7:40 AM; It has just taken me almost two hours to get through Qalandia checkpoint, have just stepped around the last of the barbed wire. There are a few more checkpoints to go before I reach the office. None could be as bad. Partly to settle my nerves, partly to check in, I dial a colleague’s number on my mobile. My hands are still shaking. More shooting behind me, and I eye the cigarettes being sold beside where the taxis are parked:
-‘Hi, it’s me, just wanted to let you know that I am on my way to the office. Just crossed Qalandia, awful’……Riyad lets out a short, tired laugh: ‘I know, I’m here too.’ His voice crackles, a sound bomb explodes in stereo behind me, and in my phone. ‘Remember how I said I was coming to visit my parents in Ramallah this weekend? I’ve been stuck at Qalandia since 4 o’clock. 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon….’
Riyad and Michele –five months pregnant- and their three-year-old son Rizek, came to visit their family for the weekend. Well, it wouldn’t have been a weekend trip, considering that it should just be a 15 minute drive from Jerusalem to Ramallah, but – the checkpoint is so bad, it is just too much to cross it twice in one day.
And Sunday afternoon – yesterday – they arrived at Qalandia, on their way home. Stand in the Cage. Wait. After about 45 minutes waiting, they heard that some people were able to cross through the quarry (a hilly stretch running alongside the checkpoint). They and other families trying to get home managed to make it almost to the other side, but 15-foot high barbed wire sealed off their exit.
And the soldiers had seen them.
Shots fired. Teargas canisters fired. Thick suffocating poison, can’t see, run. Run. Can’t breathe-
Michele faints, already weakened by a difficult pregnancy.
They manage to get back to the other side. Riyad brings Michele and his son back to his parents’ place, and goes back to the checkpoint, back to Qalandia, and waits. Just one more hour. Another. And another. There was shooting near them and more teargas at night. They sat between the cement block inside the cage, waiting-
-‘You’re totally stubborn: why didn’t you just go back to your parents’ place?’
Another short laugh. Exhaustion. Still waiting at the checkpoint – but silent. I understand though: there is just little left, so little freedom. And when you are choked and chained, small acts of defiance –sitting and waiting at the checkpoint all night- are small moments of air, of breath.
Note: Riyad was finally able to cross –and get home- at 10am today, having spent almost 18 hours at the checkpoint. Michele and Rizek were able to cross around 5pm today, 25 hours after they first tried to get home. The distance between Ramallah and East Jerusalem is less than 15 kilometers.