Tuesday, August 01, 2006

First-person: Qana 1996

In the spring of 1996 I was living in Damascus, conducting research for my dissertation, when a UN post filled with women and children who were seeking refugee from the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah was hit with an Israeli missile.

The date was April 18, 1996. 106 civilians were killed and 116 injured. Most of the dead were women and children. The pictures on television were horrifying. I can still see the images in my mind: white headscarves stained with blood, the limp bodies of toddlers, the torn blue and white banners of the UN. Over and over again, the images were broadcast: dead children, crying women, outraged men, pools of blood amid sacks of flour stamped with the UN emblem.

The atmosphere in Damascus was, how to describe it? People were frozen with disbelief and horror. In the days after 9/11, in those immediate, horrible days, when conversations were hushed, and dread and sorrow filled everyone's eyes, I felt a vague sense of familiarity. Where had I been where the atmosphere was the same? I finally remembered. It felt like Damascus after the attack in Qana.

The horror and shame were particularly acute because the dead had been killed while seeking the protection of the UN but not even the status of the United Nations could protect them or even lead to international outrage. The US accepted the Israeli government contention that it was an accident and with that the world let it go.

Syrians, like Arabs elsewhere, felt that the massacre reinforced what they already knew, that the world did not value their lives, the lives of their children as it did others. How many times did I hear people say that if it had been reversed, if a Hezbollah missile had hit an Israeli shelter and killed 106 people, over half of them children, would the world accept it was an accident? "Israel would kill us all," said one friend gesturing to the city around him.

I did not know what to say. I knew that the attack barely registered for most Americans and I felt ashamed to admit it to my friends and neighbors who were hurting so badly. I will never forget how deeply and profoundly the violent deaths in Qana affected ordinary Syrians.

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