Wednesday, 10 September 2003

FIRST PERSON: Blood, emotions spill over in bombing

Suicide attack at cafe turns tears into anger

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- 11:20 p.m. Tuesday. I had just sat down to check my e-mails before going to bed when a huge blast like a thunderclap nearly knocked me out of my chair.

Looking out the window, I could see white smoke billowing into the dark sky over the rooftops from Emek Refaim, a strip of fashionable cafes and restaurants less than 200 yards behind my house. The night was silent, broken only by a lone car alarm triggered by the shock waves.

I shot out of my apartment and ran toward the smoke, joining a two-way stream of traffic. Running with me were people pulling on medics' vests, as well as photographers and other reporters. Walking slowly in the other direction, or simply standing, visibly shaken and often sobbing quietly, were the shocked bystanders who had witnessed the attack.

A minute later, as I turned the corner into Emek Refaim -- "The Valley of the Ghosts" -- I took in a scene from hell: Smoke curled up from the street and people lay all around, groaning and crying. Ambulances and police cars raced past me, sirens wailing, and juddered to a halt next to Cafe Hillel, a popular meeting place that opened only a few months ago.

It was one of my favorite cafes -- a lively spot where young people in their 20s and 30s gathered to eat, drink coffee and talk animatedly over the loud background music. Now the cafe was silent, a pit of blackness amid the flashing lights of ambulances and police cars. As I drew nearer, I saw its windows had been blown to bits. Strewn around the street were lifeless bodies and what looked like pieces of still warm human flesh.

Dozens of police and medics descended on the scene within moments, and the night filled with sounds. Police officers screamed through bullhorns, telling the gathering crowds to stay back in case there was another bomb. Medics shouted into walkie-talkies, directing ambulances and helping to evacuate the wounded.

I saw at least a dozen injured people hurried away on stretchers, their blood spilling onto the orange blankets of the gurneys. Girls were in tears, and survivors of the attack were trying to contact friends and relatives on cell phones to tell them they were OK, but the network had crashed, leaving scores of people talking desperately into thin air.

Several youths started arguing with police who were trying to clear the scene.

"Where are you going?" the officer asked one of them.

"I want to find some Arabs to beat up," he said.

Arriving home, I found my 13-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter in tears, shaking. Another night in Jerusalem.

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