This week I was invited to speak at a PREVENT training event.
I was asked to speak about my experiences and how I have been able to use those experiences in a positive way to contribute to preventing such things happening again in the future.
I have amended my speech to protect individual identities and protect confidentiality, but I thought I would share it with you and also some of my reflections following the event. It was certainly a thought provoking two days and I have lots to think about after listening to the other speakers and participants at the event.
The role of those impacted in preventing extremism
On 7th July 2005 I left the house early to take a journey that would change my life forever. My intended destination was Angel Islington. Of course I never expected it to be a life changing business meeting. I never reached that meeting, 52 people sadly never got to continue their journey at all. Instead, I and many other people found ourselves on another type of journey altogether, which for me started on the number 30 bus in Tavistock Square.
I arrived at Kings Cross just before 9am that morning, and things still appeared very normal, the only problem being I couldn’t descend down to the tube. I was advised it would open again in 10 minutes or I could walk to Euston and get the tube from there. After hanging around for 10 minutes or so I decided to walk to Euston. By the time I reached Euston the train network had been completely evacuated and Euston road had been closed. So I decided to get a bus, that bus was the number 30 and 11 minutes later my world had changed forever.
All things considered, being knocked unconscious, and losing only my front teeth and ear drums I got off very, very lightly. Every day, I am grateful I am still alive, no matter what. That afternoon, in the hospital, as the reality of what had actually taken place sunk in, I vowed I had escaped with my life, whoever had done this could have this day, but only one day, I was not handing my life to them on a plate now. They had wanted to take my life; they wanted me to live in fear. I was not giving them what they wanted not now, not ever. In my head I sang one of my favourite songs to myself, everything will be alright tomorrow by Faithless. It was written just after the Madrid bombs the year before. Those words changed me, in those words I found the courage to make it through. I knew I was going to be okay.
If you had stopped me as I ran into Newcastle Central Station at 5:55 that morning and asked if I wanted to live in a more peaceful world, I’m sure my answer would have been yes, but I wouldn’t have taken time to stop and think about it, let alone what I could do about it personally; I’d have kept on running for my train. Chances are I wouldn’t have given it much more thought on that 3 hour train journey either. If you had asked me a mere 4 hours later, after I had climbed from the wreckage of that bus, I’m sure I’d have given it a lot more thought. I’ve been giving it a lot more thought for the last 7 years.
As a survivor of an act of violence my greatest desire is that no-one should ever have to suffer what we did that day. It is as simple as that. What we lack in academic knowledge on the subject, I’m sure you will find that we make up for in an abundance of passion and life experience. We have learned the value of life and we know only too well the true cost of extremism and violence.
Since that day I have sought to understand why I was injured; why 4 young men decided to do what they did that morning. If we don’t understand why it happened, how can we work to prevent it happening again? If I don’t ask those questions, and play my part, how or why should I expect someone else to on my behalf? If I won’t stand up and be counted, then who will? As a survivor I feel this is my responsibility.
I wouldn’t profess to have found all the answers and no doubt will keep searching for these answers until I take my last breath, but I do understand more than I did 7 years ago. I’ve always taken the view even from day one, that whoever had injured me must have felt so desperate about something, how else could you do such a thing? I think this attitude has helped me, trying to understand why it happened; I’ve never demonised them, although I could never condone their actions, their violence.
I don’t think this was my motive or question when I first embarked on this journey, if I’m honest I would say my primary motive was physical and emotional restoration at first and to repay the incredible kindness and support I had received that day; but I have found the two go hand in hand for me. And I’ve found that the days I am able to help others or somehow contribute to building a more peaceful future, have been the days where I gain the greatest personal healing too. So if I am honest, it is not as altruistic as it may first appear. Although I do find great healing in speaking at events such as these, like any healing process, it can be emotionally exhausting in order to prepare and think about what to say today, I have to think about tough questions, and even tougher memories. Like anything to do with the peace process, it isn’t easy; but ultimately it is worth the sacrifices and working through the painful memories, and I am always supported before during and afterwards to help us through speaking at events like today. Without that support and guidance I don’t think it would be possible to speak at events like this.
In the days and weeks following the London bombings, I learned more about the people who sadly had not survived that day, and their contribution to the world, and I have to say I felt very shamed that in comparison I had not made much of a contribution myself. If I had not survived what would I have been remembered for really? Probably my shoe and hat collection and my chocolate cheesecake making skills, and I’d like to think a good friend and boss, but that’s debatable.
Since then I have been to Cambodia to build a house for a landmine survivor and detonated a landmine in a minefield. I created ‘Peace of Cake’ where cupcakes are exchanged for peaceful thoughts and have involved myself in other projects, particularly at the peace centre, and also resilience and first responder training. I want to do more. This year, I carried the Olympic torch, for me such a symbol of peace, and of course very poignant as London won the Olympic bid just the day before the bombings.
In sharing these experiences I’m often very overwhelmed by people’s reaction to the things I have done. It doesn’t seem much to me, but people seem to be touched by the sentiment that someone in my position would respond in this way, and bear no grudges or animosity about what happened. This seems to be the most powerful message I can give.
I’m saddened to say, the question I get asked most frequently, and I’m sure one or two of you already have it in your mind… is ‘how do you feel about Muslims now? Sometimes followed in a quiet voice by ‘err I’m a Muslim you know’
My response? I do understand July 7th had a huge impact on the Muslim community, but I don’t really think of those 4 young men as Muslims. They were four men with extreme views who chose to take violent action. I have great empathy for the Muslim community. Just as some would say I shouldn’t feel the survivor’s guilt that I do, nor should every Muslim carry the guilt of that day or be demonised for the actions of 4 young men who made a very bad choice.
Yesterday as I listened to 2 of the other speakers, particularly about identity, it struck me as to why perhaps I am so often asked this question. That perhaps it is because of my identity as a survivor I am asked, and more importantly given permission to have an opinion on the subject. Where people perhaps usually are too afraid to ask others their opinion on the subject they are less afraid to ask me as I am perhaps perceived as having permission to have an opinion because of my direct experience.
As a set of people, we are as diverse as you would expect to find on any London bus or tube train; and as such we have all responded in different ways. Speaking in public about our experiences is not right for everyone. The important thing is simply to do what feels right to you, as long as you aren’t making the problem worse. I believe our actions speak much louder than our words.
I have met so many other survivors or bereaved families who as a result of their experience have made inspirational choices, the Peace Centre is the best example I can think of and testament to its founder’s passion and drive at the loss of their beautiful children. Others have set up their own charities, not always focussing on peace, some have chosen to focus on their loved ones passions or something they cared about, or to help others in similar situations. You may not see this as ‘combatting extremism’ but I do. It’s the actions of these wonderful people that speaks volumes to me, and should be shared and celebrated as the wonderful response it is. For me it really is combatting extremism in action.
Yesterday you heard from two speakers who had previously participated in violence in Northern Ireland, but are now committed to building a peaceful future. I was lucky enough to meet with them last year, I’m sure you will agree they are quite remarkable men. In hearing them speak I got a greater understanding of why people feel compelled and get drawn into violent conflict. I got to ask the questions I’ll never get to ask the young man who hurt me. I gained greater understanding. I got to offer my friendship to two men committed to peace, knowing they chose violence in the past. I admire them both for the men they are now, the conundrum of course being they wouldn’t be the men they are today if they hadn’t done what they did many years ago. Just as I wouldn’t be the same woman I am now if I hadn’t got on the number 30 bus that day.
After listening to them again yesterday, I once again found myself thinking about my identity as a survivor and their identities as former combatants, and our friendship. I know my friends at home find it difficult to understand. I came to realise that sometimes you have to understand someone’s past, no matter how dark to accept and respect the person they are today.
If you had asked me 7 years ago as I ran into Newcastle Central station at 5:55am, ‘could you ever imagine admiring and offering friendship to former Irish militants?’
I would have said No.
Reflections following the event…
I got back home last night, exhausted but with so much to think about. I have a big question for myself. My friends who had engaged in violence had done so to revenge things which had happened in their community, to their friends, to them. We talked about revenge being a normal human response… so why have I never felt that urge? Why have I never felt the anger? I remember, a friend once getting angry with me because I wasn’t angry about it, and he was, he was really angry someone had hurt his friend.
I’ve thought about it for the last 24 hours and I still don’t know the answer… maybe it was too big, far too huge to even consider. Maybe one of my Irish friends was right when he pointed out; it may yet still be to come… sometimes that happens. That scares me, scares me more than any violent extremist ever could… but maybe that’s the answer… to seek revenge that would make me as bad as them wouldn’t it? That would place me in their shoes. I can’t do it.
Or maybe, just maybe, I’ve been getting my revenge all along… after all I did vow they would never take or ruin my life.
Living in peace and contributing to peace, I think that’s the sweetest revenge of all if I’m honest.
So maybe I have wanted and got my revenge after all?
If you are holding an event at which you feel I could make a positive contribution; please do get in touch with me to discuss your ideas.
I have previously spoken at events including
Major Incident First Responder Training,
Emergency Resilience events,
Peace and Conflict resolution events,
And at EU Conference for Victims of Terrorism.