THEY walk down the street, two giggling Roman Catholic schoolgirls oblivious to the British soldiers combing their neighborhood since before dawn, in search of bombs and guns. The girls have more important things on their mind. Spring vacation has just begun. Suddenly, a British soldier steps out from a driveway. He aims his gun straight at the girls, who are only a foot or two away. The soldier barks harshly at them, then bursts into mocking laughter. It's all a joke.
The girls don't bat an eye. They stare at the soldier for a second or two, then turn and continue down the street.
``It happens all the time,'' 13-year-old Michelle explains matter-of-factly to a reporter who witnessed the incident. ``Some of the soldiers are nice to us and some of them are mean. But I know he'd never pull the trigger, because he'd get into a lot of trouble.''
Soldiers and guns, terrorists and bombs, violence and hatred. For children like Michelle, it's all a part of growing up. They come from the economically distressed working-class Belfast neighborhoods - Catholic and Protestant - that have born the brunt of Northern Ireland's ``troubles.'' They have known nothing else. The current 20-year-old phase of the conflict is older than they are.
``In a sense, I think many of the children of Northern Ireland are desensitized,'' says Terry Flanagan, a Protestant and principal of a school designed to bring Protestant and Catholic children together. ``They accept an armed military presence on the streets of their towns. They accept being stopped at roadblocks, and it doesn't bother them. It's normal life.
``But that isn't normal life,'' he adds quickly. ``That's just normal life in Northern Ireland.''
There are parts of Belfast so totally segregated along religious lines that it is possible for Protestant and Catholic children to reach young adulthood before meeting a person from ``the other side.''
In these neighborhoods, a child's world is narrowly defined by the religion and culture he or she is born into. Catholic children go to church schools. Protestants enter the state-run system. Slurs and obscenities, sometimes picked up at home around the dinner table, trip easily off young tongues. Violence is often judged on a sliding scale - applauded when aimed at the other side, condemned when the victims are from among one's own.
Michael Stone, a Protestant gunman, reportedly attacked a funeral last month for three members of the outlawed Irish Republican Army at Milltown Cemetery, killing three mourners and injuring dozens. A small group of Catholic children in west Belfast speak indignantly of this violence. To them, a funeral is a sacred thing. Yet they are not distressed by the later killings of two British soldiers by a Catholic mob during a different funeral procession.
``I loved it,'' says 10-year-old Kevin, with a smile. Why? ``Because I don't like them.''
In a neighborhood just off the Shankill Road, one of Belfast's most hard-line Protestant neighborhoods, the scene is the same, but the sentiments reversed. Eight or nine children are outraged about the British soldiers' deaths. But to several of them, Mr. Stone is a hero. ``Rambo Stone,'' says one girl with a touch of pride.
A reporter poses the question ``Is killing OK?'' The response is an excited affirmative from the circle of children. There is, however, one qualification: ``As long as it's them [who are killed], not us.''
Some children are more moderate in their responses. And it is not unusual to find one or two voices in a crowd, arguing that not all Catholics - or not all Protestants - are bad. Still, the years of conflict have taken their toll on these divided neighborhoods, and many observers worry that a certain moral relativism has set in.
``They [children] gradually lose their sense of the sacredness of human life, of the awfulness of murder,'' says Roman Catholic Bishop Cahal Daly. ``The whole moral sense becomes numbed. ... There is a disturbing tendency to see and interpret everything from one's own cultural perspective.''
Helping children reason from a moral framework, rather than a cultural one, says Bishop Daly, ``is one of our great pastoral challenges.''
There are many efforts to bring Catholic and Protestant children together in an attempt to break down the walls of ignorance and suspicion that divide them. Charitable foundations and religious and community groups sponsor outings or visits to summer camps in the United States where the two groups can meet.
In recent years, deliberately integrated schools have sprung up, founded by individuals who say change will come only on a long-term basis. These schools expose Catholic and Protestant children to each other at an early age, with the long-range goal of creating a greater tolerance and understanding among Northern Ireland's two religious communities. Although the number of these schools is growing, their total is still modest: seven in all.
Lagan College, a secondary school and the oldest of the seven, ``is about changing attitudes in young people who haven't known anything but a divided community,'' says principal Flanagan. ``We see ourselves as an island of healing in a very hurt community.''
Flanagan points with pride to the work at Lagan. He cites a discussion that took place in one class a few days after the murders at the funerals. Although some children in the class came from very hard-line homes on both sides of the divide, the teacher led a discussion in which the students united to condemn violence.
In talking to a reporter later, four children who took part in the discussion were also unanimous in their analysis of what it will take to bring peace in Northern Ireland: more schools such as Lagan College.
``It doesn't take very many people to set examples for other people,'' insists 15-year-old Nici, a Protestant. ``It's a living example,'' agrees Ciaran, a 14-year-old Catholic sitting next to her, ``that Catholics and Protestants can get on with each other.''