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EDITIONS
 Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK
Sombre mood at Climbie inquiry
The first stage of the hearing will last several weeks
By BBC News Online's community affairs reporter Cindi John

At first glance it appeared just another grey Wednesday at the shopping centre in Elephant & Castle in south-east London.

Against a backdrop of concrete tower blocks, market traders and customers crowded the paved area in front of the centre's main entrance while shoppers inside strolled leisurely around.

But it is here in Hannibal House, a nondescript building on the centre's first floor that over the coming weeks a tale of one small girl's misery is set to unfold.
Fear of being accused of racism can stop people acting when otherwise they would

Neil Garnham QC

For this is the stage for the inquiry into the case of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie, who died after suffering months of abuse at the hands of her great-aunt, Marie Therese Kouao, and Kouao's boyfriend, Carl Manning.

The pair were convicted in January and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Harrowing

Victoria's parents, who had travelled to the inquiry from the Ivory Coast, looked ill at ease in the crowded hearing room.

Looking sombre, the parents heard in detail for the first time the harrowing account of Victoria's treatment at the hands of the relative to whom they had entrusted her.

Berthe Climbie
Berthe Climbie wept at pictures of her daughter's injuries
An interpreter was on hand to translate the proceedings into their native French, but it was obviously a struggle for them to keep up with the flow of the inquiry.

But they were determined to be there, said their solicitor, Imran Khan.

"They felt it was necessary, not only to find out what happened to Victoria but to ensure real lessons are learnt and that no other family goes through what they have and that no other child suffered as Victoria did."

But when photographs of burns and bruises suffered by Victoria were shown it was too much for Berthe Climbie, who had be helped from the room in tears.

Comforting her was Victoria's cousin Grace Quansah.

She and her mother, Esther Ackah, were among the first to see Victoria after Kouao brought her to England in April 1999.

Grace Quansah
Grace Quansah: 'Victoria's death beggars belief'
The pair turned up unannounced at their home in West London en route to an interview with Ealing social services - the first of three such bodies across London they would come into contact with.

Ms Quansah told BBC News Online that she had questioned her aunt closely about the frail-looking child's condition and the ill-fitting wig she was wearing to disguise a bald and sore head.

After that the pair had never visited again, she said.

She added that it "beggared belief" that, with so many statutory bodies involved, Victoria should still have died.

'Race may be a factor'

It is not the first time Hannibal House has hosted a major inquiry into the untimely death of a black child.

This was also the setting for the Stephen Lawrence inquiry - a case which on the face of it might appear dissimilar.

But race might have played a part in the Climbie case too said Neil Garnham QC, counsel to the inquiry, in his opening speech.

Imran Khan
Imran Khan said inquiry must result in action
"Fear of being accused of racism can stop people acting when otherwise they would.

Fear of being thought unsympathetic to someone of the same race can change responses," Mr Garnham said.

The inquiry's chair, Lord Laming, opened proceedings by calling for an "inquisitional, not adversarial" hearing.

But solicitor Imran Khan said the hearing must lead to change.

"We've had many inquiries before, we hope the shocking details of this one will ensure that actual change takes place and not people simply playing lip service to what they ought to be doing."

The hearing will take place in three stages. The first - examining why Victoria died even though she was known to social services - is set to last until mid-December.

During the case Lord Laming will examine the evidence of more than 232 witnesses.

Mr and Mrs Climbie will be the first to give evidence on Friday.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Sue Littlemore
"This scale of this investigation is unprecedented"
  Moria Gibb, President of social services directors
"We welcome the inquiry"
  Victoria Climbie's parents
"If those in charge had done their job, our daughter would not be dead"

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