On March 21, Mother’s Day in the Arab world, Lutfiya Ali begged her husband to take the family to her parents’ house for a visit. Bored and tired of being holed up in the house with four kids for weeks on end, he agreed. The children — Salem, 15, Hawa, 11, Fatima, 7, and Adam, 3 — piled into the back of the car.
But on the way, the family found itself in the middle of a battle. Bullets flew through the street.
“Get down,” Fanas screamed to his wife and kids. They ducked, and he felt a huge explosion. The side of his face was suddenly covered in someone’s blood. He turned around and saw the mangled bodies of his children. Only two were recognizable.
“It was like they were mixed together,” he recalled Friday at the hospital, dressed in his track suit before beginning his rounds.
His wife shouted the children’s names, and he told her not to look. Gaddafi soldiers pulled them out of the car as his wife continued to scream for her children.
“Shut up,” one of the soldiers yelled, and her husband begged her to stay quiet.
“I was worried they would take her and do something bad to her,” Fanas said.
They were held for several hours in a public bathroom and then taken somewhere else before being freed and told to run to a nearby home. There, Fanas pounded on the door and was let inside. He asked the owner to get his children out of the car and take them to a hospital.
“I couldn’t think about them alone in the street,” he said. “I knew they were dead.”
A week later, he was back at work.
“I knew if Gaddafi killed my children, he’s killing other people’s children,” Fanas said as ambulances sped through the parking lot. “What can I do but work? If I stay at home one month, one week, one year, it won’t bring them back.”
He is stoic but fragile. When he speaks about his family, his eyes redden at the memories of Hawa running to hug him when he returned from work. Or Salem talking about being a doctor like him.
Fanas and his wife have not returned to the house where they lived. They can’t bear to look at the clothes and toys of the children they no longer have. When the fighting is over, they will move to the new house they were building.
“My children are gone, I know. But when I close my eyes, I see my children,” he said as tears streamed down his face. Even if Gaddafi is ousted and Libya becomes a democracy, as the opposition has demanded, his children will never see that time.
On the days when wounded children are brought in to the hospital, he relives that afternoon when he lost his own. In the past week, three young children were brought in with bullet wounds to the head, and another was hurt by shrapnel from an artillery attack.
“I see them, and I remember. I see many people’s children that Gaddafi has killed,” he said.
He pulled out his cellphone and showed pictures of the children. Fatima and Hawa had painted the red-black-and-green opposition flag on their faces.
In his pocket, Fanas carries a piece of shrapnel wrapped in a napkin as a reminder. The white car covered in his children’s blood is at his in-laws’ house. He hopes that someday, someone will investigate Gaddafi’s crimes.
“I want someone to kill Gaddafi and his family in Bab al-Aziziyah,” he said, referring to the heavily fortified compound where Libya’s leader is thought to be staying. “I was going to get rid of the car. But when this war is over, maybe a committee will come to see what happened here, and I will show them.”