by Amneh Ma’bad
A sombre silence and aura of destruction enveloped the place despite the clutter of buildings and dwellers. As far as the eye could see there were heads straining out of windows and doors trying to see what was going on. Children started gathering here and there, and women sat on their doorsteps covering their faces with their hands. Some hid their faces behind their scarves to cry quietly out of sight. My feet dragged slowly under me, hardly able to carry my thin body; but my eyes raced, unable to concentrate on one image at a time, trying to absorb everything in the space of a moment.
It was as if my heart was shivering and a question kept rolling around in my head, “Will I be able to stand firm or will my sensitive nature get the better of me and fail me?” The distance started to grow smaller, and I had almost reached the houses. Little by little, I climbed the hill towards the camp, as the main street was blocked by an Israeli tank and a number of soldiers stood around it preventing anyone from going in. I approached the soldiers and told them that I worked for a human rights institution and that I wanted to enter the camp. The soldier eyed me with disdain and said, “Journalists are not allowed into the camp.” I said I was not a journalist but a lawyer and that I wanted to enter. He glared at me, saying, “Anyone who does not reside in the camp is prohibited from entering.” Despite my repeated entreaties, my request was refused, making me determined to enter.
I saw an old man sitting on the opposite side of the street, so I asked him if there was another route into the camp. He said, “Come with me,” so my colleagues and I followed him along a rough and dusty path, over some hillocks, then through a number of alleyways. We would take a few steps forward then hide, so that the soldiers posted on the mountains surrounding the camp would not see us. Finally, we reached the camp. I suddenly found myself in a city where time and civilization seemed to have stopped. The old man informed me, “This is Hawwashin Alley.” It was in a state of total annihilation. I thought, “My God, what a sight!” I approached a group of young men digging in the ruins of a demolished house. I did not know what they were looking for, but suddenly one of the young men shouted, “I’ve found something!”, so everyone ran towards him. I rushed to see what they had found. A few meters before reaching them, a horrible stench attacked my nostrils - I had never smelt anything so foul in my life, the smell still seems to linger on my clothes to this day. I held my collar over my nose and went closer, but I quickly covered my whole face, as if the image had hit me. It was a human head, in fact half a head, with no features. They held it up with great care and reverence, so it would not disintegrate further. The reality that this was the stench of death dawned on me. It spread out in all directions. One of the young men shouted, “This is X, let us dig further to find the rest of his body.”
They put a blanket on the ground and placed the remains of the head on it. I climbed off the rocks to catch my breath, because what I had seen was so horrific. At that moment I lost all touch with what was going on around me, my eyes looked blankly at the surroundings.
We went towards another neighborhood called Jorat al-Thahab where more houses had been demolished and people were again searching among the debris. A young man approached and he asked me; “Are you journalists?”
“No, we are from a Palestinian human rights organization, this group is from foreign human rights institutions, and those are doctors.”
“What human rights are you talking about? Do you really think human rights are applied to the Palestinians? They pulled the house down on top of my disabled brother!”
I asked him how that had happened and he answered, “We heard the sound of a bulldozer, but we were afraid to look out of the windows to see what was going, because Israeli snipers had bunkered on a roof top and each time someone peeked out they shot at their head. We didn’t know what was happening outside, but we felt the house shaking. We ran out to find the bulldozer was destroying our house. We approached one of the soldiers to tell him there was a disabled person in the house, asking them to stop until we took him out, but they ordered us to move away quickly otherwise they would start shooting at us. A second later, the house became a mound of rubble and we have been looking for my brother’s corpse for the last ten days. Maybe he will be more alive now! Go and look for human rights somewhere other than Palestine, than Jenin refugee camp.”
I was unable to answer him, but one of the foreigners patted him on the back and said, “We will investigate the matter and every war crime perpetrator will be taken to court, never fear!” The young man laughed sarcastically and said, “Which court? If the judge is your enemy, then who can you complain to?” After that, I walked away, unable to hear any more. I asked God to give me the strength to bear whatever I was going to see next.
We entered narrow alleyways that coiled like a snake and were told this neighborhood was called Haret al-Sumran. There were women standing in the alley, surrounded by children. I sat on a rock because I felt that my feet could not carry me any more. I felt numb. Not tired despite the long distances I had walked, but I felt at that moment that my strength was failing me. Two children came up to me and asked, “Are you a foreigner?” I said I was Palestinian like them but my colleagues were foreigners. Then I asked, “Were you in the camp when the massacre took place?” A child called Sami said, “Yes, and I saw everything.”
“What do you mean by everything?”
He answered, “I saw the soldiers, they killed my little chicken.”
“What did they kill?”
“I had bought a small chick and raised it until it became a little chicken that followed me wherever I went in the camp. It was standing on the roof, so the snipers killed it. I heard it screeching and saw it fall to the ground. I am so sad to lose it, I loved it so much!”. I looked at the child with pity, but I was saying to myself, “Thank God they kept you and your family alive!!”
I walked to the end of the neighborhood when a young man from the camp said, “This house has experienced a catastrophe, come in!” We entered a yard, which housed a blacksmith’s shop. I saw an old man in his sixties and around him sat a number of women, youths and children. I introduced myself and my colleagues, and they brought us some chairs. A man in his late forties, wearing a hearing aid, came in. He looked at me and repeated, “They killed our children, they killed our children!” while hitting his head. I said “What?”, so he dragged me by the arm saying, “Come, come. Let me show you what they’ve done.” I followed him through another doorway. A horrible stench filled the air. Pools of coagulated blood on the ground were covered with hundreds of flies. The man pointed to the wall saying, “Look, look here.” I looked and saw something black on the wall. I asked what it was, so he said “Come closer.” I felt ashamed and was unable to tell him that I couldn’t go nearer because of the smell. I felt terribly sick, but I held my breath and went closer. When I looked carefully I saw something full of blood and hair. I asked him what it was, so he answered “These are the remains of my son’s brain. They killed him here, in front of my own eyes, and I was unable to do anything. They killed me with him, yes, they killed me with him!”
He continued his story with great emotion: “The soldiers knocked violently at our door, so I opened it. About 50 soldiers came in, armed to the teeth, their faces covered with black paint. They said, “All of you must leave the house,” so we went out, along with the women and the children. I went out with my son, wife and five grandchildren. My son’s youngest is only five or six months old and his father was carrying him. They ordered us to stand at the door and asked, “Whose house is this?” They also pointed to my neighbor’s house , so I told them his name. Then they ordered me to go to his door and ask them all to leave the house. They had their guns pointed at me so I had no choice but to knock at their door. My neighbor answered my knock, and I told him to come out with the rest of his family. He saw the soldiers, so he called everyone. They came out and we all stood in the open. Then they ordered the women and children to go back inside. They crowded into a room in my neighbor’s house and the soldiers locked it. Some soldiers searched the rest of the house, then left. My son was still holding his baby in his arms. The soldiers suddenly realized and said, “Why are you carrying this baby?”
My son answered, “He’s my son, I came out of the house carrying him.” The soldier told me to take the child into the house and give him to the women. I took the child, who was crying fearfully and gave him to his mother. The soldier locked the door again and told me to go back where the men were standing. Four of us - me, my son, my neighbor and my neighbor’s son - stood next to each other. The soldiers asked my neighbor to go into the house with them. They searched the house again but my neighbor did not come out with them. The soldiers asked us to raise our hands, so we did. One of them, who seemed to be an officer, asked us to stand up against the wall. He had long blonde hair and a full face and kept ordering the soldiers around. We turned, hearing the officer say, “Kill them, Avi,” in Hebrew. I understood what he was saying. Bullets flew at us from all angles and I found myself lying on the ground with my son to my left and my neighbor’s son to my right. I felt water running down over my head and body. The shooting stopped. A soldier approached us and put his foot on my son’s head, kicking it aside. It was very dark, as the electricity had been cut off in the camp. The flashlights the soldiers had with them allowed me to see some of their faces. One of the soldiers put a gun in our faces. The gun had a light at the front so I did not move an inch. After that, I heard the soldier say, “They are all dead.” The soldiers stayed for another 15 minutes or so. They kept going in and out of the house, then there was silence.
When I could no longer hear any noise, I lifted my son’s hand a little, but it fell lifelessly down to the ground. I held my neighbor’s son’s arm up to find the same result. I could not see them to find out if they were alive or not because of the darkness enveloping us. I felt that water was pouring onto us, but I did not know where from. Someone came to the door, went back into the house, then footsteps came towards me and I felt something being placed over me. I lay there for some time. When there was silence again, I crawled on my belly towards the steps of my house. When I finally reached the door, it felt like I had been crawling for hours. I entered my room and started feeling my body to see if I had been injured. I changed my clothes and sat in the corner of the room, shaking with fear and crying bitterly. My voice kept rising and no matter how hard I tried to keep it down, there were some moments when I felt like I was going to choke if I did not express my feelings. I wanted to lower my voice so the soldiers would not hear me. I stayed in the corner of the room, my body shaking all over.
I awoke to find a hand on my shoulder and someone saying, “Pull yourself together.” It was my neighbor. He said, “Don’t sit here on your own, come with me and don’t tell the women about anything so that they won’t cry. They have killed your son and taken my son with them.” Then he added, “But there are three corpses, whose are they?”
I looked at him and cried again, so he said, “I heard some shooting last night and the sound of soldiers in the hallway. After that, there was silence for hours, so I went out of the room where the soldiers had placed me and made sure that the women and children were okay. Then I went to the entrance of the house and saw three corpses lying on the ground. I knew that your son was one of them from his curly hair, but I could not tell who the other two were, so I went to the house to bring something to cover them up. At daybreak, when there was more light, I looked in the direction of the entrance to your house and saw blood on the steps, so I thought there was someone injured in the house. I followed the blood trail and found you here - are you alright?”
I said, “Yes, nothing happened to me.” But then I looked at my clothes and realized they were drenched in blood. What I had thought was water was really the blood of my son and my neighbor’s son. After that, I went with my neighbor to the entrance of the house where the bodies were. My neighbor said, “Here they are, let us see who they belong to.” He lifted the cover and shouted, “Where is the third body?!” My neighbor knelt down and held my son’s head between his palms and kissed him, then started to cry.
I was afraid he would suffer severe shock when he saw the next body, so I said, “Don’t cry! God help us bear this catastrophe.” I went closer to him, held him and said, “They have killed our sons.” My neighbor looked at me, pushed me aside and ran towards the second corpse, shouting, “My son, my son!” He held him to his chest while I held my son to mine and we both wept for them. It was a dreadful, indescribably hideous nightmare. After crying for some time, we covered the bodies, but did not carry them into the house for fear that the women’s wails would bring the soldiers back, and they would definitely kill us this time. A little blonde girl with brown eyes came and stood near us. She was also crying and shaking, so I went to her and held her hands, pleading with her not to cry. She answered miserably, “The soldiers killed my father. After they shot him, they came into the house and gave us chocolate with a picture of a cow on it. They said, ‘Children this is for you.’ It was cold. I clasped the chocolate in my hand. I was so terrified that I could not cry or even move. I just looked at the faces of the soldiers that had killed my father. My father had not done anything! Why did they kill him, why? They left him here for ten days, until he rotted and gave off a horrible smell.” At that moment, I could only weep and embrace the small child.”
I left the refugee camp that day carrying a profound pain within me. I had come to carry out the task of documenting human rights violations. I left the camp on the first day, having only witnessed the external destruction and heard this story. I had come to document the crimes perpetrated by the Israeli occupation’s soldiers within the Jenin refugee camp. What documentation? Do these crimes have to be documented for them to be proven? Where is the world’s conscience, where is justice? What do the human rights conventions and the high courts of justice have to say to these children? Collect the evidence so that we can try your fathers’ murderers - store all the information in your memory and do not forget any details that could lead to the perpetrator? Do not forget the faces of the soldiers who killed your fathers? Do not despair, we have pledged to preserve human dignity and the rights of nations!