السبت، مارس 20، 2004

The Basrah hotel bombing

I guess most of you have heard about the Basrah bombing incident on thursday by now. I was pretty close to the area of the explosion that day. Around 3 in the afternoon there was an enormous blast which violently shaked the windows of the Internet cafe where I was sitting comfortably cursing the connection speed. It came as some sort of a surprise since you would rarely ever hear explosions in Basrah.

Everyone left their seats hurriedly and went out to look. We saw black plumes of smoke rising from Istiqlal street which lies parallel to the one where we were standing. And since I knew a few people at that area, I immediately hailed a taxi to take me to the scene. People were rushing from all directions heading there. Old men, women, kids, bicycles, cars, everything. You would expect that people would actually run away as far as possible from the explosion area. But no, certainly Iraqis wouldn't.

When I arrived, there was already quite a crowd gathered in front of the hotel where the rigged car exploded. It was an '82 model Mercedes, and it was apparently not a suicide attack since the car, or what had remained of it, was in the middle of the street in front of the Marbid hotel. Basrah IP and Brits had arrived and were trying to keep the crowd away from the site but no use. They shouted from loud speakers that another rigged car might still be around, but no one budged from their positions.

All of a sudden there was a commotion. Two bearded guys were being dragged amidst the crowd by the police. It seemed that they were suspects. The mob got enraged and someone shouted "Don't let the British take them away! Kill the Wahhabi bastards now!". Everyone stormed forward and slippers and shoes were thrown at the two bewildered men. Someone sprang out of nowhere and stabbed one of them in the back, and that was that. He got trampled by the angry crowd, and I saw knives, sticks, and qamat (long blades) flashing. The police half heartedly attempted to dissipate them, but it was only until Brits started firing in the air that they left him, but he was obviously dead then, only a bloody mess was left of him. They were put into a British Land Rover and taken away. It turned out later that they had nothing to do with the attack.

The mob looked deadly and dangerous. They proceeded to throw stones and shoes at the British while shouting "Hussein, Hussein". There was shooting again so I slipped away for cover. The area was surrounded so it looked like I was trapped. Even reporters and camera men were shoved away by the British soldiers. I was now very close to the burnt Mercedes, I moved on trying to get as far away as possible from the crowd and I was treading carefully over shattered glass. At one point I felt the ground was slippery, so I looked down and almost got sick. I was walking on a pool of blood. Some bystanders pointed out something, I thought that I would better not look, but curiosity beat me. It was half a human head. It belonged to a once bald person, and his brain and what looked like his guts were all over the place and on the walls. He was the old man that sold groceries in front of the hotel. I recalled buying bananas from him once with Omar and AYS when we used to stay at these hotels at the time we first visited Basrah two months ago.

The explosion itself did not cause much damage to the surrounding buildings. It looked like an amateurish attempt since it only succeeded in breaking windows. However, 3 people were killed and 20 injured. It could have been much more worse if the timing was different. Istiqlal street is a very busy one where several hotels housing foreign reconstruction workers are located. Other people mentioned that a British patrol was meant to be targetted by the explosion.

***

I returned to the residence half an hour later. My colleagues were a bit worried about me since I pass through that street almost every other day while heading to the Internet cafe, so they were relieved. In a few minutes I was sinking in a deep sleep. And when I woke up in the evening, I was feeling considerably better.

I'm not the kind of person to count my blessings, but that experience made me rethink my whole life. Later that night, we were alone, me and my friend, the Christian dentist, after a dinner of tikka, we were feeling very content, smoking cigarettes and having tea. We smiled at one another. There was a cool breeze outside and life suddenly felt good. When you are vulnerable and have death waiting around the corner at any moment, it's only better that you try hard to make the most of what you have.