“The only thing she keeps asking about is Ahmad”

Over 700,000 Lebanese have been displaced by Israel’s bombing, like this family in Bourj Hammoud High School in Beirut. Not all families have made it to shelter, however, as the Lebanese civilian casualty count keeps climbing. (UNHCR/C. Lau)

She’s much prettier than her pictures, Hweiyda, despite what they did to her. The one safe eye she still has is green, sad, and beautiful. The stitches that go all the way down from her right eye to underneath her neck are almost as deep as the look in her eye. She was sitting on her bed, very silent, very small, so small. Her aunt was trying to get her to eat. Jelly, custard, cheese, chocolate, fresh orange juice. There was everything on that tray. Everything any child would want. But only when she saw the books my colleagues brought her did she have something that looked like a twinkle in her eye. The one eye they left her.

She’s Fatma’s room mate. Lucky Fatma, she has her mom and her sister next to her. They were injured too; they stay in the room next door. The whole family is at the same hospital, although on different floors. Hweiyda’s parents are not there. Hweiyda’s father, her sister Abla and her brother Ahmad were in the garden of their small house in Marje’youn in the south when the Israelis went hunting. Hweiyda was in the house with her mom and other sister. So they didn’t die.

I don’t know who brought Hweiyda to Beirut. It was probably her aunt who’s staying with her. The mother and sister were taken to a hospital in Western Bekka. Nobody dares to tell Hweiyda what happened. She speaks to her mom on the phone. She keeps asking for her brother, Ahmad. Ahmad has left her, but she doesn’t know it yet. She holds her tiny sandwich with her banded hand. She bluffs; she’s not eating. She’s somewhere else - that look in her eye, the only they left her, is so deep, it’s not the look of a seven-year-old. It’s that of a much older person. A wise one. Experienced. Someone who’s been through things other people can’t even know happen.

It’s the same look in Fatma’s eyes. Fatma turned 12 today. We got her a cake, some candles that we weren’t allowed to light so as to not hurt her lungs. Her whole body was burnt. She and her family were in the car fleeing Bleeda to Tyre in the South; they heeded the Israelis who’d told them to evacuate the village before it was too late. They should have known better. They should have known they were going to get them anyway, anywhere.

Wise - not only the looks in their eyes were wise. Wise was the way they both handled us, with our stupid cake, our presents, our fake smiles; smart us, acting as if nothing has happened, is happening. Sad - no other word in the world can describe it more. Sad. So sad it makes your heart ache, and your faith shiver.

“Happy birthday” in Arabic is sana helwa ya jameel, that is, we wish you a beautiful year. Singing that there at the hospital was the most incredible thing on earth. Fatma was looking at me with that “you ought to know better” look in her eye. I didn’t give up. I told her that this coming year will certainly be better. How worse could it get, I asked myself. They already lost their house, their village; they got hit by a bomb. What else can happen to them? Meanwhile, Hweiyda was busy listening to the CD on her walkman. I think it was a smile that I spotted. A colleague asked her aunt when we were leaving, “What is it you need that we can get you?” The answer was, “The only thing she keeps asking about is Ahamd. He’s all she needs.”

I did take Kinda along. She gave them CDs, but then got scared. So my sister took her to the hall and waited for us there. When I came down she was playing with kids her age who were waiting for their parents.

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Hanady Salman is an editor at As-Safir newspaper