I Was There When The Americans Bombed
by Dr. Suhail Shafi | Published March 2002
The exact date I tend to forget, but it was on a crisp April night in 1986 that it happened.In Tripoli, the city that I was born in, and where I had spent all of my six years in.
I remember something, though not everything of that eventful night. I do not know whether my degree of recollection is surprising, or not surprising at all - it was after all fifteen years ago, but then again I do suppose that something dramatic to that extent could not have been completely forgotten by anyone, not even or perhaps certainly not by an impressionable child.
The night before the Americans bombed was, for me and so many others in the coastal Libyan capital city, a night like so many others, at least to start of with.I was the younger child of an Indian couple, who were both physicians, both employed in Libya for over a decade.I had been born and educated in Libya, and it was the only country I ever called home for several years to come.Life in Libya had it's negative and positive aspects, we seldom complained, being grateful for every- thing that we had, and despite, or perhaps because of everything, I look back at myself as pretty much a child like so many others - going to school, being chided by my parents, studying with my books, playing with my toys.....need I say more ? Quintessentially the life of every child around the world is pretty much the same, as are the needs and expectations of childhood.
The night our neighbourhood was bombed my mother was feeling sick.I don't know what she had, but as an impressionable child I remember seeing in pictures people being nursed sitting upright, so I instructed her to sit upright in her pillow in an upright position. ‘Sit like that mummy, and you will feel better in the morning’ I had advised, just before taking my teddy and going to bed opposite hers.The next day was school, so I had to sleep early, and the next thing I remember I was in bed dozing.
The first thing I remember distinctly was the little alarm clock that had been placed on the shelf right next to my bed.....it had jumped up abruptly, coinciding with a deafening noise, that sounded like a massive explosion.I remember, in my pyjamas, being seized by my mother, and pulled out of bed so fast I could not even grasp what was going on.I heard a girl's voice that betrayed a gasp of horror, and I remember the four of us, my parents, my sister, and myself running out of our flat's door into the dark corridor's of our building.We were rushing down the stairs and I remember my little feet being pierced by pieces of glass that came from the windows that had been shattered by the blast of American missiles that had landed in the neighbourhood behind us.
We rushed down into the car park where I remember hundreds of our neighbours who lived in our building and in the three others adjacent to it crowding the outside of the building.We were for the most part Indian, Eastern European, and Filipino expatriates who lived in the apartment blocks opposite the street from a large Tripoli hospital where my father worked.We usually kept our distances from one another, but we were all there tonight, united in our horror.Whether the horror was matched by a comprehension of what was going on is something that will always be lost to me.....I was only six.But a few images will stay for me forever.....I saw a Filipino woman, probably a nurse crying pitifully in the parking area, I also saw our next door neighbour, a Macedonian nurse walking out of our building. I was almost relieved to see her walking out so fast.‘Where are you going’ I had asked her des- perately, in the hope that she would tell me she was going some place safe, where we could all accompany her.‘Where can we go’ came the reply.
We walked across the street to the hospital where my father worked.I felt a sense of relief in going to the hospital, but it was a sense of relief that I felt in my heart of hearts was somewhat misplaced.I could not bring myself to believe that anyone would want to bomb a hospital, but then, after the horrors of that night I did not know what to believe in anymore.Clad as I was in a light pair of pyjamas, I felt colder on that frigid April night like never before - I shivered almost uncontrollably in the hospital park.Later on, as my father herded us onwards into a building in the hospital complex, I saw a number of lights in the sky - I did not and still do not know if they were real American fighter planes or whether they were anti-aircraft missiles fired by the Libyans but what I do remember distinctly that they filled me with an acute and undescribable sense of terror that can be expected from a six year old seeing, or thinking he sees a fighter jet in the heavens aiming at him.I hid behind a car as I ran towards the entrance of the hospital building. I remember screaming out to my mother - ‘do they really want to get us, is it us that they are aiming at ’ - with an utter lack of comprehension or understanding of what was going on that could come only from the tongue of a six year old in that situation.
I remember being spirited away to the relative safety of a small closed room where there were a number of other people.It was dark, and the presence of what sounded like incessant gunfire from the outside, probably emanating from anti-aircraft missiles.I remember my elder sister telling me that it was not the planes that were causing the horrific noises from outside, but flying objects that were meant to destroy any aircraft. But if it was supposed to make me feel any better, it clearly did not work. I spent several dreadful hours in that cold, dark, overcrowded room screaming, crying and wailing.
It was only several hours later when the screaming sounds of the anti-aircraft missiles died down that my father took me to his office in another building in the complex, where I and my family spent the night. There were mattresses and I managed to get a number of hours of much need, if surprisingly peaceful sleep.
My reaction to the events the night before when I woke up in the bright daylight of the next morning was a curious one.It was not so much of fear, or impending doom, or of shock - it was one of denial. I pretended as if the events of the night before were no more than a dream, no more than an illusion that everyone was, predictably talking about, but which I was insistent, nothing more than a non-event that everyone was talking of, but which I was completely insulated from.I remember telling everyone I met that there was this dreadful dream from the night before that had happened, but that I could not remember it, or that I could not relate to what had happened.Whether this was a manifestation of shock, of embarrassment of my terror from the night before, or a deep seated wish that what had happened hadn't happened is something that a child psychologist specializing in treating paediatric victims of post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of disasters would be best placed to comment on.I know for sure I did not wish to fully face up to what had happened - perhaps there is a small part of me that still does not want to face up.
My sense of denial did not last much longer than that morning when Tripoli faced up to it's loss fully.The neighbourhood that had been at the receiving end of the brunt of the American laser guided bombs was a civilian neighbourhood like so many others in Tripoli that was, unlike the apartment blocks we lived in populated almost entirely by middle class Libyan families.The houses were modern, attractive and comfortable, and would not have felt too out-of-place in any other European or Mediterranean city.I remember my father taking our car out into the neighbourhood right behind our building the day after the night we were bombed, and I remember the scenes of seeing destroyed homes and gutted buildings.Of collapsed roofs and of windows smashed in by the force of the explosions.The explosions that destroyed the homes together with the families that lived in them were the same that had woken me up the night before.The were the same explosions that had made the alarm clock so close to my head on the shelf besides my head over the night shoot up into the air.Now I saw with my own eyes what they had done to our neighbours.What I did not see was the true cost - the remains of the men, women and children sleeping unpretentiously the night earlier who were blown to pieces, possibly before even knowing what was going on.I must confess that I did not find the sight of the remains of the houses too disturbing at the time - I had only seen what I had, after all, expected to see, and even then I was quite disappointed when my father did not allow me to enter the homes that had been damaged.
Among the buildings destroyed included a number of homes.Also gutted was a building used by the French as their embassy and a children's park full of evergreen and hibiscuses and slides and merry go rounds where I had played on not a few occasions.
Our own building, by contrast had sustained relatively mild damage.A few windows on the main corridor's were broken, scattering glass all over the place.It was, however, a sobering thought that had the American fighters dropped their bombs a few score of metres ahead of where they did, they might have destroyed our building as well as or perhaps even instead of the homes they did.Perhaps the international outcry and chorus of condemnation in the aftermath of the Tripoli bombing would have been greater if the reports from Tripoli had spoken of a building full of Eastern Europeans and Asians had been destroyed rather than a neighbourhood full of Arabs families.The idea is not far-fetched.When my mother saw the yellow ball of fire des- cending from the skies, she heard a deafening noise only 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.Mercifully, it was not the case, but then again, might not it be considered to be an accident of fate that the bombs landed on the neighbourhood a few dozen metres across the main road from us and not on us.Interestingly, for the next several years while we were living in that apartment complex, my mother used to repeatedly tell me not to lean on the balconies, as she reasoned that they could have been weakened by the force of the blasts and could give way under too much force.
For the next few nights, my nightmare, instead of fading away, came to life again and again.At dusk we were whisked away to the hospital complex, where doctor, patients, friends and family members were made to wait for the night to pass while the sound of screeching anti-aircraft missiles filled the skies.There were small red pieces of light which lit up the night sky, sent in the hope of destroying any fighter jets that happened to be there at the time, or is that what I now reckon they were ? All I know for sure is that they filled me with an undescribable terror, not just reflecting my fear of a repeat of what had happened the night earlier, but, more importantly, a fear of the unknown that can be expected from only a six year old who looks up at the sky seeing lights that he knows not what they are, and feels that he, together with all that he has known could be blown to pieces, like so many others any moment.I remember screaming and wailing every one of the nights after the bombing, to the extent that 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 because of my reaction.
I remember on one of those nights having to go, together with my mother and sister to a basement under one of the wards, together with sick children from the hospital, and seeing a girl, a few years older than me with a disfigured face that had been cause by some skin condition that my father could have been treating.I also saw one girl crying in the dark, presumably due to the same terror that I too had experienced.It was not the worst of thing, given all that I had been through, but I have not forgotten.
The days and weeks after the bombing were, despite the horrific memories of bombardment, remarkable by their uneventful nature.I watched without too much emotion the funerals of the civilians killed - I still remember all of them being draped in green Libyan flags - one I distinctly remember had a Lebanese flag.I remember the sight of Western diplomats at the funerals - they did not seem to be singled out for any more harassment or ill-will, any more than the staff at the British school where I studied back then.I distinctly remember the sight of a dead child on TV - not more than three being picked up by Gaddafi himself, and I remember the anti-American protests on TV too.I even remember a BBC radio broadcast mentioning one of the victims - an 18 year old Palestinian girl visiting Libya who had bombshell fall into her bedroom.Looking back on it, that sort of reporting actually seems quite remarkable - Western media reports have a tendency to mention Arab casualties in general as statistics, not as stories.Another ill effect of the bombardment - I was always unnerved, occasionally even terrified by the sound of planes in the sky.A child's ear is not trained to distinguish the drone of civilian or military aircraft - I remember at least one occasion when I asked my father politely and matter of factly - ‘I can hear a plane in the sky - have the American's come to bomb us again ? ’.Then again, many children have been through worse - there were no emotional outbursts, no open anger, no nightmares, and none of the instantly recognizable symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.Life just continued as normal, just as it always had. I remember at school, when we were once asked to write about war in the context of the brave British soldiers who lost their lives throughout history, I wrote simply that war was very bad, war once came to Libya for a few days, I was very scared and I hope it never came again.
The events of April 1986, did however have at least one very sinister aftereffect - an absolutely and utterly insane if some- what understandable sense of hatred towards America.I will never know how many times I must have cursed America and it's government, and the then American President Reagan for what had happened.It seemed only predictable back then that I did not have too much of an understand- ing as to why our neighbourhood had been bombed and frankly I did not bother to understand, either because it was not worth understanding, or perhaps in my eyes there simply was nothing to understand.The people who bombed our neighbourhood were simply insane monsters who, at that time I believed were worthy of all the resentment I had in my heart for them and more.I once remember seeing a magazine with President Reagan on the front page, and I was so filled with hate I remember slowly, bit by bit and painstakingly mutilating his face on the paper.It was a dreadful thing to do, but then again perhaps it was for the best that my bitterness manifested itself in a relatively benign way....after all it was only a piece of paper that was disfigured.Perhaps the action allowed me to get my feelings off my chest in a well...perhaps therapeutic way.
My desire to talk about my experience with bombing is motivated neither by a necessity nor a need to talk about it to come to terms with what happened...after all sixteen years is a pretty long time, nor by a desire for sympathy.For a long time, I actually wanted to put behind the memories of the bombing as if they were no more than a closed chapter.However, in the wake of the unspeakably tragic events in the US and Afghanistan, I am obliged by my conscience to dig up an unpleasant if distant experience in order to make people realize that behind every headline, unfortunate or otherwise, people's lives are being affected, and any understanding of news stories without scratching the surface and seeing what events mean for ordinary people is not only incomplete, but abysmally so. One thing that struck me every time the news story of America's bombing of Libya sixteen years ago is con- cerned is that the event is whitewashed, with people referring it as being the ‘American attack on Libya ’ as if it were nothing more than that. The people who died, the majority of whom were Libyan civilians, men women, and children in their sleep whose only crime was to be living in the wrong part of town are seldom if ever mentioned, and the attack it- self was widely viewed as being just another measure in the fight against terror.It is precisely this lack of appreciation for what military actions of any sort mean for ordinary innocent people in places like Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere that I find unacceptable and I feel compelled by my conscience to say - enough - even if we have to use military force to achieve an objective - just as it may seem, it should always be seen as the very last and most undesirable option that should only be used when all else fails, and even when it is used, no expense should be spared to minimize the harm done to non-combatants.Civilians who are harmed during the course of a conflict must never be seem as ‘collateral damage’ or, even worse as statistics, which may or may not be mentioned depending on the whims of the journalist.Dehumanize the innocent victims of conflict and we are dehumanizing all of ourselves.If the innocent victims of Tripoli are seen as nothing more than statistics, then there is really no overriding reason why the potential victims of an impending conflict anywhere in world could be viewed as being `collateral damage’, who although blameless, are perceived as being unimportant nevertheless.
If I am to heed the advice of a six year old boy terrified by the sound of jet fighters in the sky and exploding bombs on the ground, I feel I must encourage people to view the news not just in terms of headlines in ink, not just in terms of stories on TV and radio but also in the context of people whose only crime is to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and whose offence is no greater than that of children huddling in fear in the basements of hospitals.
- Guardian article: Baghdad and British bombers David Omissi, The Guardian, 19 January 1991
- A television documentary on RAF bombing of civilians in 1920s and 1930s "Birds of Death", Director George Case, a Wall to Wall television production for Channel 4, 1992
- Financial Times article: interviews with survivors of 1945 bombing of Dresden 'The night the innocents died', Judy Dempsey, Financial Times, 11/12th February 1995, page 1, Section 3
- Statue of chief of WW2 Bomber Command in central London - photos 2017, The Strand
- George Orwell's Diary, 21 September 1942 “Yesterday met Liddell Hart”...“[In a great stew about the barbarism of bombing Lübeck” ...