In memoriam: of a people, of a land, and especially of Khdaija

Posted on 28 October 2020

Wednesday 28 October 2020

“I took home with me some of the soil, and a handful of olives from the untended trees….”

Life can be a struggle. And for some, a much harder and more painful struggle than others.

Easter 2020 and we were looking forward to going home to Palestine. Then Covid-19 happened. All travel cancelled with no idea when we could re-book.

This week, Covid-19 took the life of Khdaija, mother to Jamal and his siblings; grandmother to their many offspring, and our one daughter. She died a refugee, one of the dwindling number of Palestinians who were violently forced from their lands in 1948. She was just six years of age, but she remembered it with mournful clarity, as if it were yesterday.

In 2008, 60 years after it happened, she told me her story. It is one story of hundreds of thousands. It is the story of her family and what became her future. I share it here again in her memory. Near the end there is one paragraph I’ve highlighted as it has always stayed with me – the enduring pain of loss.

Rest in peace now, Khdaija – you are greatly loved and desperately missed by those you’ve left behind.

Sunday 31st August 2008
Memories of a refugee, part one
Khdaija’s story: the leaving

I was six years old but I remember those events like it was yesterday. Life was peaceful in our valley village. Tel es-Safi was situated on lush, fertile land and my father and his brother owned half the lands of the village. We cultivated fruit and vegetables and had commercial success as we grew so much good quality produce. My father sold most of it direct to a company in Lod.

It was a beautiful place to grow up in. I lived with my father and mother, my sister and two brothers. We wanted for nothing and lived happily in the area with all our neighbours. The next village to us was a “qubbineyeh” (a Jewish village similar to a kibbutz) called Qatre. They had a health centre and we all used it as we had no doctor. We often visited and the relationship between us all was good.

Then we started to hear the news of the fighting. They came from Qatre to tell us that they were horrified at what was happening, and that it was not them but foreign Jews who were expelling Palestinians from their villages and their land. They were worried for us.

We knew the Hagganah was near. We had also heard what had happened at Deir Yassin earlier in the year. My father had an old British handgun and said he would fight alongside the Egyptian forces in the area. We feared something terrible would happen.

Then they came. The shooting was terrifying. We all hid in our house and listened to the fighting around us. We lasted perhaps five days, perhaps a week, I really cannot be sure. Finally my father said we must go to the next Arab village for safety. So we had to run, for our lives.

All my family and our neighbours fled together, all we had were the clothes we wore as we believed we would come home soon, once the fighting had calmed. There was shooting all around us and I was so scared. My cousin fell; she had been shot and killed. We managed to get to Ajur, and from there people went back to collect her body. We stayed in Ajur, along with the residents from four other villages. We slept amongst the olive trees, my mother would cover me with her scarf when I slept at night.

There was little food and we relied heavily on people helping us. Hundreds of people were there, living in the orchards and the olive groves. Every few days some of the men would try to return to Tel es-Safi, but the Hagganah had taken over the area completely. They were shot at each time they tried so had to come back to Ajur. One man who did manage to get back to the village said it had been looted and the homes were being blown up.

Then Ajur was attacked and again we had to flee. We walked to Surif, another small village. I think it took about a day to get there. It was the same there.

People who had been displaced, lost everything and were begging for help. Hundreds and hundreds of people with nowhere to go and no one to help them. The conditions were awful. People were filthy, there was a lot of disease and illness. Everyone had lice. It was disgusting for us.

We stayed for about three months but again the situation was so terrible for everyone we had to move again to survive. It was such a miserable and sad time. I missed my home and my friends. And as we had no idea what might happen we were constantly fearful.

So we walked again, this time to Beit Fajar, a much larger village. By then the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) had been established and we were registered as refugees. I remember we would be given one kg of flour, but it was not enough for us all and a far cry from what we were used to.

My mother and father sold what little they had with them, such as jewellery, and we managed to rent two rooms with three other families. It was so hard for us, but we had to cope with it. There was an announcement in the mosque that called for all refugees to move to the camps established around the area. We would be provided with homes and other help, we were told.

So, we finally settled in Deheishe camp in Bethlehem. This is where I met my husband-to-be, made my home in two small rooms and gave birth to my 11 children.

Sunday September 7th
Memories of a refugee, part two
Khdaija’s story: the return

It was ten years ago when we finally went back. It was after Oslo, so we were finally allowed to go into Israel, the country built on the ruins of my home. Of course, it was not to stay. We didn’t even know what was there now; all we knew was our village had been destroyed.

Tel es-Safi was quite near to Hebron. We drove there, we knew exactly where to go. A huge metal fence, with a padlocked gate, secured the area. It was as it had been left after the destruction. A piece of land, overgrown, uncared for and with no life there.

A man appeared, a Bedouin I thought, who told us we should not be there. I think he thought we were looking for something to steal. He told us to get out, to go; he was holding a large gun and regarded us suspiciously. He asked us what we were doing there. We told him it was our village and that we just wanted to look, we were not there to cause any problem.

His attitude softened. He was actually a “sabra”, a native born Jew unlike the masses of Israelis who have just immigrated over the past 60 years. He asked us why we left our village and we told him how we had fled for our lives, with nothing. He was sympathetic, and he told us we should have come back. It was our land and we should have come back.

He had a key to the gate, although I am not sure why. He asked us if we would like to spend some time there, to look around. He opened the gate for us and I finally went back to my village, after 50 years. Although the buildings had all been destroyed, we recognised where our home had stood. There were tell-tale signs such as a fig tree, and other trees that had grown so much but were still recognisable in our memories.

He wanted us to walk around the area, but he was concerned as there are many wells. The openings all covered by the overgrowth of the plants and trees. He led us very carefully around, minding our steps.

We stayed a while, our memories and feelings surging back. I was so glad to have returned, even for such a short time. But I was so very, very sad that this beautiful place, the place of my childhood, had been left in such a state when we, the people born there and who loved it so much, were denied our right to return back and make it a thriving place of life once again, as it should have been.

I took home with me some of the soil, and a handful of olives from the untended trees….

Khadija still has the key to her first home, given to her by her father. It hangs on the wall of her current home in Bethlehem.

Note: Tel es-safi had been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, until 1948 when Khadija and all her family and friends were forced to flee. See for some background information.

1 Response to In memoriam: of a people, of a land, and especially of Khdaija

  • Carol says:

    I am so sad and sorry to hear of the passing of Jamal’s mother, who I met during my trips to Palestine. I remember so well the welcome she gave me each time I arrived and the most delicious maqluba she made. Such a generous person who had lived through such a traumatic history which still continues for Palestinians living in their homeland, or exiled from it. I wasn’t able to speak Arabic well enough to have heard Khadija’s story so I am pleased to have read this piece in her memory. We must treasure these memories to be passed down to future generations. Viva Palestina. Love to Jamal, Georgie and Rahel.

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