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Lest we forget ...
Posted on: 4/16/2007 12:42:00 PM

Nation remembers anguish of civil war

Lebanon will not be driven back to civil war. That is the solemn oath taken by activists displaying for the first time the rusty bus that was full of Palestinian civilians when it came under attack in Ain al-Roummaneh in 1975, sparking the country's 15-year strife. The bus, an oxidized shell, was on display on Friday for the 32nd anniversary of the war's outbreak at a time when many fear that divided Lebanon may plunge back into violence.


"This is the outcome of civil wars," said Sami Hamdan, owner of the old Dodge bus as he knocked on the reddish brown metal of the decaying vehicle.


"People get killed, everyone loses and everything gets destroyed. All that's left will be a rusty carcass," said Hamdan, who is now 61 years old.


Lebanon erupted into bloodshed on April 13, 1975, when Christian militiamen machine-gunned the bus carrying Palestinian civilians in Beirut's eastern suburb, hours after gunfight killed a group of Christians outside a nearby church.


Twenty-seven passengers on board were killed and the Civil War began.


Although most Lebanese have never seen the Ain al-Roummaneh bus up close, it has become the symbol of the outbreak of the war through Hayat Karanouh's famous black-and-white photograph.


On Friday, the public had the opportunity to see the real thing at the Beirut racetrack. Normally, it is kept in a small Southern Lebanese village, "probably too far for most people to visit it" says an organizer of Friday's April 13 Civil War remembrance event.


Hamdan bought the bus 25 years ago from its original owner, Abu Rida, who was behind the wheel when it was attacked on that fateful April day.


Abu Rida was slightly wounded during the attack, but his life was saved when he ducked down and hid under the bodies of the victims. He later repaired the vehicle and drove it again briefly before selling it to Hamdan.


"When I met the original owner, I asked him how much he wanted to sell the bus for. He told me to take it for free; he just wanted to get rid of it."


"I bought his bus because it was notorious. I also wanted a new bus because my own had been hit by a shell that killed three children and wounded 17 others," Hamdan said.


Paola Eid says that the "I Love Life" campaign has been trying to negotiate with Hamdan to purchase the Ain al-Roummaneh bus, on behalf of the Culture Ministry.


Eid says that if they could purchase the bus, it would go on public display "maybe in a museum or UNESCO, where there are wide spaces."


Hamdan does not want to sell the wrecked bus, however, because "he is too attached to it," explained Eid.


Indeed in 1983, when the bus was attacked again, Hamdan saw the symbolic importance of his treasure. "I didn't have the money to fix it. I had my own house destroyed and considered selling the bus because I really needed money to fix it, but I couldn't part with it.


"We want to say that the Lebanese will not allow another civil war to break out, and we want to warn new generations of the atrocity and absurdity of wars," Hamdan said, adding that the organizers had asked him to bring the bus to the capital so it could be put on show for the anniversary.


"I am a living martyr of Lebanon's wars - that's why I want to warn people not to do it again. I have been wounded and kidnapped. In the Israeli attack last year the whole building where I lived was destroyed," he said.


"In January, my bus was destroyed and transformed into a barricade," during street battles between the government and opposition militants which took a confessional turn and sparked fears of a return to civil strife.


"I am a Shiite, but I respect all religions. I am against confessionalism and I hate all our leaders and politicians because they are all liars," he said.


His ultimate dream?


"I want to put all our leaders on a bus and drive them to a remote place where they treat disabled people because they all need therapy," Hamdan said. "They are sick. They constantly seek blood, violence and money." (AFP, additional reporting by Yasmine Ryan)


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