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Fatal firestorm's distant witness

  • 16 February 2009
I sit in my room in France and the distance between here and there has never seemed so great. It's a time of grief and open tears, and it's very difficult to be away from home at a time like this.

No doubt it's harder on the blackened ground, particularly for those who have lost loved ones, homes and whole communities. But these are the moments where, as a nation, we realise who we are, what defines us, and how much we need each other. I sit outside that circle. As the internet bursts into flames and heavy snow falls outside my window, I sit with my family and watch infernos rip through towns.

I want to get on a plane and go home. Not because I have any special skills to offer, or have loved ones to say goodbye to, but because this is a moment that defines us and makes us realise what we face collectively. This is when we turn to those of us who have suffered and hear what they have been through.

On the day of the National Apology the emotion was palpable over the seas. Then I realised that there's something different about being there, standing on the same dirt as your fellow countrymen, facing the same national stage side by side. It cannot be replicated on the internet or television. Because it is the slow conversations that unravel during and after the event — the sharing in the kitchens, playgroups, work places and on the street — that make the tragedy and collective sorrow real and understood.

But that event was welcomed. This is different.

My sister sent me an email on 8 February after coming back from our parents' place in the bush. She'd been crying for hours and said 'I drove back from Mum and Dad's this morning and this may sound weird but it was like everyone in all the cars in the traffic were all thinking the same things. We were all in shock and mourning together, and were connected. It was so quiet and calm.'

'Other countries have civil wars, despotic governments and lethal levels of class difference as their Achilles' heel. Ours is a tough landscape that, when ignited, is unforgiving, riding over us as if we never existed. It's that revelation of smallness, that humility before such indiscriminate power, that binds us. We share the same dirt and know that “there but