Faith shines through disaster

By 
  • November 9, 2008
{mosimage}They came in flashbacks — snapshots of memories from an unexpected tragedy. Before I went to the Middle East to pursue an internship there, I was told that Jordan was the safest country in the region. It was, until three years ago when Jordan had it’s own 9/11.

Just before 9 p.m. on Nov. 9, 2005, triple suicide bombings rocked Amman, Jordan’s capital, including a wedding party at the Radisson SAS hotel. The attacks were blamed on al Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national who became a top al Qaeda leader based in Iraq. About 57 people were killed and 100 injured in those attacks.
I wasn’t in any of the hotels when the bombs went off. But the next day, I was assigned to be part of a team of reporters covering its aftermath.

As an intern at The Jordan Times, a national English daily, and first-time freelancer for The Christian Science Monitor, this was my first big story. For about a week I was at two of the hospitals interviewing survivors and grieving family members, including the father of Toleen, a three-month-old baby whose mother and grandmother died in the blast at the wedding. Toleen was found by security forces, crawling on the floor, lost and alone.

I also covered two anti-Zarqawi rallies which drew thousands of people who swiftly disowned the Jordanian-born al Qaeda leader and loudly condemned the suicide bombings.

Many in the region saw the attacks as the first time that al Qaeda had targeted Muslims, although the group claimed it was targeting Israeli secret agents meeting in one of the hotels.

I came back to Canada months later thinking I had left all of those memories behind. I moved to Ottawa to start a master’s degree and tried to forget about it. But during the time around the first anniversary of those attacks, the memories came flooding back.

I didn’t know what was wrong. I became increasingly withdrawn and haunted by the memories. Uncontrollable crying spells would come several times a day. I later spoke to the director of my program because it was affecting my schoolwork. He referred me to a veteran journalist who had covered the Bosnian and Rwandan conflicts. The journalist told me about his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. He said he had been living with the symptoms for years before finally knowing what he had and seeking treatment for it.

After speaking with him, I decided to see a doctor at the university who later said my symptoms were related to PTSD.

Before that day, I thought only soldiers could have PTSD. But the reality is that civilians can experience it, too.

A September 2008 study by McMaster University researchers in the CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics journal estimated about 10 per cent of Canadians will have PTSD in their lifetime from non-military causes such as the unexpected death of a loved one, sexual assault or witnessing someone badly injured or killed.

I felt somewhat embarrassed when I first learned about my diagnosis because physical wounds are easy to see and people can understand that you’re not 100 per cent when you’ve broken your arm or injured your leg. But what about when you’ve wounded your soul? No one can see that.

Ironically, what has helped me heal years later is remembering my interviews with the survivors, their families, ER doctors and nurses. There’s a common Arabic saying, “Inshallah.” It means “If God wills it.” Obviously, people didn’t use this phrase to refer to the attacks. It’s a common phrase people use when they aren’t sure when something will happen. Often people say it to express hope that an event will happen at some point in the future.

Whenever I heard people combine this phrase with their hopes of healing over time, I started thinking about the strength of these survivors. They continued to trust in God, even after such a devastating tragedy.

I saw Islam in a much different way than its violent and over-simplistic portrayal in the media. For sure there are Islamic extremists. After all, they’re the ones who caused the attacks. But the victims and survivors were ordinary Muslims, minding their own business, who just happened to be attending a wedding. To me this underscored how brutal and heartless the attackers were to have targetted families celebrating a joyous occasion.

At Jordan Hospital, Abdul Raheem, a father whose four-year-old son, Ammar, was injured at the wedding party, told me he strongly denounced the violence and said this wasn’t the Islam he knew or was taught. He also said he was relying upon God and his faith to get through this. He didn’t say he blamed God or felt abandoned by Him. I found it remarkable that his faith wasn’t shaken, even after being told that his only son would have to live with the shrapnel lodged in his brain because doctors said it was too risky to remove.

Abdul Raheem’s sentiments about trusting in God were echoed by many of the people I interviewed.

Days later I thought I hit my breaking point when I saw the mother of the bride in a coma, hooked up to machines. Before her I had met Tarek, a 23-year-old hotel security guard whose face was burned in the blast and had a nail lodged near his eye, possibly from the bomber’s belt of explosives. Even with his injuries he helped three women escape the building. That was the sixth straight day of seeing heartache and hope intertwined.

Three years later, I continue to pray to have the strength of the people I met, and I thank God for them and what they taught me about faith.

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