13 Sept 2003 — Digging in the sand, late Wednesday night, outside Balata Camp. Four of us, crouched down near the mosque, next to the taxi rank. But there are no taxis - the streets are empty and silent. Everybody is inside, with the door locked - more soldiers are expected tonight. Two small piles of light brown sand lie at the entrance to the camp. We kneel around one of them, as Mustapha slowly sifts through the sand, turning over clumps and examining the underside of stones. ‘Move the light here. Now here. What’s this?’ asks Mustapha.
I try to ignore distant rumbles of military vehicles and concentrate on aiming the torch at his quickly roving fingers. Each clump or lump is examined with care. Some are discarded, others placed in a see- through plastic bag, with the top folded over to keep it open. A rat rustling in a nearby bin makes us jump. Shadi and Kelly stand up to watch for approaching military. Mustapha’s white surgical gloves are brown with sand. Some lumps are big, others small, some stuck to the bottom of stones. Some are slithery and difficult to pick up by finger - Shadi takes a pair of tweezers out of Mustapha’s UPMRC medical pack.
‘Quiet, sshhh!’ The rumble of a tank approaching from Askar Camp. First distant and quiet, slowly getting louder. We can hear the treads grinding, leaving their white marks on the road, busting the pavement when the driver veers off.
‘Get ready to move, it’s coming this way.’
Mustapha speeds up, we reach for our bags. The flashing light of a jeep preceding the tank comes into view, moving slowly. We freeze, ready to dash for safety in Balata’s narrow alleyways. But the jeep stops behind a tree in a traffic island, 100m down the road. The tank grinds to a halt behind it, just out of view.
We focus on the sand again, this time working faster. The more sand Mustapha turns over, the redder it is. Several times the tweezers are lost in the dirt and we stop to search for them.
Mustapha, 17, is finding it difficult, but disguises it by claiming he is worried his father will be angry that he’ll be home late - he has school tomorrow. Kelly offers to take over, but there is only one pair of gloves, and once they’re off, they can’t be used again.
The bag is filling up. When it looks like it has two red cup fulls in it, the tank rumble returns as the military vehicles back off, drive around and return. This time, the jeep stays out of view, around a corner, but we can see flashing lights on the opposite building. Three times we jump at speeding vehicles coming from a different direction - to ‘relax’ again at the sight of ambulance, taxi and truck.
As we ‘dig’, the sickly smell of insides gets stronger. At one point the bottom of one glove rips. Kneeling next to 17-year-old Mustapha, both our heads are close to the ground, focused on picking through the sand. Twice I nearly poke my eye on his gel-spiked hair.
‘Move your torch here, what do you think?’
‘That’s nothing, but there is more red shininess under this bit.’
Both the sand and Mustapha’s gloves are now a dull reddish-brown. Yet shiny blobs of smooth, fatty redness continue to catch our eyes, peaking out from beneath the sand. As Mustapha tugs on the end of the squeezy blobs, trying to gather them up and place them in the bag, they often slip between his chubby fingers and slither down his hand. Once he stops for a second break to wipe his face, saying
“It’s difficult, holding mind in your fingers.” We try to distract him with forced conversation, but return continuously to silence or questions of “Stone or skull?”, “Is that brain or just bloody sand?”
Slowly, the bag fills up, until we have a few glassfulls of reddish syrupy liquid: sand and stones, brain, skull and blood. Mustapha seals the bag.
We need to get it to Rafidia Hospital on the far side of town. There it will be united with the rest of the body and prepared for tomorrow’s funeral.
Mustapha knew both of them: Mahmud Al-Tirawi (20) and Mohamed Assi (20).
Gunned down by an approaching tank and jeeps while they hung out at the taxi rank. The soldiers shot from a distance, before the lounging youths could move into the camp or throw stones at the heavily armoured vehicles.
Those two died, three others were injured, one of whom (Ibrahim Jamal) no longer has a stomach.
That evening, we dodged patrolling tanks and jeeps as we trudged from Balata towards Nablus. Finally we found a UPMRC ambulance to take Mustapha and the new martyr’s brains to Rafidia, and we entered the Old City for a night patrol and sleep - interrupted only by soldiers screaming and shooting, forcing people out of their homes in the early hours.