Thursday, August 11, 2011

Untold tales of courage: Confetti, hoover bags and a shrapnel

So here's Story 3 in the series of tales of courage by women during the Lebanese Civil War. You don't need to read Story 1 and Story 2 first but I've linked to them anyway. I am trying to collect as many as I can and so far it's been an intense experience. Here's the tale of Yola Sowan, in the summer of '82, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and later the siege of what was then called "West Beirut". The story took place in that part of the capital with the first shelling from the Israeli fleet. Yola didn't write the story, she relayed it to me in all its details. So this is me, telling you her story, in her voice, with her blessing:

Do you remember the flyers? They used to throw them from the planes like confetti, colorful and in massive numbers. The Israelis always pretended they were our friends. They would say things like "We do not aim to harm you" or "We are the Israeli Defense Forces. We are here to defend you from the terrorists." That day, a round of confetti was dropped in our area. The flyers basically said that the Israelis don't want to harm civilians and that there will be a ceasefire to allow us to leave Beirut. They even provided a map of the safest route. Well I wasn't going anywhere. I was sticking it out with my husband and 2 children, Nidal, 6 and Nadim, 11 months, undoubtedly believing that the Israelis wouldn't dare bomb Beirut and to the utter disappointment and chagrin of my dad, who wanted his entire family as far away from the current events as possible. We were both very stubborn people except that my Dad was more experienced and he could foresee the upcoming events. So my decision was to stay in Beirut, but I thought I could use this fleeting lull to pop out get a newspaper and buy hoover bags from the shop next door.

So I put on a white shirt and jeans and walk down. I get the paper and the hoover bags and am on my way back from my five minute walk when I hear a massive explosion right above me. I look around and find that the building across the street has been hit. So much for the ceasefire. Suddenly, I feel a surge of heat going through my body and I know something is wrong. My shirt was turning red at the left shoulder. I was hit by a shrapnel and it was clear that I wasn't the only one. Minutes later, an ambulance arrives to carry the injured and in the process taking their names. I knew what this meant. They do that to read the names on the radio, so that if someone was missing, their family would know where they were. And then it hit me. My dad! He can't hear this over the radio. I can't let him. I knew my condition wasn't fatal. So I ran, from the ambulance, from those who would care for my wound, who are here to help me.

I enter the barbershop next door. The owner brings me water. I don't remember much else except his kind words to calm me. But my husband arrives soon after. He had rushed outside looking for me as soon as he heard the shelling. And he takes me home, where I kiss my daughter to reassure her that "everything is OK". I go inside and change into a darker shirt. Our neighbour drives me to the emergency room but they couldn't take care of me. My wound was too superficial compared to the others. So we returned home where our neighbor, a pharmacist treated the injury.

Days later, a doctor told me that I was very lucky. If the shrapnel was a few centimeters to the right, I wouldn't have survived it. That's all it took, a few lucky or unfortunate centimeters. That was our life in Beirut. I always tell people how proud I am that the only wound I received during the war was from an Israeli bomb and not a Lebanese one.

My father found out about this incident soon after and he refused to talk to me as long as I remained in Beirut. A few very agitated days later, I yielded and left to a "safer region". We came back though, after only a few weeks. But just like my dad felt responsible for my safety, I was responsible for my children's and I've often wondered, was it right for us to put them through it all? Maybe not. Maybe it wasn't supposed to be our choice. Well we made it anyway and we have to live with that. Always wondering.


After I heard Yola's story, I was chatting with Nidal, her daughter, who was only 6 at the time but seemed to remember so much detail of the story, from the view back home. I asked her to write it for me and here it is. She said she wrote it in one breath, and hence the long long paragraph:

I was six and a half years old. It was morning time on a weekday. The weather was pleasant; must have been late spring. The Israelis indicated there'd be a ceasefire that day. My brother was napping -- he was 9 or 10 months old. I am not certain of the date or the month even, but he was certainly younger than 11 months. My dad and I were exercising in the living room when my mom, few months short of her 27th birthday, came in to tell us she was going to get Hoover bags from Nassar Stores, two blocks away from where we lived. She was wearing a white v-neck three-quarter-sleeve shirt and jeans. I liked her outfit. Her dark, straight, long hair was down. Shortly after my mom left, while still exercising with my dad, we heard a very loud explosion. We could tell it was a close one, and it was followed by the sounds of shattered glass. I remember freezing. As in not moving. I remember my dad freezing for a fraction of a second, then quickly picking me up -- like I was an infant with a smelly diaper -- and dropping me in the bathtub. He said "take a shower, I'll be back" and ran out of the apartment. I could shower independently, but I needed help getting into and out of the tub... Mom or dad were always there to help with that part. I showered, put on my little red bathrobe, and stayed still in the bathtub for what felt like many long minutes. Probably it was just a few seconds. It is like I have hit pause to that scene. There were no words, no sounds, a lot of emptiness. Heaviness. I surely hadn't felt anything like that before, and I don't think I felt it that intensely ever again. I don't know how I made it out of the bathtub and into the living room. I do remember, however, sitting on one of the sofas there. Waiting. My brother was still sleeping. Or maybe lying there quietly in his crib. I was alone for a while. Then suddenly, the empty, quiet house was filled with people. They might have been four or five, but, to me, it felt like there were too many people making a lot of noise. It was crowded. The door to the apartment was wide open. One of our neighbors was carrying my brother and walking around. Another neighbor gave me a glass of lemonade. Finally, my mom came. It was a great moment. She sat next to me on the sofa, put her arm around me and kissed me. She asked if I was fine, I said yes. She had changed into another three-quarter-sleeved shirt with large red and white horizontal stripes. I don't know whether the change of clothing occurred before or after the embrace, but I remember noticing she had changed her outfit. I liked the red and white shirt too, so it was okay. She was gone again shortly thereafter, and I was very anxious about that. My mom never left us on days with explosions. Neighbors and neighbors' kids were still coming in and out of our place. A girl five years my senior got me to play with her. I think her mother got me to put my clothes on. I might have been in the bathrobe for a long time. I repeatedly asked my dad about my mom's whereabouts. He said she'd be back soon. That was after she embraced me and left again. I went back to ask my dad the same question -- not typical of me to ask the same question twice, but I cared to know where she was more than to be proper or consistent with my character. He gave me vague answers at first, but eventually said she was at the neighbors' place. "Which neighbors?" I asked him, thinking 'all of our close neighbors were up here!' He said she was on the second floor. We lived on the fifth floor. I don't recall how he put it, but I remember being finally convinced that mom was on the second floor and I couldn't go see her. I was back to waiting, but this time feeling less anxious. I did believe dad's story. I played with my fourth-floor neighbor in my fifth-floor apartment while waiting for my mom to make it up those three flights of stairs... She returned when it was dark. Many days later she explained to me that she had been hit by a shrapnel underneath her shoulder while shopping for Hoover bags at Nassar. She told me she hid at dad's barber, adjacent to Nassar's, so she wouldn't be picked up by the Red Cross and have her name aired on the radio as one of the wounded. She didn't want her dad to know she got wounded. She also explained that she was at the ER when I was playing with my friend, thinking she was on the second floor. She told me about the white shirt she had to change because of all the blood. The red and white stripes made sense to me then. I don't recall seeing her in either shirt after that day.

1 comment:

Nora said...

Nidal, I could imagine every single detail: Yola 'running away from ambulance', the apartment in Hamra on the 5th floor where we used to dash after school...

Another great of many 'untold stories'of courage and survival.

Love and hugs to you (& to Yolla)