Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nakba Memories

“The ink of the scholar is holier more than the blood of the martyr"- Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)

Al-Nakba and Memories (1967 War)

By Mike Odetalla

Al-Nakba: Refugees picture gallery

May 15th. 2009 - The 61st anniversary of Nakba: the disaster of the people of Palestine. On this date, May 15th 1948, we, the people of Palestine began our long and painful journey into exile. Dispossessed from home and homeland, this was the start of the refugee ‘problem’ that still exists today. More than 3 million Palestinians live as refugees in squalid conditions in camps in Palestine and throughout the Arab world. I sat this week watching old black and white films of my people as they fled their homes, clutching children and what few possessions that they could carry, I could not help but realize that there, but for the grace of God, could easily have been my family as well. But I, it seems, have a different fate, a different responsibility: to tell our story, to document, so that it may never be forgotten.

Shortly after the June 1967 War began, the people of our village, Beit Hanina, realized with grim reality that the Israeli army would be coming here: the realization brought panic; people began to prepare to flee their homes. With memories of the atrocities of Deir Yasein and other Palestinian villages still vivid in their minds, they feared that massacres might once more be carried out. The gruesome stories of death and murder were known by all Palestinians, indeed, by all in the world who chose to know them.

It was against this backdrop that my mother decided to join our neighbors as they fled with their families to the surrounding caves in the hills overlooking our village. I recall my mother frantically trying to gather what she thought we would need and could manage to carry. She instructed me to go across our village and get my oldest sister, Aziza, who, married for a year, had given birth to her first child, a son, on May 20th, 1967. Running as fast as a six year old could, I reached her house and relayed the message. My sister instructed me to tell mom that she would follow us, with her husband, as soon as they were able to gather a few belongings. I returned home and assured my mother that Aziza and her family would join us soon.

Meanwhile, my mom decided that my second sister, Najah, a 13-year-old beauty with long, beautiful, blond hair and striking blue eyes, must be made to look like a boy. She feared for her safety if the Israeli soldiers should happen to come upon us. Grabbing a pair of scissors, she chopped away at that long, beautiful hair, and then she tossed some of my brother, Musa’s, clothes to wear. There! Now she looked just like a little boy.

When my sister, her husband, and infant son arrived, shortly before sunset, we took what we could carry and ran to the hills. After a long and arduous climb, we made our way to a large cave whose opening faced Jerusalem, providing a vantage point for viewing the battle raging in the distance. Already inside the cave were about 17 people, mostly women and children. We brought in our belongings and settled into a niche of the cave. Then, I made my way to the cave’s mouth and sat down to watch the "fireworks show" lighting the night sky. Fear and anxiety could be seen on all the faces of the adults inside, but the only noise was the crying of my infant nephew and the muffled weeping of the women who pondered our fate. We had left our homes and all we had behind, and now we were sharing our fate in a cave infested with snakes and scorpions.

Around midnight, when we’d been in the cave about 4 hours, my mother noticed an Israeli jet circling and buzzing the area of our cave, which was lit by a very bright, full moon. After a couple of more passes over our heads, my mom instructed us to gather our belongings and get out of the cave. Others pleaded with her, trying to convince her to stay: if she left in the full moon, she would be inviting the slaughter of her children. But, my mother refused to listen and grabbing me by the hand began walking with me away from the cave to a large olive tree about 50 meters away. My mother called out to those still in the cave, begging them to join us: she feared that the Israeli jet was about to strike. Slowly, they began to leave the cave and joined us under the olive trees. Just then, the jet reappeared: it made two passes, before, on the third, it fired two missiles into the mouth of the cave. The explosion and light was beyond anything I’d ever imagined; the ball of fire that blew out of the mouth of the cave was so terrifying that I still hear it today. I realized that, had we not listened to my mother, we would have blown to bits in the cave.

We stayed under the olive trees for about an hour, waiting, lest the jet returned; eventually we headed to the other side of the mountain to seek another cave. We found one whose mouth faced straight up to the sky. Once inside, one could go deeper in any direction. A child of 6, I was no stranger to the caves surrounding my village, none of us children were. We had spent glorious days playing there: flying kites; tagging along as the older boys hunted pheasants; climbing in the olive trees; eating the succulent grapes from the vines all around.

After a couple of days, the hunger and thirst began to set in: we were nearly 20 people in the cave; there was not enough food or water for everyone. My mom would sneak into the wheat fields and cut bunches of wheat stalks, still green in mid June. She brought back the stalks and roasted their soft, green grains over an open fire, then rubbed them together to make the roasted grains fall out so that she could give us the grains to eat. Hunger helps enrich the memory of the food we eat for a long time: I remember the taste of that grain to this day. (Author’s note: the practice of roasting green grain is still practiced over much of the Arab world. The grain is roasted and cracked before being cooked in a type of soup called "freaka", usually cooked with lamb or chicken.)

Today, I can’t help being mindful that we Palestinians have our own experiences with the unleavened bread - as is celebrated by the Jews who commemorate their exodus and freedom from Pharaoh. Except, of course, we commemorate our exodus and entry into Diaspora. The Palestinian women, anxious to feed their children, would slip into nearby abandoned homes looking for any kind of food to feed us. Once they returned with flour, water, sugar, and olive oil. They kneaded the dough and immediately baked it over a fire covered with the metal lid of a barrel, the lid providing the surface upon which the bread was baked: there was no time to wait for the dough to rise. As an adult, sharing the Jewish holiday of Passover, with my friends, I am drawn by powerful but ironic parallels between the Palestinian experience of running away in fear into the wilderness, chased by an army, looking for freedom, eating unleavened bread as we ran. For me, Pharaoh’s army was the Israel Defense Forces and we; the Palestinians were the persecuted Jews.

Not 42 years, but a mere 10 days had elapsed since we were forced to flee our homes. Still wearing the same clothes, the clothes, which we had left with, no bath since we fled, our situation was becoming quite desperate: there was no food or water. What little water we were able to get from the nearby wells was dangerously costly: some of the men had been shot and killed trying to draw water from those wells. Most of the people staying with us in the cave began to speak of heading for Jordan, about 30 Km to the east. We had heard that the Israelis were offering ‘safe passage’ to Palestinians fleeing to Jordan: indeed, the policy of the Israeli government was to ‘facilitating’ the movement of Palestinians into Jordan. My grandfather, uncles, their families, had all made their way to Jordan: none of my mother’s family had remained in Palestine. Still, my mother was hesitant to leave our home. The entire group, we among them, left the cave early that morning, in the already hot, blistering mid June sun. We tied a white piece of cloth to a stick, and marched behind it, a flag of surrender. A neighbor, an elderly gentleman of 75, took me by the hand, carefully instructing me to stay with him: if the Israeli soldiers came for him, I was to start crying and tell them he was my grandfather. He could barely walk without the aid of a cane; I clung to his hand and helped him walk the entire way. We headed due east to Jericho and Jordan. About 6 kilometers into our journey, we came across an abandoned home. The residents had left in a hurry for the door was wide open. One of the ladies went inside and returned a few minutes later with dried loaves of bread, several days old. My mom took a piece from her and gave it to me to eat. She then went to the remains of the vegetable garden and cut some green onions for me to eat with my stale bread. I had one hell of a time trying to swallow that mixture of green onions and stale bread, but my mother noticed and offered me a sip of precious water to help it down.

The sights and smells that greeted this 6 year old boy as we made our way toward Jordan, can never be forgotten: the bullet riddled bodies of Palestinian fighters, Jordanian soldiers, and of Palestinian civilians, mostly women and young children; the putrid stench of the decaying bodies, bloated by the hot June sun. I noticed some medical personnel wearing masks drenched in perfume, trying to bury some of the bodies. My mom urged me not to look, to keep walking, but I could not obey: death and destruction were all around and sometimes; I still see these images in my sleep.

We walked for another 3 hours and suddenly, my mom stopped. She told us we were going to head back: she feared that if we did get to Jordan, we would never be allowed to return home. There was no one to help us in Jordan: our only option there would be a refugee camp. My mom refused the prospect of condemning her family to a refugee camp for the rest of their lives. Against all the protestations of our fellow refugees, my mother turned us around and headed back to Beit Hanina. The others tried to tell her that she would get herself and her children killed, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. About half of the people with us joined her lead and headed back into Palestine, the rest joined the long, steady stream of refugees headed for Jordan: parents carrying children, men carrying the elderly, poor people clutching their meager belongings. We were human beings, in great pain, trekking in fear and in search of sanctuary. Most were never allowed to return to their homes in Palestine. Some managed to sneak back, but most become refugees in Jordan. My aunt and uncles were among those stranded in Jordan.

The pictures of the “humane” Israeli army helping people across the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, make great propaganda: the Israeli soldiers carried children across collapsed bridges - a very powerful image for the world to see: I, too, see them helping the poor Palestinian refugees flee, but I also see that this was the intent of the Israeli government –which was fully aware that their job was to maximize the number of Palestinians “ethnically cleansed” from Palestine by helping them to cross over into Jordan. The Israeli government had no intent of ever allowing these people to return to their homes. The Israeli soldiers were not performing humanitarian aid to refugees: they were carrying out the orders to transfer Palestinians out of Palestine. They were merely expediting the departure of the Palestinians, and getting good press from it at the same time. This past year, 42 years later, and the world is again witnessing refugees on the move in Palestine and elsewhere. The suffering and injustices committed against the Palestinians goes on unabated. The pain and anger has resurfaced as if they had never died: old wounds not yet allowed healing…In Gaza today, Palestinians (most of whom are the every same refugees and their descendants that were brutally expelled from their ancestral homes and lands in 1948) are being blockaded and starved, with the acquiescence of both the Arab world and the world at large, as the Zionist try to finish what they started in 1948…

Mike Odetalla. (All rights reserved 2009)

Mike Odetalla..."A seed in the eternal fruit of Palestine"