Living in a Time of War
On the day that London celebrated the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the afternoon skies were filled with a flyover of old warplanes, some releasing thousands of paper poppies. Remarkable and frightening was their air clogging noise, as they flew low and menacingly over the city, I was reminded of how lucky we are to live in peacetime. Even more remarkable was that their noise was vying for dominance against a symphony of police sirens. For the last three days the air has been thick with their whirring screams, reminding me that, on the contrary, we do live in a time of war.
Last Thursday dawned bright and early and I lay in bed listening to the dulcet tones of news readers; another day of talks at the G8 summit was about to get underway, Londoners were still strangely euphoric about winning the Olympic bid and I was late for work. Again.
45 minutes later I was ensconced at my desk, looking forward to an easy morning as both bosses were to be out for most of the day. Idly I ran through my morning routine of making coffee and checking emails but while reading them received three news bulletins in quick succession from the BBC; 'Delays on the tube due to electrical failure'.
'Nothing new there then,' I thought cynically. The London Underground rarely functions properly and I have long since given up using it.
I read the second story, 'National Grid denies all connection with tube failures'.
'Well, they would, wouldn't they', I thought again.
I read the third, this one about a bus exploding. The times stipulated were too much of a coincidence and as I read on, the cold realisation of what was happening dawned on me. But what exactly was happening? I went to every news website I could think of; BBC, CNN, Sky News, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Financial Times and even Al Jazeera but after seconds at each site, they crashed. Anyone with access to a computer was doing the same as I and the systems could not take such cyber traffic. Some sites have since reported that they received more hits in those few hours than in a month.We found a radio and began listening to the bedlam unfolding. Sounds of sirens, glass, screams; peoples lives irreparably changing. I began to call a few of my friends who work in the city. I called them but their lines were engaged.
'Well if they are on the phone, at least they are safe,' I thought. I tried again, and again, and again. No one was on the phone for, like the internet, the lines were down and even text messages were barred.
After a few hours, tales of near misses came flooding in.
'So and so had missed that train for Liverpool Street station by seconds but was in a tunnel on the one behind', I was told. Another was supposed to be in Aldgate at nine o'clock but had overslept. A third was holed up in an enormous glass office near the blasts and not allowed out. She described a bizarre scene of a swarm of black helicopter shadows flying overhead. But everyone was okay. No one was hurt.
Then came the reports from the walking wounded,
'More explosions all over London,'
'People on the bus were decapitated!'
Details are still unclear but it was apparent that people were not okay. They were hurt or dead. Then came the statement from an unheard of group linked to Al-Quaeda that it was them and that if Italy and Denmark did not withdraw their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan they too would suffer. This was swiftly followed by the sceptics. The streets had become eerie as grey drizzle passed over head. A succession of police cars whizzing passed was unsettling.
As Tony Blair gallantly flew in from talks concerning poverty and third world debt (reminding everyone how senseless these attacks were), my boss returned, and with him a gruff atmosphere of business as usual. The prospect of a mundane afternoon of paper pushing loomed. But I was scared. Not for myself but of the idea of a day beginning so ordinarily and routinely but becoming a day that will be remembered in history within seconds; a day where the imagined became realised. We all believe that we are immortal to a certain degree but life on the contrary is frail and can be crushed at any moment. Therein lies the nature of terrorism; fear.
When the sun had come out, a colleague asked me to drive his car a mile across the borough to collect a set of keys. It took an hour, so solid was the traffic, making a commute in Dhaka seem like a quick jaunt across town. In the residential and affluent street where I parked in the only space left. There were two machine gun clad police men who then approached me and asked why I had chosen that particular spot to park. I was taken aback and wondered how to answer such a stupid question with as little sarcasm as possible. They went on to explain, with an air of secrecy, that they were guarding a high risk building.
'Who lives there?' I asked, feeling the sun on my back, hearing children playing in the streets and wondering if that morning's events were but a dream after all.
'Can't tell you mate. Classified information, but it's to do with this morning.'
Damn. It really had happened. I pressed the policeman for information, out of curiosity and he told me, adding conspiringly with a wink,
'But you didn't hear it from me, alright?'
I was not particularly impressed but wondered why he told me and put it down to the fact that everyone likes to think they are important and everyone likes a bit of drama. Either way, the incident added to the surrealism of the day.
At 6 o'clock I finally got through to the friend-who-was-supposed-to-be-in-Aldgate. As he was talking I heard a loud bang.
'What the…?' I asked
'Oh my god…' he said at the same time.
'Where are you?' I asked.
'Between a synagogue and an underground station in the city. I'll call you back,' he replied, ringing off. My hands shook as I hung up the receiver.
He rang back seconds later explaining that it was a controlled explosion. Judging by Friday, Saturday and Sundays' building evatuations, road blocks and further station closures, the first of many.
The attacks in Spain last year 'worked', for a change in government ensued and its troops were withdrawn from Iraq.
The irony here in London, is that Tony Blair, a man who led us to a war that no one wanted, that is still continuing 'unofficially' and that was indicated as a reason for the attacks in London, will gain popularity and hero status due to his cool, calm collectedness in a time of attack.
What do such attacks as 7/7 prove? That London's transport system is an easy target? That sheltered Londoners (of all faiths) are no more immune to terrorism than the rest of the world despite having a large Muslim population? Or perhaps that the situation in the Middle East is far from resolved. Whatever the answer, sadly, opinions of Muslim countries and Islam are plummeting and becoming synonymous with jihad, terror and, of course, Al Quaeda. The extreme fundamentalists if that is who they are are spoiling what little peace there is, giving Islam a bad name and creating further insularity. All religions are united in, amongst other things, the belief that it is wrong to kill another. The leaders of every faith in the United Kingdom have united in a single body to condemn the attacks. Just as the world, rich and poor, has begun to unite in tackling the issues that affect us all, in a bid to right passed wrongs, such senseless attacks are beginning to cause a regression to racial intolerance, religious hatred and once again dividing the world between east and west.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005