting was then opened up to discussion. One person asked about the speed of reconstruction.  According to Caoimhe this was proceeding very slowly due to government corruption and indifference.  Also many of the donors to reconstruction projects had put conditions on funding such as privatisation and tax increases.  Another person asked about the reports by Robert Fisk coming out from Lebanon which portrayed a county on the verge of civil war.  Caoimhe claimed that Fisk was not reliable. He was exaggerating the sectarian divisions and was also closely associated with the pro-government Hariri family.  John McAnulty said that the strength of sectarain structures in Lebanon could not be underestimated, comparing it to the north of Ireland where cross community movements had always been broken.  Another person asked what activity people in Ireland could do show solidarity with Lebanon.  Caoimhe  suggested exposing the role that local defence companies, such as Raytheon, play in the war there, and also to write letters to papers correcting misleading reports about the country.  The final speaker was actually a Lebanese student studying in Belfast.  He raised concern over the rising sectarian tensions there, saying that there were reports that gunmen have been firing into crowds and that political parties have been stock piling weapons.  He also said that outside forces were manipulating the various factions in Lebanon, and there was a danger that internal divisions could provide pretext for outside military intervention

While this was an interesting meeting and discussion, it had a very low level of politics.  It really didnít get beyond humanitarianism.  There is no doubt that Caoimhe Butterly is a very courageous woman, but her political activity and analysis puts her at the radical end of the charity/NGO sector.  At the most this can offer some temporary relief to those who being oppressed by imperialism.  But we need to go beyond this if we are to effectively put an end to that oppression.  This would involve mobilising the working class, in both Lebanon and Ireland, in a struggle for socialism.  Itís a huge task, but to think that anything less is required is an illusion. 


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