Holy Cross schoolgirl: 20 years on, we’ve never been told why we were attacked

Holy Cross schoolgirl: 20 years on, we’ve never been told why we were attacked
Alice-Lee Bunting with her sons Darraigh (four) and Keaghan Tommy Bunting (eight months) (Liam McBurney/PA)

A north Belfast woman who was subjected to abuse and missiles as she walked to school 20 years ago says she has still never had an explanation for what she and her school mates went through.

Alice-Lee Bunting, 24, was among scores of girls who were forced to run a loyalist gauntlet on their way to Holy Cross primary school in Ardoyne in 2001.

Images of Ms Bunting and her school mates crying and clinging to their parents in terror hit headlines across the world at the time.

The picketing of children and their parents walking to the Catholic girls school in an area regarded by loyalists as Protestant started in 2001 during soaring sectarian tensions in the sharply divided area.

It resumed in September after the school summer holiday as Ms Bunting started P1, and continued to January 2002.

Ms Bunting said she had no idea why she was being attacked, and neither did her mother.

Twenty years on she still suffers flashbacks and nightmares about those scenes.

Her eldest son Darraigh is due to start school in September, 20 years after her first day at school.

She told the PA news agency she is relieved he will not have to face what she did.

“It feels like yesterday, it was just horrendous for little girls going to school,” she said.

“It was my first day in P1, I was nervous anyway for my first day at school, but walking to school and grown-ups shouting at us, throwing stuff at us, I didn’t know what was going on. It felt like a bad dream, getting up every day to face that, I just didn’t want to go to school, I couldn’t stop crying.

Alice-Lee Bunting clings to her mother as she walks to school in north Belfast in 2001 (Niall Carson/PA)

“I was only five at the time, every night I was getting flashbacks.

“Darraigh is coming up to the age I was when I started at Holy Cross, I’m just glad it is not something that he has to go through.

Missiles thrown at the girls and their parents included balloons filled with urine and pipe bombs, as they walked up Ardoyne Road to the school building.

The girls and their parents had to be escorted by police for their protection.

Even inside the school, Ms Bunting said they felt scared that the windows might be smashed or the building attacked.

“My mummy didn’t really know what was going on either, in the photos from the time you can see that she was really scared, but it was a choice either to get us to school or not,” she said.

“They were wearing masks, they had their faces covered, they were shouting RIP, urinating in balloons and throwing them at us, pipe bombs were thrown, and throwing everything they could get their hands on, bottles, stones.

“When we got into school everyone was shocked and crying. I remember they gave us teddy bears in school, wee girl dolls, I still have mine, as a comfort for everyone.

“It had an effect on everyone, but for the likes of me starting in P1 it was terrible.

“We were just innocent wee girls coming to school, we hadn’t done anything wrong. It was older people, some even pensioners who were terrorising us. They didn’t have to take it out on us going to school.

“It will stay with me for life, it’s not something that can be forgotten.”

Twenty years on, Ms Bunting said they still don’t know exactly why they were targeted.

Parents and children, seen through a Royal Ulster Constabulary human cordon, are escorted to Holy Cross school, north Belfast (Paul Faith/PA)

“I have never heard anything, we’ve never had any counselling, in school there was a lady came in to talk to us but other than that I never got any help,” she said.

“I’m still living with it. Any time I come up this road, even today, I feel nervous. I hope it never happens again.

“There are still no answers as to why we were terrorised like that going to school, we were only little girls.

“Hopefully someone might try to explain to us some day why they targeted us.”

While Ms Bunting has two sons, she said if she had daughters, she would have sent them to Holy Cross.

“It’s a good school, I loved it and I’m glad to see it still standing,” she added.

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