Wednesday, April 14, 2004

My night of terror

Warning very long post !

April is forever linked in my memory to terror, and especially the 14th of April. As this date looms near I can’t help myself thinking back to that one special night where millions of Libyans and yours truly have experienced US state sponsored terrorism, being collectively punished for something many were not even aware of.

I remember vividly that night, we were invited at some friends’ house, and over tea and Libyan sweets the discussion regarding the possibility of an American invasion or air strike came up. Let me depict the situation that led to this conversation. Rumours and speculations were plenty in the week prior to that fateful night. We ‘heard’ that the Americans were seeking vengeance…. for the alleged bombing of a disco in Germany (what?? Anyway this post is not for the purpose to discuss the cause, but only my experience). The media were making a good business of that, and all those analyst were getting really hoarse on VOA and other broadcasting station, You see in those times, satellite reception was not the widespread affair it is now ( not even in the US). We therefore relied on radios and the broadcasts of the neighbouring countries (Egypt and Tunis) or those across the Mediterranean (mainly Italy) for our entertainment and news to supplement the domestic programs.

So to return to the subject, there was ample speculation among the populace and that night at T’s house , Mrs T was saying to my mum, “ no no Americans are civilised , modern people they wouldn’t do such a thing like bombing us … you’re mistaken ..” , and I was arguing, but auntie T, “ I heard on the news on Rai2 ( Italian channel) that someone had leaked the information there was going to be retaliation… so there is no smoke without fire, maybe the Americans are really coming ?” . The discussion went on like this for a while and her husband and children joined in…. I guess when you talk enough of the devil he effectively does show up, but I did not know how soon it would be. In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t!

The visit was over, it was a success by all standards, the food was great, the people wonderful and the conversation interesting and lively, we had fun.
That night, like every night I went to bed after watching my favourite Jordanian serial on TV (during the 80’s Jordanian series were all the rage, more about that another time).

Have you ever been in a disaster area, just before something terrible is about to take place? If you have then you would know what I’m talking about, this sense of total silence, impending doom, emptiness inside and all your body hair standing up. This eerie silence is what woke me up, and I was hearing in my head a distant thudding. The underlying fear gripping at my throat was: the last time I felt this way was in 1982, the day after I watched in horror on TV as the Israeli army rolled into Beirut. This is what I felt on the night of 14th of April 1986 (technically after midnight so we can say 15th ). Something was happening or going to happen. My first thought on opening my eyes “ the Americans are here!” and I jumped down from the bed , ran to the door of the balcony, I reasoned that since my room had a view of the distant port than I could figure out if there was any action on that front as more likely they would be coming from there and I would see ‘something’ , but I did not see anything, Tripoli was all illuminated like for a big party , or as we say here like a bride ready for her wedding night … we have many many garlands of light illuminating the city so from the sky you can see everything very clearly. Still I was not satisfied, there was something wrong I felt it, so I thought I’d go to the other side of the flat and watch from the window, if the Americans were coming they would most probably aim for the Aziziya Barracks which are less than 2 km away so I was bound to see some anti aircraft lights from there. … Negative again, yet the sense of foreboding would not leave me. When you are reading this account it feels like hours doesn’t it ? yet it only took minutes, I wanted to wake up my parents, as I thought I was hearing distant thuds, but was afraid to wake them up , do you know why , because somehow in my thinking it would make all this real. I got dressed in a hurry and went back to the window, scouring the sky for something, this time my fears had a real name the glass on the window was trembling and what do you think I saw hovering at such a low altitude: a beautiful aircraft. I could have counted it’s lights! At first glance I was mesmerised , thinking it was a UFO ( it looks pretty much like one see here), the aliens were landing ! it was aliens all right but of another sort, the nose was pointed towards the general area of the Barracks and I knew this time that I was right; the action was going to begin and I had tickets to the front seat. I did not know then that America was watching this live ) Sure enough , the speaker on the radio was hysterical “ oh Arabs, your brothers and sisters in Libya are under attack… American airplanes are roaming the skies of Tripoli and Benghazi etc….” So we found out that this is a coordinated attack , we hear that there are casualties… and the 4 of us are entrenched in the car like in a bubble wondering when will the daylight come and why are the hours passing so slowly. Meanwhile Tripolitanians are panicking, they have lived in safety from wars for decades. What do you think they did in their panic, thousands of families took to their cars and just drove in the streets trying to get to the countryside. That was a stupid desperate move, as it has added to the collateral damage, car accidents where innumerable… that is where inexperience leads you , no one told them in the event of an air strike residents are not supposed to roam the streets , but then no one really thought that the bastion of modern civilisation would be aiming at simple weapon less people ! The worst kabooum was in nearby Ben Ashour area , one street away, that’s when we believed that the city was a shooting gallery , I mean what was in Ben Ashur to shoot at ? Residential villas and some embassies ? With dawn came the muezzin’s call for prayer. Things had calmed down and an uneasy silence was blanketing the city , smoke was coming from many places . We went back up to our flat and prepared some more stuff to take to my grandparents house. My grandparents lived in a small villa so at least that would not be as dangerous , and we were going to be with the family , it would feel safer. That morning I burnt all my diaries, I don’t know what took me, I just felt it would be sacrilege for an unknown marines or even another Libyan citizen to be reading my hopes or fears if by any ill luck I was to die , maybe that was a bit dramatic , but hey this is how it was back then in the morning of 15th April 1986, I was definitely not a teenager anymore. I was not thinking in terms that the Americans whom I grew up with who professed liberty , freedom and human rights and love of people and all those slogans would never attack another country and unarmed civilians .. But then I did not know as much as I do now, Vietnam for me was just a heroic action movie , where we are all rooting for Rambo and crying when he is hurting, Afghanistan, was where brave men where fighting the ‘evil Russian communists’ .. That night my aunt lost her baby, a miscarriage ..another collateral damage of operation eldorado canyon , never mind the mission was accomplished !

Years later the sound of an airplane over the house still makes me freak out, and you can feel my pulse beating faster.. where do you think my heart and mind was ? Did the people in the white house stop and think about the consequence. But most of all I felt humiliated that a foreigner was trespassing in my country , killing my people and I only had a pocket knife .. That night I heard a school kid shouting “ give me a klashinkov I have to go and fight the Americans.”. How futile ! I realised that warfare was not going to win anything, because they always had the latest weaponry, and even if they sell you weapons you will never get the most recent models which they would use against us. Anyway the superior hardware cannot be defeated , but only in face to face or white arms combat can the courage of a man/woman show . The days of the knights and honourable code of war were over welcome to the 20th century were push button devices are the norm .

Shall I tell you about the futility of painting the windows in blue and the car headlights and taillights in blue ? it was supposedly to prevent being seen as targets ha ha ha , my people were so innocent and greenhorns in this as if the F111 or F18 pilot were going to bother ,they have much more sophisticated positioning systems ( yet they do make mistakes and aim at civilian areas ) .

Anyway a couple of days later and after nagging my dad took me to visit the Ben Ashur area where we had heard that horrible blast , I was utterly shocked that such a sight would be possible in my own country , it was my ground zero . One always think it happens to others .. but no sometimes it does happen to you as well, and you live to tell about it . One of the young girls who died that night used to go to school with me. The saddest part was her brother was calling from America when he was watching the news, and the phone was reverberating in a destroyed house full of dead people.

In order to survive, we put behind those sad memories and try to become pragmatic about this , maybe we even follow the proverb which says wisely “when you can’t beat them ..join them”.

This was just one or two nights, so imagine what it is like in Iraq with endless nights like these in sight. No one who has not experienced this first hand can even come near to comprehending. My heart goes out to all the victims and their families in Iraq.

The majority of the Libyan people do not hold a grudge against America, they are very philosophical that this is now America’s turn to build an empire, so let them enjoy the heady feeling of power, but we have to remember that empires are not eternal and everything has a cycle - a beginning and an end.

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