September 2008

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 in to 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 last 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 telltale 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 friends and family were forced to flee. See the for some background information.

Friday September 5th
Home, but not
So, now we are back in London. Cold, damp, miserable and feeling very out of place. Despite everything – the cultural differences, the hardship, the uncertainty, the anger, the frustrations – I would rather be there than here. Life seems somehow more real.

There are a million and one things that I have not written about, but are funny, sad or an amount of both. The school near our home that opens at 7.30am with the headmaster screaming through a PA system at the students. Not words of encouragement or a pep talk, but yelling at this boy to go there, that girl to stop that. Then they play the Palestinian national anthem, Biladi, at top volume.

Or the extraordinary pillows. Huge square blocks of solid foam. Or, even worse, huge square blocks of solid something else which are even less forgiving. We asked if anyone else found them uncomfortable; everyone said yes. So why not buy different ones?!?!

Or the prices. The cost of food is astronomical, on a par with London. And remember, many families have no regular source of income. And that is both food from restaurants (falafel, shwarma etc) and fresh food from the market. Meat is prohibitively expensive for a large number of families now and I know that some people eat meat perhaps once a month. And nearly all the food, especially fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables, comes from Israel. The poverty in the camps is particularly bad, and in stark contrast to a smaller number of people who seem to be gaining wealth.

Or the tourists. This is the first time I have ever seen tourists in Bethlehem. Buses coming in and out, through the monstrous checkpoint, unhindered. It is a great boost for the economy of course, and I was told this was a good year, but it is not at the same level as pre-2000. And many of the tourists are brought in by Israeli tour operators, who only take them in for part of the day so that they don’t stay in any of the hotels. Locals are not reaping many of the benefits of this welcome return of visitors.

Or the continued incursions and arrests. Deheishe camp is, in particular, targeted by the Israeli army. Not a week goes by without some sort of military operation happening. And much of this, it is widely believed, is done with the tacit support of the Sulta.

A few months ago four men were assassinated in the centre of Bethlehem. A team of Israeli soldiers entered the Palestinian controlled city, drove to the heart of it, found their target with ease, and sprayed the car in which they were with hundreds of bullets. There was outrage in Bethlehem and an unusual sense of shared anger between many of the political groups, as well as ordinary residents.

This operation happened within a few hundred metres of the “moqata’a”, the PA security forces base. And as easily as they came, they left. I was told by more than one source that the area had been cleared in preparation, and that not one Palestinian security officer was on the street at this time.

And so I could go on, and on. Now I am back in the UK, it is time for me to stop writing this journal for the time being, until I next go back to my home in Palestine. I will however post one last story; the return of Khadija to her birthplace, the destroyed village of Tel es-Safi, in what is now Israel.

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