How many of us have had difficult conversations with our kids about what they’ve witnessed on the news this year? By the end of June I’d had more of them with my two children, both under the age of 14, than I could ever have imagined in the space of a few short months.
Manchester Arena, Westminster Bridge, Finsbury Park Mosque to name but three – and then the horror of Grenfell Tower. These were no inexplicable tragedies in far-flung places: they were on your street, in your city – and the pictures and sounds not just on your TV at home, but on social media and on our children’s phones.
And the questions they raised were not just frightening for the here and now – the next time you take the tube, the next time you go to a concert.
They had complex answers, too: about religion and its distortion, about hatred. And with Grenfell, about the kind of society we live in where people cannot escape in safety from a fire in their block of flats.
How we talk to our children about news and explain a turbulent world has been much on my mind, and not only because of the tragedies 2017.
For ITV’s On Assignment, I’ve had the chance to revisit a place I last reported from over 20 years ago when I worked for BBC Newsround. It was at the end of the Bosnian War – where the dust was settling on the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, and the wounds would be long to heal.
As we often did, we were telling a challenging story through the eyes of children, reporting on a project to help those traumatised by the conflict and heal ethnic divisions – a music centre, established by the British charity Warchild and backed by Pavarotti.
On our first trip in the 90s, Mostar was barely getting back on its feet. Its famous bridge over the Neretva had been destroyed. Thousands had been killed; hundreds displaced by vicious ethnic cleansing.
We found children playing in the rubble of bombed out homes, bravely trying to carve out a few moments of joy. They recounted terrible tales of what they’d been through: fleeing home in darkness and under fire; living in basements to escape the shelling. In the freezing rain, one girl showed us the crater left by the mortar that killed her father.
The music centre gave them a safe space to make noise, to rediscover joy – and, for the most traumatised, a place to begin to articulate their feelings. It let us tell the story through the eyewitness experience of those the same age as our audience.
Astonishingly, when we returned this year we managed to track down nearly all the children we’d filmed with. It was such a moving experience to meet them as adults after all these years and after all they’d been through.
It brought back many memories, too, of working for Newsround. Its mission then, as now, was never to shy away from difficult or distressing stories. In my time there we covered not only the aftermath of the Bosnian War, but the final, sometimes bloody years of the Northern Ireland peace process, and the death of Diana. And perhaps the biggest challenge, the Dunblane school massacre.
They were stories covered with enormous care and responsibility, providing the facts, but also reassurance, and never patronising our audience. It was a huge privilege to go back – to see lives that, despite the horrors of war, had overcome tragedy and found a way forward.
We’re sharing our footage with my old colleagues at Newsround, so they too can tell the story of what became of children who endured so much 20 years ago. In a world that can seem full of doubt and fear for our own sons and daughters, hearing stories of resilience, determination – and most important – hope, really matters.
By Julie Etchingham
Etchingham returns to Mostar in On Assignment, available on ITV Hub now