After Bomb Kills Loved Ones, Life Turns Ghostly

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

New York Times

August 9, 2006

TYRE, Lebanon, Aug. 7 — After a bomb hits, the remains of a life are modest.

Ghazi Samra, a fisherman, is feeling the new shape of his. Last month, his wife, one of his daughters and a granddaughter were killed in an Israeli airstrike. Since then, his life has shrunk to the size of one crooked city block. He tries to sleep in an apartment that is not his own. He wears his wife’s glasses, more out of a craving for closeness to her than as an aid to see. The shirt and shorts he is wearing are his brother’s. He has not felt able to return to his own apartment.

“I became a different person,” said Mr. Samra, sitting on a battered chair in a local gathering space at the intersection of two narrow stone streets. “I can’t talk with my children. I’m not wearing my own clothes.”

Across Lebanon and Israel, missiles, rockets and bombs have punched holes into families and, slowly, painstakingly, the survivors are trying to put themselves back together again. It is a quiet process that unfolds in the private space of people’s lives. It is full of ache and of empty places. It is a major consequence of war that often goes unnoticed, after the flash of bombs and the headlines that chronicle them fade away.

For Mr. Samra, who is 50, the healing is happening in a warren of narrow stone streets in the old section of this town. He begins his day with a short walk down a narrow alley to the place, several doorways down, where he passes the hours. He walks slowly, in leather sandals, usually smoking a cigarette. It is supposed to be an exercise in forgetting, but often it is the first few minutes of another day full of extremely painful memories.

Those memories began on the late afternoon of July 16, when his wife, a granddaughter and four of his children, afraid of a possible airstrike, sought shelter in the basement of a nearby building, as theirs lacked one. The building housed the main office for the city’s emergency workers, and the family felt sure it would be safe.

They were wrong. Around 5:30 p.m., missiles struck the building’s foundations and its top floors. Residents now say a Hezbollah official may have been living there. There was no response from the Israeli Defense Ministry to a request, submitted last week, for comment about the target.

Mr. Samra had been sitting with friends elsewhere. He raced to the building and frantically began to dig. He found his 5-year-old daughter, Sally, torn apart. Her torso and an arm lay separate from her legs. Another daughter, Noor, 8, was moving under the rubble. His granddaughter Lynn, not yet 2, had part of her face smashed. His wife, Alia Waabi, had died immediately.

Two other daughters, Zahra and Mirna, made it to safety, though Zahra was badly injured.

“This is my family,” he said, his face creased, sitting under the eaves of the stone houses. “Three of them are buried and three of them are in hospitals.”

After the adrenaline of the rescue and its aftermath fell away, Mr. Samra sank into blankness. He could not focus on anything. He had trouble remembering things. His vision seemed to blur.

He found it difficult to process what had happened. One thing that keeps him from mourning properly is that his wife and daughter will not be able to have a proper burial until the violence has died down. They were temporarily buried in an empty lot with dozens of others. They were assigned numbers. Alia is No. 35 and Sally is No. 67.

“They are numbers now,’’ he said. “There are no names anymore.”

He tried twice to return to his apartment, but he turned back both times. On Sunday, his friend opened it for a visitor. The rooms were still neatly composed, life suspended. Dishes were done. Laundry — tiny pink pants, a head scarf, a bra — was hanging on lines. But details showed something was wrong. The clothes were dusty from the pulverized concrete and soot of the explosion. A bowl of cucumbers and a pot of beans in the refrigerator were covered with mold.

As is often the case, the deaths felt arbitrary. On another day, Mr. Samra’s family might not have gone to the building at all. It was the first time they decided to hide. The timing of the missile strike could not have been worse. The family had eaten dinner early to be underground before dark.

This plunged Mr. Samra into guilt. He would often take his family to Cyprus in times of danger, throughout Lebanon’s fraught recent history, and briefly considered it in this case, but assumed Tyre would be safe.

Areas hit by bombs are often a jumble of incongruities. Bread spilled out into the road from a van that was hit by a missile in northern Tyre on Sunday morning. The area around the basement where Mr. Samra’s family was hit was a swirl of household items — a shampoo bottle, a high heel from a shoe, a shower curtain — mixed with ragged concrete and wire.

“Regret is killing me inside,” Mr. Samra said. “I should have taken them away.”

The rest of the family was having difficulties of its own. When 17-year-old Zahra awoke in her hospital bed, she did not know that her mother had been killed. Mr. Samra did not have the heart to tell her. Her face had been burned, and when she walked into the bathroom and looked into the mirror, she sobbed, said her brother Muhammad, who was with her.

Mr. Samra passed the afternoon watching the small neighborhood move around him. He has not returned to work. Muhammad has taken over visiting the hospitalized girls.

“My wife was my life,” he said, looking toward a television set up near the couches in the narrow alley.

“My heart aches.”