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A condolence book ceremony usually focuses on dignitaries, but in the public hall of the federal parliament on Tuesday the tragedy of the MH17 air disaster was best reflected in the faces of the schoolchildren watching.
They were more touching than the official party with their sombre suits, bowed heads and low tones. More stirring than the choir singing The Lord is My Shepherd. More moving than the music – Albinoni’s adagio in G minor, also the soundtrack for Peter Weir’s movie of the much bigger disaster that was Gallipoli.
Some 115,000 children file into our federal parliament every year. They represent schools from all over the country. They turn up with their backpacks, their fidgeting excitement, their wide-eyed stares watching some famous person they know from the television. These are the faces of every city, town and back block of Australia and the world, a lovely rainbow of skin and school uniforms of every shade. In that crowd could have easily been the faces of Mo, Evie and Otis Maslin. Or Piers, Marnix and Margaux van den Hende. Craning their necks around the adults. Hanging their heads for a minute of silence for some other tragedy.
The children who were there just happened to have a school excursion on 22 July 2014, and they managed to see an unusual ceremony that will probably stay with them for life. Likewise, the children and their families like the Maslins and the van den Hendes who died on the plane just happened to take MH17. It was as random as that.
It is the childrens’ tragedy that has twisted the knife in people around the world as they process the reality of the murder of 298 people. Away from the politics and the United Nations with its resolutions, it is the mundane moments like the sight of a wellworn stuffed toy flung into a field that bring many of us undone.
There has already been a snap memorial at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney days after the crash. There will be another formal memorial service organised by the government after consultation with the families of victims.
On Tuesday, the marble hall of parliament hosted this condolence ceremony, where a book was signed by the governor-general, Peter Cosgrove, Tony Abbott and the entire cabinet – minus the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, who was still in New York after her success with the United Nations resolution. There were also opposition members, ambassadors, high commissioners and representatives of all the countries that lost their citizens. They all wrote their names. And the children watched on.
The ceremony began with the Lord’s prayer. The children were allowed as close as they could be. They lined the white marble stairs and the mezzanine level balconies for the best vantage point as the (mostly) men in suits and uniforms signed in front of a shower of wattle and flags.
Speaker Bronwyn Bishop led the ceremony to share condolences with the families of the victims and again call for justice. She read the government’s official message.
“In coming weeks, Australians will stand with the families, friends, neighbours and colleagues who have lost people they cherish,” she said. “Twenty three million Australians share the sadness of those who mourn. We are united in grief and in our determination to ensure that justice is done.”
It takes a while for 30-something people to sign a book and write a message. Eventually the children sat down to wait like any other school assembly on the polished marble floors and white steps that bring a sense of grandeur to the nation’s parliament.
But they knew the gravity of situation. You could see it in their faces.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010