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Who will atone for the wrongs of Grenfell?

02 February 2024

More than six years since the tragedy, no one has yet admitted responsibility, writes Graham Tomlin

“I LIVE with this pain every day.” These were the tear-filled words of Sadik Kelbeto, whose sister Nura, along with her husband Hashim and their three children, died in the fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017 (News, 23 June 2017).

He was speaking at the Grenfell Testimony Week, which was held last week. The event was the result of a settlement reached when families brought a civil case against many of the companies and agencies involved in the disastrous refurbishment of the Tower which resulted in their homes’ being clad in highly combustible material.

Against a background hum of quiet music and hushed conversations, nervous families sat at the centre of the room on grey sofas, preparing to tell their stories. On one side, the serried ranks of smartly suited officials, representing companies such as Exova, Celotex, and Kingspan, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, sat awkwardly behind tables. One of the main companies accused, Arconic, had declined to show up.

Paulos Tekle is a gentle and softly spoken Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, who came to the UK about 20 years ago. His wife, Genet Shawo, lived with their two young sons, Isaac and Lukas, on the 18th floor of Grenfell Tower, and Paulos was with them on that fateful night.

When the fire broke out soon after midnight, Paulos rang the fire brigade, who told him to stay where he was. As the flames spread around the building, the couple became more and more anxious, at one point even contemplating jumping out of the window, hoping to fall backwards and somehow save their boys. At 2 a.m., a firefighter knocked on the door, and told them that they would be safer if they stayed in their room.

Nearly an hour later, another firefighter arrived, finally telling them to leave the flat and offering to guide them down. They wrapped wet towels around their heads, and stumbled out into the smoke-filled hallway. A neighbour came out at the same time, and offered to help five-year-old Isaac down the stairs, while Paulos carried two-year-old Lukas. Somewhere on the way down, the neighbour lost hold of Isaac’s hand. When they reached the ground floor, Isaac was nowhere to be seen.

TO THIS day, Paulos lives with the regret, guilt, and what-ifs of that fateful night. If he had ignored the stay-put advice and left earlier, would Isaac still be alive today? Why didn’t the firefighter rather than the neighbour take hold of Isaac’s hand? What was Isaac thinking in his last moments? As a father, could Paulos have done anything different?

At the Testimony Week, Paulos tells his story again. “Compensation is not enough. I want you to feel what I feel,” he says. It is as if the burden of the grief that he carries is too heavy to bear alone. Like so many others, he wants, even needs, others to bear it with him. We are not built to carry such pain and guilt unaided. We need someone else to bear it with us and for us, to be with us in the moments of unbearable anguish and sorrow. We need other people — even God himself — to feel our pain and to carry our burdens.

Yet it goes beyond this. Paulos turns to the ranks of the accused, and says that he especially wants them to feel his pain. Again and again, the bereaved and survivors tell of the ongoing struggle.

Six-and-a-half years on, there are still no prosecutions. The public inquiry is yet to report, and, as the companies were cross-examined, it found itself mired in a complex mess of buck-passing. No one is taking responsibility; no one has paid for what was done.

WHAT the families want is atonement. When something goes wrong, there is a need, buried deep within the human psyche, or even deep within the structure of the universe, for atonement — for someone to pay a price for what has happened.

And this is what the families need: some kind of atonement for what has been done wrong. They long for some sign of remorse, repentance even, on behalf of those who bear responsibility. Yet it does not come. The serried ranks of smart suits remain silent — maybe understandably so in this setting, but, without that sign, the pain continues.

There is deep anger about the fire brigade’s advice — families were told to stay in their flats until the firefighters put out the fire — without which, it seems, many of those who died would still be alive today. There is equally deep anger about the cladding draped around the building a few years before, which was dangerously flammable. It was the combination of these two factors which led to the deaths of their loved ones.

The grief, the pain, and the anger are visceral. They are as raw as they have always been. The rest of the world may have moved on from Grenfell. Yet, for the families touched by sorrow, as with any tragedy, they have to endure it constantly: “I live with it every day.”

I asked Paulos what he hoped would come out of the Testimony Week. “I just want people to hear our story,” he said. Although it is painful, there is something therapeutic about simply bearing witness, giving testimony. It honours the ones they loved. Maybe, it will touch the conscience of those listening to go back to their companies and urge them to come clean, to admit fault, and to ask for mercy.

Witness, incarnation, repentance, atonement — these are notions embedded deep in Christian faith and practice. They lie right at the heart of the ongoing tragedy of Grenfell Tower. They should make us persevere in praying and longing for truth, justice, and peace for those who have lost so much.

Dr Graham Tomlin, a former Bishop of Kensington, is the McDonald Agape Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness.

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