What's New Since the Bishopsgate Bombing?

This article is taken from a talk given by Yeshim Harris at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Event commemorating the 1993 Bishopsgate bomb, 24th April 2013.

On 24 April 1993, I was sitting in a noisy room across the river in South London with fellow students. We were revising.  The sound of the explosion, travelled to us only as a mild grunt; it could have easily been someone moving furniture or even someone snoring in the next room. Nobody in the room noticed it. Except me. I recognized instantly, the frightening sound of an exploding bomb.

Having been brought up in a country and at a time where these sounds were as common as someone moving furniture, or snoring next door,  I immediately had this image in front of my eyes, a scene of terrified faces, raw flesh, dust....  Fire.  It was so vivid, I could almost touch it.


Image from Spitalsfield Life

Following the Bishopsgate Bomb, I still remember my feelings: of intense disapproval and condemnation of those who did this to ‘Us’ (whoever ‘us’ was). The fear, like everyone else, of those who could be so cruel, aggressive and unfair. In the following months and years, with the continuing explosions and attacks, my feelings deepened.

Without really examining anything beyond the fact of them and us; they were horrible and we were innocent.

To me, this was the natural way of thinking. I was brought up where similar condemnations were often talked about: How my own family and ancestors were hurt by those ‘other’ evil people. During my school years I had learned that there was only one version of history and the events of this long history were made of two types of stories: the occasions when we were victims to whom unfair, unjust offence had been done, by the ‘horrible others’. The occasions when we gave the ‘horrible others’ a lesson that they deserved. By getting rid of them, or by weakening them, we did a service to our nation, which made us heroes. This way of history teaching is unfortunately still used in many countries.

It is only when I started meeting the members of the 'other' community that I began wondering whether there were different versions of history. I remember: the first time they spoke to me, were ‘nice’ to me. The first time they trusted me to tell their story, their own suffering, and nightmares they have endured. I then began to see that they also had innocence and that my side also had brutality.

Many years after the bombing, during the sessions in one of our projects in which members of Sinn Fein, DUP and SDLP sat in a room talking about how difficult they found it to shake hands, even to look eye-to-eye and the slow realisation that the other side had suffered too, I started seeing some parallels.

I kept thinking about victimhood and villainy. Did being in one category during a specific moment of history qualify us for keeping the same status for the rest of life? Was innocence a permanent entitlement? Or perpetration a life sentence? I will never forget what Jo Berry said at a meeting we organised in Parliament: how she couldn't say that she wouldn't have done the same thing, if she had found herself in the same circumstances with Pat McGee, who killed her beloved father at the Brighton bombing.

So my wondering continued…

Did we really have two types of people on earth? Innocents and evils? Or simply one type, capable of being both, at different times, even the same time? And if that was the case, then what was peace? Was a happily-lived-ever-after solution ever possible?  Was it realistic to draw a line under all that had happened? Did peace mean to become great friends with the ‘other’ who hurt us?

Instead, was it perhaps more realistic to aim for co-existence? To find ways of living together (or separately) without needing to hurt each other? And even if that were possible, would it be sustainable? I have many more questions in my heart and mind. The more I ask, the more I want to ask. Like an ‘effervescent’ effect…

This is where I am now. So what gives me hope? The fact that I don’t have answers but more questions gives me hope.  And that today’s society is more open to questioning compared to 20 years ago where we relied on ready-made solutions and concrete answers.

Yes, this does give me hope, because increasingly I feel that questions, not answers bring us closer to the heart of the matter when it comes to conflict. I feel that this realization reflects to the wider world. 20 years ago, our vocabulary was essentially one of ‘black and white’, war and peace, victims and villains.

Now, very slowly, we all start wondering if there are shades of gray, so to speak. And I can see tangible evidence: We are beginning to see how costly wars are and we start looking for ways of preventing them. Two years ago, the UK government published a new strategy for building stability overseas (BSOS), which suggested the UK should put more resources into preventing wars. There is now a pool of money used for this. Yes, we still have a huge military budget and we hear more about the military than the peace-builders or those who are targeted, but still; these are small, significant changes.

What other evidence is there? Mediation (which is all about understanding each other) is fast becoming an area of expertise. Increasingly we see courses and universities providing education for conflict management and peace-building studies. This is probably why traditional approaches of diplomacy are now evolving into more complex methods. Even the word empathy is making its way into our mainstream vocabulary. Obama talked about empathy deficiency in a speech in 2006!

I will finish with a question: Do you believe that there has been a collective awakening in the last 20 years? If you do, what opportunities can this offer to us as individuals?

What can YOU do to make a difference?

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Another Meeting on the Cyprus Problem: Why Bother?

The following is an extract from a talk given by Yeshim Harris, co-founder of Engi Conflict Management, at the ‘Cyprus: What Now?’ discussion at the UK parliament on the 20th May 2013 chaired by Matthew Offord MP and Baroness Ece OBE.

Last year, Engi and the APPG-CI held an event on the negotiation process in Cyprus. Participants highlighted the need for a more transparent negotiation system where people in both communities could take an active part.

Engi’s project on the island, the Participatory Peacemaking Initiative, was set up as a direct result of this. Feedback from the series of meetings we have now held has shown how important it is to hold these conversations which open up the process. This is especially true now that Cyprus is entering a new era.

Conflict is complex. I sometimes wonder that the best we can do is recognise the magnitude of the problem. It is not simply that there are many interested parties, or that there is a difficult past. The problem is that conflict is multifaceted.


Our perceptions are so complex: they shape we see the world and more importantly how we see others in the world. 

The more I see of conflict, the more I see how little understanding there is about the fears and the hopes of the 'other' side. I would even go as far as saying that sometimes it is difficult to understand our own perspectives. How many of our reactions are ours and how many are just passed on to us from others?

Is an easy ‘solution’ realistically achievable? What progress can be made in just two hours, at an event like this? In the complex context of the Cyprus situation, is a sustainable solution which equally serves everyone’s needs possible?

Perhaps not. So what can we realistically achieve in two hours?

An open and inclusive discussion. Too often, it is difficult to achieve this seemingly simple task: to discuss the issues without aiming to promote a particular solution or a particular community. We have to be forward-thinking in our discussion: it is crucial to recognise the past and respect the pain, but we must also concentrate on opportunities.

Why organise meetings like this in the first place? Because whatever happens in the future, the communities in Cyprus will continue to share the island.

This means that people in both communities need to find a way to co-exist. In meetings like this, both communities can begin to understand one another. This does not mean abandoning one's original position: it simply means to respect the perspective of the other side. This way, we can begin to build trust.

Perhaps at these meetings, we can aim to ask good questions, instead of trying to find ‘answers’?

Because increasingly I feel that when it comes to conflict, we are closer to the heart of the matter with questions.

The Cyprus problem is entering in a new era and I believe that we need questions more than ever before.

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Cyprus: Can the Two Communities Co-Exist?

The following extract is taken from a talk given by Yeshim Harris, co-founder of Engi, at the University of Kent on the 31st May 2013

Last year, Engi held a discussion on Cyprus at the UK Parliament with a mixed group of Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot participants. They offered a diverse range of different interests and perspectives. However, they all agreed that there was a major problem with the peace process as it stands. They were united in calling for more transparency in the peace process.   

Only 9% of Greek Cypriots and 16% of Turkish Cypriots believe that policymakers hear their voice. If the population do not have a stake in or sense of ownership of the process, is an agreement possible?    

Participants in these discussions called for a new system which embraced public consultation and which engaged civil society.

In response, Engi have developed a project on the island which aims to create opportunities for senior political and civil leaders of the two communities to discuss their role in the peace process.    

By bringing together divided political and civil society groups from both communities, can we stimulate discussion on making the peace process more participatory?  

Problems and Challenges     

It will certainly not be easy: most projects with an emphasis on civil society or grassroots organisations face resistance. The image of 'tree-huggers' or 'candles and sandals' is sometimes difficult to shake off.   

As Jeffrey Donaldson MP, who was instrumental in the negotiations in Northern Ireland, said, “I initially resented the interest/involvement of civil society. I thought, ‘What do they know? I’m elected to do the job. Just keep out of it and we’ll sort it out’”.   

Add the words, ‘dialogue’, ‘bi-communal’, ‘confidence-building’ and ‘peace-building' and most people switch off. Projects using these terms are pigeon-holed; they are seen as promoters of particular ‘solutions’ to the problem.   


Civil society does have an important role, however.  ‘I came to realise, as a politician, that we needed civil society to […] help prepare the ground,’ says Jeffrey on reflection. He now argues that they are essential to help ‘change the mindsets that are such an important part of any conflict or divided society.’   

It is for this reason that we are bringing experts from Northern Ireland, South Africa and the Balkans to the Open Discussion in June. Without offering a template, or conflict profile, these people can bring a personal perspective about the lessons they learned the hard way. This may help to encourage greater belief amongst politicians that civil society can assist in building networks.   

Through these comparative learning approaches, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots can also discuss the lack of trust between the two communities. As it stands, there is very little focus on, or understanding of, the fears and hopes of the other side. Just as importantly, there may even be little real understanding about their own fears, thoughts and perspectives.     

If people are able to take a hard look at their aims and intentions, they may be able to avoid unrealistic hopes of a ‘happily-ever-after’ situation. Neither community should be pressured to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’, but rather both must find a way of co-existence. They will continue to share the island whatever the future brings, whether or not a settlement is reached.   

To achieve this, both communities need to find a way to co-exist: to understand and respect each other's thoughts, motivations, hopes and the way they see the past.

This does not necessarily mean abandoning your viewpoint: it simply means understanding or respecting the perspective of the other side.

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Cyprus: What Now?

On the 20th May 2013, Engi and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues held an Open Discussion on the present situation in Cyprus at the House of Commons. The meeting was chaired by Matthew Offord, MP, and Baroness Ece, OBE.

The financial crisis in the south of the island and new geopolitical developments have further complicated an already difficult situation. Optimism in both communities is at an all-time low and the demand for a greater say in the peace process at an all-time high.

In the face of such a complex history and complicated present, what could realistically be achieved in three hours? 

‘A good discussion’ says Yeshim Harris, Director at Engi Conflict Management. Although a ‘happily-ever-after’ solution is neither possible nor realistic, ‘an open and inclusive discussion which doesn’t look to promote a particular solution or community is essential’ she argues.

This approach is surprisingly rare: with a focus on respect and recognition rather than ‘solutions’, Engi aims to establish trust between the two communities rather than force a formal peace. ‘Few realise how multifaceted conflict is,’ says Yeshim , ‘there is often little understanding about the fears and hopes of the other side. Meetings like this are crucial in helping communities to understand one another. This, in turn, will allow people in both communities to find ways to co-exist, which is essential, regardless of the timing of any formal settlement and/or whatever form or shape this may take.’

As and when formal negotiations in any conflict take a particular direction and achieve some consensus  the result is never static and absolute. As the World Bank's Annual Development Report 2011 indicates, conflict resolution is a cyclical process.

Conflict is more about questions than answers. Or at least, we should start with asking them, until a sufficient number of questions are asked.

What kinds of questions are raised at these events?

What is the impact of recent geopolitical developments? Professor Alp Ozerdem, from the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University, offered the floor a more nuanced understanding of the regional situation surrounding Cyprus.  

Speaking on history, memory and dialogue, Marios Epaminodas, Trustee at the Association of Historical Dialogue and Research in Cyprus, asked how the communities might view the past more historically. Would a critical approach to cultural narratives broach a better understanding between the communities?

Investigating the economy, Meliha Kaymak, Former Consultant at The Economic Growth and Development for Enterprises Project in Cyprus, spoke on the role of trade and commerce between the two communities. She opened discussion on the impact of recent events.

What would a ‘solution’ look like? Dr Neophytos Loizides, Senior Lecturer at the Politics and International Relations Department at the University of Kent, focused on this question. An expert on governance and power sharing in Cyprus, he discussed options for the future and discussed theories on what the political landscape might look like.

‘We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from this discussion,’ says Yeshim. ‘Many people are asking for further, interactive discussions, where their voice can be heard more clearly and equally where they can hear the voices of others.’

If events like these are to have their intended impact, there is a need for many more debates like the one held at the House of Commons. As Yeshim summarises, ‘to achieve a more inclusive peace process, we need to sustain this kind of work: we want to keep both communities, people on the ground in Cyprus and the Diasporas abroad, involved. Only then will we approach a way of co-existence in Cyprus.’

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Banjul Blog

Or - the inside story on the Commonwealth Expert Team to The Gambia Presidential Election - November 2011...

Friday 18 November - Banjul

It's a warm and sticky Banjul night and I'm sitting in the lobby of the hotel, taking advantage of the air-con and the wi-fi to send this report.

After breaking the toast machine at breakfast, I thought it best to avoid my fellow guests so grabbed the chance to attend a training session for domestic observers at the YMCA in town. Co-observer CC and I jumped into a cab and sat in for an hour on the training.

In the tatty room were about 30 mostly young people who have volunteered to observe in this region - there are about another hundred training in different parts of the country.  There is widespread (if only murmured) dissatisfaction with the president, Yahya Jammeh, and strong desire for change; but frustration that he's got an arm-lock on power - the media especially - and is very likely to win again.

The training was thorough and impressive. Each observer gets four extensive checklists of things to look out for - during the opening of the polls, the voting, the closing and then the count - and they are clearly keen to see the election itself is conducted properly. Unfortunately, the politics here are not free and fair so the election will effectively rubber-stamp a deeper problem.

From there CC and I took our cab to Banjul - strictly speaking, this is the name of the old town, where the government is located, alongside Mr President. We dived into a warren of dark alleys and stalls called the Royal Albert Market, where we were adopted by a couple of young guys who acted as our unofficial guides. At first I was deeply suspicious of them as the market seemed like a mugger's paradise but they were actually very friendly and - of course - keen for us to buy stuff from their stall and those of their friends and family members. Our cab driver had advised us to wear our official observer badges as protection against negative harassment and this turned out to be a good tip - several people shook our hands and thanked us for coming to keep an eye on the election, and a few quietly confided that they want everything to be transparent. Above all, they want change. 

After we made a few purchases our guides took us to a bar where we had a beer and they - good Muslims - had a Coke and Fanta and told how Jammeh had broken all sorts of promises since his (third) election victory in 2006. Taxes are increasing, they say, and youth unemployment is 90%. We also had an interesting discussion about the merits and drawbacks of polygamy - the men here can have up to four wives, partly because there are many more women than men. But one of our guides told us that a friend of his, who has two wives, can hardly keep his eyes open during the day, and both our young friends thought that one wife would definitely be enough for them...

Monday 21 November - Banjul

So here we are on Monday night as Phase 1 - pre-deployment - comes to an end.

Most of our allocated time since we arrived has been hearing about the situation here in The Gambia.  We have heard from civil society groups, the government and opposition parties, three High Commissioners, the UNDP, the Independent Electoral Commission and the media about the imminent election and the political and social background against which it will be contested.

In brief, we have an incumbent of 17 years, who came to power in a coup in 1994 (aged 29), has won three elections since and who his opponents say is progressing steadily towards kingship. For all the semblance of democracy this is a repressive state with a smiling face, where the president has systematically undermined the constitution and rule of law. Step-by-step he is grabbing more and more power and wealth - he changed the constitution to permit himself to own various businesses, for example - while youth unemployment stands at 90% and most of his ‘subjects’ live on £1.50 a day.

The only difference in our meetings has been whether our guests have acknowledged, avoided or denied this reality. Fascinating when people simply lie to your face, denying facts that have been published that day in the newspaper. For example, the president abuses the power of incumbency by using state resources to support his party (the APRC) and his campaign. Government ministries proudly donate to his campaign while local (and international) businesses line up to give him money - and all are reported openly in the pro-government media for doing so. Yet his spokesman insists to us that the party is funded entirely by the subscriptions of its members!

CC and I witnessed first-hand this confusion of state and party when we found ourselves in the middle of President Jammeh's return to the capital on Saturday evening from a campaign tour.  

The street was lined with green-shirted supporters, singing and chanting, and onlookers. The age profile is young - teenagers to 30+ - and dominated by females.  The procession was headed by buses and pick-ups of supporters, then came army pick-ups carrying soldiers, heavy machine-guns and rocket launchers - all very mean and hostile. One group took exception to us taking pictures and came over to threaten us - a plainclothes guy intervened because he spotted our International Observer tags and told them that it was OK and the soldiers drove off muttering.

Then came army trucks laden with soldiers carrying APRC symbols, then a phalanx of uniformed policemen and women running down the street in step, chanting pro-Jammeh slogans, then motorcycles with blazing headlights, then the President in his reinforced stretched limo, standing up out of the sun-roof and skimming baseball hats into the crowd. Our eyes locked for a moment as he grinned and flicked a handful of hats straight at me. And suddenly I was mobbed by youths scrambling for one of these prized souvenirs. My glasses were knocked to the floor and almost trampled - our driver was great and protected me and CC, losing his wallet and 650 dalasi (about £15) in the process. He was devastated as this is a lot of money here but fortunately ComSec replaced it the next day.

Anyway, it was a real eye-opener on how power can be exercised in a place like this. Jammeh has created a personality cult and his appearance among his people is a mix of rock-star, messiah and supreme, beneficent leader – king in all but name. His re-election is widely expected, not least because the opposition is weak and divided, and no match for the repressive state. Even if the unthinkable happens and Jammeh loses no one seriously expects him to go. The NGOs are in despair and expect growing trouble after the election.

Tomorrow lunchtime we are being deployed to the regions. I am going to the far eastern end of the country with another observer, SM, who is part of the Ghanaian electoral commission. I have been given a brick of money to pay for the next three days, plus a Commonwealth 'flak jacket', a huge first-aid kit and voluminous instructions about how to comport myself as an observer.

We’ll leave at lunchtime, take the ferry to the north side of the river, then drive about two-thirds of the way down the country and cross back to the south bank via an island called Janjanbureh (formerly Georgetown), where we will be based.

The next day SM and I will set off for Basse Santa Su - another two hours away - to recce polling stations and meet election officials for Thursday.  We return to the hotel for Wednesday night, then spend all day around Basse for the election - we have to be at the first polling station for opening at 6.30am so will have to set off very early. We also have to witness at least one count - there are seven counting stations in the country - before calling it a day.  

We're expected back here on Friday, by which time Jammeh's victory should have been announced. We then spend three days writing up a joint report and catch a late flight home on Tuesday night, 29 November.

Busy, busy.

Tuesday 22 November 2011 - Janjanbureh

OK - now it's proper Africa. 5-6 hours out of Banjul and twice across the mighty Gambia River - though not so mighty just now on a little ferry that could take only two cars.

We're in a lodging house for educational inspectors, surrounded by chirping cicadas and other insects. A mosquito net hangs over the bed, the air-con (amazingly) works, the repellent plug is in and chicken and rice is being prepared - allegedly. I have not eaten since breakfast so I hope the allegation is true. All the drive was through flat scrub and grassland, with trees scattered throughout it that broke the monotony. Lots of goats and cattle wandering about, including in the road, which was fast black-top all the way and in good nick.

Everyone is very poor, of course, but we got lots of smiles and waves, especially from the kids, and row after row of excellent teeth.

The only drawback in my room is a strong smell of turps. Perhaps something has been newly painted for us - not.

Wednesday 23 Nov 2011 – Basse Santa Su

Even more proper Africa now. The blacktop has run out and we're bouncing along, in and out of the potholes we can't avoid, and throwing up vast clouds of red dust. Slow going.

We’ve recce'd three polling-stations so far - very basic single-storey schools built of brieze blocks around dusty yards. Donkeys stand comatose in the shade while goats wander around nibbling dry grass.

No electricity this morning and a cold shower. But what a racket!  The local imam booming out prayers at 5am, insects chirruping, cocks crowing, dogs howling, donkeys braying, the dawn chorus…mayhem. But I did manage to sleep last night (with no sheets under a mozzy net) and was not bitten.

Bread, jam and coffee for breakfast and we’re now bouncing towards Basse. We’ll try to stay there tonight as heading back and forward down this terrible road has to be minimised.

The people are friendly to a man – and woman.

Just passed a lovely lily pond - unexpected when all is so dry.


Forgot to say that I discovered the turps smell last night was industrial-strength insecticide, sprayed to prepare the room for western guests. I’m now in much nicer room in Governor's rest-house in Basse - a/c, marble floors and no mozzies!

We’ve recruited a local guide for election day tomorrow so we have a couple of hours free till darkness falls and have decided to dive down into Senegal at the border village of Sabi after SM has done her prayers.

The food here is basic, namely chicken and ‘starch of choice’ - rice, pasta, pots, bread - and it's hard to find a beer. But there are worse fates.

I notice that the world economy has not collapsed yet in my absence - perhaps the trip should be extended.


Did not get to Senegal as the road to it from Basse is one of the worst I've known. But we did reach the customs post.  I would say that the village is totally godforsaken - but for the fact that everyone there is a staunch Moslem, as is 97% of the country.

Visited Basse market on the way back, where SM bought food and material - a bargain compared to Ghana, apparently. Thick red dust lines the streets and hangs in the air. The market is very dirty but also very lively and colourful.

Tomorrow we have to be at the local polling-station at 6.30am and will visit about twenty before polls close at 4pm. The count will start around 7pm and we can expect to fall into bed after midnight. It’s all very friendly and cheerful here but I’m already looking forward to the luxury of Banjul.

Will shower, read and have an early night tonight - the imam will have us all up at 5am.

All parties are confidently predicting victory...

Thursday 24 Nov 2011 – Basse Santa Su

Fantastic – an ice-cold beer at the end of twenty-one polling-stations observed. Our guide was brilliant, taking us down tiny backtracks in the bush, through isolated villages, past fields of groundnuts and millet. All has been peaceful, friendly and very hot.

The morning was busy and lively, with long queues forming before the polls opened at 7am. In some places there were four voting stations and 400+ waiting. There were very many women - probably more than men - and all dressed in bright, varied colours.

The queues tailed off around noon – it was far too hot and the women had to prepare food at home. But turnout easily could be 70-80% locally. We have been highly impressed by the care and integrity of the officials and policing. In summary - totally fair election, totally unfair campaign. A paradox.

The crew is now eating rice and stew and watching US wrestling on a loud and huge TV in this Basse restaurant - a real treat for the locals – as I order a second beer...

Friday 25 Nov 2011 – Basse Santa Su/Banjul

Looks like a landslide for Mr President as the results build.

All is put in context by a local opposition figure who literally came out of the shadows to talk to me last night as we left the count. I met him again this morning and heard the full extent of the ruling party’s control and intimidation. After this I feel the need to talk again to the Election Commission - supposedly independent - about why they turn a blind eye to various blatant abuses.

Not such a good sleep last night as the rest-house TV was on loudly close by giving election results. And when silence came it actually turned quite cold. They do not even have a top-sheet on the beds so I had to wrap myself in the base-sheet. And then the **** prayers started at 5am.

Now bumping back to Banjul on a poor road south of the river – the northern bank is faster but we could be stuck a long time waiting for the ferry. We might even be back in time for the High Commissioner's reception, which will be quite a contrast.


Safely back in Banjul, another interest-packed day crowned by having to negotiate crowd after crowd of the President's supporters coming on the streets as his shock win was officially announced around 5.30 - we were driving through his home region and power-base at the time. Thought it best to cheer, wave and smile with the best of them as they parted to let us drive through.

Tomorrow the report-writing starts.

Monday 28 November – Banjul

Well, we're done, and are all still on friendly terms, which is an achievement given the level of - erm - vigorous debate over the past three days.

But our three of our team had a long meeting with President Jammeh this afternoon, which is a first, and he sounded encouragingly open to hear what they (and we) thought of the election and where The Gambia stands in terms of its democratic development. Interestingly, he kept referring to the afterlife – he is a devout Moslem – and seems very concerned not go to hell.  This might chime with what we heard from several of those we interviewed before our deployment that he’s been pretty shaken by what happened to Gaddafi, whose grand villa stands a few hundred metres up the road from this hotel.

Talk is cheap, of course, so we shall have to see what real change - if any - comes about as a result of our report, but the first draft of that at least is now completed, to be polished/amended over the next couple of weeks before it is published. We’re issuing a Preliminary Statement any moment now.

Tuesday 29 November – Banjul

The Preliminary Statement has been printed in full in the pro-government Daily Observer – which is pretty amazing. We said some nice things and the paper is putting a positive spin on it, of course, but we also didn’t pull our punches about the abuses we saw, the need for urgent democratic reform and the fact that Gambians ‘must be allowed to play a more active role in deepening democracy as part of their fundamental human rights’.

Maybe what we heard in some of our meetings is also true - the President is mellowing…