The following text weaves historical facts with figments of Fatima Hanan Elreda's imagination as she tries to reconcile herself with the past and present of Lebanon's civil war.
I don’t have a ticket but I jump aboard and take a seat. I look around. There are many faces. The faces of the lost, of the unfound, of the horror-stricken, of the traumatized, and of the ambivalent. I look out the window and there is the present. But inside the bus I’m nowhere at no specific time.
He looks familiar, the driver. “Let’s go back in time,” I imagine him saying. I don’t know where he’s taking me. The bus violently shakes and a brilliant light deluges the place . It’s April 13, 1975. The bus is rolling down the streets of Ain al-Rummanah. There are passengers but I’m not one of them. Like them, however, I’m a victim.
I know what is going to happen. I try to tell the driver to turn around, to stop the bus and let everyone out but I can’t part my lips to say anything. I can’t bring myself to move either, no matter how hard I try. I’m glued to the seat. I realize there’s nothing I can do but watch. A single tear escapes. I mourn myself. I grieve over what is about to happen.
GUNMEN OPEN FIRE. The body of the bus is pierced by a barrage of bullets many of which hit passengers. 27 Palestinians are killed. I panic. Even though I’m sitting there the bullets don’t touch me. They meander right through my body without leaving a scratch. I’m the living haunting the ghosts. I’m an object following its shadow. I’m a present in reminiscence of its past.
Ensuing clashes ignited the Lebanese civil war. No one was prepared for it. Not that you can be prepared for war. It’s not about storing canned food, bread, and water or building shelters. I don’t think a soul can be prepared for war let alone one in which brothers turn their guns against each other. A war that forces boys to wear the clothes of men and shed their innocence. The only way we can be prepared for war is if we dig our own graves before we lie in them and starve ourselves before we run out of food and deafen ourselves before we hear news of our sons’ deaths.
Credit: Houssam Bokeili
THE BUS is still moving when I jump out of the memory that would always be remembered as the event that charted the course of Lebanon’s brief yet tumultuous history in the collective consciousness of the Lebanese people . I don’t look back, not until a long time passes and a timeline of the highlights of the civil war; from the assassination of Bashir Gemayel to the Sabra and Shatila massacre to the formation of two rival governments and last but not least to the 1990 Taif accord that paused but did not completely stop sectarian strife, is assimilated.
“The only way we can be prepared for war is if we dig our own graves before we lie in them”
I can still feel the rust against my skin. I can taste it as I would taste the blood after cutting my lip. It’s as rusty as the wounds of this country. The bus is imprisoned within the walls of a tragic history . It is the first captive of a war that left tens of thousands of people dead and thousands missing. Yet the bus doesn’t stop here.
The bus is still roaming the streets of Beirut, a symbol of ongoing divisions. Occasionally it parks on the side of the road as political crises unravel but once its work is done it moves along. In every corner of Lebanon there’s a dormant civil war that is more likely to implode than to explode.
I’m walking down the road that once separated Beirut into a Christian East and a Muslim West. To my right there are a few buildings tall and proud. They are not ashamed of their scarred faces. Greenery grow out of the bullet holes to set an example for the rest of us, to reconcile our present with our past for the sake of a better future.
Had I lived forty years ago I wouldn’t have dared cross the street for fear of being kidnapped or sniped. Now the only existing threat to my life on that street is a stampede of speeding cars. I look both ways before I cross and catch a glimpse of a red and white bus.