a column by Paul Chaderjian
for the Asbarez newspaper
Once there was and there was not…
I am eight. The year is 1976. I am Armenian. I’m mixed up. And I am writing this with candlelight. Because, there is a war in my country – Liban.
I am at home. All the windows and drapes are closed in our home. If a bomb explodes the glass blows and hurts people. So we keep all the windows covered. No glass. No blood.
I tell my mother I am bored. She says to put away my toys and do art. My father tells me to read. I tell him I read all my books. He says to write a book. And I’m writing my book.
My book is about war. It’s about how crazy people are to kill other people. Make them hurt. Make them cry. Destroy their homes and buildings and highways and the airport. And the new 747 MEA airplanes.
The war started when I woke up one morning. I looked at my watch. It was only 7:30. I got up and got out of bed. I went to the living room. Everybody was crowded around the radio. They were listening to the news with mad faces.
I asked my father what was going on. He said there was a war. Without knowing where the war was, or who was fighting, I started shivering like I was cold. I was scared.
Then I asked my father who was fighting. He said that it was the Palestinians and the Christians. The Christians murdered a bus full of Palestinians. The Muslims got mad. And everyone started fighting.
Now people are dying. And we are all going to die.
My grandmother has sugar, so she can’t eat sugar. She says this is 1915 again. She walked through the desert. She hid in a Greek’s bakery. If she didn’t hide, she would be taken by Turks and become Muslim.
Now the Arabs are killing each other. Armenians are dying again. Christians are fighting the Palestinians. They are fighting the Muslim. And the Christians have war gangs. And they are fighting each other.
Beyrouth is burning. There is no government to protect us. And Armenians have nowhere to go.
Two weeks ago it was my cousin’s birthday. We decided to go over to my aunt’s house in Nahar Al Moot. We went to celebrate. We had not been there for over six months. It was dangerous to go because of the war.
The roads were full of broken glass. Burnt cars. Chunks of concrete. Steel. Ruined buildings. We got to my aunt’s house. We ate cake. Then we heard bombs again. There were big explosions. They always hurt my ears.
You hear the whistling always. You know the bomb is coming. You wait. You don’t know where it is going to hit. These may be your last thoughts. Then there is an explosion. You look around. You are okay.
It is okay if you die. I know I will see my grandfathers when I die. But the waiting for the explosion makes you shake. You shiver not knowing you are going to die. Those moments are bad. Really bad.
When we went outside my aunt’s house to leave, another bomb hit. It tore a big hole in the building nearby. We were all looking, and a man ran out to the street with his small child bleeding in his hands. He was shouting, “She is dying, she is dying.”
The roads were not safe, and the bombs were exploding in our area too, but we had to go home. When we got home, bombs exploded. And half an hour later an ambulance stopped in front of our neighbor’s house. Two men brought the neighbor’s daughter Samia home.
My mom and dad went to Samia’s house. Her mother was crying. Her mother said Samia was in her car driving home, and a bomb hit the highway. All the cars were hit. Everybody was dead except Samia. We were on the same highway right before Samia.
When you leave the highway and enter our street, our street is guarded by the Arab Christians. They are called Kataeb. They wear big wood crosses on their chests. If you wear one, you are cool. I wanted one but my father wouldn’t let me have one.
The Kataeb have their center in the same building as the big supermarket Buri. The kids in our neighborhood go there to sign up for war training classes. The soldiers teach the classes in an open field. I learned how to crawl. How to hold a gun. How to bandage people who were bleeding.
The Kataeb organized the neighborhood watch programs. My dad and our neighbor’s dad take turns at guarding our streets. One night a week my father brings home an M-16 and Kalashnikov. They stay walking up and down our street with other neighbors.
Another Christian gang with soldiers is the Ahrar. They mostly worked with the Kataeb. One day they decided they wanted a center in our neighborhood. But our street belongs to the Kataeb. This wasn’t cool with the Kataeb, so they attacked the Ahrar center one night.
There was non-stop gunfire. I remember we went outside the next morning and collected all the spent shells. My sister Maral had a huge collection of small and large bullets. Some of them are whole and others are spent shells.
The night of the attack when the Ahrars couldn’t hold back the Kataeb, the Ahrar ran for their lives. We were sitting at our dining room table and doing whatever we did in candlelight. My parents were reading. I was probably writing a letter or making up a short story.
One of the Ahrar ran to our house. He had a gun and demanded that we hide him. He was very young and scared. There was blood on his jacket and clothing. He was afraid and yelling that we hide him. He was afraid that the Kataeb were going door-to-door and would find him and kill him. He kept yelling and wanted us to hide his gun.
My father was telling him he would be okay. My mother ran to get him a change of clothing and the soldier went to hide in my sister Flora’s room. Flora was telling the soldier he should leave our house. The neighbors came over. Everyone was yelling something.
When the gunfire outside had died down, the neighbors took the soldier away. He left his gun and his army clothing. My sister Maral saved the man’s jacket and has it in her closet. She has a real, a real soldier’s jacket.
These are the stories of the war when the days pass very slowly. Bombshells fall when the bombs explode. Snipers are always shooting someone. Soldiers are shooting. Some other soldiers are firing red rockets. Then buildings burn. Houses burn. And we watch the highrise office buildings and hotels in Beyrouth burn at nights for days and days.
We sit inside. We read, watch television, but now there is no electricity. Last week the Palestinians bombed the electricity station again. There is no electricity and no lights and no television. Sometimes they come on but the emergency generator doesn’t work all the time. And we don’t have Bewitched and Flipper. We don’t have Ironside and Jeannie. And we don’t have Mod Squad.
When we don’t have electricity, my mother heats up her iron on the stovetop and irons our cloths. My father says she is crazy to iron clothing when there is a war. When there is electricity, she asks me to turn my radio on. She irons in the big hallway near my room and can hear the BBC news in English from the radio in my radio and record player.
The radio can play stations between 520 and 1700. I go up and down the stations and hear funny things. Music. Weird languages. It’s great. I also have a record player. I can play small, medium and large records.
When I am alone, I play Adiss Harmandian records. I have all his records. I bought them from his own record store. It is next to a bakery his family owns. They make fancy cakes at the bakery. My father takes me there. And I buy 45’s from Adiss himself. He looks just like his album covers.
My favorite singer is Charles Aznavour. He is very famous in Europe. He is Armenian. He has a new song about my people who died in 1915. “Ils sont tombés” is the name of the sad song. It means they fell. It is about my grandmother’s people. Who were starved. Tortured. And killed by the Turks in the Great Catastrophe.
I wonder if anyone will write a song about Armenians when we fall in Beyrouth.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.