COLLATERAL DAMAGE

When UK-based American planes bombed Libya 10 years ago, politicians spoke proudly of a 'clinical' operation. The al-Ghossain family are still trying to rebuild their ruined lives
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The Americans killed Raafat al-Ghossain just after 2am on 15 April 1986. In the days that followed her death, US officials claimed that Libyan anti-aircraft fire might have hit her home not far from the French embassy in the suburbs of Tripoli. But three weeks later, the Pentagon admitted that three bombs dropped by an F-111 aircraft in the US attack on Colonel Ghaddafi had "impacted in the vicinity of the French embassy" and had caused "collateral damage". It was as if Arab civilian lives were of less consequence than those of Westerners. Perhaps this was true. Raafat was 18 years old, a graduate of an English school on holiday from London, a promising and beautiful artist whose individual death went unnoticed in the US, the country that killed her.

Today, she lives on in the seventh-floor Beirut apartment of her parents and her younger sister, where a half-hour videotape of Raafat's 1985 graduation day at Marymount International College at Kingston-upon-Thames brings her briefly back to this world. "Raafat Bassam Fawzi al-Ghossain from Palestine," the English principal announces, and a tall, striking young woman in a white ball gown can be seen walking self-consciously to receive her graduation certificate to the tinkling strains of Elgar's "Land of Hope and Glory" on a school piano. She listens attentively to a graduation speech from an American teacher who tells the girls that "with the gift of youth, nothing is too daunting". On the left side of the stage on which she sits is the Stars and Stripes, on the right the Union Jack.

In the college gardens, Raafat stands next to her American-educated Palestinian father, Bassam. "Here we are," he says when he spots the videocamera, and Raafat dutifully kisses her father on the cheek. Raafat's Lebanese mother watches proudly through her sunglasses while a six-year-old girl - Raafat's younger sister, Kinda - primps in front of the camera. On this English summer afternoon, Raafat al-Ghossain has less than a year to live. The men who will kill her are American, and will fly - with special permission of Margaret Thatcher - from RAF Lakenheath, scarcely 75 miles from Kingston.

PALESTINE, Britain, Libya, America. It is as if the East-West conflict hovered over Raafat al-Ghossain all her short life. Bassam always wanted her to have an English education - Kinda was born in London and holds a British passport - and still feels that Britain represents something intrinsically good in the world. His father, Fawzi, was a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, a lawyer in the British mandate government in Jerusalem, an adviser to Sir Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner to Palestine. Even after the family was forced to flee Palestine in 1948 to settle for several years in Cairo, the al-Ghossains never lost their faith in the West. Bassam was given a scholarship to study in America by a Quaker couple who noticed his fascination with model aircraft; he graduated in chemical engineering from the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia and started work as a petroleum engineer for the national oil company in British-administered Kuwait in 1957. "My family always admired the British," Bassam says.

He met his future wife, Saniya - half-Lebanese, half-Turkish, a daughter of the Beirut city treasurer - in 1963. They left Kuwait during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and moved to Algiers, where Bassam took a job in the country's oil production company. A French doctor delivered Raafat, weighing 3.8kg, at an Algiers hospital; when she was only five months old, the family moved to Libya, where Bassam took a job with Esso and, later, with American Occidental. Colonel Ghaddafi's revolution was only 15 months away.

"It didn't affect us, because we were expatriate workers," Bassam remembers. A short, athletic, intense man, he speaks slowly and with great deliberation. "My father took work as a legal adviser to Esso and we grew up a very close family, still together. There were parties every week, and swimming. When Raafat was four, we enrolled her at the Lycee Francais in Tripoli. She was a very pretty little girl. She loved doll's houses; she liked putting all the members of a family in one house. Always she wanted our family to live together. She always wanted the people of one family in the same one house."

Raafat - "Fafo" was her nickname in the family - spoke French fluently but transferred to the American school in Tripoli when she was 12. "She was there for two years but I thought the educational standards were not good enough. So instead of spending her ninth grade in Libya in 1981, we sent her to Marymount in Kingston-upon-Thames." And Bassam pulls from his file a thick bunch of school reports.

Raafat's sister, Kinda, had been born three years earlier, on 1 January 1979. At 15, Raafat now found herself alone at boarding school in Kingston, with neither her parents nor her baby sister to comfort her. Wracked by homesickness and schoolwork which she initially found too advanced, she begged to return to Libya, to the family villa not far from the sea, to the house in which all the al-Ghossains could live together. "A pleasant character," a philosophy teacher noted coldly, "but quite ill-disciplined - will not work." At maths, there were complaints of Raafat "misusing her ability", while a singing teacher reported that Raafat "would be an excellent choral member if she were not so chatty and giggly." But in art she excelled. Mr McFarland, her art teacher, wrote to her parents in 1984 that "Raafat has worked really well this quarter and I am very pleased with her progress."

Raafat's anguish at school comes through painfully in a diary-like letter she wrote in English on lined notepaper on 17 November 1981, addressed to God and headed with three words in capital letters: "PLEASE - PLEASE - PLEASE":

Dear God, I love you very much. God, I have a few things I would like to ask you about and asking [sic] if you could help me. First, of course, is that I hope you give us a long life for about 200 years (you know what I mean), I and my whole FAMILY and friends ... Second, keep your blessings on us and help us through life ... Third, please let my parents leave [Libya] on Friday 27th ... or even Tuesday or Wednesday but please after this weekend ... Fifth, please please a thousand times let it be my last year at Marymount or even if it is possible - half-year ... Don't separate our small family [in] Libya. Let the conditions in Libya push them to leave on [sic] January and make ME leave Marymount although it is a nice school but I get homesick too much. Let me go to a day-student school this year. PLEASE. Or make my parents come here and live ...

Raafat's reference to "conditions" in Libya was not without substance. A self-declared enemy of Israel and America, Libya was already being accused of "international terrorism" by the United States and Britain. The British condemned Colonel Ghaddafi's support for the IRA - he sent at least one ship-load of weapons to Ireland - and, in 1982, a British policewoman was shot dead by a Libyan "diplomat" outside the country's London embassy. Ghaddafi had sent hitmen to eliminate his domestic opponents abroad. The West was already treating Libya as a pariah state. Raafat al-Ghossain, meanwhile - ever conscious of her father's place of birth and of her grandfather Fawzi's stories of life in Jerusalem - was still thinking of a country that no longer existed, almost 1,000 miles to the east of Tripoli.

"Return our holy land PALESTINE, soon and let my whole family enjoy it and live there for a long time - if it is possible, next year," Raafat wrote in her letter to God. In 1982, enraged by the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel's militia allies in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Chatila, she joined a peaceful protest march on the streets of London. A poorly focused photograph of Raafat shows her in a raincoat in Knightsbridge, a green, red, black and white Palestinian flag curling above her head.

Bassam admits that Raafat found life very difficult. "She did not want to be away from us. She cried a lot. But she had no chance of education in Libya. In London, she had stomach upsets. It was psychological. She suffered a lot from hay fever." But Raafat was to overcome her homesickness after four long years, winning a gold medal for her painting and for drama. The 1985 video of her graduation shows her pride in triumphing over loneliness, aware that she was to follow a career in painting after acceptance to the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London. Her parents came to London in December of the same year, the last Christmas of Raafat's life. "We went to San Lorenzo's in Beauchamp Place, but Kinda was too young to go out so Raafat asked to stay home with her sister," their mother, Saniya, remembers. "It was as if that Christmas was very special to her." Just over a month later, on 8 February 1986, Raafat was to write in her diary: "My life is changing. I'm slowly, at last, finding myself. It feels great to at last meet my real self. Freedom!!"

Bassam al-Ghossain played no part in politics, but his collection of newspaper clippings shows the growing crisis over Libya. Ghaddafi was accused of organising the bombing of a TWA passenger jet over Greece. President Reagan's administration announced that it had unequivocal proof that the Libyan embassy had arranged the bombing of a Berlin discotheque on 5 April 1986, in which an American serviceman and a Turkish woman were killed. The Berlin police were later to dispute the nature of this proof, but by then Reagan was in the Gulf, calling Ghaddafi "the Mad Dog of the Middle-East" and promising unspecified retaliation.

"We thought about what all this meant, that there might be an attack," Bassam says now. "It just didn't occur to us that they would hit civilians. The patio of our home was wall-to-wall with the French embassy." Raafat was due home for the Easter holiday from her new art college at Heatherley and wrote an excited postcard - illustrated with a French painting of a black lady's hat - from London. It was to be her last written message to her parents.

Dearest Mummy and Daddy,

I'm sending this card 'cause it has a touch of class just like you! I miss you so much! I can't wait, soon I'm going to be with you! How is my baby sister, send her all my love and kisses. How are my grandparents, send them also all my love and tell them that I miss them a lot. Well, I'll have to love you and leave you. Till the 23rd March - God willing - take care! Lots of love [from] your daughter that love [sic] you the most ...

Raafat's Lebanese passport shows that she cleared Gatwick airport immigration on 23 March , exactly 22 days before the American crew of the F-111 that was to kill her took off from Lakenheath. She arrived in Tripoli with an attack of spring hay fever on 13 April, she spent the night at the home of the Ghandour family, Lebanese friends of long standing. There were already reports of a possible American bombing raid against Ghaddafi's headquarters in Tripoli and against the offices of Libyan intelligence. Western journalists - myself among them - had gathered at the largest hotel in Tripoli and noticed the sinister and hurried departure of a Soviet destroyer from the waterfront on the morning of 14 April. "Raafat was in her dressing-gown at breakfast in the morning and all we talked about was the possible raid and what would be the targets and if the Americans would hit civilians," Moutassim Ghandour remembers. "She kept roaming around this point. She felt that someone close would be killed. She was fully convinced that there was going to be a raid. I tried to talk politics with her. But she kept going round and round, talking about the planes that might come. She went on about this for three hours. I think that somehow she knew she was going to be killed that day."

BACK at home on the evening of 14 April, Raafat was so overcome with hay fever that her mother, Saniya, called in the doctor. "He told her to sleep well and gave her anti-histamine and nose drops," her mother recalls. "She immediately said she felt better. We talked about the art college. And she said she was happy because she had kept herself for the man she would one day marry. She looked very beautiful, like a girl standing on the stage. Bassam and Kinda came in and we had a light meal - of cheese and tomatoes and a plate of sweets from the Syrian ambassador's wife. We let Raafat sleep in the TV room because there was a machine there that controls pollen. I went to bed in the girls' room and Kinda slept beside her father in our bed." At almost the same moment that the al-Ghossain family was going to bed, 24 American F-111Fs from the US 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at RAF Lakenheath, were taking off for Libya. One of the aircraft was crewed by Captain Fernando Ribas-Dominicci of Puerto Rico and Captain Paul Lorence of San Francisco.

It was just after 2am that Saniya awoke with a start. "There was a tremendous roaring noise and I got out of bed and shouted: 'Wake up, Bassam, the Americans are here.' I looked into the TV room and saw Raafat sleeping peacefully there and I thought I'd better not wake her up. I went back to bed." Bassam woke a few moments later. "I heard anti-aircraft fire and the next thing I knew my feet were buried in rubble. I couldn't move. Kinda was in the bed next to me. She was screaming. Her body was covered by a door. I held her hand to quieten her down. The door had protected her when the ceiling came down."

Saniya re-awoke to hear Bassam's voice shouting "as if from another planet - it was a voice I had never heard before. He was shouting 'My God! My God!' and calling our names. I was choking on the smoke and dust. I stood up and it was all darkness. I couldn't see anything. I was walking on glass on my bare feet. I put my hand on the bedroom wall and found there was no door there. I asked Bassam what happened to Kinda. He said: 'I am touching her. She is alive.' I went to Raafat's room and the side wall was down. I shouted her name many times. She didn't answer. A feeling came over me that Raafat had died. I shouted: 'Bassam - Rafaat has gone.' Then I walked out of the house to get help, on my bare feet. Tripoli was like a haunted city. I saw all the water of the city coming out of the pipes. I looked back at the wreckage of our home and there was nobody to be seen, it was as if it had been like this for 100 years. Eventually, I found a young man who went to what was left of our home to help." To Saniya's amazement - it registers on her face when she recalls the fact 10 years later - the rescuer was a Palestinian who had survived the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre, the atrocity which had so angered the homesick Raafat in London.

Badly cut and bruised, Bassam and Kinda were taken to hospital. Neither can remember the following hours. Saniya was taken to a friend's house. A 2,000lb bomb had destroyed the home of the al-Ghossains' Libyan next- door neighbours, killing all five of them. The blast had blown down the wall of the TV room on to Raafat. Moutassim Ghandour, the family's Lebanese friend, found a team of Libyan civil defence workers with a bulldozer at the neighbours' ruined house and pleaded with them to find Raafat. It was already mid-morning on 15 April. He later wrote a legal testimony of what he saw:

The bulldozer tried to lift the roof slab which was on top of the couch where "Fafo" had been lying and it was then that her face appeared for the first time, she was lying on her back with the head turned on the right cheek, she was intact, her hair undisturbed and a small streak of blood coming from the top side of her head, flowing down her left cheek. When she appeared, the bulldozer stopped and rescue workers got close to her to find out if she was still alive. I was led away about 10 metres, and then somebody screamed "Every soul will have the taste of death ... " together with other verses relevant to death and "shehada" [martyrdom] from the Holy Koran. At this stage I realized that "Fafo" was dead.

KINDA scarely recalls the bombing and was too young to understand what Raafat's death meant. "I remember a door on top of me and a rock near my head and shouting 'Dad! Dad! Dad!' My father had lots of blood on him. I couldn't move my legs." Bassam was distraught. In the days to come, he would hear journalists claim that his home had been hit not by an American bomb but by Libyan anti-aircraft missiles. The United States dismissed the death of at least 30 civilians in the raid on Tripoli as "collateral damage", adding - in the Pentagon's words - that "only 1 to 2 per cent of the bombs impacted in civilian areas". America's targets - including Ghadaffi's headquarters and intelligence offices - had been hit, they claimed. In fact, a security office not far from the al-Ghossains' home had been touched, but the French embassy had suffered far worse damage and the al-Ghossain home had been virtually destroyed. Not a word of regret came from Washington.

A US official admitted that Ghadaffi himself had been one of the targets of "Operation El Dorado Canyon" - Ghaddafi's adopted daughter was killed in the raid - and a Pentagon report later stated that "in terms of equipment performance, the strike was a success". A Pentagon official told the Washington Post that the F-111s from Britain had been used in the raid because their pilots wanted "a piece of the action". This may have been true. "It was the greatest thrill of my life to have been involved," one of the pilots later told the Chicago Tribune. Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger later agreed that the Americans had killed the civilians and that an F-111 lost in the raid may have dropped the bombs which killed Raafat al-Ghosain and her neighbours when it was shot down. Captain Ribas-Dominicci and Captain Paul Lorence were flying the doomed plane. Their bodies were later recovered from the Mediterranean by the Libyans and returned to the United States.

Bassam still carries a file of newspaper articles on the American raid. The New York Times wrote that "even the most scrupulous citizen can only approve and applaud the American attacks on Libya ... the United States has prosecuted [Ghaddafi] carefully, proportionately - and justly." Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres claimed that the Americans had been taking their revenge for the slaughter of 241 US servicemen in a Beirut truck bombing four years earlier - a palpable untruth. Bassam al-Ghossain's file also includes a headline from The Times - "Raid destroyed terrorist nerve-centre". Underneath, the by-line says: "From Robert Fisk, Tripoli." My report did not mention "terrorists" - that had been an errant sub-editor's work in the headline - but Bassam al-Ghossain was unforgiving. "It gives the impression we are terrorists. It says that Raafat was a terrorist."

At the mass funeral in Tripoli three days after the raid, my attention had been caught by Raafat's coffin because - living in Lebanon - I had immediately noticed the Lebanese flag and the Palestinian flag lying on her casket. This was Saniya's idea. I knew nothing of the family then but found Raafat's shocked and badly cut mother after the funeral. "We are Muslims but we have one God," she told me then. "We are one people. I hope Mr Reagan understands that." A stone was placed upon Raafat's grave which quoted the Koran: "Thou causest the night to pass into the day, and thou causest the day to pass into the night. And thou bringest forth the living from the dead, and Thou bringest forth the dead from the living ... " Saniya wanted the flags of every Arab nation on the coffins of those killed in the American raid - "because it was their fault because they did not unite and because, for this reason, Raafat was killed by all the Arab world."

A year later, eight-year-old Kinda would write a letter to her dead sister:

Dear Fafo,

I will see you one day. I miss you very much. I wish I was with you all the time. I love you. When you died, everything changed it was ever [sic] worse. I shout at my Mom and Dad ... Please come back one day or I go to you. You come and take me in the night and take me to see you. And then bring me back. I just wish. I love you. Your sister Kinda.

BASSAM never visited his daughter's grave. In 1994, he resigned from the nationalised Libyan oil company and returned to Beirut with his family, leaving Raafat's remains behind in Tripoli. "Once the soul leaves the body, it doesn't matter where the body is," he says. "It says this in the Koran. I don't believe in visiting graves. I am a strong believer. I believe that one day you're going to meet that [dead] person again. Visiting a grave means that you're attached to a body and that is wrong." Saniya is not so strict. "Raafat always wanted to be with us. Sometimes I feel, 'At least let our bones be together.'"

But Bassam's anger has never died, not least because Kinda has suffered deeply from her sister's death. Still feeling leg pains from injuries to her spinal cord, she has fallen behind in her classes at the American Community School in Beirut and her parents have been forced to seek extra tuition and help from a psychologist. Kinda, a remarkably pretty young woman, tries to shrug off the effects of the bombing. "I didn't see Raafat's grave until nine years after the bombing," she says. "That's when I at last realised she had gone. I had been too young to think about it. I had to grow up without her, without having a big sister. I have a lot of friends and they sometimes ask what it's like to be an only child, without realising I had a sister. Sometimes I tell them I'm an only child, sometimes I tell them how Fafo died in the air raid. I'm alone - and with my parents, if Raafat had been alive, it wouldn't be one against two."

Kinda laughs at her impudence. "Maybe the tragedy is only affecting me now. I'm seeing the psychologist and filling in educational gaps. But my IQ is high. I find it difficult to concentrate. I should have been graduating this year. I'm not good at maths or physics. I go out a lot - to City Cafe in Beirut, swimming in Jounieh. I used to read a lot but find it boring now." Kinda has also been doing social work in the wreckage of the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camp, whose massacre so aroused her elder sister in 1982. Bassam is fiercely protective of his surviving daughter, bitter that he is unable to seek redress from the United States or from Britain, the country from whose airbase the bombers flew. "Kinda is British - surely there is an obligation on Britain to help her," he says. He has written to ex-President Reagan's daughter Patti, to ex-President Carter, to lawyers in Britain and America. In the United States, he was warned that any legal action for damages for Raafat's death might be treated as a "frivolous suit" in the courts. "Collateral damage" - a phrase that becomes an obscenity when it is applied to Raafat - clearly included not just Raafat but all those who loved her.

"If you don't follow up an injustice and let the world know what happened to you, then injustice wins," Bassam says. "I want the world to know what happened to our family, to Raafat, and to Saniya and Kinda too. Governments don't usually care. But public opinion, in large amounts, tends to drive people to restore justice. Maybe there is a case to be made in court for Britain or America to provide more special lessons for Kinda, more schooling, more education. She should have been graduating this year. People say that it is a tragedy Kinda doesn't have an elder sister. But she did have a sister - and she was taken from us."

Among the family snapshots, Saniya treasures two crumpled sheets of paper that she found in the rubble of the villa. Both are covered in Raafat's handwriting. Apparently written to herself only days before her death, the letter is an expression of Raafat's fear and suspicion of the world but also of her hopes of a future happiness, a sombre and moving tribute to her own life.

People are only faces, images, masks worn by each one of them to deceive each other ... Meanwhile, here I am watching, trying to survive, among a group of actors who try to show as if they understood it all but really have understood nothing, [the] hypocrites. Life is a game, a gamble, and people are its victims, its players ... I hope that one day I shall find that stream of light, that breath of life which will open my soul up and let [me] go FREE, FREE, FREE to eternity.

At the bottom of the letter, Raafat has drawn the wings of four great white birds. !

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