7/7: 10 years on - Together we can conquer the darkness

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The events of 7/7 wasted 56 lives - and changed our country for generations to come. 10 years on from the 2005 London bombings, Aisha Iqbal reports on how one Leeds community refused to be broken by events beyond its control.

When four young men - three of them with links to Leeds - detonated a series of bombs on the London transport system on July 7, 2005, they took away 52 innocent lives as well as their own.

Hanif Malik, Chief Executive, of the Hamara Healthy Living Centre in Beeston. Photo: James Hardisty

Hanif Malik, Chief Executive, of the Hamara Healthy Living Centre in Beeston. Photo: James Hardisty

But their actions also set in motion a new, dark period in our nation’s history, the repercussions of which - it can be argued - continue to be felt today.

On Tuesday, the country will come together on the 10th anniversary of the London bombings to remember the victims, with a series of commemorative events both in Leeds and in London.

And people in one inner city suburb, Beeston, will reflect on the way their quiet community became forever linked to one of Britain’s worst ever tragedies on home soil.

The journey of healing and reconciliation has already seen some real success in Beeston, and there was added poignancy in the form of a visit this week from Gill Hicks, who lost her legs in the 7/7 attacks but is now a global peace campaigner.

Gill Hicks, who lost both legs in the London bombings, with daughter Amelie and Hanif Malik, at the Hamara Centre, Beeston, Leeds

Gill Hicks, who lost both legs in the London bombings, with daughter Amelie and Hanif Malik, at the Hamara Centre, Beeston, Leeds

Hanif Malik, chief executive of the Hamara Healthy Living Centre - a popular community hub running various youth and public health and education initiatives - remembers all too acutely the events of 7/7 and its immediate aftermath.

“The day was a Thursday. At that time there was just the huge shock, but we didn’t know of the Leeds links,” he recalls.

“But then on July 12, there were raids locally by police.

“I was driving in to work and was listening to Five Live because I am a big sports fan.

Gill Hicks, who lost both legs in the London bombings, with daughter Amelie and Hanif Malik, at the Hamara Centre, Beeston, Leeds

Gill Hicks, who lost both legs in the London bombings, with daughter Amelie and Hanif Malik, at the Hamara Centre, Beeston, Leeds

“They broke their coverage to go to the live update.

“They said some arrests had been made in West Yorkshire and I immediately thought ‘Bradford’.

“As I approached work I saw the road cordoned off. But even at that stage I was thinking how could it possibly be linked to Beeston?

“And that was probably the beginning of the most surreal and traumatic journey I have ever had to undertake in my lifetime in a professional capacity.”

It later emerged that two of the four bombers - Shahzad Tanweer and Mohammed Siddique Khan - had lived in Beeston, and had used the community centre’s services. This led to some intense - and highly misplaced and unfair - scrutiny of both the centre and its management.

“It wasn’t unusual. Most of the local community passed through the centre at some point,” Hanif explains.

“I didn’t know them personally but I knew of them, and that of course heightened the shock.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Beeston became a hub of investigative activity.

It was an intensely traumatic period for locals, with the heightened national and global media intrusion becoming a particularly sore issue.

Hanif recalls: “I recall in the immediate days after, some of the American journalists particularly who completely point blank refused to accept that nobody in the community was aware that this was about to occur.

“I remember the most ludicrous and absurd question from the raft of questions that were being fired at me was ‘do you know where the other bombers are?’

“I think that has changed significantly in the last 10 years, and there is a better understanding now that this type of incident can occur without any prior knowledge, for either the community or indeed the family.

“It’s ludicrous not to think that as a father, if you were aware of what your son was about to undertake, of course you would intervene.

“Certainly 10 years ago there was a lot of finger pointing and suspicion, and very sadly that had a detrimental impact on community relations, because people to a degree started to point the finger at each other, partly out of fear.”

He remembers the aftermath of 7/7 being a particularly trying time for many innocent families.

“There were a number of arrests made of people who were not linked at all,” he recalls.

“One of the big fears at that time was getting your door knocked down in the middle of the night, because that was the way those raids were being undertaken.

“To be fair to the police, and we have good relations with local police, there have been lessons learned in terms of community policing.

“The pressure was obviously huge on the police in terms of trying to find an answer. But in that desperate search to find an answer, and to avoid repetition and copycat incidents, boundaries were crossed.”

As the police investigation was quickly expanded, Hanif - who was and remains a respected figure across the community - found himself taking on a de-facto police liaison officer and media spokesman role.

“I had no media or crisis management training. It was a huge learning curve, but also very stressful and traumatic, I genuinely would not wish it on anyone,” he says.

“What people fail to realise is that this wasn’t just a day, or a week or a month. This went on for a couple of years.

“Local people felt harassed by both the media and the investigative authorities.”

The community was - it might seem obvious to state it now - as much at a loss as those desperately seeking answers.

“This was and is a fairly typical, multicultural inner city community,” explains Hanif.

“There’s nothing untoward or remarkable about it - parents getting their kids to school and going to work, kids playing after school.

“That normal, day to day, regular living became quite difficult for residents. Sadly it led to some breakdown of trust. That makes it difficult for any community to operate normally.

“It calmed down after two or three years, but the locality was tarnished forever to a degree.”

He also talks of the dignified silence of the families of the perpetrators - and believes that perhaps now, 10 years on, they may be able to grieve for their sons.

“Quite often what gets forgotten in the narrative that we read is that they too are victims of that day’s atrocities and are grieving families who have never really been able to draw a line under all of this.

“We have got these families who have been grieving for 10 years and who, of course, had no inkling whatsoever that what was happening was occurring.”

Looking forward to Tuesday’s national commemoration, Hanif is keen to stress that the community of Beeston will stand united with the nation.

“The community has moved on,” he says.

“But that is not in any way being [disrespectful] to the victims of 7/7.

“We should always remember what occurred, as we should any atrocity whether it be in the UK or events elsewhere in the world.

“The community is marking the occasion in a very dignified way, recognising that there were many individuals who sadly lost their lives, but also recognising there is a link to this community but it is not reflective of this community. “This community is so much more than just three individuals. As huge as it was in scale, it should not be allowed to take away from the huge amount of good work that happens here.”