Dheisheh refugee camp
August 9, 2013
Leila is five years old. Wearing a fluorescent yellow t-shirt and colourful barrettes in her hair, she walks down the sloping street hand-in-hand with Karen, a gentle 49-year-old Englishwoman — my mother in Palestine. Karen lives with us on the farm on top of the mountain. She takes care of meals, the laundry and more. Her voice is sweet, sweet as an almond candy, and sounds like the tunes of long ago which used to soothe babies at bedtime. These past few days, she has been staying with the little girl who is squeezing her fingers. Eid has been celebrated in the Dheisheh camp. In that refugee camp — Bethlehem’s third and largest one — is where Leila’s house is.
A metal door. Something that could pass for a garden; a tree, a few birds. There’s the house. Not much on the walls, three small sofas, sparsely furnished rooms; we are welcomed in and offered tea. Wael and Maissa have five children including Leila; they are a cheerful bunch. Wael is a painter, so he has taken big care to decorate his house with bright and warm colours: yellow, blue, red. But the doors rattle; it’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Maissa serves more tea, and two more friends turn up: Johannes and Karel, also from the farm where I live, and where I always return to. Maissa works as a cook in a school. With that small salary, the family survives. Wael himself does not work — there are no longer any jobs here.
Where does he come from? What’s his story? The Nakba, the exodus of his parents, and their arrival in a camp made from nothing more than tents of tarpaulin back in 1950. Nowadays, the camp is a village, right next to the town, where streets have no names and houses have no numbers. That prevents the Israeli army from easily locating its inhabitants — yet they come here to draw maps, to later be able to locate and take away faces. They come once, twice, or even three times a week. Sometimes in military fatigues, other times in plain clothes – and they take away men, young or old, it doesn’t matter. And so a brother disappears, a father, an uncle, a son: 24 hours in jail, two days, two weeks, two months, two years… The reasons are countless. Hearsay is enough. If someone is rumoured to have cast a stone, no evidence will be needed to punish the criminal who dared to protest against the dividing wall — a wall the international community has not approved.
This week, men have vanished again in Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem. But what does it matter? It is normal. It is necessary in order to eradicate the vile race, bereft of army, of state, of representatives of its unity; bereft of power, without water, without electricity and without rights. Those who dare to protect their houses and families to survive.
Karen tells me the local stories. How one day, soldiers entered a house in the middle of the night. They had to check IDs, they said. Maissa’s baby was crying, so a young man, wearing a khaki-green helmet, took the small and frightened child in his large arms and rocked it back and forth, at the end of the garden, until his colleagues finished the job. “What a nice soldier,” Maissa said. As a young mother, she hopes to pacify the youth who come into her house to check something that is never there, and to frighten those who needn’t be to be frightened. But they seem trapped, by a conflict where any meaning has been lost for too many years. So Maissa waits it out in silence. She waits until her offspring may one day go to the sea, beyond borders, and return to a peaceful country.
Wael leads us through the narrow streets on a tour of his village and its secrets. Here, children are always playing war behind low walls and in back alleys. Today, apart from the kids’ cute faces, the village is asleep, exhausted from Eid. And Wael, grinning, enjoys the rare silence of his neighbourhood. There are homes of all kinds — some refugees have even grown rich and live behind more luxurious walls — but they are all subject to the same restrictions. Water doesn’t always run and electricity plays tricks. Further up, Wael’s parents-in-law welcome us open-armed into their dining room and again, we are invited to drink tea. An embroidered key is hung on the wall. The key to their house — somewhere, not so far — where they hope to go back one day, Inshallah. But they are not religious people, neither Christians nor Muslims. There isn’t always room for God in this holy, bleeding country.
Like 97% of the country’s refugees, they live within 100 kilometres of their original house.
Like 50% of them, they live within 40 kilometres of their village.
Do they know that 90% of Palestinian villages, evacuated in the past, now stand empty?
Those houses, the houses where the inhabitants no longer live, were stolen with blood, fright and terror over a period of 65 years ago. But in the cities by the sea — cities that now look like Miami, Los Angeles, Nice or Monaco; Tel-Aviv, or others further up or down the coast — it is believed that the word Nakba is the Arabic expression for “independence day,” when it actually means “disaster”. And many Israelis believe that the ruins nearby their cities are memories dating back to Roman times, not remnants of houses of those who now live crammed into ghettos. History is written, dizzying, before the eyes of the world and in silence.
Translated from French by Andrea Davoust and edited by Adam Ramsi.