'Arafat used to make the same expressions of grief when
his gunmen murdered innocent Lebanese'
Can Ariel Sharon control his own people? Can he control
his army? Can he stop them from killing children, leaving booby traps
in orchards or firing tank shells into refugee camps? Can Sharon stop
his rabble of an army from destroying hundreds of Palestinian refugee
homes in Gaza? Can Sharon "crack down" on Jewish settlers and prevent them
from stealing more land from Palestinians? Can he stop his secret-service
killers from murdering their Palestinian enemies or carrying out " targeted
killings", as the BBC was still gutlessly calling these executions
yesterday in its effort to avoid Israeli criticism.
It is, of course, forbidden to ask these questions. So
them. The Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa are disgusting,
evil, revolting, unforgivable. I saw the immediate aftermath of the
Pizzeria suicide bombing in Jerusalem last August: Israeli women and
children, ripped apart by explosives that had nails packed around them designed
to ensure that those who survived were scarred for life.
I remember Yasser Arafat's grovelling message of condolence,
and I thought to myself like any Israeli, I guess that
I didn't believe a word of it. In fact, I don't believe a word of it.
Arafat used to make the same eloquent expressions of grief when his
gunmen murdered innocent Lebanese during that country's civil war.
Bullshit, I used to think. And I still do.
But there was a clue to the real problem only hours after
the latest bloodbath in Israel. Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State,
was being questioned with characteristic obsequiousness on CNN about
his reaction to the slaughter. Nothing, he said, could justify such "terrorism",
and he went on to refer to the plight of the Palestinians, who suffer "50
per cent unemployment". I sat up at that point. Unemployment?
Is that what Mr Powell thought this was about.
And my mind went back to his speech at Louisberg University
on 20 November when he launched or so we were supposed to believe his
Middle-East initiative. "Palestinians must..." was the theme:
"end the violence"; Palestinians must "arrest, prosecute
and punish the perpetrators of terrorist acts"; Palestinians "need
to understand that, however legitimate their claims" note
"however" "they cannot be... addressed by violence";
Palestinians "must realise that violence has had a terrible impact
on Israel". Only when General Powell told his audience that Israel's
occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end, did it become clear
that Israel was occupying Palestine rather than the other way round.
The reality is that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict
is the last colonial war. The French thought that they were fighting
the last battle of this kind. They had long ago conquered Algeria.
They set up their farms and settlements in the most beautiful land
in North Africa. And when the Algerians demanded independence, they
called them "terrorists" and
they shot down their demonstrators and they tortured their guerrilla
enemies and they murdered
in "targeted killings" their antagonists.
In just the same way, we are responding to the latest massacre in Israel
according to the rules of the State Department, CNN, the BBC and Downing
Street. Arafat has got to come alive, to get real, to perform his duty
as the West's policeman in the Middle East. President Mubarak does it
in Egypt; King Abdullah does it in Jordan; King Fahd does it in Saudi
Arabia. They control their people for us. It is their duty. They must
fulfil their moral obligations, without any reference to history or to
the pain and the suffering of their people.
So let me tell a little story. A few hours before I wrote
exactly four hours after the last suicide bomber had destroyed himself
and his innocent victims in Haifa I visited a grotty, fly-blown
hospital in Quetta, the Pakistani border city where Afghan victims
of American bombing raids are brought for treatment. Surrounded by
an army of flies in bed No 12, Mahmat most Afghans have no family
names told me his story. There were no CNN cameras, no BBC reporters
in this hospital to film the patient. Nor will there be. Mahmat had
been asleep in his home in the village of Kazikarez six days ago when
a bomb from an American B-52 fell on his village. He was asleep in
one room, his wife with the children. His son Nourali died, as did
Jaber aged 10 Janaan, eight, Salamo, six, Twayir, four,
and Palwasha the only girl two.
"The plane flies so high that we cannot hear them and the mud roof
fell on them," Mahmat said. His wife Rukia whom he permitted
me to see lay in the next room (bed No 13). She did not know that
her children were dead. She was 25 and looked 45. A cloth dignified her
forehead. Her children
like so many Afghan innocents in this frightful War for civilisation
were victims whom Mr Bush and Mr Blair will never acknowledge.
And watching Mahmat plead for money the American bomb had blasted
away his clothes and he was naked beneath the hospital blanket I
could see something terrible: he and the angry cousin beside him and
the uncle and the wife's brother in the hospital attacking America
for the murders that they had inflicted on their family...
One day, I suspect, Mahmat's relatives may be angry enough
to take their revenge on the United States, in which case they will
be terrorists, men of violence. We may even ask if their leaders could
control them. They are not bin Ladens, Mahmat's family said that "We are
neither Taliban nor Arab" but, frankly, could we blame
them if they decided to strike at the United States for the bloody
and terrible crime done to their family. Can the United States stop
bombing villages? Can Washington persuade its special forces to protect
prisoners? Can the Americans control their own people?
They started by shaking hands. We said "Salaam aleikum"
peace be upon you then the first pebbles flew past my face.
A small boy tried to grab my bag. Then another. Then someone punched
me in the back. Then young men broke my glasses, began smashing stones
into my face and head. I couldn't see for the blood pouring down my
forehead and swamping my eyes. And even then, I understood. I couldn't
blame them for what they were doing. In fact, if I were the Afghan
refugees of Kila Abdullah, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, I would
have done just the same to Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could
So why record my few minutes of terror and self-disgust
under assault near the Afghan border, bleeding and crying like an animal,
let us be frank and say thousands of innocent civilians are dying
under American air strikes in Afghanistan, when the "War of Civilisation"
is burning and maiming the Pashtuns of Kandahar and destroying their
homes because "good" must triumph over "evil"?
Some of the Afghans in the little village had been there
for years, others had arrived desperate and angry and mourning their slaughtered
loved ones over the past two weeks. It was a bad place for a car
to break down. A bad time, just before the Iftar, the end of the daily
fast of Ramadan. But what happened to us was symbolic of the hatred and
fury and hypocrisy of this filthy war, a growing band of destitute Afghan
men, young and old, who saw foreigners enemies in their
midst and tried to destroy at least one of them.
Many of these Afghans, so we were to learn, were outraged
by what they had seen on television of the Mazar-i-Sharif massacres,
of the prisoners killed with their hands tied behind their backs. A
villager later told one of our drivers that they had seen the videotape
of CIA officers "Mike"
and "Dave" threatening death to a kneeling prisoner at Mazar.
They were uneducated I doubt if many could read but you
don't have to have a schooling to respond to the death of loved ones
under a B-52's bombs. At one point a screaming teenager had turned to
my driver and asked, in all sincerity: "Is that Mr Bush?"
It must have been about 4.30pm that we reached Kila Abdullah,
halfway between the Pakistani city of Quetta and the border town of
Chaman; Amanullah, our driver, Fayyaz Ahmed, our translator, Justin
Huggler of The Independent
fresh from covering the Mazar massacre and myself.
The first we knew that something was wrong was when the
car stopped in the middle of the narrow, crowded street. A film of
white steam was rising from the bonnet of our jeep, a constant shriek
of car horns and buses and trucks and rickshaws protesting at the road-block
we had created. All four of us got out of the car and pushed it to
the side of the road. I muttered something to Justin about this being "a bad place to
break down". Kila Abdulla was home to thousands of Afghan refugees,
the poor and huddled masses that the war has produced in Pakistan.
Amanullah went off to find another car there is only one thing
worse than a crowd of angry men and that's a crowd of angry men after
and Justin and I smiled at the initially friendly crowd that had already
gathered round our steaming vehicle. I shook a lot of hands perhaps
I should have thought of Mr Bush and uttered a lot of "Salaam
aleikums". I knew what could happen if the smiling stopped.
The crowd grew larger and I suggested to Justin that we move away from
the jeep, walk into the open road. A child had flicked his finger hard
against my wrist and I persuaded myself that it was an accident, a childish
moment of contempt. Then a pebble whisked past my head and bounced off
Justin's shoulder. Justin turned round. His eyes spoke of concern and
I remember how I breathed in. Please, I thought, it was just a prank.
Then another kid tried to grab my bag. It contained my passport, credit
cards, money, diary, contacts book, mobile phone. I yanked it back and
put the strap round my shoulder. Justin and I crossed the road and someone
punched me in the back.
How do you walk out of a dream when the characters suddenly
turn hostile? I saw one of the men who had been all smiles when we
shook hands. He wasn't smiling now. Some of the smaller boys were still
laughing but their grins were transforming into something else. The
respected foreigner the
man who had been all "salaam aleikum" a few minutes ago was
upset, frightened, on the run. The West was being brought low. Justin
was being pushed around and, in the middle of the road, we noticed a
bus driver waving us to his vehicle. Fayyaz, still by the car, unable
to understand why we had walked away, could no longer see us. Justin
reached the bus and climbed aboard. As I put my foot on the step three
men grabbed the strap of my bag and wrenched me back on to the road.
Justin's hand shot out. "Hold on,"
he shouted. I did.
That's when the first mighty crack descended on my head. I almost fell
down under the blow, my ears singing with the impact. I had expected
this, though not so painful or hard, not so immediate. Its message was
awful. Someone hated me enough to hurt me. There were two more blows,
one on the back of my shoulder, a powerful fist that sent me crashing
against the side of the bus while still clutching Justin's hand. The
passengers were looking out at me and then at Justin. But they did not
move. No one wanted to help.
I cried out "Help me Justin", and Justin who was doing
more than any human could do by clinging to my ever loosening grip asked
over the screams of the crowd what I wanted him to do. Then I
realised. I could only just hear him. Yes, they were shouting. Did I
catch the word
"kaffir" infidel? Perhaps I was was wrong. That's
when I was dragged away from Justin.
There were two more cracks on my head, one on each side
and for some odd reason, part of my memory some small crack in my brain registered
a moment at school, at a primary school called the Cedars in Maidstone
more than 50 years ago when a tall boy building sandcastles in the
playground had hit me on the head. I had a memory of the blow smelling,
as if it had affected my nose. The next blow came from a man I saw
carrying a big stone in his right hand. He brought it down on my forehead
with tremendous force and something hot and liquid splashed down my
face and lips and chin. I was kicked. On the back, on the shins, on
my right thigh. Another teenager grabbed my bag yet again and I was
left clinging to the strap, looking up suddenly and realising there
must have been 60 men in front of me, howling. Oddly, it wasn't fear
I felt but a kind of wonderment. So this is how it happens. I knew
that I had to respond. Or, so I reasoned in my stunned state, I had
The only thing that shocked me was my own physical sense
of collapse, my growing awareness of the liquid beginning to cover
me. I don't think I've ever seen so much blood before. For a second,
I caught a glimpse of something terrible, a nightmare face my own reflected
in the window of the bus, streaked in blood, my hands drenched in the
stuff like Lady Macbeth, slopping down my pullover and the collar of
my shirt until my back was wet and my bag dripping with crimson and
vague splashes suddenly appearing on my trousers.
The more I bled, the more the crowd gathered and beat
me with their fists. Pebbles and small stones began to bounce off my
head and shoulders. How long, I remembered thinking, could this go
on? My head was suddenly struck by stones on both sides at the same
time not thrown stones
but stones in the palms of men who were using them to try and crack
my skull. Then a fist punched me in the face, splintering my glasses
on my nose, another hand grabbed at the spare pair of spectacles round
my neck and ripped the leather container from the cord.
I guess at this point I should thank Lebanon. For 25
years, I have covered Lebanon's wars and the Lebanese used to teach
me, over and over again, how to stay alive: take a decision any decision but
don't do nothing.
So I wrenched the bag back from the hands of the young
man who was holding it. He stepped back. Then I turned on the man on
my right, the one holding the bloody stone in his hand and I bashed
my fist into his mouth. I couldn't see very much my eyes were not only short-sighted without my glasses
but were misting over with a red haze but I saw the man sort
of cough and a tooth fall from his lip and then he fell back on the
road. For a second the crowd stopped. Then I went for the other man,
clutching my bag under my arm and banging my fist into his nose. He
roared in anger and it suddenly turned all red. I missed another man
with a punch, hit one more in the face, and ran.
I was back in the middle of the road but could not see.
I brought my hands to my eyes and they were full of blood and with
my fingers I tried to scrape the gooey stuff out. It made a kind of
sucking sound but I began to see again and realised that I was crying
and weeping and that the tears were cleaning my eyes of blood. What
had I done, I kept asking myself? I had been punching and attacking
Afghan refugees, the very people I had been writing about for so long,
the very dispossessed, mutilated people whom my own country among others was
killing along, with the Taliban, just across the border. God spare
me, I thought. I think I actually said it. The men whose families our
bombers were killing were now my enemies too.
Then something quite remarkable happened. A man walked
up to me, very calmly, and took me by the arm. I couldn't see him very
well for all the blood that was running into my eyes but he was dressed
in a kind of robe and wore a turban and had a white-grey beard. And
he led me away from the crowd. I looked over my shoulder. There were
now a hundred men behind me and a few stones skittered along the road,
but they were not aimed at me presumably to avoid hitting the stranger. He was like
an Old Testament figure or some Bible story, the Good Samaritan, a Muslim
man perhaps a mullah in the village
who was trying to save my life.
He pushed me into the back of a police truck. But the
policemen didn't move. They were terrified. "Help me," I
kept shouting through the tiny window at the back of their cab, my
hands leaving streams of blood down the glass. They drove a few metres
and stopped until the tall man spoke to them again. Then they drove
another 300 metres.
And there, beside the road, was a Red Cross-Red Crescent
convoy. The crowd was still behind us. But two of the medical attendants
pulled me behind one of their vehicles, poured water over my hands
and face and began pushing bandages on to my head and face and the
back of my head. "Lie
down and we'll cover you with a blanket so they can't see you," one
of them said. They were both Muslims, Bangladeshis and their names
should be recorded because they were good men and true: Mohamed Abdul
Halim and Sikder Mokaddes Ahmed. I lay on the floor, groaning, aware
that I might live.
Within minutes, Justin arrived. He had been protected
by a massive soldier from the Baluchistan Levies true ghost of the British Empire who,
with a single rifle, kept the crowds away from the car in which Justin
was now sitting. I fumbled with my bag. They never got the bag, I kept
saying to myself, as if my passport and my credit cards were a kind of
Holy Grail. But they had seized my final pair of spare glasses I
was blind without all three
and my mobile telephone was missing and so was my contacts book,
containing 25 years of telephone numbers throughout the Middle East.
What was I supposed to do? Ask everyone who ever knew me to re-send
their telephone numbers?
Goddamit, I said and tried to bang my fist on my side
until I realised it was bleeding from a big gash on the wrist the
mark of the tooth I had just knocked out of a man's jaw, a man who
was truly innocent of any crime except that of being the victim of
I had spent more than two and a half decades reporting the humiliation
and misery of the Muslim world and now their anger had embraced me too.
Or had it? There were Mohamed and Sikder of the Red Crescent and Fayyaz
who came panting back to the car incandescent at our treatment and Amanullah
who invited us to his home for medical treatment. And there was the Muslim
saint who had taken me by the arm.
And I realised there were all the Afghan men and boys
who had attacked me who should never have done so but whose brutality
was entirely the product of others, of us of we who had armed
their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed
at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the "War
for Civilisation" just a few miles away and then bombed their homes
and ripped up their families and called them "collateral damage".
So I thought I should write about what happened to us
in this fearful, silly, bloody, tiny incident. I feared other versions
would produce a different narrative, of how a British journalist was "beaten up
by a mob of Afghan refugees".
And of course, that's the point. The people who were
assaulted were the Afghans, the scars inflicted by us by B-52s,
not by them. And I'll say it again. If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila
Abdullah, I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked
Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.