Cries From The Camp


new internationalist
issue 199 - September 1989

Cries from the camp
'Out of the night comes the tramping of feet, the forbidden chanting
of voices, louder and louder, nearer and nearer...' Repression and defiance
fill the long days and nights of Palestinian refugees. Sue Shaw reports.

High above the West Bank refugee camp of Jelazone, Israeli soldiers are watching us. They sit in their armoured vehicle, guns trained on the camp. The nasal sound of their radio communication drifts across the sultry air. The jeep cruises up and down to view us better. We study their every move - anticipating. There is nothing else to do.

It is only nine a.m. but stiflingly hot inside the two concrete rooms that Maha shares with her husband Ibrahim and their two babies; the roof is corrugated iron. We sit outside in the shade.

The little boy whimpers while the baby sleeps. Both are sick. 'We cannot afford milk,' says Ibrahim. He rarely smiles; his face is full of tension. Ibrahim is 24 years old and has been arrested 16 times for throwing stones. The last time the soldiers came, Maha was pregnant. They flung her in a room, shot tear gas at her, beat Ibrahim and dragged him away. He disappeared for six months - no-one knew where until a friend was released from the same prison. Today Ibrahim cannot work because his ID card is green - the kind issued to ex-prisoners so that potential employers can identify them.

Maha ties up her long hair and squats in the dust, washing breakfast dishes under the outside tap. She used to be a kindergarten teacher until the uprising. Now she works on the women's committee, collecting food, visiting the families of the bereaved; assisting other refugees as best she can.

Poverty and violence
Like Ibrahim, she was born here. 'We had no childhood,' she says. 'There was nothing to play with but stones and no books unless someone gave them to you.' Her earliest memory is of seeing her big brother taken by soldiers. She was six years old. She screamed and shouted. It did no good.

Poverty and violence are all she has known and they have escalated with the intifada. The uprising has changed her life.

As a woman, Maha's traditional role was bringing up children. The house was her domain. But today she participates in demonstrations along with the other women. I can always do something like taking care of the wounded or helping the young men when they escape from soldiers,' she says. 'There is more than one way out of the camp and the soldiers can't cover them all. I see everything from my house so I know the best ways to go.

Before the uprising most of the men worked as low-paid casual labourers on construction sites in Jerusalem. Today many have lost their jobs due to curfews and strikes, or because of imprisonment: every man in this camp has been arrested at some point. They get work when and where they can, usually illegally.

Everything is illegal here. The schools are closed and educating children is punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Ibrahim's 13-year-old brother was even arrested for helping to build roads and houses. He was tortured with electric shocks, beaten on the soles of his feet and stuffed in a cement cupboard for 20 days. Altogether he was detained for 18 months.

'We used to be scared of the soldiers,' says Maha. 'But we have seen them kill, shout, break bones, demolish homes. What more can they do? We are not frightened of them now. Things are harder but at least there is hope. Before there was none.'

She is interrupted. Ibrahim's younger brother bursts through the gate and draws Ibrahim aside for an urgent consultation. The two run off. Trouble is brewing.

Loving families
Maha struggles to maintain a semblance s of normality for her children. Carefully she arranges the plates in her tiny kitchen, and tidies the bedding on the floor to make the most of what little space there is. Across the alley, a family of 13 live jammed into two bare concrete rooms. Around 6,000 people here have lived thus for the past 40 years. Few can afford to leave except to move to other camps. They have nothing - except each other.

We pass time visiting Maha's cousin. She is out but we see the rubble of her home; it was bulldozed by soldiers because her ten year-old son was accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail. The family now live under canvas in a relative's back yard.

En route to visit Maha's aunt we pass entire families - apparently oblivious to the stench of raw sewage - seated on doorsteps. Their homes are gaudy with graffiti announcing future demonstrations. Some writing has been obliterated by soldiers and a Jewish star substituted. Occasionally the refugees have added a swastika.

By the time we reach Laila's house we have acquired an entourage. Laila apologizes for the lack of seating. She has only 15 shekels ($7.50) a week to feed her family of 10 and can't afford luxuries. Her family lives in a single toilet-sized room. And her 14-year-old son is recovering from two bullet wounds. A thin, pale boy, he pulls up his jellaba (a loose knee-length garment) to reveal the colostomy bag he now wears, and the dressing where he was shot in his kidney.

Laila sighs. She has lived here at Jelazone all her life. 'My father and grandfather told me that we did not always live in camps. Once we had land and houses. I shall tell my children and they will tell theirs. Even if they destroy us all we will never forget,' she says. 'If we have ten children we are ready to give five - if only we can have a state of our own.

She makes coffee and serves it on a tray balanced on a bucket. Inevitably conversation gravitates to the intifada.

When Laila visited her son in hospital she saw an eight year-old boy who had been shot three times. 'I asked why they shot him and he said he didn't know. He thought the soldiers were scared of him because he was throwing stones.' We laugh.

The same day, soldiers came to the hospital to arrest one of the injured. The mothers rounded up all the young men in the street, dressed them in white and put them in beds as if they were sick. Then they gathered in circles around the beds and told the soldiers to leave their sons alone. It was a success: the soldiers left.

Maha and I are reflecting on this triumph when a youth rushes in and begins whispering with Laila's injured son. The two disappear. Laila and Maha exchange glances. The baby starts to cry. Grimly Laila begins another story.

Wild dash
During her eldest son's 18-month detention Jelazone was put under a 40-day curfew. No-one could leave their house. To open a window invited a tear gas canister, and a dash to the outside toilet carried the risk of getting shot. It was winter and freezing. 'We burned all our clothes to keep warm,' Laila says. 'A soldier saw me collecting wood and shot me in the hand. Then the food ran out. I thought, "If they kill me it's OK, but I have to get food for my children". They must survive.'

So she crept from the camp and up the road to a shop. On the way back she was stopped by an armed soldier. 'Kill me if you please,' she said. 'We have been under curfew for 30 days and I had to buy food for my children.' The soldier lowered his gun. He did not want to see her face again, he said. 'Nor I yours,' she retorted and marched off.

After this she crept out often with a group of other mothers, trekking more than 20 miles across the barren mountain to visit their sons in jail. 'Even if there are a million soldiers, I will visit my son in prison. They will never control us. Never. I cannot run like the young men. But if I could, I would, and I would carry the stones in my dress,' she declares.

We take our leave. The sun is sinking. The growing tension in the camp is unmistakable. People have disappeared from their doorways. Army jeeps are gathering on the road. Ibrahim gives me a plum-like fruit from his mother's tree which will help reduce the effects of tear gas. A demonstration is planned.

Boys are collecting in the streets. Maha holds her baby close. Nobody knows what will happen tonight.

As darkness falls we cross the street to take the babies to their grandmother's house. Several children are there. They sit in a silent row on the porch with strained faces and clasped hands, waiting. The minutes tick slowly by. No-one speaks.

Then we rise. We go down the steps, through dark alleys, past shadowy figures lurking in doorways. Army lights flash on the road above. We slip into an empty house to wait.

A strange sound comes through the darkness. At first unidentifiable, it swells from a mere whisper to the tramp, tramp. tramp of feet, the forbidden chanting of voices, growing louder and louder. 'We want a decent life: give us a state of our own!' Like ghosts they emerge from the night, pass us for a brief moment, shouting in defiant unison at the soldiers above. And then they are gone - 25 young men with masked faces and tunics made from hand-stitched Palestinian flags, who will spend the night at each exit of the camp and defend us with stones from the soldiers' guns.

Seconds later a spotlight beams down tracing each and every alley, searching for the source of the dissent. We duck as it illuminates our road: it is deserted. And still the chanting continues.

Back at grandmother's house we sit on the verandah listening as the shoots rise to a crescendo accompanied by cheers and clapping from the heart of the camp. There is defiance there - and optimism. A roar fills the air as a helicopter thunders overhead and beams its light into the camp, scouring each house and road. Last week in Gaza the soldiers were shooting from helicopters. There is no telephone in Jelazone. Nobody can help.

With grim determination the grandmother and her daughters get out potatoes and begin to peel them. Maha nurses her baby. The men light a small charcoal grill. As the helicopter circles around and around above us, we sit there, trying to carry on as normal, just waiting.

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New Internationalist issue 199 magazine cover This article is from the September 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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