THE HAGUE: For Maria Kasti and Liliane Khallouf, Valentine’s Day 2005 was just another day at their office at HSBC in Downtown Beirut.
But, by the end of the day, Kasti would lose her sense of taste and smell. Khallouf would need two facial reconstructive surgeries after the force from the two-ton truck bomb in Downtown Beirut smashed her face into an office desk.
The two women, who attended the start of trial in the courtroom at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the leafy suburb of Leidschendam near The Hague, told The Daily Star about their ordeal on Feb. 14, 2005, when a suicide bomber attacked former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s motorcade, killing him and 21 other victims. The STL is the first international tribunal to allow victims to attend proceedings inside the courtroom. As prosecutors opened the historic terrorism trial Thursday, some of the victims wept when images of the carnage appeared onscreen.
But it had all started peacefully enough. Khallouf said all was normal at first on the day of the attack.
“Then at about 12:55, boom,” she said. “A very deep sound. And it was hell.”
The bombing blasted the glass panes of the building inward onto her back, slamming her into the table.
“There was blood all over,” she said, as she had run down the stairs with her colleagues amid the chaos. All she saw when she got down was “dust and black smoke.”
When she got out in the open, she felt immense pain. She looked at the mirror and her face was blue. An emergency team rushed her to St. George Hospital, where she mostly remembers wads of bandages and pain, before she got a hold of her husband and children on the phone.
“My son began crying and was feeling guilty, saying ‘It was my fault, I should have told you to stay with me,’” she said.
Kasti, on the other hand, remembers nothing from the day of the bombing. An aluminum pillar at the edge of the window pane fell on the back of her head, knocking her unconsciousinstantly.
“I woke up in the hospital,” Kasti added.
Her colleagues told her her eyes were open and blood was pouring out of her mouth, as she lay under her office desk.
As soon as her husband was told that a bomb had been detonated near HSBC, he rushed there to find her on his motorcycle. When he arrived at the building, she was being carried off on a stretcher by Red Cross rescue workers who transported her to American University Hospital. All she remembered was the seat of the ambulance.
She had suffered internal bleeding at the back of her head, nerves damaged by the impact. Her husband spent a week with her in hospital, sleeping on the couch. The constant headaches and dizziness did not stop after she went home.
She also remembered little of her hospital visit.
“When I went home I told my children why didn’t you come visit me, and they said mom we did and we talked to you,” she said. “Can you imagine? My eyes were open but I wasn’t conscious.”
After she went back home, she took a shower.
“I wanted to put on perfume, but it was strange, because I couldn’t smell it,” she said.
Thinking it was the effect of the medication she was taking, she waited a few days. When she still couldn’t smell anything, she talked to her doctor who said the nerves that control her sense of taste and smell were ravaged by the impact of the aluminum tube.
The doctor told her there was no cure for the condition. Her sense of taste and smell may one day return, he said, but that was out of his hands.
“He told me to thank God because it was a miracle that I was still alive,” Kasti said.
The pictures they gave her of the office were testament to that claim. They showed glass panes shattered and driven into the building, flowers from her husband overturned amid the destruction.
“You would really say it was a miracle that we survived,” she said.
Today, Khallouf said she gets dizzy whenever she so much as looks up.
“Whenever I hear a loud sound, I immediately remember the moment,” she said. “Straight away, straight away, I remember that moment.”
The recent bouts of violence in the city and the return of car bombings to Beirut in recent weeks has rekindled such memories.
“We always feel fear and our nerves are frayed,” said Kasti, who collapsed when the reverberation from the car bomb that killed former finance minister Mohammad Shatah back in December lightly shook the windows of HSBC again. She began sobbing hysterically that day.
“You keep remembering what happened to you,” she said as her eyes watered.
Now, Khallouf, who has two boys, and Kasti, who has a boy and a girl, worry about their children traveling from home to attend college. They feel nervous until they return home every day.
The two women wrapped up in sweaters still have an easy smile and manner despite the chilly midmorning January weather in The Hague. They laughed as they recalled a joke by the victims’ lead lawyer, Peter Haynes, on the second day of trial, who said that being unable to distinguish the taste of food was particularly tough in a country like Lebanon with its wonderful cuisine.
They were sitting behind the lawyer, along with other victims, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, when Haynes delivered his moving speech introducing the victims, his voice cracking as he recalled their ordeals.
The first day of trial, the two women cried when two other victims, one who lost a son and the other who lost a husband that were both in Hariri’s motorcade, began openly sobbing in court after seeing images of the carnage and their loved ones before the attack, as well as the shattered remains of the convoy.
“Imagine someone whose husband or son just died for no reason,” Khallouf said. “For what? It kills you.”
“In Lebanon someone dies and that’s it,” Kasti added. “Nobody gets justice.”
“So far,” Khallouf interjected.
“The criminal is never caught and is never identified,” Kasti continued. “And if they are identified, they aren’t held accountable.”
“I want whoever did this to me, or murdered others, to be tried.”
Khallouf said she was hesitant about attending the trial at first.
“But when I arrived, I thought wow, it’s good that I came here,” she said.
Kasti said she was convinced it was the right thing to do. Both said they felt pride at attending the hearing, laughing as they recalled leaving the courtroom and finding their phones lit up with messages from friends in Lebanon who had just seen them on TV while watching the trial.
They smile shyly, saying they had never been in the limelight before.
They spoke fondly of meeting former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was present in the courtroom with them as a victim.
“He sat with us as another victim,” Khallouf said. “He was sitting behind us, all equal.”
For them, the start of trial was not just about attaining justice. It was also about being more than another figure on the list of the wounded.
“We felt we were important,” Kasti concluded. “You don’t feel that in Lebanon.”