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Betty Williams: The courage that gave rise to a miracle

Saturday, 24 May 2014 - 6:00am IST | Agency: dna

Betty Williams was a receptionist in Belfast, Northern Ireland, when one day in 1969, while she was driving her daughter home from school, shots rang out on the street. Betty saw a car on the opposite side of the street careen out of control and then crash into three schoolchildren crossing in front of her. The children — John, Joanne, and Andrew MacGuire — were killed almost instantly. Little Andrew, only six weeks old, was ejected out of his pram and impaled by his neck on the church railing nearby. Little John had been thrown down the street, and Joanne was sucked under the car and scalped. The driver of the car, a member of the Provisional IRA, had been critically wounded by a British patrol and had lost control of the car, thereby killing the children. Said Betty, "I remember going home. I remember taking my little girl out of her car seat. I remember my sister coming in and making me a cup of tea, and then there were four hours of my life which I've never... I can't remember. Four hours of my life went completely missing. Until this day, I still don't know what I did in those four hours. I was in such deep shock at what I had just witnessed. And my next memory was me standing in my garage, and I'm screaming.."

That same night Betty started an impromptu signature campaign among the women of her neighbourhood to put to an end the senseless war that had raged for years in Northern Ireland. The strife and shelling between the opposing Protestant and Catholic populations had resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries to countless others (to this day, Betty can't hear properly in one ear and has back injuries as a result of shelling). Hers was a campaign that had no authority nor any financing but it was a cry for peace from the depths that stirred the consciences of women on both sides who had been affected by the war — as mothers, daughters and sisters. It received an unprecedented response from Catholic and Protestant women alike — and Betty and the mother of the slaughtered children, Mairead Macguire, managed to organize 10,000 women, Catholic as well as Protestant, who marched across Belfast demanding peace.

"Mairead and I collected hundreds of signatures from people who wanted to end violence", wrote Williams years later. "But we had not expected that 10,000 people would show up. I could see snipers on the roof of the petrol station on the corner and I thought to myself." The next march organised by Williams and Macguire brought together 35,000 women and later nearly 250,000 people at Trafalgar Square in London. Betty and Mairead's "magic wand" (later she was to say that she had started believing in miracles since then, because she had optimistically hoped that a few dozen women might show up the first time) was nothing other than a righteous anger at the violence and the spirit to stand up to it with the indomitable will characteristic of a woman.

Betty and Mairead were to found the organisation Women for Peace, which was later called A Community of Peace People, then simply Peace People. In 1976 the duo received the Nobel peace prize. For nearly four decades Betty has been travelling around the globe from Africa to Burma helping especially women and children affected by war and ethnic conflict. Some of her rescue missions have been truly spine-tingling and along the way she has gathered more than a couple of afflictions peculiar to the nature of the regions she was in. But her will has never faltered.

The question remains: what did it take this butcher's daughter with minimal qualifications, no experience in academics nor public speaking, not much money to finance any other life besides her own and no previous contact with the media to launch a peace movement that has changed life for the better for thousands? It was a life-altering episode and the courage to recognise and follow her life's mission in the days, weeks, months and years that followed. We could do with more women of gumption like her.

The author is a spiritual writer with dna

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