A girl called Raafat
I could swear I sensed her presence in the room. Maybe it was the many drawings she'd done, hanging on the wall of the family living room. They looked so alive. She'd been good, very good. Her photograph was on the shelf nearby - a pretty girl, about 18, she looked happy. I felt that any time now, she was going to walk in and greet me.
But Raafat was dead and I had never known her. I felt that were she alive, we would have probably been friends. She would have been just a few years older than me and the kind of person I would have been friends with. She believed in Middle East peace, was determined to succeed in life and adored her family. She probably would have taken a strong stand against the war with Iraq.
I felt I had to write her story and tell the world that once there was a girl called Raafat. For until now, she has simply been known as 'collateral damage'.
That, at least, is the term the US Government used when it bombed Libya in 1986, killing 55 people.
I leafed through her school yearbook which lay neatly on the coffee table. There she was again - a smiling girl in her school uniform, looking straight ahead. The caption beneath the photograph read 'most proven willpower'.
Another photograph showed Raafat's mother, father and sister. On the edge, Raafat had scribbled: 'You are the best three things in the world. I luv u.'
I looked up to see the tearful eyes of her mother watching me. Slowly she recounted the events on that fateful night 17 years ago.
Raafat, better known as Fafo, was on holiday. Her parents, Bassam and Saniya El Ghussein, had moved to Tripoli during the Lebanese civil war and Bassam worked there as a petroleum engineer. Wanting Raafat to get a better education than was available in Libya, her parents had sent her off to a boarding school for girls in Britain. More than anything, Raafat loved art and had been accepted at the Heatherly School of Arts in London. She had just begun her first term when she came to spend three weeks with her parents and seven-year-old sister Kinda in Libya. That night, 15 April 1986, Raafat's allergies flared up and she decided to sleep in the living room near the humidifier. With a warmth that her mother still cannot forget, Raafat said how grateful she was to her parents for insisting on sending her to Britain for her studies. That was the last conversation Saniya would have with her daughter.
On that night 18 US F-111 fighter planes left a military air base in England and flew to Libya. Operation Eldorado Canyon was under way. Their aim was to hit 'terrorist' targets in Tripoli. Believing that Libya was the mastermind behind several attacks, mainly the discotheque bombing in West Berlin that had happened 10 days before, then US President Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of military sites in Libya.
The last thing Saniya remembered was pulling the covers over herself. She came around to the sound of her husband's voice yelling out to the family. Surrounded by dust, she tried to reach Raafat but was unable to cross over the rubble. She called out to her daughter but there was no answer. She heard Kinda screaming nearby. But nothing from Raafat. It was hours before they pulled Raafat's body from beneath the rubble.
'Where are the terrorists that the US Government came to kill?' said Bassam angrily. 'Well, here is your terrorist. You killed her.'
The Pentagon described the civilian casualties - which included a daughter of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi - as 'collateral damage'.
In 1989 the former Attorney General for the Carter administration, Ramsey Clark, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the families of the 55 civilian victims. The suit was against President Reagan and also named Britain and then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for allowing US bombers to use British air bases. A US federal court, however, threw out the case and ordered Clark be fined for filing a 'frivolous' lawsuit.
For the Ghusseins giving up is not an option. They are adamant that the US Government must acknowledge the death of their daughter.
'Just a simple admission that they killed her,' says Bassam. 'Or is it that the US Government has a licence to kill?'
I have visited them several times since and stood mesmerized in front of Raafat's drawings. I wondered how many Afghanis were dismissed as 'collateral damage' and, in the war on Iraq, I wonder how many young girls - talented girls with bright futures - will be killed.
We will probably never know how many, nor their names.
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