On April 17, we entered the Jenin camp for a third time,accompanied by Thawra.
We had met Thawra the night we first entered Jenin. She came into the crowded, makeshift clinic organized by Palestinian Medical Relief Committee workers, cradling Ziad, an 18 day old infant born on the first night of the attack against Jenin. Like most of the young Palestinian workers volunteering with the Medical Relief Committee, she wore ahijab and blue jeans. She had slept very little in the past ten days, working constantly to assist refugees from the camp. Her fiancée, Mustafa, was missing. Many people whispered to us that they were sure he was killed inside the Jenin camp, but that Thawra still hoped he was alive.
Today was Thawra’s first chance to find out what had happened to her home. She and her family lived on the first floor of a three story building. Mustafa lived on the third floor.
Entering the camp, we noticed spray painted images that Israeli soldiers must have made the night before. On the entrance gate to one building, in blue paint, was a stick figure image of a little girl holding the Israeli flag… Next to it was a star of David with an exclamation point inside the star.
We passed Israeli soldiers preparing to leave the house they had occupied. Five soldiers and an Armoured Personnel Carrier positioned themselves to protect a soldier as he walked out of the house carrying the garbage. “Five soldiers and an APC to take out the trash," said Jeff. "That’s a sure sign that something is radically wrong."
Most of the homes at the edge of the camp are somewhat intact, although doors, windows and walls are badly damaged by tank shells and Apache bullets. Each home that we entered was ransacked. Drawers, desks and closets were emptied. Refrigerators were turned over, light fixtures pulled out of the walls, clothing torn.
I thought of the stories women told me, earlier that morning, about Israeli soldiers entering their homes with large dogs that sniffed at the children as neighbors fled from explosions, snipers, fires and the nightmare chases of bulldozers.
Recovery will take a very long time.
As we climbed higher, entering the demolished center of the camp where close to 100 housing units have been flattened by Israeli Defense Forces, we heard snipers shooting at a small group of men who had come to pull bodies from the rubble. Covered with dust and sweat, and seemingly oblivious to the gunshots, the men, all residents from the camp, pursued the grim task. With pickaxes and shovels, they dug a mass grave. They pulled four bodies out of the rubble, including that of a small child. Little boys stood still, silently watching. One of the many soldiers who stopped us as we walked into Jenin City, several days earlier, told us there were no children in the camp during the attack. That was a lie. But now I wonder if it may have become a strange truth. The concerned frowns on the little boy’s faces belonged to hardened men.
An older boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, helped carry his father’s corpse to the mass grave.
Jeff sat down on a rock and shook his head. “After September 11, I drove toward New York City, and all along the highway carloads of volunteer firemen sped past me, coming from all over the country, to help at Ground Zero. Here, bullets paid for by US taxpayers are being fired on people simply trying to bury their dead.”
A family trudged single file, silently, uphill through the debris, carrying their belongings on their heads. Their faces were wracked with grief. One woman carried an infant in her arms. No one spoke as they approached the hilltop. At the top of the hill, in front of a house that was still somewhat intact, a large family was seated as though posed for a family photograph, surrounded by devastation.
Thawra led us to what was once her home. The house is still standing, but every other house in the area is completely demolished. She quickly collected some clothes, then went to the third floor and returned holding Mustafa’s blue jeans in her arms. Her eyes welled with tears. We began to wonder if she had lost all hope of finding Mustafa.
Outside her home, we met 8 year old Ahmad. He had found six shiny, small bullets which he showed to his neighbor, Mohammed Abdul Khalil. Mohammed is a 42 year old mason, also trained as an accountant. Having worked in Brazil and Jordan, he now speaks four languages. In Spanish, he told me that he built many kitchens in this area. Mohammed nodded kindly at Ahmad.
A few feet away, Hitan, age 20, and Noor, age 16, dug through the debris with their bare hands to retrieve some few belongings. Hitan found a favorite jacket, torn and covered with dust. She fingered the pockets, then set it aside. Noor laughed as she unearthed a matching pair of shoes. Then Hitan saw the edge of a textbook and the sisters began vigorously digging and tugging until they pulled out five battered and unusable books. Noor held up her public health textbook. Hitan clutched The History of Islamic Civilization.
“You see these girls, they are laughing and seem playful,” said, Mohammed, again speaking in Spanish. “It is, you know, a coping mechanism. How else can they manage what they feel?” Hitan stood and pointed emphatically at the small hole she and Noor had dug. “You know,” she exclaims, “underneath here, there are four televisions and two computers! All gone. Finished.”
Thawra stared sadly, then persisted with her search for information about Mustafa.
I asked Mohammed if he knew a man sorting through a huge mound of rubble next to where we stood. ‘He is my cousin. That was our home. He wants to find his passport or his children’s documents." Mohammed’s cousin then sat down on top of the heap that was once his home, holding his head in his hands.
An army surveillance plane flew overhead.
“We are clear,” said Mohammed. “We are not animals. We are people with hearts and blood, just like you. I love my son. I want the life for my family. What force do we have here? Is this a force?” He pointed to the wreckage all around us. “Do we have the atomic bomb?” “Do we have anthrax?”
As we walked away, Jeff pointed at another bone sticking out of the debris. We stepped gingerly around it. Thawra dipped down to pick up a veil lying on the ground, then paused a moment and placed it over the bone.