Today I stood in front of the gates of Westminster. I needn’t remind you of the facts; our feeds and channels are steeped with figures of death tolls and updates of injuries. It is easy to feel helpless and in despair when each morning the paper releases another story on the newest terror attack.
I thought I’d share my close encounter with a terrorist attack. It was the 28th June 2016 and I was seated in the departure lounge of Accra airport, due to fly to London via Istanbul. My feet started itching, not from the heat, but because an hour had passed since the scheduled boarding time and no one had uttered an explanation. Then, one by one, the staff approached those flying in business class and whispered something in their ears. This twisted a look of concern on their faces and set their itching feet in motion out of the departure lounge and back into the airport. With very little knowledge of the Ghanaian language and less of Turkish, I only realised what was happening when a Turkish man behind me animatedly explained in a kind of show of charades to the man beside him, who was clearly my equal in the expertise of language. ‘Istanbul… Boom’ he said.
Now, this is certainly not a glorification of the event, nor is it an aim to victimise myself in any way as I was fortunately nowhere near the attack at the time. This is also, importantly, not to fuel the terrorist motive as I am aware that the feelings of loss and suffering are the aims of these incidents. In fact, I wish to do the opposite; I want to share what restored a feeling of safety and unison in a moment of turmoil.
We were flown into Istanbul the following morning. There, thousands of other stranded passengers greeted us in queues that lasted four hours. We all waited for the next ticket home. In a moment of unrest, it seemed, a person could go either way. Some chose to become selfish and triggered a brawl over the food that was being handed out by the airport staff. Others chose the opposite route, however, and what struck me most was the kindness of strangers. In the incident I was brought together with the most mismatched group of travellers; one of whom was a private detector; one a dancer; one a mechanic; one a waiter; all of whom ensured that the other felt safe. We stuck together until each of us had secured a ticket home. The private detector regularly asked if I had eaten and slept a little. The waiter paid for me to phone home. And mainly, we kept each other company throughout the three-day period of uncertainty. These were small gestures but gestures that none of them were obliged to perform, and gestures that offered a little security in the chaos.
Just the week before, I had spoken with the chief of one of the poorest villages we visited in Ghana, who said, ‘We fight this poverty together and in peace. Here, Muslims and Christians live harmoniously together.’ I thought, there’s something some of us could learn. We are fortunate not to suffer such poverty, yet somehow we have forgotten how to accept difference and offer kindness. In Ghana we were repeatedly reminded, ‘you are welcome’. There, difference was not only accepted, it was welcomed, and what’s more, it was blessed each time someone greeted us with ‘God bless you.’
It is a similar kindness that was given amongst my momentary travelling family; strangers who were brought together, sadly by disaster, but who willed to stick together through the thick of it. And it’s this idea of unison that Sadiq Khan referred to when speaking about the Westminster attack. He said, ‘We stand together in the face of those who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life. We always have and we always will. Londoners will never be cowered by terrorism.’
As I stood by the gates of Westminster, I couldn’t help but find the flowers pinned to the railings a trivial gesture in the face of terrorism; a defenceless, powerless reaction to attack. At second thought, however, they stood in place for the togetherness and peace we have as a community. Now, I am no one to give a moral to a story, but then again, what was it that Gandhi said?