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'My trip to Israel and Palestine changed my life utterly - and changed me as a person'

Síle Nic Chonaonaigh visited a number of significant walls and borders across the world to see what they tell us about society.

WALLS CREATE A line; mark a division; keep people in and keep people out.

From the now crumbled Berlin Wall to the metal that makes up the current US-Mexico border, walls feature prominently in the story of human relations. In a new series for TG4, presenter and actress Síle Nic Chonaonaigh explores four of the world’s most iconic walls and borders, meeting the people they directly affect, and exploring the impact of their construction. 

The documentary follows her trip to the USA-Mexico border, the now demolished Berlin Wall, the Korean DMZ and the Israel-Palestine Separation Barrier.

THE WALL USA MEXICO Sile at the border 2 - Copy

Mexico

To look at the Mexican wall, which has been in the news due to President Trump’s pronouncement that he would extend it, Nic Chonaonaigh travelled to Tijuana.

Primary among the concerns during the trip here was safety. “When we got there we were told you just don’t leave the hotel,” she recalls. “It definitely is not like going to Cork or Donegal on a shoot.” That said, she says she never felt personally in danger. “I was very aware of the danger of the places because you are seeing guns wherever you go. That was almost across the board.”

The journeys also made her “extremely aware of my own privilege, having an Irish passport”.

“And at one point I became aware of how tenuous that privilege can be,” she says. “You assume an Irish passport will keep you safe.” But at the airport in Israel, she found herself questioned for a few hours, feeling very vulnerable to be in such a situation.

Nic Chonaonaigh is aware of how lucky she is that this isn’t a normal occurrence for her – and that it’s unlikely she’ll face it again soon. An early trip to refugee camps in Greece for another TG4 show also showed her how lucky she is. 

THE WALL USA MEXICO Sile and Sheriff Tony Estrada in Nogales - Copy Sile and Sheriff Tony Estrada in Nogales

“I am pretty left in terms of my politics, I think we should be taking far more refugees than we are and went there with that in my mind,” she recalls. But even with that, she was struck by who she met.

As the interviews unfolded, I was being surprised at the jobs that these people left behind, how they’d tell me ‘the kids used to go to horse riding camp’. You are literally just like the rest of us – it’s just that your life has been plunged into this awful situation.
You become aware about what your own unconscious thoughts about other people might be. We just make assumptions without thinking it. The reason we are OK is an accident of geography than anything.

‘He was crying when talking to me’

During the making of this series, Nic Chonaonaigh found herself getting emotional hearing people’s stories. In one location in Mexico, she shed tears meeting people who were trying to escape from desperate situations. 

One man told her how he left Nicaragua by foot without telling his wife and children. He’d practice walking from home, each day venturing a bit further. Until the day he just never turned back.

“That guy was crying when talking to me,” she says. “There’s no way he doesn’t want to be with his life and kids. It was breaking his heart. With the political situation in Nicaragua, he knows he will not get a job. All he wants is to earn money to send back to them.”

“Those stories are so heartbreaking – that could be my brother,” she said.

And I am lucky enough to live in Galway and the worst thing I have to give out about is my mortgage.

618A8526- Sile Palestine Wall Source: Haydn Denman

She acknowledges that such stories can be difficult for people to deal with, and be too much to bear. “But somehow I just think we have to open that chink so the light can come in and we can say we actually are all the same. There are no goodies and baddies except the obvious.”

One of the stories that will always stay with her from the filming is that of a man named Mr Kim, in Korea. He and his family were separated, leaving him and his father in South Korea and his mother and siblings in North Korea. In the 90s, he won a place in a lottery to see his brother again. 

He hasn’t seen him since.

“What struck me about him and what made me cry was the fact he talked about this hope that he will see his brother again,” says Nic Chonaonaigh. “I was just like you are 80 something and you are living in hope… the reality in between his age and political situation is he almost certainly won’t.”

618A5057 DMZ Korea (1) - Copy At the DMZ in Korea Source: Haydn Denman

‘There is a state of fear’

It was her trip to Israel and Palestine that she says “changed my life utterly and changed me as a person”. This is, she says, because “the attempt to me seems to be to eradicate a culture from those lands, to nudge them out of the way so they can go”.

She was shocked to hear about the permits required for travel from some areas, and seeing young children having to be separated from their parents in order to go through checkpoints.

“You’re just thinking: what kind of regime makes an 8-year-old present paperwork?” she says. 

“My feeling was there is a state of fear, a huge lack of understanding between those two cultures. They don’t talk to each other.”

In the documentary, she meets two men on both sides of the divide – one from Israel, one from Palestine – who each lost a child to the conflict. They set up a parents’ circle so people could come together to deal with their grief. 

“Both say the only way [peace] can happen is the wall to come down,” says the presenter.

It was Berlin that showed how walls can eventually be torn down. “Everyone said there that they didn’t believe it would happen but it did,” says the presenter of her visit to the German city.

This gave her, like Mr Kim, hope.

“Everywhere we went, despite how terrible the stories were, everyone said a wall can’t last forever. So what I hope is that people’s mentalities change a little and we realise walls aren’t a way to peace – they are a way to division.”

“I am no politician and I don’t claim for a second to have the answer,” she adds. “Everything I do is an education for me and I really hope people look at the series and see there’s so much happening in the world.”

As a pastor she met told her: “‘It’s a very comforting notion that we can build walls to keep those who aren’t like us out it’s a very human thing. But it’s also the worst of us.’”

The first episode of An Balla is broadcast this evening on TG4 at 9.30pm and continues for another three weeks every Wednesday at the same time. 

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