28 May 2018

What the Grenfell testaments tell us about Grenfell Tower

Two floors down, the setting is a featureless conference hall in a nondescript West London Hotel. It’s here that several hundred surviving Grenfell souls have been pouring out both their hearts and their tears for the past seven days, with more to come next week. They are accompanied by loved-ones, lawyers, and media – the latter dispossessed of any camera or recording mechanism. The proceedings are beamed out to those organisations who wish to make use of them. In all then, there are perhaps four hundred people in the room at any one time. Tea, coffee and water are laid on.

Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who is chair of the overall Grenfell Enquiry, sits at a desk on the right hand side of the stage. Families who come to speak of their relatives and their loss, sit to the left. A caring civil servant calls the participants up and on occasion, when emotion is running high, will pause the proceedings or encourage a speaker to keep going.

The sterile atmosphere of the room is fast shattered the moment the first speakers begin. This last Friday was dominated by the commemoration of two entire families, wiped out in the blaze.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire I came to know the extended members of one of them, the Hashims, well. The mother, Nura, the father and the three children, Yacoub and little six year old Yaya – two boys, and the one daughter – Ferdaws aged twelve. She was my connection in that I had awarded her a debating prize two months earlier. Such a gifted child – poised, brilliant in articulating her argument and wise far beyond her years. I little thought that the next time I would see her would be two mornings after the fire; the unmistakable smiling face, her head wound with her Ethiopian white Hijab, and the word ‘MISSING’ at the bottom of the picture.

On the third day after the fire I met up with Assema, Firdaw’s Aunt and her father’s sister. She had flown in from Norway, where she lives. She was to take control of what was left of the family.

At the enquiry on this day five, it was she who wrote the tribute. But she wouldn’t present it, instead the solicitors she had hired – Mark Scott and Miri Weingarten – read her words beautifully, provoking many tears.

There were more tears when the El Wahabi family took to the stage. The family had been brutally severed by the inferno. Half survived having escaped from their flat on the ninth floor. The other half were lost on the twenty-first floor where they lived. The father completely broke down in the midst of his testimony. The hearing had to be suspended whilst he tried through deep breaths to regain his composure.

And there was the family of Jessica Urbano Ramirez, aged fourteen – stranded alone in the family flat. Her father was away, her mother out at work. It was her mother we heard; she had recorded a little tribute, played to the hearing. A wonderful teenager according to her grieving mother.

It’s hard to know what effect the hearing will have on proceedings. One senses that the testimonies have humanised the process. But some relatives felt it was all too raw and had re-opened their grief. They told me they weren’t ready for the emotional impact.

I am left feeling that there was a very real community in the Tower. That there was much friendship and spending of time together across the floors, up and down the building. I suspect this explains in part why it is so very difficult rehousing them. At least the hotels – their temporary homes – are near each other. They want somehow to replicate what they have lost – not only their homes, but their community.

I am also left feeling the sheer scale of it all. The numbers; the loss of so much and so many. There will be no closure merely as a result of the hearing. There will have to be much more done if these vulnerable and shattered lives are ever to come together again.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4