Nightmare images from a Jerusalem commuter's bus

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The Independent Online

A middle-aged woman lolled in her seat on the early morning bus taking her to work in Jerusalem, her head thrown back, her eyes staring in terminal disbelief, her mouth frozen in a scream like the girl in Edvard Munch's Expressionist painting.

It was one of a dozen nightmare images in a police video clip shown to reporters at the Israeli Foreign Ministry yesterday after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up on a No 6 Jerusalem bus and took seven Israelis with him to the grave.

Two other women, their heads gushing blood, sat upright in a front seat. Another lay dead on the floor as though sleeping. They all bore the shrapnel marks of the screws and nails with which the suicides habitually pack their lethal belts.

The camera lingered over a wash of blood and body parts. The frenzied shouts of survivors and rescuers could still be heard in the background. The driver's ticket machine was burned to a cinder. A crocheted Jewish skullcap littered the doorway.

It was propaganda. It was a horror movie. But it was real. It happened just before 6 a.m. as the double-length commuter bus from the working-class suburb of Pisgat Ze'ev neared the French Hill junction on the Jerusalem-Ramallah road. Five hours earlier, the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers had finished their first summit on the potholed road to peace.

As well as the seven dead, the bomber wounded 20. They were the kind of Israelis and new immigrants who go to work at dawn and take public transport because they can't afford a car. They clean offices and cafes, homes and hospitals. They are low-paid security guards.

Of the six fatalities named last night, three were women with Russian names like Olga and Marina. One of the three men was another immigrant from the former Soviet Union. Two of the dead were in their sixties, the oldest 68. The three women ranged from 44 to 55. The youngest victim, a man with an Israeli-sounding name, was 35.

Ilya Bartnovsky, a 29-year-old soldier, boarded the bus at the Pisgat Ze'ev terminus, as he does every morning. In his corner bed in the surgical department of the city-centre Bikur Holim hospital, he said later that he had wanted to sit in a front seat, but something - he couldn't say what - disturbed him and he moved a few rows back.

It probably saved his life. Ilya, a lean, dark man who moved to Israel from Kazakhstan six years ago, escaped with perforated eardrums, chest wounds and shock. "I'm all right," he assured his wife, Anna. "I want to go home." The doctors were not so sure and kept him overnight. When they admitted him, he was gasping for breath and could barely speak. They gave him a sedative to help him sleep.

When the bomb went off, Ilya remembered losing consciousness for a few seconds. "When I came to," he said, "everything was dark. Then I saw bodies everywhere. A big, hefty man who looked as if he might be a security guard was wounded in his neck and head. He was conscious, but couldn't move. Another soldier and I managed to get him out."

The Jerusalem police chief, Mickey Levy, said the bomber boarded the bus disguised as a religious Jew. A skullcap and prayer shawl were found on his body, as if he had just come from morning prayers. Police called on a suspicious-looking second man to stop. He refused, and then blew himself up. No one else was hurt.

The first explosion ripped a hole in the front of the bus. A surge of metal and fire tore through one of the driver's legs. He lost control and the back half jackknifed into a bus stop and showered the pavement with glass.

It was the first bombing in Jerusalem since November, but the fourth at the French Hill junction since the Palestinians launched their intifada 32 months ago. It brought to 14 the number of people murdered there. Jerusalem's horror movie is still running.