Last week my four-year-old son gained a new classmate. She arrived in the middle of term as her mother has just walked out of Zimbabwe, leaving everything behind to start again from scratch here. I don’t just mean financial scratch — ‘we couldn’t bring a single penny’, she told me as she dashed off to an employment agency — but personal scratch too. When we exchanged mobile telephone numbers I asked her if she texted. She replied that she knew how ‘but I’ve nobody here to text me yet’. The decision of this well-connected graduate — who has worked for the Zimbabwean parliament, the Red Cross and the UN — to turn herself into a refugee tells me as much about the future of Zimbabwe as anything I have read about Mugabe.
I am not alone in finding individuals’ stories a way of understanding current, and historical, events. Take 9/11. Those pictures of the collapsing towers are being replaced by a new iconic image — the grainy photographs of one of the several hundred people who judged their chances higher outside the burning building than in. Last week’s television documentary, The Falling Man, recreated his last day. He rose early on the morning of 11 September 2001, pulled on a pair of black trainers and an orange T-shirt, kissed his family goodbye, left for work and never returned. His absence tore a hole in the family he left behind. The detail of a single life destroyed rams home the irrationality of terrorism far more than distant generalisations. Unidentified, the falling man represents every life lost that day. He has become the first unknown soldier of the 21st century. You could even argue that, by leaping out of the window, he cheated the terrorists. He is both America’s tragedy and its defiance.
Similarly, as much as the death of Milosevic has filled the papers, it alone conveys little of the Balkan war.