Palestine-Israel Journal: Now, as you are in the midst of negotiations for the implementation of the DOP agreements concluded in Oslo, can you recount to us the beginning of the Nakba as it occurs in the memory of the Palestinian child, Mahmoud Abbas, the son of Safad
Mahmoud Abbas: In my memory as a child in Safad, many bitter recollections are intermingled. They start with the first three years of my life which were marked by my father's incarceration. He was transferred by the British Mandate authorities together with other men to Acre prison during the Second World War. Although our country was not an arena for the fighting, we lived the war and suffered its impact. I still recall the intermittent sounds of sirens, calling people to put out the light and to hide indoors. We felt the brunt of the war mainly through the austerity measures imposed on the country.
This stage of the Second World War merges with a military resistance led by some Zionist Jewish organizations (Irgun, Stern) against the British Mandate. Another stage came with the declaration, in 1947, of the UN General Assembly Partition Plan, amidst preparations for the struggle ahead - a time of fear, waiting and hope.
Arab-Jewish confrontations began in the presence of the British army, which tried to show some form of neutrality or to turn a blind eye to what was taking place around it. What I still remember vividly are those random bombs that fell the day the British army left. Many believe it was the army itself that was responsible, causing the death of tens of women, children and old people in my neighborhood, most of them my relatives and friends. These days saw a strange mixture of continuous political events and bloody clashes among the different parties: Arabs, Jews, British. These are the events that also shaped my political consciousness at an early age.
Relations between the Arab and Jewish residents of the town were normal. We, in Safad, used to walk in the Jewish Quarter. There were frequent contacts between Jews and Arabs on the social and economic levels, and a lot of business transactions between the two sides as citizens of the same country. Thus, during religious holidays we used to exchange gifts or sweets or foodstuff. What has lingered in my memory is the fact that the town lacked musicians to play at weddings and other gatherings and, very often, Jewish musicians, expert in Arabic music and songs, used to be invited to perform on these occasions.
Fifty years of exile and estrangement have not wiped the image of my hometown from my memory. Every face, every detail is still firmly and vividly inscribed there. At any moment, I can roam in my mind's eye in the quarters, the streets and the houses of my hometown.

Do you remember the day you fled from Safad? How did it happen? And where did you settle?
One day in April [1948], we awoke with the terrifying news of the fall of Ein Zaitoun village, which falls west of our town, into the hands of the Haganah. With its fall, Safad was besieged from all sides except for one passage in the south. The town had thus become vulnerable, a situation that called for the evacuation of women and children, away from Jewish shelling. My father decided to take me, together with some members of the family, to a safe place, leaving my two older brothers and my mother to hold the fort. Later he would go back.
My father had good contacts with some Bedouins in the east between Tiberias and Al-Ja'ounah, and they had the means to take us to Syria. We embarked on a march we thought would be only a short trip, but I had the strange premonition it would last decades, and that I would never see my house again. Thus started the long, painful, aimless, desperate march.
We reached Al-Shari'ah River (the Jordan River) at a point where the current is at its strongest. We crossed the waters on horseback until we reached the village of Btehah and from there we went to Damascus and then to Irbid in Jordan. There we were joined by the rest of the family after the fall of Safad to the Zionist forces. Finally we settled in Damascus.
I did not lead a regular childhood; I did not even know the meaning of the word "childhood." I was at an age where I was neither a little child nor a mature adult, and I had to assume the responsibilities of an adult and to go out and work in order to earn a living for me and for my family, as did most of my brothers, friends and children of our neighborhood and my hometown.
But it was a beginning. We accepted whatever came our way. We hit the lowest rung of the social ladder, looking for a source of livelihood. At the same time, we were searching for any relative, friend or resident of our hometown who, too, might have escaped to Damascus. Within a few years, most people from our town ended up in Damascus and its suburbs. Having lost everything, they looked to education as their only source of wealth.
My parents had no means to send me to school. With time, I was able to continue my education and got involved in politics. This meant giving serious thought to ways of retrieving the homeland, and that was what led me to Fateh.
After secondary school, I read law at the university and at the same time I participated in the establishment of a political Palestinian organization, adding thus to the responsibilities assumed by my peer group because, when I talk about myself, I am talking about a whole generation that had lost its childhood and was compelled to move directly into adulthood. But there was always that torment: What about the homeland? A question that constantly begged an answer.

After your return to the homeland in the wake of the Oslo agreement, the first thing you thought of was to visit your birthplace, Safad. As we recall, you were not allowed to do that. What were your feelings then, you, the architect of Oslo? What did you feel when you entered the town half a century after the expulsion?
My first concern was to visit Safad, the town of my birth, my childhood recollections, my home where I grew up, the schools where I studied up to seventh grade.
I yearned to visit it and I counted the hours and minutes until I could set eyes on it. But I received a shock when I heard over the news that the mayor and the residents of the town were demonstrating in the streets, protesting my visit. Some even slept on the road to block my access. The Israeli police advised me not to take any chances. For me, that was a huge disappointment, indeed a defeat.
Later, on the same day, Amram Mitznah, the mayor of Haifa, called me and invited me to visit the city. And so I went to Haifa where Mitznah was waiting for me and he said to me: "If the town of Safad did not receive you, the city of Haifa welcomes you." These words came as a balm to the bitterness in my soul because it gave me hope that our struggle for peace was not only ink on paper.
A year later, I visited Safad secretly and I walked in some of its quarters and I left hurriedly to avoid being caught. The day the press found out, I had an appointment with the mayor of Tel Aviv. I saw scores of demonstrators near the City Hall protesting my secret visit. I learnt they had come all the way from Safad, specifically for that purpose.

Today, four years after your return to the lands of the Palestinian Authority, have you realized the dream of return? Or is the dream still incomplete?
If I have realized the dream of return, as have, too, many others, we are still at the beginning of the road. Thousands and thousands are still waiting for decisions pertaining to their destiny, and many problems are still waiting to be solved.
The expression of historic reconciliation as spelled out in the preamble to the Oslo agreement still requires committed efforts, as well as goodwill on the part of everybody. Reconciliation is not only between leaderships, but has to reach all people, all souls and all minds.
Form our point of view, the historic handshake on the White House lawn was a real beginning to a long march and a real end to what was still a longer march. It was a living example of the beginning of a common life, of coexistence and cooperation that looks to the future where hopes flourish and dreams are realized, where children and grandchildren will have the right to peaceful and happy memories. Nowadays, I feel bad because everything has been frozen as though somebody were pulling back the carriage of peace, and I fear they might succeed.