Arts

UTV's Judith Hill on bringing Belfast to Bonteheuwel for new doc #NotInMyGeneration

When a Belfast youth project teamed up with students from the Graduate School at Queen's University Belfast to visit a gang-ridden township in Cape Town, UTV's cameras were on hand to document the experience. UTV reporter Judith Hill writes about the making of Up Close: #NotInMyGeneration

Judith Hill with children from Bounteheuwel she met while filming #NotInMyGeneration
Judith Hill

THE trip's purpose was for the young people to meet those fighting to break the deadly cycle of violence, while also exploring social solutions to the problems gripping the town of Bonteheuwel.

The group from the R City youth project in north Belfast and the post-graduate students were linked up with former gang members from a community project in Cape Town that's been set up by R City. They spent two weeks listening and responding to the stories of that community, to help with solutions and to take learning back to their own communities.

Accompanying them were UTV reporter Judith Hill and camera operator Ryan Andrews who charted the group's visit, gaining unique access to gang members and witnessing the destructive effect of gang violence on young people first-hand alongside the Northern Ireland visitors.

Up Close: #NotInMyGeneration focuses in on these young women from north and west Belfast who are passionate about seeing change in their own communities. They talk about the paramilitary presence and the drug problem in their communities – and call for change.

Here, Judith shares some of their experiences:

We were in a township in one of the most violent parts of Cape Town, but were surrounded by incredible kids dancing to their own beat. It felt like other parts of Africa I'd visited – that lively, lovely welcome – until one boy shared video footage of his uncle getting shot dead in front of him a few days previously.

He probably didn't need to look at the screen to remember, because it'll be etched in his young mind forever. I realised then that this community is almost immune to the violence.

Bonteheuwel in the Cape Flats is being ravaged by gangs. The deadly statistics are spiralling. In South Africa's Western Cape region there have been over 1,800 murders since January, resulting in a government minister branding the area a 'war zone'.

Claire Harris from The Graduate School at Queen's explained that the heart of the entire project is to break down barriers.

"Queen's has some world-leading researchers and we're passionate about making sure the benefits of that are being felt in the communities that are a stone's throw away from our institution," she said.

The Queen's students got a real insight into some of the issues still plaguing communities in Belfast.

Alan Waite, who heads up the R City project, believes there is much that connects communities here with Bonteheuwel.

"Our young people forget they're living in some of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland and they are visiting some of the most deprived parts of South Africa," he says.

"It's about that feeling of being at the bottom of the pecking order."

It's this feeling that seems to draw many young men in the townships towards the gangs. We met three young men who are members of one of the most feared gangs there, the HLs.

Mohammad, who's 22, has already killed six people. He told us that he always remembers being in the gang and how his dad stashed drugs in his clothes as an infant. His casual approach to violence was truly shocking.

"I shot a man and after that I began to kill people and shoot people. It's relaxing now," he told me.

"You see, in the deep of my heart, I'm broken like the house that's going to burn the roof, a house that's going to fall down."

I asked him did he feel guilty when he saw the families of his victims; he didn't. Yet he said, for the sake of his young son, he would like to change his life.

I walked away feeling disturbed and troubled. I saw in his eyes the predicament of these young men – some of whom feel trapped by the lives they lead. Tragically, they see no route out.

But it was the reaction of the young Belfast people that makes this programme special. They were so moved by the stories, especially from those gang members who had found an exit and were now working to get others out.

Shonagh, who's 18 and from Springfield, was really exercised by her experiences – and the influence of the gangs made her think of home.

"The stuff I have seen with paramilitaries at home – like they are the criminals in the community, they are the people that are bringing drugs in and shooting people. There isn't enough support for young boys in my community."

Megan from Clonard felt her experiences in South Africa have helped her find her voice.

"I think, as a young person in my community, it's very hard to speak up, but I want to show it's OK for young people to do that and when we do there can be a massive change made. We are the next generation."

We've called this UTV programme #NotInMyGeneration because that's the message from these young women. They speak of breaking silences and seeing past the separation of communities. They demand a different future and want everyone to join them in creating it.

:: Up Close: #NotInMyGeneration airs on UTV on Thursday June 27 At 10.45pm.

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