There is no choice but to remember.
“I can’t forget the land. It’s always on my mind. It’s like a mother longing for her son.”
Muhammad Mahmoud Salem Awadallah, 80, was speaking in the occupied West Bank village of new al-Walaja. It is located just a few kilometers from the original al-Walaja village, from where he and all its other residents were displaced in 1948 by Zionist forces.
Awadallah can still remember the vegetables his family grew on their land, a time, he said, when “we had lands and our hearts were open.” And he is typical, not just of the generations who were ethnically cleansed, but of those who have come after him.
There are around 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, the UN agency set up in 1949 especially to provide for them. Badil, a Palestinian refugee advocacy group, estimated that there were almost 8 million Palestinian refugees worldwide by the end of 2014, among them 720,000 internally displaced persons.
The majority of these refugees, according to Badil, live within 100 kilometers of their original homes, yet most cannot visit, let alone return to live. That is despite how the right of refugees to return to their homes is a tenet of international humanitarian law.
Their plight lies at the heart of the Palestinian issue and, among Palestinians, reverberates down the generations.
The recent Great March of Return series of protests in Gaza sought to put this issue back front and center of the Palestinian national struggle.
Most of the protesters marching toward the boundary between Gaza and Israel, braving sniper fire and risking their lives, were refugees, but were also too young to remember the ethnic cleansing of 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to flee their homes.
For those who remember, the pain is still vivid.
“With your questions, you are opening the wounds again,” said Yacoub Ahmad Odeh, a refugee from Lifta, a village in the Jerusalem area.
Odeh is the head of the Committee to Protect Lifta Heritage and Culture and has organized more than 40 tours to his Lifta for young people from around the world. These outsiders can visit, unlike Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, at the mercy of Israel’s permit system, locked away behind checkpoints or who are simply too poor to afford the cost of travel.
In addition, many of the Palestinian villages that were depopulated in 1948 were destroyed afterwards to leave no place to return and no reference for memory. In some places, only piles of stones and cacti remain as testimonies to a life that was abruptly interrupted by the Nakba, the catastrophe, of 1948.
Israel has used other strategies to fade memories, adopting legislation criminalizing the commemoration of the Nakba, or covering the ruins of Palestinian villages with pine tree forests.
But the right of return is far from disappearing from refugees’ minds.
This photo essay attempts to make visible the connection between Palestinian refugees and their places of origin by displaying the names of refugees in Arabic in the location of their villages of origin. The names were written by Afnan Zboun, a 14-year-old who lives in al-Azzeh refugee camp.
Anne Paq is a French freelance photographer and member of the photography collective ActiveStills.
Umar al-Ghubari contributed research.
Abdelhamid Ahmad Ibrahim Abu Srour is originally from Beit Natif. He now lives in the Aida refugee camp, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he has had a grocery shop for 40 years and still works there. He keeps the key to his father’s home in Beit Natif. He is, he said, “around” 85 in age.
Approximate distance to his original village: 25 kilometers.
I went back to see Beit Natif after 1967. Everything was destroyed.
We were happy. Everyone owned their land. We were living with Christians and Jews like brothers.
My father was a farmer. We got everything from our own land – wheat, beans, vegetables.
Each family had 30 to 60 dunums [a dunum is 1,000 square meters]. But we lived like one big family, and we did everything together. If we saw a car in the village, we would follow it, it was something so new.
We did not have radio or TV. I did not go to school there. We were busy with the land. It was a simple life.
When the Zionist soldiers started shooting at us, we left. We were scared. We left in the middle of the night with nothing.
We walked towards Wadi Fukin, went on top of the mountains and saw people being killed. We stayed in the mountains for two months, sleeping on the ground. Once we sneaked into our lands before the Jordanians told us to leave.
Later, we went to Aida refugee camp and stayed in a big tent for three months shared with seven families. Then we got a small tent for a couple of years.
We’ve been occupied by many. In the end we will get our freedom.
Halima Ali Khalil, 78, is from al-Walaja village, and currently lives in the new al-Walaja, which was built by fleeing refugees in what became a Jordanian-controlled area and what is now the occupied West Bank. When we approached the nearby Ein al-Balad spring to take photographs, there were some Israelis swimming there. After they heard the purpose of the photo project, they told our guide, who works for Zochrot, an Israeli organization dedicated to the memory of the Nakba: “Your work is useless, they [Palestinians] will never return here.”
Distance to her original village: 4 kilometers.
My nephew took me once to Ein al-Balad. I saw the Israelis swimming. I was crying. I was also worried because I was afraid they would beat us. They had big dogs.
We had a big house, made of stones, near Ein al-Balad. We had three rooms for the people and two for the animals over two floors.
We had many trees: apricot trees, apple trees, olive trees, grapes. Life was the best.
There were 16 springs in al-Walaja. My father was a farmer.
We cultivated everything around the spring, vegetables and fruits, and we would sell in Jerusalem all the way to Jaffa. We used to take the train.
There was no school for us [girls], only the boys could go. I would go with my father to the fields. We played outside a lot. We built a castle and played hide and seek.
My family had 150 dunums in different locations – like 50 dunums in Ras Abu Ammar that my father bought just before we left.
In 1948, the Zionists were at the Battir station. They shot at us. We fled and took only small things we could carry.
My father hid the new crops. On the night the militias came, some men fought back and five or six were killed.
The Zionists destroyed our house. A few days later, we saw it from the mountains. We cried.
After one year we came back to the mountain and started to dig. We were living in caves and then we made houses of mud.
My father was always talking about al-Walaja. He died not long after we fled.
He was so sad that they took the land. He was going back in secret to the old al-Walaja to take care of the trees and always hoped to go back.
After 1967, we went back to take some crops and some herbs. We used to go to Ein Hanyia but now we can’t go at all. With the building of the wall, we also lost 10 dunums.
God willing, we will go back. I still cry over our land. Hopefully we will go back and Palestine will be free, and all people will be united.
Muhammad Mahmoud Salem Awadallah, 80, is from al-Walaja and currently lives in the new village, just a few meters away from the Israeli wall. From an old photo found on the internet, taken just after the Zionist troops took control of the village, he could identify his home, up in the mountain.
Approximate distance to his original village: 3 kilometers.
We had so many vegetables, herbs, fruits: parsley, mint, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet peppers, cherries, apricots, peaches. So many.
We lived near Ein Balad spring. My father was a farmer. Our home had two floors. Downstairs was for the animals. Upstairs there were four rooms for us.
We had many sheep, and a lot of land around Ein Haniya spring and Ein Balad, between 60 and 80 dunums. My father would sell to Jerusalem and Jaffa.
There were Jewish neighbors in [the nearby village of] Malha. They were like friends then. But after Israel was created, nothing was good.
We had lands and open hearts. I went to school for a year and a half.
I was around 8 when the Nakba happened. It was a quiet night and then suddenly there were bullets.
We ran away to the mountains. We left under a rain of bullets. In the chaos, we could not take anything.
After some days some came back, sneaking into the village. My grandmother, Mahbouba Ali Sabha, was shot in the shoulder when she sneaked there to look for our animals.
We stayed here, exactly at this location, under the trees for a couple of years. Then we built a house of mud.
Three years after the Nakba, they demolished our houses to say to us: you don’t have a home to go back to. But even if they destroyed our village, my children, my grandchildren will go back and rebuild it.
I always have the land on my mind. It’s like a mother longing for her son.
Odeh is the head of the Committee to Protect Lifta Heritage and Culture, and has been a human rights activist for 33 years. He spent 17 years in Israeli jail for his political activism, and was released during a prisoner exchange deal in 1985.
The village of Lifta is one of the only Palestinian villages attacked in 1948 where there are still dozens of old homes standing that are not now inhabited by new Jewish residents.
Distance to his original village: 4 kilometers.
The first time I went back to Lifta was maybe three weeks after 1967 [the June 1967 war]. I remember a Jewish man on a horse came and said: “I forbid you to visit Lifta.”
The next day I came with my mother. She started to cry when she saw her childhood home.
We also saw the house where I was born. There were some holes in the ceiling.
It fell down in 1983 or 1984 with the snow. Now there are just some walls that are standing. My mother fell sick after that first visit.
Life in Lifta was beautiful. We lived very close to the spring. As a child I was always swimming and diving there.
I’d bring home water. We’d play around the spring with my cousins and all the children of the neighborhood. We’d climb trees, eat their figs.
I remember the smell of the taboun bakery where my mother would take me. It was so delicious, the taboun bread, with zeit and zataar [olive oil and a thyme mixture]. I can still smell it.
My family worked the land. My father and mother were farmers. We were seven in all.
Our house was built from large stones. We had a lot of fruit and land. That is where the Ramot colony is now.
We had apricots, olive trees, and so on. People helped each other. That was part of the Lifta culture.
If someone needed to repair the roof, everybody would come to help. We were like a big family.
The Zionist gangs started to attack in 1947. Lifta is the western gate of Jerusalem, at a very strategic location. They wanted to take control of the road from Jerusalem to Jaffa to secure movement.
On 28 December 1947, the village coffee shop was attacked and sprayed with bullets. Six people were killed.
People came down from the upper part of the village, the women were crying and people prayed by the yard near the spring.
After the gang took control of the upper part they controlled the village. The villagers had to use small bypass roads. But every day, the military presence became stronger.
One day, my father came and carried my little sister and called me and my brother and we followed him. We went down to the valley and climbed up to the main street. My father was shot at but the bullet landed between his legs. We went into a truck.
We went from Latrun to Beitunia, and then to al-Bireh [near the West Bank city of Ramallah]. In one hour we became refugees.
It was a very miserable life. We were kings before and suddenly we were beggars.
My father went back to fight. But when he returned, he was so sad. He found us in a miserable situation and could not take it.
He became sick. His stomach did not take the food. He was nervous. After a year and a half, he died.
We lost everything. We lost our dignity. These things shaped my memory and my life.
We moved to Jerusalem to be closer to Lifta. After prison, I got involved in the campaign against plans to build luxury villas in Lifta. We went to the court.
The Coalition to Save Lifta is international and is big now. We make surveys, books, videos, and we mobilize the media. Between 2011 and 2016 I did 45 tours of Lifta for university groups coming from 25 countries.
I don’t lose hope. I dream to go back. I am sure the time will come. The sun will rise again.
The Israelis did not study history. All occupiers go. We can live together but we should put an end to the occupation, and create a democratic state for all under democratic laws.
Israelis say the new generations will forget. I did not forget. Now I am a father. I send the message to my daughter and my son. We used to go, four or five times a year, to teach them that this is your village, this is your mosque, and so on.
I taught them and they continue. This is my memory and my history. Nobody has the right to take them away.