Fragments of Rafah

An iron wall on the right, a line of rubble from destroyed homes on the left, one of many toxic untreated human waste in the foreground are all that remains in this part of the Block “O” refugee camp in Rafah. A mobile IDF watchtower in the distance looms over the remaining homes. (Mark Zeitoun)


21 August 2003 — And outside, they are shouting again, men’s voices fighting to stay afloat like it was an ocean they were drowning in. Down the street in Al-Awda Square, Hamas has been demonstrating since 8 pm between Christmas lights in bright colors and loudspeakers. Further down, the shooting from the tower dominiates the night, louder than angry men, louder than demonstrators. Earlier tonight, an ambulance’s urgent wail, me holding my breath praying. Death is so close now you can smell it. Already it has come like a rain storm beginning in Hebron, like the time I watched rain come towards me from across a lake and ran toward the forest and my feet were not faster than the rain.

In the West Bank, tanks close in, six dead in a day. In Gaza, five missiles from an F-16 assassinate Ismael Abu Shanab, a non-militant spokesperson for Hamas; kill his two bodyguards, and injure 20 bystanders, 5 seriously. F-16s paint the sky everyday, blue and white like clouds. But so far in Rafah, a military tower is shooting in the air, bullets have remained abstract in their threat, have not collided today with flesh, but still I see death everywhere, in the faces of my friends and of strangers in the streets. Shouting upstairs as the images paint TV.

29 August 2003 — In my haste to leave the Internet cafe, I forgot to mention in my last letter that just as we were leaving the hospital, one 17-year-old was dying in the ICU from the injuries he had received from the missile in Jabaliya Camp the day before, and crowds of people were flowing into the waiting room like rivers, falling all over each other and you could hear the sounds of hearts breaking.

And last night back in Rafah, I slept so well that I didn’t hear the two five minute bouts of gunfire near us or the two tank shells that landed near us, but woke up anyway with my whole face clenched and my head pounding which is how I wake up everyday for no reason I can discern, woke up to hummous and foole and shakshuka, bread warmed directly on the burner, don’t mess around here, Al-Jazeera playing war scenes in India and Iraq and Palestine; Al-Jazeera covering the blackout in London, CNN offering American talking heads going on and on in that disinterested stance that even seeps through the overdub.

Abu Ahmed’s shrill and disgruntled (existing for itself only) voice, demanding we find our way outside to where the air is softer, under the fig tree; to where Sally’s eleven-year-old legs all wrapped up in green bellbottoms are climbing the wall to find the freshest figs, deep purple like red grapes, insides full of erotic pink fibers disolving like sugar. Sally bickering tirelessly with her father over figs.

Can I tell you about this family? Can I tell you that I managed to sleep through high caliber gunfire and tank shells but wake up promptly at 7am every morning when the members of the family start hollering at each other about breakfast, and that they only cool down after they’ve eaten and after they’ve had tea and settled down to watch TV and climb fig trees and sit around all day together chatting and poking fun at each other. Abu Ahmed hollers all day I think just to holler and not because he’s deaf in one ear.

1 September 2003 — On Saturday we went to Khan Younis to visit the martyr’s tent of Hamdi Kallakh, who had been assassinated two days earlier, decapitated by an Apache helicopter missile at the age of 35. We were led to the house where women were crowded together on cushions, filling two small rooms. We walked in, murmering condolences in stilted Arabic, not knowing what to say. We asked about his mother, but she was unconscious from grief and from fasting. She hadn’t eaten since her son was killed.

So we walked on; The 20-something widow he had left behind was sitting in the far corner and lifted her niqab to greet us, revealing a soft face with large cheekbones. Everyone seemed a bit confused about what we were doing there. We sat down in a corner where people made room for us, between aging women, eyes wide and bottomless, coffee brown skin in delicate folds like the pages of old books. They wore looks of disbelief and soft white cotton scarves wrapped loosely around their faces, folding into soft hills over their full, fat bellies, and below that, heavy black jilbabs down to their bare callussed old feet.

We were served traditional coffee and dried dates, the bitterness of a person’s passing followed by the sweetness of Allah’s patience.

A younger woman with a round face and thin lips began to translate. She wanted to know what we had to say about the helicopters that had killed her cousin and why Bush was sending tanks to their borders and their cities. Bush and Sharon is one word here. More than a few times I’ve heard people say America to mean Israel without thinking. The old women pitching in their frustrations with the rest. Us agreeing with them, us angry out loud with them. At some point they heard our anger and it brought us toether into the room.

The young widow sat silently through all of this, lips smiling faintly, removed from the whole weight of the room and the agitated women, nursing her 4-month-old child, the youngest of seven. Someone brought in shaheed posters for us to examine. About the M-16 he was holding, they said his wife had pleaded with him to leave it so the army wouldn’t kill him and leave her and their children behind to pick up the pieces; but now that he’s been murdered by that army she’s proud and says she’ll give that gun to his oldest son.

But outside it’s the first day of school and you wouldn’t notice the grief. The streets explode with children in bright new uniforms, pinstripes and fresh blue polo shirts and shiny white mendeels are lining the streets in row formation. The entire youth population of Rafah in mass exodus in the eleven-AM sun.

2 September 2003 — And as students rush through the steets from their second day of school, we drive past them to the pale white of the shaheed tent of Ayya Mahmood, shot deat three mornings ago at the age of eight. What can be said about that. White plastic chairs hold men in long lines under the shade of the tent. Above, a mural hangs from the wall, a tree bleeds as it cradles the Haram al-Sharif (Dome of the Rock) in its branches.

We follow Ayya’s uncle up a pathway of stairs and through the narrow maze of refugee camp streets, through rusting doors. We sit with the mother and some men from the family who have gathered. Her retelling of the story is calm, unemotional until she breaks into shaking, silent sobs at the end.

“She was eight years old and she would have started her school year the next day. She was so smart, so sweet, y’achti, look at her”

(the photos passed around, Ayya looking bright and determined in a red sweater her hair high in pigtails)

“It was Yom il-Jumaa (“Friday”) and she had been fasting all morning with me. I gave her some money and told her to go buy something to eat, she was only eight and there was no reason for her to fast. She went on bicycle. She bought wafers, chips, and a popcycle and rode back. A tank was shooting from the Neve Dekalim settlement which borders their neighborhood. It shot her through the heart, she fell from her bicycle, we found her covered in blood, all the snacks she had just bought to break her fast, covered in blood, her hands still holding onto them.”

Her uncle pitches in. “I didn’t recognize her when I saw her in the hospital. I said, ‘This isn’t Ayya. Ayya is b’khair (“in good health”).’ She was covered in blood and I couldn’t tell it was her. Her mother was there and she told me it’s Ayya. I couldn’t believe it.”

More pictures are passed around of Ayya four months ago against a garden backdrop taken in a local studio. Ayya’s new backpack. Ayya’s new school uniform, unworn and fresh, pinstripes too blue, sleeves too empty of little girl arms.

“She wanted a guava that morning but we didn’t have any guava. We said we’d buy her some the next morning, but she was killed.”

Six other children were injured in this shooting including one girl who lost her legs. No adults were in the area at the time, it was just tanks against kids.

Ayya’s sister Safa sits down next to me. “I want you to tell this to the world.”

She tells me how smart Ayya was, and good, how she prayed five times a day and fasted on Ramadan, and sometimes Safa would take her to the mosque. She was good in English and in every subject (her last report card is brought to where we are sitting, an average of 91%, high enough to receive state subsidies to go to engineering school, but Ayya wanted to be a doctor).

Safa helping her study all the time, Safa telling her bedtime stories, Safa teaching her to read Qur’an. When there was shooting at night coming from the settlement Ayya would run to Safa’s bed and Safa would protect her from her fear. “I was,” says Safa, “her closest sister.”

I think her mother and her cousin, sitting together on my other side, are trying to make sure she doesn’t lose connection to religion, pointedly declaring La ilaha il Allah, (“There is no god but God”). Safa stares back at them blankly. Mohammed rasul Allah, (“Mohammed is God’s messenger”). Safa ignores turns her head to face another direction. She looks at me. “Do you believe in God? You say you believe in God? Where was God three days ago?”

Different family members take turns sobbing and comforting each other, don’t cry, don’t cry, believe in Allah. It’s the third day of the wake and we eat maklouba, rice spiced with cardamom and roasted garlic and a spice they called asfar, yellow, in Arabic, and meat on top, a traditional dish at weddings and funerals. Safa doesn’t want to eat but she does.

We leave in many prolonged farewells, planning to meet again soon. I follow her uncle, down the narrow pathway to join up with the men from our group, imagining the life of 8-year-old girls and fresh guavas.

(Roland de Hommel)


4 September 2003 — For the longest time during the night, I avoided the half of Abu Ahmed’s house that faces the border, two bedrooms and a bathroom, remembering the first night I’d ever slept here, when Abu Ahmed explained to me that I couldn’t sleep in the bedroom by the border — despite the massive softness of the Western-style bed there (such a luxury next to the simplicity of the thin floor mattresses typical of this culture) — because of the tank that parked there at night, often shooting near or into the house.

Months later, on a night when several of us were sleeping here, he put us in that same room to sleep. I was confused and asked him if it wasn’t dangerous as he had said before or if anything had changed. Between a prolonged bout of laughter and ranting punctuated with exclamations of Inty fahemti ghalat (“You understood wrong”), he explained that it was fine for me to sleep there, “as long as when you hear gunfire, you don’t get scared and sit up in bed. If you sit up you might get shot.” He demonstrated several times how I should react to gunfire in the night, how not to sit up, and then to add weight to his explanation, motioned to the bullet holes in the wall barely above head level.

It was dark tonight when we got to Abu Ahmed’s house, which made me kind of nervous about the tank I knew was parked next to the house. Abu Ahmed was leaning out of the door frame staring into the night. We sat for long minutes on long benches made of old wooden slabs and cinderblocks (covered with colorful decades-old woven carpets) and white plastic Israeli chairs whose feet sunk into the soft sand, drinking tea (Abu Ahmed is a tea fiend, he says every time he serves us tea that he would dring the whole potfull himself if it wasn’t for us.)

Abu Fat’hi is over this evening. Between a full face of hair, full cheeks, large muild, and general demeanor of joviality, he reminds me of my old social studies teacher Mr. Granagan, or a Palestinian verson of Santa Claus. He invites us to see his family, and this night we accept to amble down the road to the Fat’hi area — I’m not talking about one house but three, built one on top of another, to accomodate Abu and Om Fat’hi, their two sons, and their 35 grandchildren. On the wall of every flat there is a picture of their third son, who was shot dead on his way to school at the age of sixteen. That was in the year of 1994, in the midst of the hopeful beginning of the Oslo era.

We’re in Fat’hi’s flat. Fat’hi, who is just like his father except his demeanor lacks the wight of age and body build; his wife and all the women and girls in the famiy gather around us, the children demanding pictures. We intend to stay five minutes and stay for two hours, enthralled. People full of end-of-the-day banter, chewing on the latest news.

In the middle of this rumbling scene, one of the men of the family walked in. He was coming from Tes es Sultan, and with news. The army had just announced over loudspeaker its intention to demolish two large new apartment buildings on the border that faces the Rafiah Yam settlement from the new refugee camp still being built by the UN to accomodate those who had lost homes earlier in the Intifada. Gunfire in the early evening had already landed one man in the hospital, after he was shot in the leg by a high-caliber bullet. Later, five tanks had entered the area and occupied the new well (rebuilt after the army demolished it this February).

Remembering too clearly the sleepless terror of living through past incursions makes it harder to sleep easily here tonight where a night broken by tank fire seems peaceful when compared with what we know is happening 2 km away, grappling with my own powerlessness to do any thing and my anxiety that one of the areas where we sleep will be next.

We leave despite please of all the children to stay. Especially Rowan, a 4-year-old beauty, too wise for her age, touching my arm gently, Naami hayna al-yom, (“sleep here tonight”). We walk out into the night, searching the landscape for military patrol vehicles, inching uncertainly along the fifty meters of path between Abu Fat’hi and Abu Ahmed’s homes. And sure enough, a jeep fires into the night and drives across and away towards Brazil Camp, sending us running back towards Abu Fat’hi’s. Abu Fat’hi himself now walks nonchalantly down the path to Abu Ahmed’s, yelling back at us to come now while there’s no military on this side of the border. I hold my breath until I reach Abu Ahmed’s door, five and a half months into life here and still I am not used to this.

Suzan is the only one still awake when we get back, mulling over her last night with her family; tomorrow she’s getting married at 27 and that is its own rambling story of weeks spent in the souk (“market”), sudden infatuation, and the anticipatory shyness of marriage through the formalized channel of traditional Islamic marriage rituals in a culture of gender division.

Every, and I mean every part of her body is freshly waxed in preparation for tomorrow night. She is daydreaming, her eyes rest somewhere between the frankness of the bedroom air and the future she is escaping too. Her head droops slowly into the pillow, and I follow suit. I fall asleep to the sound of the machine guns of tanks as they rumble back and forth on border control, clearing the way with bursts of gunfire. It doesn’t stop.

Laura Gordon is a 20-year-old American Jew who came to Israel in December 2002 with the Birthright Israel program and proceeded, three months later, to begin work with the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah. She moved to Rafah two days after Rachel Corrie was killed and has been there since. She works primarily in media work and documentation; and also to liase between the Rafah community and the international community through summer camp projects, cooperative building projects, and English teaching.