I am sure we have all been watching with huge sadness the events unfolding in Nepal and other parts of Asia. You feel so helpless at times like this – I have donated to the Red Cross but there isn’t much else I can do. I continue to support the Red Cross even when there is no obvious emergency happening in the world because they keep on working all the time, whether under the spotlight of the media or not.
As well as the people of Nepal, India, Tibet and other affected countries, I have been thinking of those families back in the UK, the US and everywhere else in the world who are waiting to hear news of their loved ones. When I worked for the Foreign Office in London, I spent a couple of very intense years as a press officer for consular cases. This could mean answering questions from the press about anything from someone falling off a balcony in Spain to kidnappings in South America. We dealt with hundreds and hundreds of cases involving distressed Brits overseas, some in trouble of their own making (eg smuggling drugs) but many caught up in something totally beyond their control. I was heavily involved after 9/11, and again after the Asian tsnuami of 2004. In both instances, I flew out to the scene shortly after each event.
As a press officer, I rarely spoke to the family members themselves. We had well trained and massively sympathatic consular officers to do this job. However, there were times when I came into direct contact with people who were highly distressed about missing or otherwise indisposed relatives. After 9/11 I spoke on the phone to a father whose daughter had been in one of the Towers; later, I sat in on an interview with a couple whose only son had been the only Brit killed in one of the planes. In London, I met the families of kidnap vicitms face to face as we discussed the British Government’s strategy for their case, and in Phuket I pitched in where needed and spoke to several family members.
Watching the scenes in Nepal, and the scenes back in the sitting rooms of Bristol and Nottingham and Glasgow, I remember all those people I have come into contact with over the years whose family members have been involved in some sort of shocking event in another country. I realise it’s awful wherever it happens, and grief is grief. Sudden and unexpected death doesn’t distinguish.
But to happen in another country, to be so far away and so out of your control, this is hard in a different way. To need to make arrangements for flights and visas, hotels and taxis. To rely on an anonymous offiical in a far away embassy to be the one who finds the information for you, who will knock on the doors, visit the right people, help with your questions. This is impossible.
So as the news keeps creeping in, as we hear the good stories but also the bad, the news but also the no news, I am thinking of all those people. The mothers, whose only sons went climbing and never came back. The fathers whose daughters were on the trip of a lifetime. The couple in New York who sat so bravely and spoke about their son who they will never see again. The father on the phone in New York who wailed with grief.
Let that never be me.
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