26 February 2024

by Will Lewallen

Grenfell Testimony Week took place from the 23 to 26 January and set out to give the bereaved, survivors and residents of Grenfell the chance to express publicly, and to those they hold responsible, the devastating impact of the fire. I was fortunate enough to attend the final day of this ambitious project.

In 2023 a civil case brought by a large group of bereaved, survivors and residents was settled for £150 million. Part of the settlement included the creation of Grenfell Testimony Week which would allow those who wish to speak freely, something other proceedings have restricted, to do so.

The 22 defendants in the civil case were a mixture of private companies and public authorities which included The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, The Fire Brigade, Celotex and Saint Gobain, and Arconic. The final two companies made and sold most of the combustible foam and cladding respectively that was used in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. All defendants sent representatives to attend Testimony Week except Arconic who, it has been reported, had testing from as early as 2004 which showed their product performed disastrously in the event of a fire. The defendants sat on the right of the speakers in several rows. At the front was a table with three empty chairs and an Arconic name tag.

Before the day began in earnest the convenors requested that those present “listen with intent” and reminded us that this would be hard work. The first testimony of the day was delivered via a pre-recorded film from Sadik and Bedriya Jemal Kelbeto who lost their sister, Nura Jemal, in the fire. They spoke movingly for some time about Nura’s personality, their own painful experiences of learning about the fire and the shock that such a disaster had been allowed to occur in London.

On the 14 of June 2017, Nura was with her husband Hashim Kedir and their children Yahya, Firdaws and Yaqub who were 13, 12 and 6 when they died. At the end of the testimony a short clip was played of Firdaws singing ‘Read All About It’ by Emeli Sande at her school talent show in 2016. A wave of emotion washed over me as her peers began cheering her on in the background. When Sadik and Jemal spoke earlier in the week the video was played in full and, I was told, it had most of the room was in tears.

In the afternoon a contributor, who wished to remain anonymous, told of how her fiancé had perished in the fire. The young couple had not married by June 14th because his family hadn’t yet been able to visit the UK and, because of their religious commitments, they had not lived together. This contributor felt her grief was not adequately recognised or compensated due to her lack of legal relationship with a Grenfell resident. Stories like this often fall through the cracks of formal legal proceedings and remind me that it is hard to conceive of just how far, and deep, the ripples of pain from an event like this travel.

The testimonies heard in the green hue of Church House that week are completely independent of the ongoing public inquiry and police investigation. This created a rare space where those affected could share their feelings without fear that they would be debated, examined or challenged.

During the hearings of the inquiry, which finished in November 2022, those affected were not allowed to address any defendants directly despite having to listen to their attempts to shirk responsibility. This was not the case during Testimony Week and many speakers chose to turn and face those they held responsible. One such contributor was Bernie Bernard whose brother Raymond Bernard, affectionately known as Moses, lost his life in the tragedy.

“It’s funny to look at you all,” Bernard said, addressing the tables to her right, “trying to give the impression of empathy for the situation your organizations created. Are we supposed to be grateful? I can tell you, me and my family are not.”

“The decision to cover the building in combustible cladding was easily made. Did any of you stop to think about [what would happen] if there was an emergency?”

“Whilst I can look into your eyes, close them. Imagine it was your family. Imagine the heat, the smoke. This will be trauma for my family for the rest of our lives. I hope before you take your last breaths, you see before you the towering inferno that you created out of greed. You didn’t just take away my sibling, you stole my best friend, my confidant, my protector.”

Bernard then told the room how her mum, who had been in good health until the death of her “favourite” Moses, died of heartbreak.

Language is not an external layer which falls on top of our lives but is rather integral and intrinsic to it. Hearing these experiences spoken out loud, in a space cultivated for listening, gave a unique perspective to help understand, a mere fraction, of this trauma. I believe Testimony Week was the first example of restorative justice being organised on this scale in the UK.

As this final testimony concluded, all the other residents, survivors and bereaved in attendance that day joined Bernard on stage. In unison, they turned to face the defendants as the names of the 72 people who lost their lives were read out. Slowly, representatives of the responsible organisations stood up one by one. At the end of the list, Bernard and all those who stood alongside spoke in unison to remind the defendants, and all those present, that they are “Forever in our hearts.” This final display, which I understand was organised at short notice, encapsulates the wider Grenfell community's unwavering commitment to one another.

In his closing remarks David Neuberger, one of the week’s three convenors, said he hoped the week had moved people “from being unheard to heard, invisible to visible and unacknowledged to acknowledged” and that he felt we need more spaces like this in society.

Journalist Peter Apps wondered in a recent blog post whether Grenfell would rise to the fore of the public consciousness in the way the Post Office scandal has done following the ITV drama. The fact that Paula Vennells, former CEO of the Post Office, received a CBE in 2019 sparked a wave of anger amongst the British public. Apps astutely pointed out that at least 5 officials who have been implicated in the disaster have been awarded public honours since the fire.

During the day’s testimonies, and over the week, speakers repeatedly called for the need to see meaningful change to ensure this can “never again” happen, and the desire to see more substantial forms of justice. Restorative justice projects such as this can never be a substitute for criminal proceedings but can, I believe, be an important complementary part of the search for justice.

The Metropolitan Police have said they will wait for the inquiry's final report, expected later this year, before submitting evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision.