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Saudi Compound Grapples With Devastation

Residents of Al Hamra Oasis Village recount Monday's deadly blast. Some are contemplating leaving the kingdom.

May 17, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Blood is everywhere inside the bombed-out Al Hamra Oasis Village housing compound on the edge of Saudi Arabia's desert capital.

It is sprayed in great arcs across walls, it sits in dried pools along hallways and it soaks beds clear through the mattress. Here and there among the crushed chairs and shattered glass, tiny crimson footprints can be seen where bloodied children ran to escape after the suicide bombing Monday that killed at least 13 residents and injured dozens of others here.

The bombing was one of three carefully coordinated attacks Monday night targeting Americans and other Westerners at the Al Hamra, Jadawel and Vinnell compounds. About 34 people were killed, including eight Americans, and 200 were injured. Seven of the American deaths occurred at the Vinnell complex, which houses the residences and offices of retired U.S. military personnel who train the Saudi National Guard.

Residents of Al Hamra, an exclusive 416-unit compound favored by Western professionals, were still reeling Friday from the attacks. As they stepped through badly damaged and destroyed homes, they wondered what to do next.

They swapped stories of heroism and death while exchanging rumors of impending attacks. Many are moving to hotels while they decide whether to leave Saudi Arabia. Some are relying on the kindness of neighbors who have taken them in.

Sheridan Fakhri, an Englishwoman who is sales manager at Al Hamra, now calls her home an "abattoir" because of the sheer volume of blood that runs from her 10-year-old son's bedroom down the hall and into the living room. The blood belongs to her husband, Hassan, a computer specialist from Iraq, who suffered facial wounds from splintering glass. His jugular vein was partly severed, his ear was almost entirely sliced off, and shards of glass were embedded in his neck. Their son escaped serious injury.

The Fakhris' badly mangled townhouse, with shattered windows and doors blown off their hinges, now bears the faint smell of a slaughterhouse.

Around the corner, a Canadian woman, who asked that she not be identified, watched as movers packed her golf clubs and whatever else could be salvaged. She was going to a hotel and would likely depart the kingdom when her husband was released from the hospital.

He had been looking out a window at the moment a truck bomb went off not far from their home. A metal and glass sliding door was blown on top of him.

"I called to him and asked if he was all right. He said, 'I don't think so,' " she said quietly. "The place looked like a murder scene. The doctor told me he can't use his right arm anymore."

The attackers left an awesome trail of destruction from their rampage, which began about 11:15 p.m. Monday, just hours before a visit to the city by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Witnesses said the assailants, who U.S. and Saudi officials say were probably members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, drove at least two vehicles, a BMW and a pickup truck, into the Al Hamra compound, shooting dead two guards at the gate.

Before setting off the truck bomb, they raked the ocher-colored buildings with AK-47 automatic weapons fire and set off small grenade-type explosions, residents said. According to some witnesses, the gunmen banged on doors and shot those who came out.

"I saw people running around and firing. One was screaming hysterically," recalled Hassan Fakhri, who on Friday was lying bruised and bandaged at Riyadh's Kingdom Hospital. "He was saying, 'I am Abdel Aziz, and I will kill them all!' "

For some, a simple change in routine saved their lives.

Nibel Nasser, a Lebanese American engineer, spent most nights at his computer. When his wife asked him whether he wanted to go to bed, he would usually say yes but then sit at the computer for 45 more minutes.

"This time I went to the bedroom," the former Florida resident said.

Moments later, Nasser heard gunfire and small explosions before the bomb went off, blowing in a door and window beside his computer table, destroying it. The house shook. He said it felt as if an enormous vacuum was sucking the air out of it.

The explosion shattered the windows in his 1-year-old son's bedroom. "We rushed in and there was glass all over the bed, but my son's crib was not touched," he said.

Nasser's daughters, 5 and 6, also emerged unscathed because heavy curtains caught much of the glass and metal flying through the house. The family's maid suffered serious facial and eye wounds and required surgery.

"Every day, we had received warnings about an attack, and I thought, 'No, they won't attack here, they will go for a tall, vertical building that will cause the most casualties,' " Nasser said. "But now I feel this is just the beginning of these attacks."

His wife, Sonya, said the relentless atmosphere of threats, warnings and potential terrorist attacks has taken its toll. The family is leaving for Lebanon and then may return to Florida.

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