The exact date I tend to forget, but it was on a crisp April night in 1986 that it happened, in Tripoli, the city where I was born, and where I had spent all of my first years. I look back at myself at six and see a child like so many others — going to school, being chided by my parents, studying, playing with toys …
The night the Americans bombed was — for me and so many others in the coastal Libyan capital city — a night like so many others. Or it was at first. I was the younger child of an Indian couple, who were both physicians, both employed in Libya for over a decade.
That night, my mother was feeling sick. I don’t know what she had, but I do remember telling her to sit up using her pillow. I’d seen pictures of people being nursed, and this is how they looked. “Sit like that mummy, and you will feel better in the morning.’’ Then I took my teddy and went to the bed opposite hers, dressed in my pajamas. The next day was school, so I had to get to sleep.
A deafening noise; the little clock on the shelf by my bed, suddenly jumping up without its alarm; my mother pulling me out of bed so very fast; a girl’s voice, filled with horror: I woke up to this.
My mother had seen a yellow ball of fire descending from the skies. She heard the deafening noise moments later. She later confessed she thought it was the sound of the building we were living in collapsing over our heads, floor by floor.
I remember my parents, my sister and I running out of our flat into the dark corridors of our building. We rushed down the stairs. My little feet were pierced by pieces of glass from the shattered windows. American missiles had landed in the neighbourhood behind us.
We rushed down into the car park. Hundreds of our neighbours were there. Most of them were Indian, Eastern European and Filipino expatriates who lived in the apartment blocks near the Tripoli hospital where my father worked. We usually kept our distance from one another, but this night, we were united in our horror.
I saw a Filipino woman crying. I saw our next-door neighbour, a Macedonian nurse, walking out of our building. “Where are you going?’’ I asked desperately, hoping she would tell me about a safe place where we could all go.
“Where can we go?’’ came the reply.
I felt colder on that frigid April night than ever before — I shivered almost uncontrollably. We walked across the street to the hospital. I started to feel safer, because somehow I believed that nobody would bomb it.
As we walked, I saw lights in the sky. I did not and still do not know if they were from American fighter planes or anti-aircraft missiles fired by the Libyans. What I do remember is that they filled me with as much terror as a 6-year-old can feel, thinking a fighter jet in the heavens was aiming at me. I hid behind a car, screaming to my mother, “Do they really want to get us? Is it us that they are aiming at?’’
Finally, my father herded the family into one of the hospital’s buildings.
Then I was in a small closed room with some other people. It was dark. My older sister told me that it was not the planes making the horrific noises outside, but flying objects that were meant to destroy any aircraft. If this news was supposed to make me feel any better, it didn’t work. For hours in that cold, dark, overcrowded room I screamed, cried, wailed.
The huge screaming sounds from outside died down after that. My father took us to his office, where we spent the rest of the night. My sleep was surprisingly peaceful.
When I woke up in the bright daylight of the next morning, I told everyone I met that there had been this dreadful dream the night before, but that I couldn’t remember it.
This denial didn’t last. My father took our car into the neighbourhood right behind our building the day after the night we were bombed. We saw destroyed homes and gutted buildings. Collapsed roofs and windows smashed in by the force of the explosions. The area that took the brunt of the American laser-guided bombs was one like so many others in Tripoli. Unlike the immigrants in the apartment blocks where we lived, middleclass Libyan families had lived here. The houses had been modern, attractive and comfortable. Before the bombing, they would not have been out of place in a European or Mediterranean city.
The explosions that destroyed these homes and families were the same ones that had woken me up. They had made my alarm clock shoot up into the air. Now I saw what they had done to our neighbours. What I did not see was the true cost — the remains of the men, women and children who had been sleeping, then blown to pieces, possibly before even knowing what was going on.
At the time, I was quite disappointed when my father did not allow me to enter the homes that had been damaged.
We passed a building used by the French as their embassy: gutted. A children’s park full of evergreens and hibiscuses and slides and merry-go-rounds, where I had sometimes played, was also bombed.
Our own building had sustained relatively mild damage. A few windows on the main corridors were broken, scattering glass all over the place. But if the American fighters had dropped their bombs some metres ahead of where they did, they might have destroyed our building. Perhaps the international outcry in the aftermath of the Tripoli bombing would have been greater if the reports of devastation in Tripoli had included an apartment full of Eastern Europeans and Asians, rather than only a neighbourhood full of Arab families.
For the next few nights, my living nightmare, instead of fading away, came to life again and again. At dusk, we were whisked away to the hospital complex, where doctors, patients, friends and family members stayed while the sound of screeching anti-aircraft missiles filled the skies. Small red pieces of light lit up the night sky. It filled me with such terror — a 6-year-old looking up at the sky, seeing such strange lights, feeling that all I had ever known could be blown to pieces.
I remember screaming and wailing every one of the nights after the bombing. My sister later said that she and everyone else around me were scared, not because of the bombardment, but because — hysterical and paralysed with terror as I was — I might faint or require medical intervention.
A child’s ear is not trained to tell the drone of civilian from that of military aircraft. At least once, I asked my father, “I can hear a plane in the sky — have the Americans come to bomb us again?’’
For several years after the bombing, we stayed in that apartment complex. My mother used to tell me not to lean on the balconies. She was afraid they could have been weakened by the force of the blasts, and could give way under too much force.
Despite the horrific memories of bombardment, the days and weeks that followed were remarkable because they seemed uneventful to me. I remember the sight of a dead child on TV — of three being picked up by Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi himself. A BBC radio broadcast mentioned one victim — an 18-year-old Palestinian girl visiting Libya who had a bombshell fall into her bedroom. We watched funerals for the dead civilians. Caskets were draped in green Libyan flags — a Lebanese flag one. I remember anti-American protests on TV, too.
The Western diplomats at the funerals didn’t seem to be singled out for any special harassment, though, nor the staff at the British school where I studied. At school, we were once asked to write about the brave British soldiers who had lost their lives throughout history. I wrote simply that war was very bad, war once came to Libya for a few days, that I was very scared and I hoped it never came again.
As a child, I had little understanding as to why our neighbourhood had been bombed. I didn’t try to understand. The people who bombed our neighbourhood were simply monsters. I felt an absolutely and utterly insane — if somewhat understandable — hatred toward America. I don’t know how many times I cursed that country and its government, and its then-president, Ronald Reagan. I saw a magazine with Reagan’s face on the front page. I was so filled with hate that I slowly mutilated his image. It was a dreadful thing to do, but then again perhaps it was for the best that my bitterness was expressed in a relatively benign way.
Suhail Shafi is a 22-year-old Indian national. He has lived in Malta for several years, where he recently graduated from university. Shafi is currently working as a junior doctor in that country.
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