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A Drowning in Salem

In Order for Life to Continue

by ANNE GWYNNE

Earlier this week I received an urgent call from my young friend, Feras al Bakri (the courageous UPMRC Ambulance Driver)–"An’ne, where are you now? Come on, quickly, quickly to my home! Today I am nearly killed". A 10-minute sprint through the Old City, flights of stairs taken two at a time, and there he is, pale and exhausted, lying on a sofa in front of a gas heater, wrapped in blankets and quilts, and very, very cold. Stressed and shocked, he wants to tell me of his day (though he interrupts his story frequently with–"really, I don’t want to remember"), skipping briefly over the morning which, anywhere else, would be a story in itself.

The Beit Iba roadblock was ‘closed’ when the Ambulance stopped there with three patients bound for Raffidia Hospital from Sebastiya, a city so ancient that my guide book almost apologises that it ‘did not become an important Administrative Centre until 837 BCE’! "Checkpoint closed while soldiers take rest. Come back in three hours" smirked the fat, red-faced young thug who went away, giggling hysterically, to join his juvenile mates in an appropriate, if demeaning game of ‘donkeys’–leading each other around the checkpoint with the strapping on the helmets acting as halters–whilst they exchanged lewd sexual banter about whores and brothels.

Naturally, Feras could not keep three sick people in that hell-hole for hours, so up the mountain he went, to the Sar’ra T-Junction and over the hilly, but very smooth ‘settler’ roads and down to Huwarra checkpoint to the west of Nablus.

‘Checkpoint?’ It all sounds straightforward. No. These very illegal roadblocks which stretch for miles and destroy hectares of Palestinian farmers’ land with no redress, are not in any sense of the word, checkpoints. These desolate places are for terrorizing, humiliating, inflicting pain by beating or shooting, degradation and death; they have only one purpose–to make any kind of normal life or commerce impossible for the civilian population whose lives the Israelis daily destroy.

The morning’s detour was fraught with danger of sudden death at every turn, for these are not ordinary roads and the people they serve are not ‘settlers’ in any ordinary sense of the word. They are illegal immigrants who have killed and beaten, and stolen the land as they pushed its rightful owners out of their homes. These heavily-armed gunmen and women are served by miles and miles of constructed highway, cosily termed ‘settler roads’. They are the only roads in the world built on someone else’s land for the exclusive use of one religious group–Jews–who are empowered to kill anyone they ‘suspect’ of, well, anything really–since they kill with impunity it isn’t important what they invent. On this occasion the Ambulance and its vulnerable cargo made it to Raffidia Hospital without any bullet holes to add to the many already there.

So much stress and danger would, anywhere else, warrant the afternoon off. Not here. At Raffidia Feras picked up a very precious load: baby, father and Caesarian-section mother, Naseem Ishtey’ya, to be taken home to the village of Salem, some 3 km–normally 10 minutes drive–from Nablus. But Salem is a ‘closed’ village. All villages around Nablus are closed and have been for a year. Indeed Nablus itself, a beautiful, ancient city of 200,000 is more often closed than open these days.

The process of closure is one that only the Israeli Ministry of Gratuitous Cruelties could have thought up. Bulldozers the size of houses, like the one which crushed Rachel Corrie, are brought from Israel and spend weeks digging huge trenches and building mountains with the displaced earth in concentric circles around the villages (see photograph 1). The sewerage pipes are then fractured and the sewage diverted into the trenches. At this moonscape everything and everyone is prevented from entering or leaving.

Palestinians have lived here for thousands of years, empathetically with the landscape and weather they understand. Any disturbance of the natural drainage which has evolved from pre-history causes storm water to build up into huge and terrifying floods at alarming speed, creating maelstroms of madness and what we call ‘Seas of Insanity’ over all the land as far as the eye can see. The Israelis (or what my 4-year old granddaughter calls, presciently, the Isra-Aliens) have no understanding of, nor empathy with, this ancient landscape, so they demolish, ravage and vandalise the countryside in an orgy of destruction and hatred.

With the natural drainage destroyed, the waters around Salem take the line of least resistance, down the hillside to the village and along the ‘closed’ road, gathering depth and force as it flows (see photograph 2, taken during lesser flooding in February). By the time the Ambulance left Raffidia, the weather, which had been deteriorating all day, had developed into one of the worst storms in living memory. The iciest snow I have ever felt was borne in sheets on a gale-force wind, covering the streets with a thick layer of the most slippery slush, like thick engine oil in viscosity, on which it is virtually impossible to stay upright. This was accompanied by a spectacular ‘son et lumiere’ display which lasted for more than 10 hours, with forked and sheet lightning crackling through the valley, followed by thunder crashing deafeningly; the ice-snow later turning to torrential rain.

Once the Ambulance reached the dreaded Salem checkpoint, Feras stopped because "everything is very, very closed" and no driver can move inside the village. The cut road (shown in photograph 1) is, of course, closed and the only way is on the left of the road–up a raging flash-flood of thick, muddy water. Feras went in up to his knees to see if his patients could reach their homes inside the village: "Very, very difficult, too deep water and very slippery under the feet" he told me, "for my patient from Raffidia, it is not possible with her caesarian-wound, long clothes, the baby and so on". So he came back to the Ambulance and asked a Red Cross Driver who was watching the incident to call the IOF to see if the road could be opened because they have to carry the woman in a wheelchair. He told her to explain additionally, that "if there is a heart-patient or pregnant woman they will die inside the village. Ask C.O. to open please the street or maybe people die here". Feras has seen this firsthand: a month ago (at the time the pictures were taken) a pharmacist, of the Alawn family, collapsed and drowned there in the Israeli-made foul sewage pit trying to reach Feras’ Ambulance (see photograph 3). Unbelievably, the Red Cross closed their windows and drove off without doing anything.

With no alternative, Feras took the baby, wrapped up like an Inuit, over an insubstantial make-shift bridge and returned for the mum, but realised that the ‘bridge’ was too small and narrow for the wheelchair. As he looked at the racing, swirling, muddy maelstrom in which trees, metal bars and gates, bushes, rocks and other debris sped by, he was afraid of drowning, but he knew he somehow just had to get this vulnerable new mother to the other side. With Naseem in the wheelchair, a blanket over her face so she could not see the danger, three men carried her through the four-foot deep icy water, Feras guiding from behind. Carefully, with one foot placed gingerly in front of the other they reached the middle of the chest-high rapids, where one of the men slipped into the water, crying "Allah Akbar, I die, I die". But, caught by Feras he was able to grip a handle on the chair and regain his footing.

All this time the guns of the murderous soldiers were aimed, and ready to shoot them on a whim. Suddenly, Naseem’s husband and two of the other men lost their footing, and for about 3–5 minutes they were floundering in the icy water–the panic was overwhelming. Just as they were being pulled up the bank to what would, anywhere else, be safety, the soldiers chose this terrible time to prepare their machine guns for firing, pulling the bolt back and forth (a horrible sound when you are facing the barrel–I will not forget it easily), poking the half-drowned men with their guns and shouting hysterically "we are going to shoot you dead now". Feras, still in the water and very cold, shouted as well as he could in the wind to "please be quiet–can you see everyone is in panic here". Did they think these rescued people could possibly kill them? Feras said, "you want to shoot, but it would be better if you help, not shoot, because maybe the ones still in water will die of cold". The soldiers laughed and said, as usual "it’s not my problem" and continued to search and threaten the men lying on the bank.

In spite of everything, Naseem, baby and father were safely taken across the raging river, but Feras now had to cross back to the Ambulance with the wheelchair. By this time, the ‘bridge’ had been swept away and it was impossible to speak properly in the wind and rain. Feras asked the soldiers for a piece of rope (which they did have) to tie to the chair to help him back over. "Not my problem", they retorted. Someone suggested that the only way back across the ever-deepening water was to walk to the nearby Azmout roadblock (where earlier the soldiers had shot a boy and wounded another). Although very short, it was a difficult walk because Feras could barely move for the cold in his bones. At Azmout, the rushing water was no shallower; he slid down the Israeli-made mud-rampart for three meters only to find two more people in the water trying to reach their homes in Salem. A girl was looking down at the flow and crying desperately. She was terrified. Feras told her not to look at the water but to look at the other side as he led them through the chest-high floodwater to safety.

A desperately-ill man begged Feras to take him to Nablus in the Ambulance, but as they tried to cross the torrent they were knocked over by large debris in the ever faster, ever deeper water. Holding onto each other, hand by hand and foot by foot they reached three large rocks which looked like stepping stones. Struggling against the ferocious current they managed to crawl onto the rock and made their way to the Ambulance. Feras remembers Naseem’s husband waving and shouting his gratitude from the other side. Somehow, despite being in icy water for two hours, Feras drove the Ambulance back to the UPMRC centre, collapsed and was taken home, where it took several hours of intensive heat to bring his temperature up to normal.

He was just doing his humanitarian work, carrying out missions of mercy, in his own city in his own land where his ancestors have lived for millennia. A land occupied by a brutal army which, every day, breaks every applicable International Law and Convention in its attempt to make life so intolerable that the people it has not murdered will flee, leaving the beautiful land of Palestine in their acquisitive, long and grasping fingers.

Later, Feras said to me: "What I learn in my life, after First Aid and to drive Ambulance, I learn very good thinking. Really. It is very important: if I see someone in a dangerous situation like a car accident, a house fire, in the water, a factory accident or shot by tank–I don’t think who they are, I forget if it is Muslim, Christian, Jew, really, because that way is peace".

This young man, who often comes close to death, demonstrates the difference between the total absence of understanding or humanity of the Israelis and the complete comprehension of the reality of the situation, when he says to me later that evening–"You see, An’ne, at that moment when they refuse to help someone in a dangerous situation they lose all humanity and become less. Really, I am sad for them". No hatred, no resentment, just understanding. Two peoples a world apart–on the one hand, only the wish to kill and destroy, on the other, only the wish to help and heal. Hatred versus love. Violence versus kindness. Delusion versus comprehension. Ignorance versus knowledge. Self-preservation versus self-sacrifice. I pity Israel.

ANNE GWYNNE is working with the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees in Nablus. She can be reached at: gwynne_anne@hotmail.com


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