A New Face on an Old Situation

by Susan J. Abulhawa

May 1, 2002


I felt a gentle tap as I stood filming residents recover two more corpses from beneath the rubble at Jenin's ground zero. One was the body of an infant, the other a man, perhaps her father. I turned to find Fatima, a tall slender girl of ten years with a sweet disposition. "Thank you for painting my face today," she said shyly.


Fatima was one of several hundred children who gathered at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society to take part in a "day of recovery" for the children of Jenin's refugee camp. Volunteers from the camp organized activities with very limited resources to start a healing process of sorts.


Two volunteers led a huge circle of nearly 100 children in the Arabic equivalent of the hokey-pokey. A clown walked around handing out balloons. We did face paintings until we ran completely out of paint.


Two story-telling tents were packed full. A young volunteer led a merry march of some 200 children singing songs and silly rhymes. When they saw my camera, they began to chant in Arabic: "film us film us, we are strong. Film us, we are brave. Film us, we are the heroes of Jenin."


On the surface, they seemed like "normal" children. But the pictures they drew betrayed the tragic life they live. Iman, a deaf and mute seven-year-old girl drew a picture of a bloodied old man lying on the ground in front of a tank with the Star of David painted on it. Above him, she drew a helicopter firing missiles on a burning home. In the corner was a girl with tears running down her face. I learned later that her grandfather was killed and his body left on the ground.


The idea of treating such painful wounds seems like an enormous, if not impossible, task. When I left, there were still children who had no idea where their parents were. In homes where the IDF took up camp, entire families were packed into one room with little to no food or water for days. Samer, 8, told me that a soldier let him go to the bathroom only after he wet his pants. Aisha, 5, has not uttered a single word in three weeks. Amjad, 13, lost his "life's savings," in a wooden box he used to save up for a new bike. Khalid, 12, lost his father, three uncles and one cousin. Another Khalid, also 12, keeps having asthma attacks from the cloud of dust that lingers from the rubble. His father, according to several eyewitnesses, was shot by the IDF, then squashed under the tread of a tank. Hiba, 4, huddled on the first floor of their home while helicopters rocketed the top two floors. Indeed, spent Apache missiles could be found throughout the camp.


Fatima and I walked hand in hand toward the mosque on a hill where snipers had been positioned. The place was trashed and sprayed with Hebrew graffiti. From the roof of the mosque, you could survey the awesome devastation. Several people just looked out in silence. Two young boys, whose faces were still painted from the morning, played with toy cars while burning cigarettes dangled from their young lips.


In the basement soldiers used what used to be a kindergarten as a big toilet and flies buzzed over their excrement inside the children's desks and on their toys. They had used pages from the Quran as toilet paper. On a mural of children's faces, soldiers had carved holes in the wall where eyes were once painted.


I asked a young boy there what he wanted to do when he grew up. He described a fantasy of making a big bomb that would put an end to Israel. He said he would become a suicide bomber some day because they have only their bodies as weapons to fight back.


Sad and misguided as his ambitions might be, I could not stand in judgment of anyone who lives in that tortured and besieged ghetto, where uprooted human beings have been dumped like nothingness.


I asked Fatima what she wanted when she grew up. With an eerie cynicism of lost innocence, she challenged my assumption that she would not be killed before growing up. Then she rattled off a list of political and human rights goals, like "freedom," and "a Palestinian state." I asked again: "What do you want just for Fatima."


She paused. "I want a doll house with little furniture inside. Have you ever seen one? I saw it in a picture."


It is difficult to sort through all the emotions, both theirs and mine. Boys become hardened men too young and their tortured lives, where only death is freedom, creates a necrophilia among them. Just being there, your heart cannot help but bleed. You cannot but be humbled by their resilience, their defiance and their spirit. They are still without running water and enough food, but I was not surprised when they blocked a USAID truck delivering tents, food and water from the US government. "We don't want anything from the US. Look around," said one man pointing at the massive destruction. "Don't you think they've sent us ENOUGH?"


That is the strength, pride and indomitable will of a people who held off one of the world's most sophisticated armies for nine days with only a handful of lightly armed fighters who fought until their last breath.


The people of Jenin are not only tough, they are perhaps the warmest people I have ever known. No one had an intact home left, yet they were all eager to house and feed us. I went there alone but picked up a few stray Americans (tax payers) who could not speak the language. They too were welcomed, fed and provided a place to sleep. The generosity of these people was especially poignant one misty morning when Ahmed, a young man of 15 years brought me a bag of stale falafel for breakfast. He apologized for not having enough money to get me something better!


Though I was there only three days among the refugees of Jenin, I feel that a part of me will always remain there. I am in awe of how a community can be so tough and angry while simultaneously be so warm, gracious and giving. Their determination to start over again with nothing is perhaps the legacy of all Palestinians.


Like other massacres committed against the Palestinians people, it seems we will never know how many people really died there since Israel will not allow an investigation. No census of the people was taken at Sabra and Shatila, Qibya, or Qana. No investigation.


No justice then or now.


But these sons of the land shall rebuild through their pain and anger, as their fathers rebuilt when their Palestine, now Israel, was razed. Jenin's violated children will play and sing in its cramped alleyways. And I hope I will have the honor to paint their faces again, and help them get bikes and doll houses. 


Susan J. Abulhawa is a Palestinian who resides in Pennsylvania. She is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, a non-profit organization dedicated to building playgrounds and recreation areas for Palestinian children living under military occupation. To find out more about this vital project, visit: http://www.playgroundsforpalestine.org/


Susan can be contacted at: JABROLE@aol.com




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