Seeking the soldier who ‘risked his life for mine’

Image copyright PA
Image caption This photo, taken in the aftermath of the explosion, shows the soldier cradling Ms Suehiro

A Czech woman injured in a bomb blast in Belfast in 1972 is on a mission to track down the soldier who “risked his life” for her.

Blanka Suehiro (then Blanka Sochor) fled Czechoslovakia to study in Northern Ireland in 1969.

Three years later she was caught up in the Provisional IRA attack in Donegall Street, which killed seven people.

A soldier gave her first aid and comforted her in the chaotic aftermath until medics arrived.

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Ms Suehiro had fled Czechoslovakia three years earlier, a year after the uprising known as the Prague Spring was crushed by the Soviet Union.

An aspiring fashion designer, she was studying at Belfast’s art college.

She was 22 years old when she was walking down Donegall Street to fetch materials for a project she was working on and a security alert – colloquially known as a “bomb scare” – began.

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But there was conflicting information about where exactly the bomb was located, and in the confusion Ms Suehiro and crowds of shoppers and office workers ran directly towards it.

‘Horrible pain’

“To be honest they say it’s the way the brain works, but I don’t remember much about it,” she told BBC News NI.

“I don’t remember hearing the bomb, I don’t remember flying through the air. I just remember waking up in horrible pain and not really knowing what was going on.

Image caption Blanka Suehiro now lives in Canada

“It was 200lbs of gelignite in a narrow street. It was mayhem everywhere.”

The injuries to her legs were so bad she spent a year in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where doctors considered amputation, before her cousin’s wife, Jenny Sochor, intervened and pleaded with them to take a different course of action.

“I don’t think I was completely together [in the aftermath of the explosion]. All I kept thinking was: ‘Please don’t cut my legs off’,” Ms Suehiro said.

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“I was very sporty, that was so important to me.”

She has vivid memories of a soldier and another man who gave her first aid at the scene and stayed with her until medics arrived.

“They were just talking to me, holding my hand, putting pressure on the wounds, which were mainly on my leg.

“Just being there for me, even though they didn’t know if there were snipers or other bombs about to explode.

“People were saying to run away, but they didn’t – they basically risked their lives for mine,” she said.

Image caption Seven people were killed by the explosion in Donegall Street

Over the year that followed, plastic surgeons managed to save Ms Suehiro’s legs using pioneering techniques for the time.

Although her memories of her time in hospital are “blurry”, staff told her the soldier who helped came to visit her while she was there, but she has no recollection of this.

“That’s why I’d like to track him down now – to tell him how grateful I am for what he did,” she said.

“To say thank you so much for coming to visit me and being a very kind soul.”

In 1975, Ms Suehiro left Northern Ireland for Canada, where she still lives with her family.

‘So kind’

This week, she returned to Northern Ireland and, speaking from her cousin’s home in Belfast, opened up about her experience in Belfast 47 years ago.

“The hard part was that I couldn’t be in touch with my family because I was illegally out of Czechoslovakia, there was the Russian occupation,” she said.

“But I do remember the staff at the hospital being so kind and letting me call my mum.”

But by that stage, the picture of her being comforted by the soldier had appeared in a Czech newspaper, and her mother recognised her instantly and feared the worst.

Image caption The bomb exploded outside the offices of the News Letter

Her cousin Jenny Sochor told the BBC that in the immediate years following her ordeal, she found any unexpected loud noises difficult to deal with.

“Even the sound of a loud car would make her jump,” she said.

But Ms Suehiro insisted it did not scar her emotionally and instead encouraged her live her life to the full, acutely aware of “how short life can be” and how close she came to death that day.

“In a way, it was good for me, because I learned at such a young age how precious life is. And how, despite all the people in the world who have hate in their hearts, there are so many more who have only kindness.”

Now in a more settled time in her life, she feels that a meeting with the men who treated and comforted her on the most traumatic of days would bring her great comfort.

“I wouldn’t know where to start to find this soldier, but I hope I can,” she said.

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