Nabi Saleh – the witness

Rights & dissent

Perched in the heart of the mountains, surrounded by several settlements, this small village is lulled by a constant, unbearable pressure. In order to get there, one has to climb the hillside to avoid the checkpoint that turns people away because the checkpoint would have turned us away. Yesterday, soldiers broke down the door of a now-empty house to access the roof. Yesterday, soldiers arrived without warning in the heart of the village to worry, once again, its residents.

Nabi Saleh

Today is Friday and there is a protest in the streets. The point is to show the soldiers that people – men, children, women – live here. The point is to show the soldiers that these people will not leave their houses. They have always lived here and it is out of the question to leave. But, as for me, I only wish for one thing: to leave this village as quickly as I can. Flee this atmosphere which smothers me. I only want one thing: I want to return to Ramallah. But these people: can they leave? Flee their homes? And if they were to leave, could they return? Is not the only choice to stay? For here in their homes are their beds, their families. Why don’t these people have the right, as I do, to feel safe behind their walls, in their living rooms?

After the afternoon prayer, the uprising begins. It is Ramadan, so the protest will be much calmer. The people who are fasting could not possibly be expected to run and walk for hours, under a white-hot sun, without eating, drinking, or resting. The young girls, their dark heads wrapped in keffiyehs, cry out, scream and sing out slogans to a crowd, who joins in. Strangers follow the crowd, always watching. I am a stranger. I can only attempt to feel, somewhat superficially, the anger which animates the protestors. I cannot understand the fear of being imprisoned once again, locked away for months, simply for having protested. I will never live in a house that could, at any moment, without any warning, be bombed with tear gas. I will never lose my child, my father, my brother, because a tear gas canister has been fired, without a second thought, too close to their bodies. A young man died in December. Here.

There are soldiers below, on the side of the mountain. They are refusing access to the wells, a water source that once belonged to the village and is now outlawed. They move forward. The crowd descends on them and regroups quietly under a tree. Certain people in the crowd are too adventurous and move closer and closer still. Women make up the front lines. Just women. They are beautiful. Two small armed groups climb up the mountain while we climb down. One group in front, another to our right. While the youth hurl stones. It is a symbolic act: a small stone thrown against one of the most powerful armies of the world. But despite all the strength in this act, and although their anger is more than justified, the act bothers me. But how could I ask them to not be angry when a man has died? When they no longer have a future? When they are prisoners of their own country?

The first tear gas canisters pierce the sky. We must run. We must avoid the tear gas canister as it ricochets and lands wherever it wishes. I must not get too close or my eyes will burn and I will not be able to film. I must not be the hero or pretend I am a warrior. I must not act like a war reporter, which is a dangerous game, because I must be able to return, to show, to speak. I must not be afraid or use all this adrenaline unwisely. The villagers move back little by little. Some return, their eyes red as fire.

The soldiers are closer now. We swerve to the right to avoid being seen. They are there, near the trees. They shoot again, this time with rubber bullets as well as tear gas. Strangers photograph, run, move forward and run away. But what is this young Danish man doing on the front lines? Is he seeking some glorious war wound? Where is the fear of getting hit? The soldiers shoot again, and we run, hearing only the first name of a man being yelled over and over again. A puddle of red spreads across the ground. Someone is wounded. A crowd gathers to see: it is a child. A little boy, who cries, his arm wounded. It is nothing serious, he has not been shot. The tear gas canisters are not supposed to kill anyone. The little boy cries, and the Danish man takes photo after photo. I wonder where the line is drawn between communicating, showing, explaining, justifying and exploring someone else’s misery. When does this work become about our egos, our desire to see horror, our hope to become famous through our photographs? And yet, am I not doing the same thing? Should I stop filming? What is the point of playing a reporter or making a show of bravery? His eyes red, the man can no longer take pictures.

On the side of the other mountain, there are massive houses and villas that all look alike: it is a settlement. What have the settlers seen? Have they the slightest idea what kind of people live in the village? Do they know where the tear gas comes from? Do they know that yesterday the soldiers came and broke down the door of a house? Do they know of the young man who died? Do they know that the villagers possess only stones with which to protect themselves? Do they know that their water source has been forbidden?

What do they know of the village? What have they been told of the women who are imprisoned, simply because they protested? What could these people have possibly been offered to want to live in such a hostile environment? Have they been paid off, told not to ask questions? What have they been given so that they will stay inside? Can these people come and leave? Is staying their only option because these are their homes, their beds, their families? Don’t these people have a right to feel safe too?

The protest creeps to its end. I can’t stand this place now. I must leave. I must return to Ramallah. It is unbearable to live; fear and oxygen fuse into one atom.

This is the fourth part in a series of chronicles from Palestine. Find the three firsts parts here and here and here.

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