She carries no bitterness or hatred regarding the events which changed her life over a decade ago but peace advocate Gill Hicks admits her “anger grows every year” . Here, she talks to TV presenter Chris Bath* about the London bombings, how love saved her life and the inspiring challenges she’s undertaken to prove you can triumph against tragedy. Think climbing Australia’s tallest building and, yes, even swimming with sharks.
On 7 July 2005, four suicide bombers with rucksacks full of explosives attacked central London. 52 people were killed by the terrorists and hundreds more injured. Travelling to work on the Underground that summer morning was London-based South Australian, Gill Hicks – she was standing just meters from one of the men as he detonated his bomb. 26 of her fellow commuters were killed and more than 340 injured but Gill survived. Just. She suffered severe and permanent injuries, losing both legs just below the knee – her condition so extreme the triage team fastened an identifier to her wrist which read ‘One Unknown Estimated Female’.
While she’s unfailingly serious in her role as Peace Advocate and founder of Not For Profit network M.A.D. for Peace (acronym for Making A Difference For Peace), it’s evident Gill’s lost none of the quirky and irreverent sense of humour which carried over from what she calls her ‘first life’ – that is, before the incident.
In this compelling interview with TV presenter Chris Bath, conducted during the aftermath of the Paris terrorist bombings, the 2015 South Australian of the Year shares details of what the London bombings taught her; the excitement and fear involved in completing the ten challenges she’s taken on this year to commemorate the one decade anniversary of that incident which launched her into her ‘second life’, and finally the birth in 2013 of her beloved daughter Amélie, which, she says marked the “second miracle” in her life.
More about (Dr) Gill Hicks MBE:
In 2007 Gill founded the not for profit organisation M.A.D. for Peace, a platform that connects people globally and encourages ‘us’ to think of Peace as a Verb, something that we have an individual responsibility to ‘do’ every day.
In 2008, Gill released her 1st book entitled One Unknown, named after the chilling label given to her as she arrived to hospital as an unidentified body. Her book received fantastic reviews and as a major recognition it was shortlisted for the Mind Book of the Year Awards (2008).
With honours, and impressive achievements Gill has demonstrated her commitment to making a personal difference. To name just a few of these accolades;
selected to carry the 2008 Olympic Torch in Canberra, recognised with an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List (2008-09) for her services to charity, becoming both the Australian of the Year in the UK and Australian Woman of the Year in UK for 2009, receiving two Honorary Doctorates, one in Philosophy from the London Metropolitan University, recognising her contribution to architecture and design and her work promoting the importance of establishing sustainable peace, the other from Kingston University in recognition to her dedication to rehabilitative health.
Since her return to Australia in 2012, she has been recognised as South Australian, Australian of the Year 2015 and is Chair to the Innovation component for the Committee for Adelaide.
Hit play to watch this must-see interview, or if you prefer to read, here’s the transcript:
CHRIS: Gill, do you ever get sick of talking about it?
GILL: No, because it’s a part of my life and also, I think because of the physical injuries, I can’t escape it. There’s no recovery – I don’t ‘get better’. My legs aren’t going to grow back. So there’s a real impetus for me of how do I… not make sense of it or justify it… but how do I serve this body this strange new body I have. I have to do something which makes a difference.
CHRIS: Gill. Paris. Where do we start with that?
GILL: I was absolutely devastated, and I felt really a sense of failure because I’m an advocate for peace – what myself, what colleagues are trying to do. I work with some fantastic people throughout the world many who are former extremists themselves and this just felt like a great failure on our part of what else can we be doing?
CHRIS : Do we go down the Martin Luther King route and replace hate with love?
GILL : Absolutely, because that’s the complete opposite. But I still think as a population we have a very difficult understanding of when we use the word ‘love’ because we talk about Peace, Love, Compassion – they’re things that feel very soft and very passive and in situations like violent extremism, people are angry! People have lost loved ones. People like me have lost my legs. I’m angry, I want action.
CHRIS : How did you resolve those issue yourself? Or have you?
GILL: I grow in my anger every year. Every year. Especially now I’m mother to a toddler. I’m limited, and limitations are the moments for me where I’m reminded that I don’t have legs and I don’t have legs because of the senseless act of somebody who decided to detonated a bomb. He made a choice. And that angers me because he saw me as his enemy and yet he didn’t ask me. We never had a dialogue, so he presumed a whole lot of things about me. He presumed a whole lot of things about the people who stood with me in that carriage that morning when he detonated his bomb. So that’s not okay. But also, I was shown the most incredibly unconditional love by humanity. Humanity saved my life. And that really is what has wrapped me shielded me and let me continue on this path without any bitterness or hatred. And I think it’s one of the greatest gifts I could ever have been given. Apart from my life being saved was the gift of love, and that’s why I never talk about love in a disposable way – it is the most powerful thing that we have, and love saved my life. I realised that when I was in hospital and I looked at the armband that was my identifier and it chillingly read ‘One Unknown Estimated Female’ and in those words I absolutely, clearly understood that people had risked their lives to come and save one unknown estimated female. And no-one ever gave up.
CHRIS: You approach what is a very serious subject and crucially important to the world now with a big sense of humour. The then-Prime Minister John Howard came to visit you. You were cracking gags with him
GILL: First when he walked in I just said ‘Can we not talk about politics?’ I think he was very relieved about that. And then there were the gags – instead of ‘Let’s stick another prawn on the barby’ it was ‘let’s stick another leg on the barby’. There’s a lot to laugh about because I came so close to not being here. So right from the beginning I was high on the idea that I was alive – that I was still Gill – that I still find a lot of things very funny that a lot of people didn’t.
CHRIS: When did the idea for ‘MAD For Peace’ come?
GILL: Quite soon afterwards, it was sort of a year or so before I came to affirm what I wanted to do. The understanding of how to devote my life to something, to making a difference, happened in the carriage but I didn’t know it was a terrorist suicide bomber until after I woke up in hospital and that then soon became very clear that I had to look at devoting my life to deterring anyone from ever doing this again. And Then MAD became a very obvious step because it was an acronym for Making A Difference
CHRIS: And motherhood. Did you think you’d be able to have a baby?
GILL: Just incredible. We’d lost a baby before Amélie and that hit me very hard. She’s the perfect baby for me though because with the extraordinary things added to our lives she’s the perfect child and with the legs… She’ll go and get my legs and she’ll plonk them down and she’ll say ‘Park’. So that’s it then – we’ve got to go out, so legs on!
CHRIS: Has she figured out yet that Mummy’s a bit different?
GILL: Apart from the legs? (laughter)
CHRIS: Yes, well there is that. We won’t go there.
GILL: I don’t think that she understands yet that I’m different to other mums, and I think that’s going to be wonderful to watch unfold as she realises that not everybody’s legs comes off.
CHRIS: You set yourself ten challenges a year – what, like it’s not like you haven’t got enough already?
GILL: This year is special. This year marks ten years since the London bombings and I really wanted to explore how I respond to that as an anniversary and so I set about looking at how can I communicate some really big messaging around fear – and each challenge connected to a charity and I’m therefore raising funds and awareness for a charity. So it’s been everything from abseiling to tap-dancing to climbing the tallest building in Australia, to singing – singing the song live which was a great fear, hand cycling, swimming with sharks is coming up… So it’s been a very big year.
CHRIS : Good luck with the swimming with sharks.
GILL: (wry) Yeah, thank you.
*This interview was conducted in 2015