By chance, Gemma Berezag avoided the 1996 Docklands bomb blast that ripped through South Quay – but her life was forever affected by its consequences. She died last week at just 58, and should be added to the death toll 20 years later, according to friends who praised her devotion and courage.
Mother-of-three Gemma stayed home from her Midland Bank cleaning job on February 9, 1996, to look after her sick child. Instead, her husband took the shift in her place. As he sat in his car, the IRA bomb exploded – leaving him blind, paralysed and brain-damaged.
Gemma was left to nurse her husband and bring up her three children – Rajaa, Farid and Layla. And although she campaigned tirelessly for compensation that would have brought her some respite, it never came in her lifetime. She died of a heart attack.
Friends and family have paid tribute to the wife and mother who, at one point and at the end of her tether, appealed directly to Prime Minister David Cameron for assistance as she cared for Zaoui at their Isle of Dogs home.
In 2008 Mrs Berezag said: “We lost everything that day. I lost my job, my car – and lost my husband as far as I’m concerned. I lost my health – the lot.”
Her husband is only faintly aware that his wife is gone but seemingly no comprehension she is dead. Friends and family will now try to provide support for Zaoui in his Westferry Road home.
President of the Docklands Victim Association Jonathan Ganesh, who himself was caught up in the blast, had known Gemma for years and campaigned alongside her.
He said: “We are all absolutely heartbroken by the untimely passing of Gemma. She was a dedicated mother of three children and unselfishly dedicated the past 20 years of her life caring for Zaoui.
“I had known Gemma for 25 years and she was one of the most courageous and caring people I have ever met. Despite Gemma’s difficulties, she worked with the DVA and campaigned vigorously to gain equality for all victims of terrorism; and was also instrumental in campaigning to ensure that all victims of Gaddafi/IRA Semtex were treated fairly.
“Gemma’s courage to speak out and fight for other victims against this appalling injustice despite her own suffering illustrated undoubtedly she had more courage and compassion than successive UK governments who sadly did not respond to her and others’ desperate pleas for help.”
As part of the Docklands Victims Association, Gemma had been campaigning for compensation from the Libyan regime which supplied Semtex to the IRA.
The US secured cash for its own victims from former leader Muamar Gaddafi who was looking to reach out to the West. But the British victims missed out and since the dictator’s death assets have been frozen, lines of communication blurred and priorities altered.
The Northern Ireland select committee is currently investigating the impasse and quizzed former Prime Minister Tony Blair over the omission of British victims from the compensation package. He denied he had mishandled negotiations.
Kenny Donaldson, director of services at the South East Fermanaugh Foundation, which supports victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland, said: “Throughout the last 20 years the Berezags bore their pain with immense dignity.
"Gemma was a courageous and beautiful human being who possessed a strong faith in basic humanity. She fought quietly but robustly for justice, truth, accountability and fairness around the circumstances visited upon her family.
“Undoubtedly Gemma Berezag’s life has been cut short as a consequence of that PIRA bomb in 1996, as and her family were and are innocent victims”.
Mr Ganash added: “I feel UK governments past and present should be ashamed. It is morally reprehensible to expect the victims of Gaddafi/IRA Semtex to somehow resolve this themselves.
“Gemma’s dream and desire that all people should be treated equally will continue through the work of the DVA and her family as Gemma’s courage to speak out against injustice is truly example to us all.”
Her funeral took place at the Garden of Peace, Ilford, last week.
Gemma's heart-rending letter to the Prime Minister
"My Zaoui is disabled because the IRA came to London to hurt him and so many good people in the Canary Wharf IRA attack on February 9, 1996. My friends Bashir and JJ were also killed. The IRA killed so many and caused so many people to be disabled in the UK.
My Zaoui is now very ill and getting very worse. He is blind, paralysed, brain damaged and has no leg because [the] IRA hurt him and they also hurt so many others in the UK.
I do my best to care for Zaoui, he is now in nappies and is in a special medical bed.
Things are very difficult and Zaoui can’t remember me and his family, but I will do my best to care for him as I love him and can’t imagine my life without him.
I found it a struggle as I have to buy nappies and care for him with little help.
I beg you please help my Zaoui and all those who need help in the UK."