They call them martyrs

A young girl sits outside her home in the Aida refugee camp. (Lamya Hussain)

They call them martyrs, their fallen soldiers, their sons, brothers and fathers. Engraved on the walls of the refugee camp are their names and messages from their loved ones. Their faces painted on the alleyways, their eyes dark and alive. They welcome me as I walk past their homes, they join me and whisper their stories as I walk through the streets of Aida. Their shadows dance on the pavement with every movement they make, footsteps following me, their hands trying to reach out through the darkness of injustice.

The youngest of them still play in the narrow alleyways; they shout out their friends’ names, they chase after the girls and tease the elders. Amongst them is little Mazen, who spends his days sitting on the steps to his home. His head in his hands, you will rarely see him move, as if he was frozen in time. In fact, the only time he will make any movement is when he hears his mother’s gentle footsteps coming down the stairs; he quickly stands up and brushes off the dust from his clothes. He walks with her, staring at her warm face, trying to get a grasp of her hands which are overworked and wrinkled. He watches her while she bargains with Ammo Basil — the tomatoes are too expensive, and last time you over charged me for the garlic. He tries to intervene, he wants to help carry her bags, he yells out to his mother but she keeps walking. She makes her way to their home, shuffling through the bags to find her keys. Putting her bags down, she walks to the door to close it. Outside stands her son, staring at her, screaming to get her attention. Oblivious to his voice and presence she closes the door. Defeated again, Mazen sits on the steps of his home and weeps silently; he misses his mother’s caress, how she yelled at him when he would come home late. He is the youngest martyr in Aida; at age five he was shot by the Israeli army during the second Palestinian intifada. His lifeless body bled against the concrete, his school uniform drenched in sweat and blood, and as life left him his mother hummed in his ears and brushed his messy hair. She is as empty as he is, craving her son’s mischief, his footsteps creeping after her, his constant nagging about how she never cooks meat. Her hands joined in prayer, eyes closed, she whispers goodbye to her son.

A few blocks down you’ll find Nora, her feet stomping and hands firmly placed on her hips. Well-known for her dabke (the Palestinian folk dance) you’ll find her rocking up a storm. Always smiling, her dark eyes reflect all that she gazes upon. “When I grow up I will be famous, people will remember me like they remember the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish.” She takes my hand and twirls around me, spinning around stomping her feet. “Yalla, you can do it, just watch me, this one I made up myself.” The wind plays with her hair and she brushes it off, as if flirting with the boys, her blushed cheeks raised, complementing her strong frame. She finally stops and stares me straight in the eye. “Fine, I will show you!” We walk slowly, hand-in-hand, until we reach one of the security towers that surround Aida refugee camp. She points at it and says, “From there the soldier shot me while I played with my friends. I remember his face, he looked like a foreigner, blonde hair and blue eyes. I think he was aiming at the boys who were a few meters away — they were practicing for their annual drama competition. One of them had a toy gun, his name’s Majed Abu Jaber, I don’t like him very much. He was martyred a few days later. He says he threw stones at the soldier who shot me because I was supposed to marry him when I grew up. The Abu Jabers are trouble, they always fight and tease all the girls in the camps.”

“What did you say about my family?” We turn to see Majed standing tall and handsome. “We are the strongest of the refugees in Aida. My family has more martyrs than any other family — we are giants amongst the ordinary.” He points at the Abu Jaber home. “Come, I’ll show you,” he says.

We walk through the narrow alleys towards Majed’s home; the entrance is perfumed by his mother’s mint pots. He stumbles through them and opens the door; sitting on a dusty prayer mat is his grandmother. Her hands slowly stroke prayer beads, her eyes closed, her face wrinkled gently as if each line marks a tragedy she’s lived through. We walk past an old rusty shelf filled with books, their titles concealed under layers of dust, some completely hidden by the stacks of newspapers that have changed to a brownish color over the years. “Look, there I am,” he says, pointing at the highest picture hung gracefully amongst many others. “This is the Abu Jaber Martyr Wall, see right there, that’s my grandfather. He was a trooper; after the Nakba he went back to water his orange groves. He traveled a great distance to go home to Jaffa. The soldiers shot him on his way back home, said he was an infiltrator. People say he was found with bags full of olives, oranges, mint and lemons from his village. I guess he wanted to bring some of what was stolen back to the refugees. And there’s my uncle Marwan, he was destined to be a martyr. When they killed my grandfather he joined the resistance. He promised to never marry or have children until he could assure that they would live in freedom and dignity. We never got his body from the Israelis, they say he was a terrorist and won’t let us bury him as a martyr.”

I glimpse through the many pictures of the fallen sons, brothers and husbands of the Abu Jaber family. “Who are you?” I turn to see Majed’s grandmother standing at the door, puzzled. I stutter trying to explain myself. “I knew Majed, he was a friend of mine,” I tell her. She nods. “Well, so were half the girls in the camp. You know he’s dead, right?” she says. “They killed him like his father and uncles. I ask God to do justice!” I walk up to her and kiss her forehead. I tell her that Majed never meant to break his mother’s mint pot. She stares back at me confused as I make my exit.

The sun sets slowly in the distant horizon, its golden rays gently caress Aida camp. My back towards the Israeli towers, I see life as it is in Aida. Children running through the alleys, old men sitting outside their homes smoking water pipe, women peeking through the windows, looking for their sons and husbands. Among the living walk the martyrs of Aida camp, transcending death as they refuse to be forgotten. I walk back and surely with each turn I take, more of them join me, coming alive as I pass their graffiti, whispering in my ears — we are martyrs.

Lamya Hussain is a Toronto-based activist and a researcher on issues around Palestinian refugees.