Although I was only nine at the time, I remember the Lockerbie bombing very well. My bedtime was eight thirty pm but by that time on 21st December 1988, reports had begun to break of an airliner that had come down over southern Scotland. The ten o’clock news came around and I suppose the whole nation tuned in along with my parents and me but it wasn’t until the next day when daylight revealed the true horror and tragedy: a jumbo jet had smashed into the town of Lockerbie. 270 people had died including 11 people on the ground.
It was the first international news story to really penetrate my consciousness. I had been aware of the Piper Alpha oilrig tragedy in the summer and I remember too watching the TV reports of the terrible earthquake in Armenia a few weeks previously. But Lockerbie was real to me at the age of 9 in a way that these other events were not. Lockerbie was only a couple of hours drive away from my home town and looked to be the same sort of quiet, rural place. What really shook me was that two little girls about my age had been sitting at home with their parents just like I had been that evening, probably watching game shows on TV and wrapping Christmas presents just like me, when hell came out of the sky and destroyed everything.
Here, 23 years later in Libya, and there is new hope for the people that lost their loved ones that night. The end of the Qadhafi regime means that they may finally get the answers that they have been looking for. A couple of weeks ago our Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt visited Libya– the first UK Minister to do so since the new Libyan government was announced – and was able to raise the ongoing Lockerbie investigation in person with the Libyan Foreign Minister and others. What the Foreign Minister had to say was reassuring and confirmed earlier assurances given by the NTC to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. Whilst no date has been set yet, we’re confident that the Dumfries and Galloway police will soon be able to come to Libya and conduct their investigations.
I must admit that before I came here I wondered whether the Libyans might not understand our determination on the Lockerbie file (and on the Fletcher and Libyan supplied IRA Semtex files too), given the current circumstances. After all, thousands of Libyans were executed or ‘disappeared’ during Qadhafi’s 42-year rule. Some estimate that 25,000 people died in the recent conflict and many of those responsible for the butchery in the distant and recent past are dead or on the run. In other words, those affected in the UK are in the same position as tens of thousands of Libyans looking for answers. Would Libyans have the heart let along the time to help address ‘foreign’ tragedies amidst their own suffering?
However, the UK’s determination to resolve Lockerbie and other cases is well understood here: and seems to bring Libyans and Brits closer together in mutual empathy. This struck me particularly when I visited the ruins of the Abu Salim prison. There, in 1996, more than 1,200 political prisoners were summarily executed on Qadhafi’s orders. To this day the bodies have not been located and it was the refusal of the victims’ relatives to give up their demand for the truth that planted the seeds of this year’s revolution. I’ve met several of these campaigners since I arrived in Tripoli. They will not be giving up their quest and with determined faces and long looks to the horizon, they have understood easily why we will not be giving up ours. We are fellow travellers in the search for truth and justice.
The journey is likely to last for some time. The Libyan government has only just begun to get organized, there are many pressing issues, and the new authorities also need to make sure that the necessary structures, people and legal processes are in place in order for investigations to be able to proceed. But on 10th December the NTC gathered together around 500 representatives to begin the ‘truth and reconciliation’ process. I went along and again I was struck by the commonalities. On the one hand people want to move forward, to let wounds heal, and to focus all efforts on the practical business of building the country afresh. On the other, they know that wounds don’t heal unless they are cleaned and closed properly, and that the new Libya has to be built on truth and justice from the beginning if the revolution is to achieve its purpose.