Time fails to heal wounds of Lockerbie victim's family

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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE, in the pitch-black winter night, it is just beginning to drizzle. In an isolated country house, south of Birmingham, Jane and Jim Swire are huddling in a back room, watching themselves on television.

It is the documentary's grainy 1960s cine-camera footage which makes them smile. There, on Jim's home island of Skye, is Flora, their first born, venturing into the sea in that rocking, toddler way, watched by a younger, pretty Jane, and Jim, handsome in a kilt.

A tape, recorded at Christmas in 1977 and borrowed by the television production team, starts off the tears. The sound of a teenage Flora singing inharmony with her younger sister, Cathy, fills the room. That is followed by Flora singing with an older man. "That's me and Flora," says Jim, his eyes drifting from the television to rest despondently on his feet.

A brief glimpse of happier, sunnier times when neither parent could have imagined that their Flora, at the age of 24 and so full of promise, would be rubbed out by the terrorist bomb which blew Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The atrocity, on 21 December 1988, claimed 270 lives, including 11 from Lockerbie who perished when Pan Am's burning wreckage fell to earth. Western governments have failed to find the killers. For 10 years Jim seems only to have lived to harass politicians.

Jim Swire was always tall and thin. But the past decade has hollowed him out, leaving him cadaverous. As spokesman for the relatives of the British bomb victims, his snowy hair and care-worn face are now familiar.

Jane, open-faced and motherly, is, by comparison, hardly known. And without her husband she would have preserved her anonymity. For while the Old Etonian, Bromsgrove GP has taken a high-profile, public path, Jane - quiet and gentle but courageously honest - does not pretend to like his choice. Nor does she pretend that it has made Cathy or Flora's younger brother William happy.

"This is Jim's way," she says simply as her husband, mobile phone stuck on ear, resumes the endless fielding of calls from journalists whose appetite for Lockerbie has been re-whetted by the 10th anniversary on Monday, and the news that the Libyan parliament has backed a proposal for two of its nationals - suspects in the attack - to be tried in a neutral country, under Scottish law.

"He needed to do it," she says, of a husband whose obsession with tracking down his daughter's killers led to the loss of his partnership in the local medical practice. "Otherwise he would have had a breakdown. But he has paid a heavy price."

So too have his family. "He tries to join in with family things," says Jane. "But his mind is elsewhere and often he's so physically tired." Years of globetrotting - including three controversial meetings with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and a string of overseas trips to lobby world leaders - and courtship of the media have meant family neglect. Devotion to a dead child has cost the surviving siblings.

The Swires do not hide their differences, and even joke that Flora speaks to them in different voices. Father hears a daughter who tells him to "get the bastards", while mother says Flora would have weighed that up against the family's needs.

Methods of coping diverged from the start. Jim, against all the expert advice, insisted on seeing Flora's body. "But I wanted to remember her as she was when I hugged her goodbye and not as a battered body," says Jane.

She admits she envied her husband his anger, a force which propelled him into a frenetic search, not just for the killers but for truth. He learnt to lobby and studied almost every terrorist group which could possibly have been responsible.

He now believes that warnings of an imminent terrorist attack were kept from the public. He raised questions about the reluctance of previous British and United States governments to hold a public inquiry into the disaster, suggesting they must have something to hide. His anger still burns. He did not raise Flora, he says, as "political cannon fodder".

Jane found no comfort in complex terrorist conspiracies or public campaigns. The ultimate truth for her is that Flora is no more. And her greatest regret - however irrational - is still that she was not there for her daughter at the end.

She has read everythingabout the disintegration of planes. When she learned there might have been up to 15 seconds of consciousness, she sat alone, timing the period again and again on the kitchen clock.

She could not bear the thought that there was time for realisation and terror, and time for pain. "But a large plane like that does not just break up in a few seconds and our senses are designed to take things in so quickly," she says.

Unlike many of the relatives, she found no comfort in the return of Flora's belongings, or the grave stone erected for her daughter on their beloved Skye, overlooking the water in which she once paddled. "I cannot find Flora in stone," she says. "She was such a free spirit and her death was such a waste of all the energy and effort she put into life."

The former religious education teacher prefers not to talk about her post-Lockerbie religious convictions. But clearly they are shaken.

Every day she confronts the dead weight of grief, while presenting as positive a face as possible for her children. William was only 16 when Flora died. Her husband, meanwhile, rides a never-ending emotional roller- coaster.

This week he is on a high, for these are encouraging times. In the early years Margaret Thatcher would not even see the relatives of those who died, let alone grant their request for a public inquiry. Now the US and British governments are backing the proposal for Scottish justice to be exercised on foreign soil.

Jim doubts the Libyans killed his daughter but believes their trial will open "other avenues". A can of worms, he is sure, is about to be prised open. After his meeting earlier this month with Tony Blair he believes the Government will grant the investigation into security and intelligence that the families have been campaigning for for years.

Jim's high is a mixed blessing. His wife is pleased that he is happy. But if the trial comes to nothing a deep depression will almost certainly follow.

They have been there before. But for now there is hope, and, for Jim, at least, gallons of soothing, reassuring, media interest. "The media have sometimes been my only friends," he says. "And I've learned you always have to be available for them ... The worst thing would be if they lost interest."

So all day journalists have trooped through Jane's kitchen, mainly to see Jim and take pictures of the huge painting of Flora by the father of the American boyfriend she was flying to visit. The portrait shows the adult Flora, Jim describes as a stunning combination of "brains and beauty", on the brink of a promising medical career.

Even at 9pm, tools can be heard buzzing from a distant room. Jim's activity seldom ceases, though as a doctor he knows this may be dangerous grief displacement. He is repairing a mirrored candle holder he designed five years ago to mount 270 candles to mark Lockerbie's fifth anniversary. On Monday at the British relatives' commemoration service at Westminster Abbey it will be used again.

In the past 10 years the numbers of families attending public commemorations have dwindled. Some prefer to mark the day in private. But deaths from stress-related illnesses have also reduced numbers.

Families have also split. As grief took them on different paths, Jane admits even she considered leaving. But she reached the conclusion that everyone reacts differently. She is proud Jim's energy and courage have taken the campaign so far. What else but absolute commitment could bring about even the possibility of a trial. But who could blame her if she would rather it had been someone else's husband.

The relatives are gathering at Westminster to take the heat off Lockerbie. It is no secret that many in the town would like to move on and be known for something other than a terrorist atrocity. Jane will be at the Westminster service. "But it is for Jim's sake that I will go," she says. "In a terrible situation like this you just help each other survive. Because really that is all you are doing - surviving."

There is no upbeat end to this story. Little appears to have brought the Swires real comfort since their daughter's unnecessary death. Time has not healed, their pain seems as raw as the night Flora died.

Jane says journalists, like her husband, are more comfortable with the campaign story than a sadness which has no end. "Even a conviction," she warns, "is no cure for grief."

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