A debt of gratitude: Remembering Hillsborough

Paul-André Wilton
A scene from Masisi in the Democratic Republic of Congo near the border with Rwanda. The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 set in motion a conflict in the DRC that continues to fuel instability and poverty.

Following the landmark inquest ruling, I wanted to add my own tribute to those who died at Hillsborough and their families’ struggle for justice, which played a significant part in my choice to work in development.

The reason I am working in humanitarian aid today can be linked directly back to the Hillsborough disaster.

In 1998, just about to go to university, my home town of Canterbury hosted the 10-yearly Lambeth conference, and families in the diocese were encouraged to host visiting bishops for an evening meal during their stay in the city. It was at one of these meals that I met Bishop Ken Barham, then leading the diocese in Cyangugu in Rwanda on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Enthused by his work literally rebuilding schools, veterinary clinics and income-generating activities after the 1994 genocide, I promised to find a way to support if I could.

The next month I left for the University of Sheffield and at some point in the second term I saw an advertisement for the Hillsborough Memorial Travel Bursary established in honour of the three students who died at the ground on 15 April 15 1989: Tracey Cox, Richard Jones and Joseph McCarthy.

Being 18, I wrote a passionate, sincere (and no doubt hugely over-inflated) application on how my trip to Rwanda lasting a few months would be a game-changer for a country I still did not know much about. But something I said must have resonated, and the trustees generously gave me enough support to buy the plane ticket out.

Of course the only thing that really changed was me. I worked on a building site alongside professional masons from the local area, and I learnt far more than I imparted. In truth I struggled with the immersion in another culture, working directly for the church and the heady mix of religion, heat and local publicity this entailed. But I never forgot the friends I made.

One young man I worked alongside who was my age had lost his whole family in the genocide. We sang together in the church choir and stayed in touch. Last year he sent me photos on facebook of his ordination, as he finally realised his dream of becoming an Anglican priest.

I also never forgot the debt of gratitude I owed those family members and staff who sat on the board of the memorial fund and believed that my application was worthy of the legacy of their loved ones who died. Some years after graduating I moved to the USA and began working in peace-building. Now, a decade on from that, resolving conflict non-violently is still at the core of what I do.

For that, and for so much, I have Tracey, Richard and Joe to thank.

Paul-André Wilton's picture

Paul-André Wilton is Conflict Policy Advisor for CARE International UK.