May 2001

Tuesday May 1st
Aida refugee camp, West Bank

I guess the words “refugee camp” evoke strong images of tents crammed full with families who are starving; of children lying in the dirt, looking up with mournful, dull eyes; of a stick thin mother with a baby dangling from her withered breast; of local uprisings and renegade armies. Not all refugee camps are the same and not all refugees are the same.

Aida refugee camp is one of the longest standing camps in the world. In fact, Palestinian refugees are the longest standing refugees in the world, having been forced from their homes in 1948. Over 700,000 people were displaced by the creation of the Sate of Israel, and those 700,000 have become well over three million, and they are still waiting to come home.

As far as a refugee camp goes, it could be worse. The inhabitants live in houses, not tents. They have electricity and water. They have schools and health care. On Saturday night a young man was driving his family back to their “home” in Aida. For some reason that I have been unable to determine, due to a severe lack of media attention, this man was shot in the head and killed, by the Israeli Occupation forces, just minutes away from his home. His five- year-old son was injured. More than that I cannot tell you because more than that I cannot find myself. John and I went to Aida, not entirely sure whether we wanted to see the funeral or not. I always feel that those not connected with the family should not intrude, especially given the circumstances, but we went anyway.

Aida is easy to find. Walk through the Bethlehem checkpoint, walk toward Rachel’s tomb (the cause of so much misery to Aida) and turn right, and you are in Aida. The town was fairly quiet, just a few children running about and the odd car. It all looked fairly normal, but then, looking closer, the reality of life in the refugee camp can be seen clearly. Bullet holes marked walls and buildings, the school had been particularly badly hit, but strangely the mosque was unscathed. On the walls were pasted the death notices of the young man shot the day before, alongside all the other death notices that have been pasted up with horrifying regularity over the last eight months. Aida is sandwiched between Bethlehem and Beit Jala, and is one of the more dangerous places to live in the West Bank. The atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed, considering.

We walked around and came across two young boys who were deaf . They looked happy enough to see us and obviously assumed, by the cameras hanging around our necks, that we were press (well, they were half right). They pointed us toward the centre, which is where the funeral procession would no doubt weave its way. Walking into the centre, a small group of old women and a couple of children came over to talk to us. They pointed at the picture of the dead man, and gesticulated. Sadly, my Arabic is not sufficient to hold any meaningful conversation, but it is easy to show how we too were saddened and appalled by yet another senseless death, another orphan, another widow.

Walking between the school and the mosque and we were back on the road out of town. There were a couple of young boys with catapults who came over, obviously intrigued by the foreigners. We played with them for a short time, and then some of their friends appeared, and then some more. A couple of older girls came over and we all had fun asking one another’s names. They all desperately wanted to have their photos taken and there was much pushing and shoving. Their relatives hung out of their windows, and all shouted welcoming greetings to us. We played a little longer and I am pleased to report that I am now a crack shot with the catapult.

As we were playing a young man called Kareem stopped and introduced himself. He speaks very good English, as many Palestinians do, and told us some of his story. We walked along the road toward the children’s centre, where works as a volunteer. He had been trapped there four weeks earlier with a group of children, while a ferocious gun battled raged outside. He told us how terrified the children were, and how he encouraged them to sing songs to try and block out what was happening a few feet away from them.

We went with Kareem to his home for a cup of tea, and he showed us a collection of photographs that had been taken by some of the children in the camp. They were really very good, some amazing images, which were made into an exhibition and a small book. With the aid of a Belgian NGO, they had given the children tuition in photography. The course was intensive and covered theory, practical and developing. They chose photography because they realised the importance for the children to have an outlet for their emotions and feelings. Despite the happy faces we saw, there can be a different story when they go home and go to bed and remember the nights of gunfire and shelling, the funerals and the grief.

Kareem also told us about his family and his village. His father was born in a village about 30 miles south of Bethlehem, and was evacuated to Aida when he was a few months old. That was 1948, and he has lived there ever since. He grew up there, married there and brought his children up there, but it was not really his home. His home was destroyed, along with most of the village. They still go back and visit sometimes, Kareem has even taken a film crew and other journalists to see what happened all those years ago.

As we got up to leave Kareem’s father came home. He showed us the latest political cartoon in the local paper. A diary open with that day’s date was on a table. On the page was the entry “more children killed, more shelling, more terror.” The caption read: just another usual day in the West Bank.

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