In their first major interview, Francis and Berthe Climbié tell how they are coping with the loss of their daughter – and trying to forgive her killers
Augustin, in his pyjamas and ready for bed, squeals in delight as he and I have a low-intensity water fight in his parents’ kitchen in their rented house in west London. Augustin is nine. His little sister Joëlle is five, as she announces proudly in English. To all intents and purposes it’s a perfectly ordinary family scene. But these two are Victoria Climbié’s youngest siblings. Their sister was tortured, and died at the hands of her great aunt, Marie-Thérèse Kouao and her lover Carl Manning, three years ago on 25 February. There were seven children in the Climbié family and the eldest, Jacques, was 20 yesterday. He celebrated it with his other brothers and sisters in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast where they come from. But without his parents. They instead were here on the front of every national newspaper testifying with some considerable dignity that their daughter’s terrifying death had not been in vain.
‘The inquiry is a victory,’ says Francis Climbié, with the nodding agreement of his wife Berthe, the day after their press conference. ‘It has been a great victory. I mean that. Whatever positive is coming out of it has been achieved by Victoria herself. As a result of her death many weaknesses have been exposed in this country. If Victoria had not suffered and died then maybe what has been uncovered by this inquiry would have gone on for a 100 years. This has enabled them to learn the lessons and avoid another Victoria.’
They are a remarkable couple, full of grace and forgiveness. For them it flows from their intense religious faith. Despite the emotional chaos that must have followed the death of their daughter, they say that the ‘exceptional experience’ they have had here, however sad the circumstances, will help them ‘to move on and grow up and to try and help those who haven’t grown. The purpose of mankind,’ says Francis, ‘should really be to help those who are not capable of helping themselves.’
It has been a bizarre chain of events that has led them to Acton, talking today through an interpreter to a journalist about a press conference for a national inquiry – having spent the previous morning with a Cabinet Minister. They are ordinary people – a mother and a hotel worker – whose lives were changed, unpredictably and irrevocably, by the simple, optimistic act of placing their daughter in the charge of a trusted family member who promised her a better chance in Europe and who then, as Francis describes in a staggering understatement, ‘failed in her responsibilities’. In fact she beat, starved and killed Victoria. And the British care and support institutions failed to notice that it was happening.
Dr Nathaniel Carey, who conducted the postmortem, described it as ‘the worst case of child abuse I have ever seen’. In every report of her death the number 128 reverberates as a terrible echo of the startling abuse that was inflicted on her. It is the number of identifiable injuries found on her body when she finally expired at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. The system betrayed Victoria, and for all the restructuring of the child protection and support services that will follow Lord Laming’s report, and however much the state reassures us that this will be the last time it will happen, we know that no one can stamp out such cruelty completely.
Francis and Berthe have had to come to terms with this all too directly, and religion is what has made sense of it for them. ‘We have found peace within ourselves internally. And we have found peace with Marie-Thérèse,’ says Francis. ‘And I’ll tell you why. From the beginning we have said that we forgive Marie-Thérèse because God wants us to forgive.’ Berthe adds: ‘I did not condemn Marie-Thérèse; she was condemned as a result of the crime she committed. Now she is locked up by herself all I pray for is for her to sit and meditate about her actions and in turn ask for forgiveness.’
By all accounts, however, Kouao will not find such peace. She is difficult and argumentative in prison. Her QC in the trial, Michael Gledhill, describes her as having ‘an ability to make people accept what she is saying’. What he means is she is plausible, a liar and a bully. And also of course she is a relative of the Climbiés. She is Francis’s aunt. ‘So when she first came up with the idea of taking one of our children to Europe for education, we were pretty delighted,’ says Berthe. ‘We were very happy the day Victoria left. All her friends from the street came round and Marie-Thérèse took some photos.’
They never saw those photos. Despite promises of phone calls, the only news they ever got of their daughter after that was when Marie-Thérèse’s sister visited from Paris and brought them pictures of her. She looked happy and healthy. Then they heard that Marie-Thérèse had been promoted by the airline she worked for and was moving to London, which was another lie. And it served as an excuse for not returning as promised for the summer holidays to Ivory Coast. Amongst friends in Abidjan it is common not to hear from relatives in Europe for quite some time like this. Francis tried to organise a phone so they could call her, but landlines do not work in their area of Abidjan and he had no money for a mobile.
The truth about what had happened finally crashed in on their lives in March 2000. Francis by this time was out of work. He had left the hotel and tried to set up a restaurant business which had failed. One day he got a message from his uncle, Augustin Ackah, Marie-Thérèse’s brother, to go across town to his pharmacy shop where there had been a phone message from the police in London. The second call brought the bombshell. For a day and a half Francis tried to work out how to tell Berthe that their daughter was dead. ‘I was going from one friend to the next to get ideas how to break the news to Berthe.’ And when she finally heard, she says: ‘My soul changed. I spent all that evening crying. I just cried and cried. I could not understand.’ Even now she sometimes cannot bear to recall what happened to her daughter. ‘Even as her mother, who knows more details of the case than anyone, the only thing I ask from God is to give me peace. I find sometimes that it is incredibly difficult, even with my husband, to talk about the details. Sometimes I think that while all this publicity is needed, I don’t appreciate it very much.’
Their children have been wonderful. And amid all the pain, turbulence and financial difficulty the family seem still to find a great deal of lightheartedness in their lives. On the several times we have met we have always laughed a great deal. ‘As a family we do everything together. We share every thing. Victoria’s death shocked every member of our family, but it has made the family even stronger. When we travel here to Britain it is not easy and we are worried about the older children staying behind. But every time they say, “Don’t worry, go in peace, leave us in peace and you will find us in peace when you return. We will take care of the family and each other.” Even little Augustin will ask me questions about Victoria, and he always says, “Don’t worry papa, I will be a success.”‘
In the extended family things have not been so easy. Ivory Coast has a matrilinear society, so strictly speaking Victoria was a member of Berthe’s family. Her death at the hands of one of Francis’s family has created problems between the members of the extended clan. During the inquiry Francis said to me: ‘One of the reasons we are attending this inquiry and want a result is because the family is divided into those who believe that Marie-Thérèse was trying to help Victoria and those who believe she killed her.’ There have been attempts to overcome these divisions. ‘Some members of my family made a delegation to approach Berthe’s family to apologise and give their condolences,’ Francis recalls. ‘My great-uncle Moses organised this. He is one of the elders of the family.’
At the moment the divisions still remain. Berthe is the main focus: Augustin Ackah and other members of Francis’s family appear to feel guilty by association for what Kouao did and so feel that she is accusing them of Victoria’s death. Francis is hoping that the report will put an end to the hostilities. ‘We requested that the report also be in French because we wanted the family to have access to it. The first thing we are going to do is to try and make it available to all the members of the family, especially Augustin Ackah. He will be the first one I will give the report to. If he is in good faith he will accept what Marie-Thérèse has done.’
However, they have been managing to live with the support of the rest of the family. Francis also touchingly pays tribute to his wife: ‘I can’t thank her enough . She has been running a small takeaway food stall. That has enabled us not just to have food but a little change for the children when they go to school and to contribute to the rent and the bills. That’s how we are surviving.’
In Abidjan they have started work on the vision that now guides much of their lives. They want to build a school in Abobo, the suburb where they live. They don’t want parents in Ivory Coast to feel, as they did, that their children must go to Europe to be well educated. The elders of the district have donated the land for free if they can raise the money for the building. They estimate that all they need is £150,000. They asked Health Secretary Alan Milburn for a donation when they met him and, while promising nothing, he said that he would personally pursue it, and they have started a campaign in the UK. Volunteers – architects, lawyers and teachers – are already offering help in Abidjan.
On the morning of the press conference last week, Berthe and Francis prepared themselves through prayer. ‘We left everything in the hands of God,’ says Berthe, ‘and even if I was scared before I went to the press conference, the fear was taken away.’ They dressed up in their smartest clothes because ‘it was the most significant day for us’. And they roar with laughter when I suggest that they looked like stars, like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. But they are quite clear that they are not the centre of attention. ‘It is not about us,’ they both say. ‘It is about the spirit of our daughter.’ Building the school will dedicate Victoria’s life to other children. As the first verse of the song that Berthe sang in front of the press says:
A cry of joy, this song arises
to proclaim victory.
The day has risen,
A decision is accomplished,
Six hundred years in the gloom in one instant has gone.
Let us wake up in the light,
All young people in harmony.
It was Victoria’s favourite song.
Donations to: The Victoria Climbié Family Campaign, PO Box 184, Southall. UB1 1WR.
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