BELFAST, Northern Ireland — This is where the hatred begins, where Roman Catholic and Protestant children play daily, separated by a 1,000 yards, a 30-foot high fence and 16 generations of bitterness.
In Protestant Shankill, the outside walls of the community center are emblazoned with a giant "UVF," acronym for the Ulster Volunteer Force, the shadowy paramilitary group that has periodically abducted and killed Catholics in a random, sectarian campaign of assassinations driven by 400 years of pure hate.
"Do you have any Catholic friends?" a visitor asked 8-year-old Mark. There was only a shrug.
Prompted, he said he didn't like Taigs, a derisive term for Catholics.
'Might Be Provies'
Asked why, he shrugged again until coached by a pal. "They might be in the Provies," he answered, using slang for the Irish Republican Army, the Catholic guerrillas fighting to end British rule and unite mostly Protestant Northern Ireland with the south.
Just 1,000 yards away across a 30-foot high green fence--the "peace line" to separate Protestant from Catholic neighborhoods--sprawls the giant Divis housing project, the worst such settlement in Western Europe, with "IRA" and "Brits out" slogans daubed on the walls.
Since 1970, more than 35 people have died in and around the crumbling Divis Flats alone in pitched gun battles and bomb attacks. But the trail of violence curls back through the mists of history to the 16th Century, when Queen Elizabeth I crushed three Irish rebellions, confiscated land for the Crown and began colonizing the north with Scottish Presbyterians.
From a high tower over Divis this summer, the British army watched and filmed the movements of the project's 350 remaining Catholic families. A phased demolition has been planned for the next decade.
Like Revolutionary War
Seven-year-old Tony squinted as he looked out of a window of the Divis summer play school.
"That's where the Brits are," he said, pointing at the tower. "We have to get rid of them all, just like the Americans did in their (revolutionary) war."
All the boys at the play school proudly nodded when asked if they had thrown gasoline bombs at police. One girl smiled as she said, "My uncle made one last year and let me throw it."
Asked what they thought of Protestants, they all shouted, "They're black bastards," local slang in the sectarian war.
"They're all cheeky (snobby), and they don't like us, so we don't like them," 11-year-old Mary said.
Flashing her bright blue eyes and crinkling a freckled face, she formed a bubble with a mouthful of gum and blew it up until it popped.
"That's a bomb," she said.
Suddenly there was a small explosion and the children ran to the windows, chattering out their hopes that a policeman or "Brit was killed by a Provo sniper."
When they found it was only a car backfiring, they showed their disappointment.
In Protestant Shankill, many of the children were singing the ballad of the Orange Sash, the symbol of Protestant supremacy in the province.
The Catholic kids of Divis had similar songs, many detailing attacks on the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Irish police.
"Nuts are we," they gaily sang. "We threw bricks at the RUC. Some hijack cars. We hijack the Ulster bus."
"They have dozens of these songs," said play-school director James Faloon, 27. He added that he his own 4-year-old son threw stones during the riots that regularly ignite at Divis.
"It's just a way of life," he said. "They're caught up in it like we are. So long as the Brits are here, we will have this."
Did he discourage his son from throwing rocks at police?
"Well, now, I think he's too young," Faloon said. "So I want him inside. But when he gets older, he should do what he feels is right. I used to do it."
Most of Northern Ireland's youngsters turn out normal, according to psychologist Ed Cairns, who has interviewed hundreds of children across the province.
"The majority of children in Northern Ireland, even in the most troubled areas, have been able to stay psychologically healthy," he said. "They appear to be coping. I don't think they are any more neurotic than elsewhere. They are not any more immoral."
Dympney McGlade, a community worker at Divis who has done stints at similar centers in mainland Britain, said she found "no differences between these kids and what you see in, say, Birmingham, although they might be more politically aware."
"On average," she said, "they are well adjusted and come from close-knit families. When they do throw things at the police or the soldiers, it's because it's accepted into people's life style."
The vast majority of Catholic children go to parochial schools, and most Protestants go to state schools. Six schools around the province, however, have been deliberately integrated in a new program to break down sectarian barriers.