My grandmother is a survivor of the Deir Yassin massacre.
Sixty-six years later, her scars still bear witness.
Deir Yassin is a name permanently inscribed in the Palestinian narrative. Friday, 9 April 1948 is a date forever engraved with infamy. The Deir Yassin massacre is a turning point in Palestinian history, remaining a symbol of dispossession, ongoing erasure and humanity’s capacity for cruelty.
When I was in Palestine this summer, my grandmother pointed to the stone home in Deir Yassin where she was born 76 years ago — and my eyes caught a glimpse of a pale scar on her arm. The nostalgia in her voice was so strong, I could almost see the barbaric scenes of terror as if they were being projected from a movie reel onto a screen in front of us.
Today, a psychiatric hospital occupies the center of Deir Yassin village, restricting access to its fortified stone homes standing out defiantly against the grid of generic Israeli settlement buildings constructed on stolen land.
The village was once home to around 750 people. Located outside Jerusalem and a few hundred meters to the west of the Jewish-only settlement of Givat Shaul, it was known for its peaceful reputation and primary industry of stone quarrying.
By sunrise on 9 April, the Zionist terrorist organizations known as the Irgun and Stern Gang had raided the village and stormed homes, slaughtering as many people as possible. The victims included unarmed elderly men, pregnant women and children.
Large piles of smoking and charred bodies were thrown into a pit, homes were filled with bodies riddled with bullets and walls were splattered with blood.
Each spring, almond trees in full bloom filled the air with the sweet fragrance of their blossoms. By evening that Friday, the suffocating stench of blood and burning corpses permeated the air instead.
More than 100 people were murdered that day. But the carnage was not gruesome enough for the perpetrators who exaggerated the death toll to reporters as more than double in order to incite panic and terror throughout the country.
With the motive of mass expulsion, Deir Yassin marked the implementation the Zionist policy to terrorize and erase the indigenous people from all of Palestine — not just Jerusalem.
This ultimately led to the exodus of more than 750,000 people from their homes. Today, Palestinians constitute the largest refugee population in the world at more than 5.3 million.
“Slipped on bullet casings”
My grandmother pointed over to a basketball court and park where the stone quarry once stood. Closing my eyes, I tried to commit the details of this place to memory.
I opened my eyes to the unsettling reality of settlers standing on the balcony of my grandmother’s home. There are no words to describe the agony of knowing that in order for settlers to now call this place home, they first had to erase its rightful owners from their consciousness.
“My father built that house, stone by stone,” she said. “The morning of the massacre, I raced up the steps to get Jamal [her younger brother] from his crib. On my way down, I slipped on bullet casings, cutting my arm as we fell.”
Outside, she and her four younger siblings ran into their teacher, Hayat al-Balbisi.
“She bandaged my right arm and grabbed my left,” my grandmother said. “Taking Jamal from my arms, she ran towards the group of people fleeing the village towards Ein Karem [a nearby village]. She instructed us to stay with the group before rushing back to help a wounded man. I looked back towards her and our home one last time.”
Al-Balbisi, a village teacher, established a first-aid area that morning to treat wounded villagers. She helped countless people survive the massacre before a Zionist terrorist shot her in the head outside my grandmother’s home. She was 18 years old.
Following the massacre, refugees fled to East Jerusalem, carrying little more than the incomprehensible memories of murder and destruction.
“When we reunited with my mother after three days, she told us about how the Zionists kept her and other women prisoners in the bakery, proudly waving around large daggers wet with the blood of others,” my grandmother said.
My grandmother’s cousin, Naziha Radwan, was six at the time of the massacre. She survived by covering herself in her grandmother’s blood, hiding beneath stiffened bodies and pretending to be dead.
Walking along the dirt path, my grandmother pointed to the home of her paternal aunt, Basma Zahran, and recounted another tragedy.
“She and her four children were shot and their bodies were burned in there,” my grandmother said. “Three little girls and a newborn baby boy, only a few hours old.”
Shaking her head in disbelief, she added, “Prior to the massacre, we were on good terms with the Jews in Givat Shaul. We shared food, celebrated together, paid condolences to one another, babysat for each other. There was peace here before the Zionists came and destroyed everything.”
A gentle breeze filled the air as we picked almonds from the tree my great-grandfather planted. I felt reawakened by the palpable bond to this land which remains unbreakable and non-negotiable.
Disturbed by the sight, a settler came over and demanded to know what we were doing. The irony was not lost on my grandmother.
“I’m picking almonds from my tree,” my grandmother said, “planted outside my home.”
The settler left quietly, shrinking in my grandmother’s presence.
Moments like these remind me that not only tragedy permeates the soil here, but also hope. Palestine was never an empty “land without a people,” and it never will be.
Aggressors assume that survivors will forget. They fool themselves more than anyone else.
Our narratives remain indestructibly woven into the fabric of our existence, grafted onto our bones and configured into our DNA, passed down from generation to generation.
We will never forget what happened in Deir Yassin on 9 April 1948. We will keep on telling our stories.
Dina Elmuti is a social worker researching the impacts of chronic traumatic stress and violence on the physical, mental and pyschosocial health of children in Chicago and Palestine.