August 2008, part two

Sunday 31st August

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.

Friday 29th August
Healthcare hell

Jamal’s elderly uncle was rushed to hospital last night. He is a sweet, kind gentleman, with a face that radiates benevolence, and a quietness of character that is rare to find here. To see the conditions he was being kept in made me feel very angry and upset.

Abu Nafez was taken to the Hussein hospital, in Beit Jala, which is run by the PA. Compared to the hospitals I am used to, it is shocking. We went with one of Jamal’s brothers who happens to be a nurse and also worked there a few years ago. He has nothing good to say about it. Nor do many other people I know.

We went through a side entrance and passed through corridors that stank of something old and very unpleasant. Many of the ceiling tiles were missing, and there were damp patches on those that that managed to remain. The paint on the walls and ceilings, where there is plaster, is also peeling because of damp.

We went up to the third floor where the men’s medical ward is. The nurses at the station, both men, seemed very bored and almost irritated by our request to find the room where his uncle was. Afterwards I found out that they were not nurses, but a cleaner and a patient. The ward was barren, there was nothing to give it a welcoming or homely feel.

Abu Nafez was in a room with another man who looked very poorly. Along the corridor the wallpaper was peeling away from the wall behind. I wondered why there would even be wallpaper in a hospital. In the room the windows were broken and did not close. Nor were there any insect screens to protect the patients from the nightly onslaught of mosquitos.

The room was almost bare apart from two tatty cabinets and two plastic chairs. Again, no pictures or TV to distract the patients from the misery of their illness and their surroundings. I looked at the bed and was absolutely disgusted. The mattress was bare, no sheet covering it. The blue plastic was ripped in so many places, I can’t bear to think of the germs that harboured within the tears and the foam beneath.

Jamal’s brother said that nothing there is looked after or maintained properly, the main problem being the bureaucratic system. If anything breaks, needs repair or replacement then forms have to be filled out. Then they have to go to someone to sign. Then they have to go to someone else, and so on until finally a plug, engineer, spare part or new piece is finally approved. By then it is too late and the damage is done. Given my experiences over the last two weeks concerning forms, signatures and the handing over of cash I can only imagine what might be happening. Jamal’s brother was less unsure. “Thieves. They are all thieves.”

And in all the time we were there, on the ward, walking along corridors, we did not see one nurse or doctor. Anywhere.

I have heard many horror stories, including the needless death of a young child. So much money is being pumped in to the area, part of the Bethlehem investment conference initiative, which is doing nothing to release Palestinians from the bondage of occupation. Even less is being done to improve local facilities. Given that the hospital is run by the Palestinian authority it is shameful to see people treated so poorly and in such deficient facilities. It appears that some people, as usual, profit from the misery of others.

Wednesday 27th August
More weak words as Condoleezza Rice “warns” Israel

Yesterday we went to Al Quds university. The journey takes about half an hour, on a good day, although it is not that far. The highlight of the journey is Wadi Nar: the valley of fire. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, it can be, depending on your driver, a fairly nerve racking experience. It twists and winds in tight coils down one side of the valley, and rises just as precariously the other. One can usually spot the remains of a vehicle that took a corner too quickly, far below, in a crumpled heap.

The checkpoint that cleaves the district of Bethlehem from Abu Dis is known locally as the container. Currently it is just a few breeze blocks and a shed for the soldiers. The checkpoint has been here for years, I remember when the queues were very long, or if the checkpoint was closed, I would get out of one service and climb the hill to bypass it. Although people and vehicles were moving through it is still an abomination to me. Why does Israel need to have any checkpoints in the West Bank?

Apparently worse is to come. Although it was slated for removal there is now construction going on to create a terminal, much like the one at Bethlehem. Israel’s facts on the ground really do create a reality that is impossible, without outside pressure, to change. And all the while Palestinians suffer untold misery at the hands of soldiers manning checkpoints on their land.

We had a very successful meeting at the university. Ahdaf and its approach was warmly received and the staff we met were very keen to help us.

We even had a brief meeting with the president of the university, Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian intellectual. (Profile here and web site here.)

Jamal explained what Ahdaf wants to achieve and how. Sari seemed surprised (in a good way) when he explained about the requirement

we have for students to work in their communities. They have even posted an announcement on their web site.

We were also given a quick tour of the campus. This included a visit to the Abu Jihad Political Prisoners Museum. Its purpose is to commemorate and document the development of the Palestinian prisoner movement, and to show some of the suffering that the prisoners endure.

On Monday 198 prisoners were released by Israel as a “gesture” to Mahmoud Abbas. I am not sure what this gesture will do for the PA, but for those released, and their families, it was a day of absolute joy. We were in Deheishe in the evening and the night sky was lit by fireworks. Families were celebrating a day they had hoped for, but many feared they would never see. Music, dancing and singing, all to welcome back husbands, fathers, sons, wives, daughters and sisters to their homes.

The 198 released represent less than 2% of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Over 11,000 men, women and children, are still behind bars. It is hard to imagine what this denial of freedom means to a person and those who love them. In the museum there are a number of exhibits that demonstrate the humanity of the prisoners. A rare glimpse in to their miserable existence.

Letters written in the tiniest writing you could imagine, rolled up, wrapped in plastic and swallowed by prisoners being released or going to court (to hand to their advocates). These messages are then sent on to their families. Books, handwritten from memory and often political, that prisoners used to help educate themselves. Artwork and handicrafts, all made from the most unexpected materials. I found these especially emotive and tried to imagine how the prisoner must have felt when creating them. Perhaps this helped them transport their mind away from the horror and brutality they faced each day.

And it is important to understand that many of prisoners are guilty of no crime, have not been charged nor faced a court to plead their case. Evidence is deemed secret so often the prisoner has no idea what he is accused of and no recourse through a legal system to challenge it. Administrative detention is used as a way to subjugate political activists and to weaken political activity within the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Before Oslo, there was a strong movement within the prisons. Prisoners were kept with those who shared their political affiliation, young prisoners (children) were looked after by the older ones, a system of education and support existed. Even strikes and other actions were highly coordinated. But now, privatisation, increased facilities that divide and separate the prisoners, younger prisoners with no defined political objectives and a lack of older, more experienced comrades has led to the decline of organised political activity within the prisons.

Monday 25th August
Ahdaf’s progress
Tomorrow we are going to visit Al Quds university. Two of the students supported by Ahdaf are studying there and we are going to talk to the university about what Ahdaf is hoping to achieve and how.

At the weekend we visited the projects these two students are doing as part of their commitment to Ahdaf. One, Sana, is working in the women’s centre in Deheishe camp and providing training in computer skills for some of the older women in the camp. It was great to see how confident she was in the class and how enthusiastic the women were.

We asked them how they felt about the classes, what it was giving them and why they were doing it. The reactions were so positive; one said that her children were always laughing at her as she didn’t know what a computer was. Since going to Sana’s classes she has been able to write an e-mail to a friend she cannot visit. It felt really good to see the women being given an opportunity to do more than stay at home, and to see a student being supported by Ahdaf who was putting so much effort in to her project.

Later that day we went to the children’s centre in Doha, near out home. There Bisan was providing supplementary English tuition to young pupils (ages from about eight to ten) who are falling behind at school. Again, the enthusiasm in the class was very real and very encouraging. Bisan has gone to a great deal of trouble to make the classes interesting for them and has been making her own teaching materials. The Ministry of Education has also provided a small amount of help. The kids were having a lot of fun and were learning at the same time. I wish there was more we could do in terms of financial support.

We felt so proud of them all, students and pupils alike. They have embraced Ahdaf’s unique approach very positively, and are keen to get involved. We hope that these small actions can help strengthen their community and create new ways for people to support one another.

Despite the rather bleak and depressing picture I have painted so far, there is still an amazing resilience and determination within many people here. I am often humbled by the stories I hear and the people I meet. The daily struggle for life here is unimaginable. The hours wasted waiting at checkpoints; the loss of land and homes; people killed or injured; the fear of what may happen each day; the desperate feeling of being powerless in the face of an overwhelming force. It gives some perspective to ones own life and the privileges that I have.

Passport to nowhere…or maybe groundhog day
Just as we thought all the problems were over. Jamal visited someone one of his brothers knows who is in charge of the ministry in Bethlehem. He said “no problem, I will sort everything.” He also said do not register Rahel yet as she will not be allowed in to Israel or through Ben Gurion if we do. I had feared that would be the case, so we will wait a few years and decide what to do.

Jamal went the next day, with his papers, all ready to get his new passport issued, confident in the fact that someone had got involved who had the authority to help. He got to the desk, handed over the forms, the woman tapped away at the computer. “You are suspended, you cannot apply for a passport.”

It appears that when his last passport was issued, and although the Palestinian consulate in London stamped cancelled all over his previous passport, the system was never updated.

So again he is sitting in another hot office, with more officials, all trying to help but seem unable to. It is quite peculiar; there is no proper system here. So, when something goes wrong, it is impossible to sort it out.

And now he is trapped. He cannot leave without a valid Palestinian passport as at the border the Israelis will not let him pass. His British passport is not recognised. In fact, they found it when he came in. They stamped it to say he is a West Bank Palestinian and have recorded his huwiyyah number in there too. Unless we can find someone who can beat the system that doesn’t exist, we have got a big problem

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