Devastation and great dignity

There was so much to be taken from the superb documentary on The Disappeared on Monday night in terms of lessons on human behaviour. More than anything, the interviews with the family members of those allegedly murdered and hidden by the IRA, showed the power of the human spirit.

If you’d lost your faith in humanity wondering how human beings could rob ten children of their mother, that faith was restored with the quiet and gentle words of widow Kathleen Armstrong, whose 57-year-old husband Charlie was brutally murdered, and his remains hidden in 1981. His body was recovered in 2010, after an anonymous tip off from someone who had seemingly been involved in either his killing, or his burial.

As the camera moved from the elderly mother’s face down to her hand where a wedding band still sits comfortably, the silence was broken only by the softest and most unobtrusive of voices. This was a woman who you imagine would never have willingly put herself in front of the camera in her entire life. An honest, devout and gentle person whose life has been visited by the most unimaginable hurt and pain.

Kathleen Armstrong was grateful that her husband’s body had been returned. Filmed on her regular journey to his grave, she spoke quietly to her soul mate along the way.

According to the republican sources who spoke to the programme makers, Charlie Armstrong liked to ‘dander around the place’ and that there was a ‘chance he might have seen something.’ On that premise, he had half his head blown off and was dumped in a bog. There is no dressing it up, no overdramatising the events. It was what it was - murder.

There was such a loneliness as the camera filmed the cold landscape of the bogs along the border. Just a dark and cold sense of nothing. Hopelessness that those being led to their death must have felt and the hopelessness experienced by the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters that they had left behind.

It was a huge achievement on behalf of the BBC and RTE to bring something like this together. A cross-border broadcasting effort which had the challenge of presenting an already told story in a way which would still capture an audience. And it did. To those who had little knowledge of the individual stories behind the ‘Disappeared’ the film gave the material a new poignancy. A sense of urgency, almost, as Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams stumbled over questioning about his alleged involvement as an IRA leader in West Belfast.

What the programme did, excellently, was to remind us that in political wars, as in all walks of life, human individuals are behind the decisions which have often devastating effects on the lives of other people.

The brave humanity and generosity of spirit in other human individuals, like Kathleen Armstrong however, is more powerful, and in that there lies some hope.