Friday, 15 January 2010

The True Faces of the Day

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

When a horror comes that is too big, it is hard for the human mind to comprehend. The tragedy turns into numbers ; it becomes almost abstract. Yes, says the pummelled brain, yes, I see; but it is too enormous to understand fully. The stories coming out of Haiti turned my brain into this retreating state. Dead running into the fifty thousands; bodies having to be removed from the streets by bulldozers; an entire state disabled; it was too much to take in. I made an instinctive human reflex of sorrow and regret, resolved to send money, thought of something else.

What I held in my mind, like an amulet, was a desperate Pollyannish notion that it showed the world was still a good place.  I focussed on the money and aid and rescue crews coming in from all over the globe.  Even in the midst of a massive financial crash, tiny broke Iceland was sending help.  I saw a picture of some plucky businesslike Britons setting off to do their bit, and felt an absurd thrill of patriotic pride:

British rescue crew leaving Gatwick for Haiti

In a fabulously stupid way, I felt rather sentimental about the dogs that were being flown in:

dogs going to haiti Getty Images

The world is coming together, I thought; everything is not lost.

I can't excuse my slightly detached initial reaction. I think part of it was because I have been getting my news this week from the radio. The trope is that the pictures are sometimes, paradoxically, better on radio, but in cases like this I do not think that received wisdom holds.  Tonight, I sat down and watched the television news. It was the first time I had seen the scale of the devastation in moving pictures. It was the first time I had seen the drawn looks of shock on the faces of hardened, professional journalists, who are trained from the moment they walk into Broadcasting House to remain neutral and disinterested and apolitical. It was the first time I had seen hundreds of people queuing patiently round the block just to get a meagre bottle of water. It was the first time I had seen cameras roving over rows of corpses.

The thing that got to me, finally, that crashed through the instinctive defence mechanism can be erected when faced with too much human suffering, was footage of one small boy being pulled from the wreckage. I know that it is the very enormity of the thing that makes it so devastating; I know, rationally, that it is the idea of tens of thousands dead and tens more thousands homeless, and possibly a whole republic brought almost literally to its knees, that makes this one of those terrifying historic events that everyone shall always remember. But, viscerally, it was one small child that brought the horror home to me, like a hammer to the heart.

It was not just that a two-year-old survived, against all the odds, buried in feet of rubble. It was not just his amazing vulnerability and his astonishing resilience. It was not just the look of absolute, pure delight and tenderness on the face of his brave Spanish rescuer. It was not just the expression on the boy's face when he saw his mother. It was all those things combined, which symbolised a country of millions of battered, terrified humans who are hanging on by their fingernails.

His name is Redjeson Hausteen Claude:

Redjeson carried by Spanish rescue worker AP

Redjeson Hausteen by Gerald Herbert AP

And this is what he looked like when he saw his mother:

Redjeson Hausteen rescued in Haiti AP

There was a lovely quote in The Times about Felix del Amo, the rescue worker who dug the boy out: his boss apparently told Spanish television, 'He is very nice, but also disciplined.'. I don't know why I like that so much, but I do.

Pictures from the AP, and Getty Images.



It is fashionable to bitch up the BBC just at the moment. The Tories are constantly sniping at dear old Auntie, and Labour's Ben Bradshaw had a mean little cheap shot earlier this evening on Any Questions.

The broadcast I watched tonight was from the BBC News at Ten, and the coverage was the kind of thing which would make Lord Reith shine with pride. George Alagiah, Matt Frei and Matthew Price did stellar work. They were humane without being emotional, lyrical without being sentimental, factual without being cold. Most of all, they did not, at any stage, make the story about them.  They knew very well that it was not about them.  They told it with all their considerable resources, because that was what they were there for. They all looked exhausted, but that did not matter to them, because it was getting the story out that counted. There was no showbiz, no showboating; it was public service broadcasting at its very finest, and I don't take that for granted.


  1. OMG the bottom of that little boy was on the front page of our local paper today. It took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. I could just hear him saying 'mama.'

    I agree with you that the enormity of the suffering is incomprehensible. And most of us will go on with our lives and not be even remotely affected.

  2. For me it was a photo I saw on some news site the other day that really bought it home for me. A man discovering the body of his 10 month old child in a pile on the street. Until I read the caption I hadn't even noticed it was a pile of dead bodies.

    That made it very very real.


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