Voices From Jenin
A young boy arrives at the bombed out school building. The boy's face is covered with a mask against the dust. He carries a brown plastic grocery bag in one hand, and with his free hand he removes his surgical gloves. He has come to hand over what he carries in the bag: the remains of a human being. He believes it is what remains of the hand of Mohammed Toul, a Jihad activist. The photographers take pictures of the bag and then go away to new places. The bag is left under the table. I ask one of our guides if the remains will be sent to some laboratory where they can be analysed. Some place where they identify the bodies and issue death certificates. He shakes his head and says: "Here we know each other well. We know what kind of clothes our friends had, what kind of caps or bandannas they wore, which T-shirt they wore that day. This is how we, the Palestinians, make our DNA analysis. It's not very sophisticated, but that's the only way we can afford."
This school building is in the Jenin refugee camp (since l948, when the state of Israel was proclaimed, this camp has served as temporary housing for about 15,000 Palestinians). Now the school functions as a temporary gathering place for persons who want to report their relatives or friends as missing. The camp's patient Palestinian clerks, who list the long rows of names, used to work in a building that until some days ago was Jenin's City Hall. But it has been destroyed - as almost all of Jenin's official buildings - by Apache helicopters.
The centre of Jenin has been demolished. It is just a hole, full of debris, the size of three football fields. Once there were houses, schools, and other buildings here. From the hole comes a sweetish smell of corpses. Nobody knows for certain how many people lie buried under the remains of the houses, since all the bulldozers in the City Hall' s garage have been destroyed, all except one, which the driver brought home with him.
Jenin is Palestine's Ground Zero. Around this hole hundreds of people gather. They are paralysed onlookers. Peace movement monks from Tibet. Swedish politicians. American peace activists. French medical doctors. Italian teachers. Japanese filmmakers. Some have climbed up the mountain the day before, while the Israelis still held the siege around the camp. Others have arrived today, driving old cars and walking several kilometres over the fields. When I climbed the nearby hills, I thought that this must be quite similar to 1936 when Ernest Hemingway and many others walked the length of the Pyrenees to fight against the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
We sleep in a flat that functions both as an office and sleeping quarters. My travel companion, the visual artist Cecilia Parsberg, and I have been given two narrow beds with new sheets that still reek of detergent. When we wake in the morning and go to the living room, we meet the others staying there: an Indian pathologist on a couch, an anthropologist on a mattress on the floor, and an Irish pathologist in the bathroom. They belong to the Physicians for Peace and have been previously to Kosovo and Sebrenica digging out bodies, taking samples to confirm the sex and age of the dead. Now they are afraid they have arrived in Jenin too late.
We talk with Doctor Walid who was confined in Jenin's hospital for twenty days, almost without water and with very little food. When the hospital's electricity was cut after a few days, the Israelis allowed the Red Cross to go in with two generators. Without them, there would have been no way to preserve the dead bodies (the majority being civilians--women and children). The Israelis, as one of the hospital nurses explained, feared an epidemic. The head of the Palestinian Red Crescent was murdered on the second day of the invasion, while another doctor died as the result of an explosion. The latter was driving in his car, transporting an oxygen tank to the hospital. A sniper shot at the tank and the car exploded. The doctor died slowly and screamed for an hour before he died. Doctor Walid recalls that no one dared to go and help him, since the snipers were aiming at everyone. Now the hospital is dealing with new victims. Yesterday, two small children were wounded by a land mine while playing at the back of the hospital. We hear that one of them has just died.
Of the fifteen thousand people who once lived in this camp, five thousand escaped (mostly women, children, and the elderly). Now they are slowly coming back, going home to their demolished houses, sitting among the debris of what once was their living rooms.
We climb a staircase that opens towards nothing. Only two walls are intact. An older woman wearing a white scarf on her head and dressed in typical Palestinian dress, with a beautiful ochre colour, talks to us in Arabic. She wants to tell her story. Her house has been destroyed; her pots and pans smashed. The soldiers destroyed cabinets, which she was still paying off. At first, she does not want to be photographed. She says she has not been able to wash herself for twenty days. We compare our dusty clothes, and find that hers are cleaner than ours are. At last, she agrees to have her photo taken. Then she invites us to share her food - the little she has - with her family. When we try to pay something towards the meal they look at us as if we have insulted them.
We leave things behind. Mementos. A watch, pens, and pictures. We will leave, but in these mementos we are still there, in Jenin, which in Arabic means, 'the place with the beautiful gardens.'
Ana L. Valdés, Writer
Cecilia Parsberg, Visual Artist