Through a Glass Darkly:
Memories of Bloody Sunday
By David Tereshchuk
Michael McHugh/Grace Pictures
David Tereshchuk, eyewitness to the 1972 Northern Irish massacre known as Bloody Sunday," during the making of a documentary film exploring his memories.
Domingo Sangriento/Bloody Sunday
A gripping moment from "Bloody Sunday," a film my Paul Greengrass, which relived the slaughter of 14 Catholic civilians by British soldiers during a protest march in the City of Derry more than 30 years ago.
January, 1923. An African-American home in Rosewood, Florida burned by a rampaging lynch mob. The entire community of Rosewood was destroyed. Estimates of mortalities range from eight to several hundred.
By David Tereshchuk
How did I really get here? What’s my true history? How did the past I call mine actually happen?
Not long ago I was summoned back to my old home country, the United Kingdom, to give eyewitness evidence at Tony Blair’s Tribunal of Inquiry into a Northern Irish massacre that happened over thirty years ago – the "Bloody Sunday" of January 30th, 1972, when British troops killed fourteen Catholic civilians during a protest march in the city of Derry.
I’d been a callow 23 year-old when I covered the march and the resulting carnage for British television. Decades later, I thought recalling the details was not going to be too difficult – essentially it would be, even taking into account the passage of time and some haziness that would naturally have set in, just a mechanistic matter of getting the old grey cells to order up what I could remember and then putting it in order.
It turned out to be altogether more troublesome – and I wrote about the discomforting experience for the New York Times Sunday magazine. The paper headlined the piece "An Unreliable Witness" – which didn’t endear me to Times editors - and an insightful film-maker, Michael McHugh, tracked me to Derry and back to produce a remarkable documentary with the same unflattering title. Now, though, "an unreliable witness" is a label I have come to make peace with.
The whole endeavor started in me a set of ruminations on the process of journalistic recall - and other modes of recollection, too - that are still not fully resolved.
I was tripped up by a detail. My mind’s eye told me a soldier I had seen firing in the direction of my section of the crowd had been wearing a red beret (the distinguishing mark of the Parachute Regiment, the crack troops who had been unexpectedly ordered into action) but most of the pictorial evidence, both newsfilm and photos, suggested he must have been wearing a helmet. I ended up thoroughly confused.
I consulted several noted experts on memory and eyewitness testimony. One of them, psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus of the Universities of Washington and California, later told me how I had probably "superimposed" one snapshot recollection over another in the tumult of gunfire. During the hearing itself one of the three judges on the Tribunal panel pointed out to me there were other (beret-wearing) soldiers photographed in the near vicinity, whom I could have been recalling. Overall, the uncertainty did not detract substantially from the thrust of my testimony – that the shooting had been unprovoked. But the questionable recollection surely bothered me.
And it was to prove only the beginning of a widening arc of uncertainty for me and a humbling appreciation of how little I understand the process by which experiences – especially traumatic experiences – can work on a reporter’s, or anyone’s, developing consciousness.
I didn’t think at the time that Bloody Sunday had any special effect on me. I’d already experienced a horribly one-sided and atrocity-filled war when Pakistani troops savagely attacked civilian populations as well as some overwhelmed freedom fighters struggling for the territory that eventually became Bangladesh. And in my first year in Northern Ireland I’d become accustomed to firefights and being held at gunpoint by paramilitaries.
But soon, as with many in my generation of reporters who won spurs in "The Troubles" (a typically wry Irish euphemism, quick to catch on, for the violence) my career took me into other areas besides those beautiful but scarred Six Counties. I became a Third World enthusiast, roaming internationally, and across Africa especially. That’s not to say that I didn’t ever return to Northern Ireland, but whenever I did, something … and during those years I couldn’t have told you what … kept me away from that grim stretch of Derry’s Bogside district that had become a killing field.
When, with the turn of the century, the call for my testimony came up, and the filming of McHugh’s documentary, I finally met another eyewitness. It was Don Mullan, who had been a fifteen year-old marcher on the fateful day, and was later catapulted to prominence when his researches into suppressed testimony (compiled in a 1997 book, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday: The Truth) helped significantly in persuading Tony Blair to open his new Inquiry. With Mullan and with other witnesses I met, I repeatedly found a (for me) unexpected bond. Sudden kinship would develop with each encounter.
Exchanges like "Where were you? Sure, you must have been just 30 yards from me!" echoed among us. And we often turned out to share an onerous sense of having unaccountably -- even somehow unjustifiably -- escaped while others died. But "survivor guilt" was a phrase that hadn't even occurred to me until it was voiced by Mullan, who had been (we figured) about 25 yards from me when the shooting started. Another fellow-witness, Derryman Terence McClements, who had been 17 at the time, said: "My instinct for self-preservation took over and I ran. I've felt guilty that a fella I knew, two feet from my shoulder, was shot -- and why was I not shot?"
How might such feelings have played out in my life? I still didn’t know – until, curiously enough, I was in Chicago, and got thrown a question I wasn’t prepared for. I was taking part in a panel discussion on the documentary, when I was asked: "What effect has Bloody Sunday had on your reporting work?"
And suddenly it tumbled out. I am by no means a mass-murder specialist – God forbid – but the record is very telling. I’ve written in print and for the screen about flower-shows through to summit conferences, but there is – I realized that evening - an undeniable thread woven through it all.
There I am in 1974, embroiled in controversy in the pages of The Times of London over Portuguese colonial soldiers having mown down residents of Wiryamu, a remote village in Mozambique – a massacre that gained little coverage in the US, although Time magazine did briefly make a comparison with the 1969 My Lai atrocity in Vietnam.
And I’m on British television pointing out frame after condemnatory frame of footage that captures South African policemen firing at schoolchildren during the Soweto uprising of 1976. In the 1980s, for a television history of South Africa’s long struggle, I’m reconstructing the Sharpeville shootings of 1960, when 69 unarmed anti-apartheid protestors were gunned down by police.
By the 1990s my first national television documentary in the United States is the (then little-known) story of a rampage by a KKK-inspired lynch-mob in 1923 that wiped out the African-American community of Rosewood, Florida.
Like it or not, aware of it or not, I have clearly been drawn back again and again to the haunting narrative of a powerful, armed group of men taking - initially with complete impunity - the lives of ordinary citizens.
Then finally in the 2000s I am back in Derry, a citizen myself - not a journalist at all, and using none of the paraphernalia of a journalist’s craft. I’m a man in a witness-box, telling – in the face of whatever uncertainties and complex feelings may have intervened - simply what he believes happened a long time ago.