Jenin: Not of this Earth, Part I

It’s a difficult thing to comprehend a willing descent into a place of mass suffering. Usually, such things are random and so temporary that one cannot plan for it. But to sit in relative comfort and opt to travel to such a place feels quite peculiar. Really, I wasn’t sure what I was going to Jenin for. Spectator? Documenter? Exploiter?

I found my way to Jenin by begging. Once arriving in Jerusalem, I went to the lush American Colony Hotel, perhaps the best known and most expensive establishment in East Jerusalem. Hence, it was the favorite locale for journalists with large expense accounts. With a $10 Danish-knock off beer in my hand, I proceeded to ask around if anyone was headed that way the next day. No luck. Then I considered the International Solidarity Movement people with whom I had been trapped in Bethlehem during the invasion three weeks prior. I rushed over to the Faisal Hostel, the favorite locale for poor college kids with no expense accounts. People there informed me that there was indeed a van headed to Jenin on the next day that I could try to join.

I awoke at 6:30am on April 19 to reach the group headed to Jenin. In all there were eleven of us, with six ISM members, a Jordanian film crew, a journalist for the Irish Times and Catherine, the Director of Lawyers Without Borders. I sat next to Catherine and spoke with her about the need for international lawyers to volunteer at Palestinian human rights organization, where credibility was key when arguing for the rights of an occupied people in the court of the occupier. She told me that she was sure that simply by reporting on the conditions and difficulties people faced in Jenin, her organization was sure to lose many of its Jewish members. Ethno-religious identity supercedes egalitarian human rights again. Often I thank God that I’m not more religious.

We passed through the Israeli Palestinian village of Umak Tham on our way. It was the last call for food and water. As I dug into a delicious eggplant and hummus sandwich the proprietor of the Arabic shop noted all the business he was getting from journalists. ‘Its nice, but I really don’t like it because all this business comes at the price of those people.’ I began taking notes in my book. I wrote the heading, ‘Jenin’, but I paused to realize that there was still no guarantee at getting in. Others with us had tried two days before but were turned back. The journalist from the Irish Times, an elderly American woman uttered, ‘Well I’m getting in if I have to crawl over every mountain to get through’.

After swapping taxis in the village of Selim we were briefly stopped. The driver, Adel, told us that ahead, the Israelis were digging up the road. ‘They will finish, and the villagers will then fill in the hole and we can move on,’ he said with assurance. After a ten minute wait, it turned out that it wasn’t so. The Israelis had cut the road in two, and set up a checkpoint for those now forced to cross on foot. So we headed to Jenin through the back hills. The locals followed us. From the rocky heights, I could spot the Israeli military road demolition vehicles - APC’s with claw arms that serve to only disrupt life for the locals. It was a slightly arduous trip, not least of all for the three older people in the group, but we passed into Jenin unmolested. Once at the edge of the camp, a passing pickup truck offered to give us a ride the rest of the way.

As the truck sped through the gravel roads towards the Refugee Camp, the signs of war began to filter past. Crushed telephone polls and downed street lamps were the first indications of tanks having passed through. Soon we were passing badly mauled cars. Already most had been relegated to a new car graveyard, filled with disfigured wrecks that surely were not possible to create without the aid of a 6-ton behemoth running it over. In one pile all of the intact car doors were nearly lined up for salvage. Then houses blackened by fire began to pass, along with bullet holes and shell impact marks. Finally, just as I had seen in Bethlehem, the tell tale sign of Israeli raids presented itself: residence after residence where the front door locks were shot off.

The pickup truck stopped and we disembarked. Immediately I was carried into a new world. Mentally, it was like opening a door to a different reality. One where the world is upside down. Homes became ruins. Shops became empty shells. Roads became muddy pathways to slaughter. And the fresh mountain air became dank and fetid. I was in the Jenin Camp. Not of this earth.

Oddly though, once my brain internalized my surroundings as a surreal stage setting, removed from what would be normally acceptable to my senses, I felt at ease. Perhaps it was just the scope and scale of it all. To see a single home or building destroyed is a tragedy you can grasp. But to see not a single building or shred of normality untouched by destruction is difficult to fathom. Beirut had parts like this I saw even ten years after the war. But there plant life thrived, and personal possessions were long removed. Beirut just had parts of it left as small ghost towns, soon to be razed and rebuilt. Jenin was a living town, still dying.

I began slowly, impressed by the immediate details. A child stood clinging to his mother’s dress behind a pile of twisted metal. In the distance behind him smoke rose from a burning pile of trash. Soon I found that the other people I had come with were already running ahead towards the most devastated areas. I was still standing, staring at a shell hole on the side of a man’s home. I turned right and entered the ring of the leveled area. To my right were buildings with their first floors torn apart or gutted by fire, but the shells of the buildings still stood. To my left, nothing recognizable remained. The IDF’s website claims that the area that was laid flat is only about 100 x 100m square. This is a vast understatement. The area is more about a square kilometer and according to the UN Envoy Terje-Larsen, about 600 homes have been totally demolished. But a home needs not be flattened to be untenable. For vast stretches outside of that perimeter, tanks and bulldozers cut homes out from the inside of buildings, piercing walls with their turrets or shovels, often collapsing floors internally. No, the IDF’s aerial photos are most deceptive. Jenin Refugee Camp, home of some 13,000 people was indeed an earthquake zone - but it was a man-made disaster.

I looked down and realized I didn’t know what I was walking on. A paved road, or was it always gravel? The curbs were almost recognizable, having been torn apart, with chunks blending into the concrete shards laying strewn about. It almost becomes useless to try to describe every detail I witnessed. One home destroyed is a tragedy one can fully study and investigate. But to examine 600 of them? Every step of my foot landed on something worth a tear, to be sure. A favorite shirt, a school paper, a burned toy, remains of an appliance. Even a small fragment of concrete could represent the loss of a person’s home. I hate to have to do it, but the comparisons can be made between this and the acts of rogue, criminal Palestinian organizations.

Terrorist bombings ruin a building, many lives and inflict trauma on the witnesses. But at least there is a home to return to for the living. A job, a potential future to shape out of their damaged lives. This is true too of Palestinian relatives of civilians killed in the Intifada. But here, in Jenin, there was no future. No homes. No jobs. No life left for the living. This is a terror that will never go a way for these people. Its again, to use a worn cliché, one of those locations where the living envy the dead. A massacre? I don’t know. No one will know for a while. But it shouldn’t matter. The wanton destruction of homes and neighborhoods alone is too much to comprehend.

Numbness set in. It was time to move forward and just take note of what stood out. Two old women seated on what was once their roof, with the backdrop of half a wall standing? Photograph. A man lurching forward to wedge a lone small Palestinian flag between two walls collapsed on each other over a pile of debris? Photo. A young boy dragging sheets full of scrap metal behind them? Photo. Two women standing on the second story of a home, the portrait of Saddam Hussein hanging behind them, with the front half of the building torn off and the floor hanging by metal supports? Photo. This is the process by which I traversed the Jenin Refugee Camp. I knew of no other way.

It was only the second day after the Israeli military lifted their curfew, so for many residents things were still fresh. Boys carted crates of water in and others hauled workable furniture out on tractors. People picked through the remnants of their homes, in piles that reached over twenty feet into the air above the ground, pulling out clothes. They shook them off and inspected them for holes. If they were moderately ok, they went in one pile to keep. Scraps in another. Clothing seemed to be just about all that could be retrieved from those buildings intact. But people still collected things like cabinet doors that might be of some use in future reconstruction.

I took a left turn around the perimeter of the zone that was totally bulldozed. The dividing line was quite clear, however it must be emphasized that most all of the houses in the whole area suffered severe structural damage by bulldozers even though they were not completely demolished. The inner-zone however was incomprehensibly flattened. Along the road tell tale marks of monstrous firepower showed themselves. One building was blasted all the way through by a rocket, leaving concentrically smaller holes in successive walls. I was able to view it all at once since the entire front of the building had been torn away. Other buildings lurched under top-heavy weight as key supports on the first floors had been torn out.

Near the top of the flattened perimeter I came across one of several digging operations. This one was aided by one of the few bulldozers available in Jenin to help lift the massive piles of debris. The bulldozer cut into the remains of the Fayed home, a name I was to hear much of in the coming weeks for their sad tale in many international articles. Mahmoud Fayad, a 70 year old camp resident had a 38-year old son, Jamal, who was paralyzed in his legs from birth. Restricted to a wheelchair and somewhat mentally incapable as well, his brother Ahmed noted that Jamal had no other friends but his family. When the Israelis began bulldozing their way through Jenin Camp, Mahmoud and his wife ran out to tell the Israelis to wait for them to help get Jamal out. The Israelis refused and plowed into the Fayed’s family’s home, crushing Jamal underneath. They knew just where he was. Yet under the heap of rubble, the bulldozer didn’t find him that day. Or the next.

Turning left and moving on, I began to comprehend just why finding bodies became impossible. While Jenin is indeed built at a slope, the sheer height of rubble finely ground and compressed is evident by some of the ongoing digs. At another location, with a good two feet into the ground, people were just then reaching ceiling tiles still intact. It boggled my mind. Somehow, the Israeli tanks so thoroughly flattened, over and over again, the entire area. While some fragments of buildings and heaps of distinguishable rubble littered the area (with some piles reaching heights of 30 feet above the ground), most of the area was flattened as if paved by a steamroller. House after house had been crushed into powder. Occasionally, metal bars would stick up out of the ground and loose shreds of clothing fluttered from between pulverized refuse, but for the most part it was a sea of granulated concrete. Who knows what remained underneath. I actually felt guilty just to be walking across, as if I was only making it worse – the way I would walk on my old sidewalk in Madison winters, packing down snow that I knew I’d have to later shovel.

I breathed it in. Disintegrated, triturated, crumbled, crushed, attenuated, pulverized. Adjectives swam in my head. What else could I do? As the dust swarmed about, I realized I was breathing people’s homes and lives.

A quick recheck of my senses reminded me that I was just in an illusory realm where these surroundings are being presented to me. I could continue photographing without succumbing to my emotional rushes. I began to notice the other foreigners managing. Some were from the Geneva Red Cross, others from other aid agencies, but most came as journalists – spectators to suffering like myself. I walked a ways up a slope that was the remains of a fractured house, spilt downhill. I was at the upper crust of the demolished region. Behind me stood a building with only two outer walls. On what remained of the second floor a young girl cried as the mother spoke with a journalist. I turned back just to stand and survey everything.

The sky was bright that day, with a deep blue whose effervescence seemed even brighter against the almost uniform grayish tan of Jenin’s ruins. Atop a lone pile of rubble, the tallest in the area, a woman rummaged for belongings. Cast behind here in the distance was a lone minaret, perhaps the one where reporters noted that the Israelis badly vandalized. On occasion the woman just stopped, threw her hands at her hips and stared down. It must have seemed futile to continue. To many, Jenin must have seemed the same, I figured.

Despite the situation, however, the people remained resolute, if not dignified. Those who could speak some English would at times stride up to me and after asking me the perennial ‘why?’, informed me that they would not bow to Sharon. The London-Berlin mentality of a people bombed into ruin had set in. A doctor, educated in Germany, said he would remain in his battle scarred home. Jenin was a tragedy for him, but it would move on. Even most children had an air of determination about them as they aided their parents in collecting salvageable possessions.

—- next time, depictions of inside homes —-