“Where shall we go? Baghdad?”


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Last update - 01:31 04/04/2003

‘Where shall we go, to Baghdad?,’ deported Tul Karm men ask IDF

By Arnon Regular

In a side room in the mosque of Nur Shams refugee camp in Tul karm, a few bearded young men were toiling over giant pots. They were preparing lunch for the newly-arrived refugees, their neighbors from the Tul karm refugee camp, who on Wednesday were forced out of their homes by the IDF.

The locals have been tending to the needs of the newcomers since they arrived. They provide them not only with warm meals and water, but also make sure they have access to telephones, so that they can communicate with the women, children and elderly who were left behind, in the camp in the east of Tul karm.

As the first men started arriving, Fatah operatives in Nur Shams started making sleeping arrangements for the approaching night. Of the 2,000 men who were forced out of their homes, some were taken in to homes of Nur Shams residents, some got mattresses and blankets and slept at the local mosque, and others moved on to the villages east of town. Others spent the night in the orchards surrounding the camp.

On Wednesday, IDF soldiers and border police gathered all men aged 15-40 at the Tul karm camp and then transferred them to the Nur Shams camp, four kilometers to the east. The IDF explained that this was part of an operation designed to capture wanted terrorists in the camp. Yesterday afternoon groups of men were still making their way by foot to Nur Shams. These were men who did not comply with the IDF’s original order to gather and stayed at home They were found in door-to-door searches.

But most of the men were relocated from the Tul karm camp on Wednesday. A little after 3 A.M., the residents of the camp awoke to the sound of gunfire, stun grenades and helicopters. According to residents’ reports, a large IDF force stormed the camp from all directions.

Soldiers and policemen blocked all roads leading to and from the camp with barbed wire, and jeeps and tanks started moving inside. Jeeps driving through the camp announced on loudspeakers that all men and boys aged 15-40 must take their IDs and report to a compound in the center of the camp, where the two schools that UNRWA runs are located.

Within minutes a long line of men formed on the way to the schools. When they got their, they were frisked. Their mobile phones were taken, and were only returned once the soldiers finished making logs of all the telephone numbers stored in memory - probably in order to check if anyone has any ties with wanted terrorists.

Khaled Abu Said, a 30-year-old resident, said that after the IDs were checked and no one from the wanted list was found, “they just sat us there for a few hours. Sometime in the middle they brought some food, but there wasn’t enough for everyone. All this time the courtyard was quiet, and the soldiers acted very naturally, with no violence and no shouting.”

The soldiers divided arrivals into two groups, separating those aged 15-20 from those aged 20-40. The younger group was led into classrooms, forced to tear pictures of shahid (martyrs) off the walls and step on them.

At around 9 AM, a few hours after the operation began, a Druze officer reportedly told a few hundred men on site: “You are leaving the camp. Don’t come back until it is all over.” Abd a-Latif a-Sudani, 30, recalls: “We asked him - `Where are we to go? To Baghdad?’ And he said: `You’d be better off there.’”

Abu Said said that at first the men did not realize what he meant, but shortly afterward a truck arrived and the soldiers started herding groups of men onto it. Accompanied by a border police jeep, the truck drove to Nur Shams, dropped the passengers, and went back to take another group.

Several hours after the courtyard was emptied, the soldiers sent more men to Nur Shams by foot. No exact numbers are available, but most of the men living in the camp, which is home to around 18,000 people, have left over the last two days and have not yet returned.

In the outskirts of the camp groups of young men congregated yesterday, trying to figure out what was going on inside. When the IDF started canvassing from door-to-door, soldiers only found women, children and old men. They were looking for Islamic Jihad operative Nimer Khalil; apparently, he has not yet been caught.

The residents of the camp were made to pay the price; most - if not all - of the men who were relocated, are not connected in any way to terrorism. Most of them are jobless, and survive on donations and UNRWA support.

Abu Said recounts what he felt when he got on the truck: “All at once all the memories and stories my father and grandfather told me as a child about the Naqba (catastrophe - the name Palestinians give to the 1948 founding of Israel and the dispersal of their refugees).

We were all afraid they now we were being deported, and it was even scarier thinking of the three-year-old girl and the wife you are leaving behind. But what choice did we have but to get on the truck?”