A Sealed Laboratory of Repression
It seems like the end of the world. It all stops here, up against the wall.
When Jenin camp was destroyed there was, for what it was worth, and international outcry. True, Israel blocked the official U.N inquiry, the mined layers of rubble remained for 5 months after the attack, and on the recently cleared moonscape of Jenin’s `Ground Zero’ few houses have risen from the dust. Nonetheless, whether for the strength of the resistance or from the scale of destruction, Jenin has pervaded the consciousness of those outside the region. And there is a general belief among the people of this community that despite everything they will continue to survive here.
During the Ramadan season the camp felt festive. Families wandered around in the night greeting neighbors and visiting for sweets. In an odd twist `silent night’, played in a style evoking an ice cream truck, blared from a clothing store. But most of all some houses are coming back. The gaping holes of the ravaged buildings- once sealed with only blankets, have finally been repaired. Jenin is beginning to look a little less like Kabul.
My first image upon arriving to Jenin camp in June of 2002 was of smoldering heaps covered by tanks, returned to the scene of the crime to drive over the rubble and broken homes until even the debris had been demolished. The stunned looks on the face of the old man who did not seem to notice as he sat on his living room couch that the wall of his home was gone leaving him exposed as a tableau to neighbors, soldiers and foreign delegations alike.
"Before the camp was beautiful" A friend tells me. "Now it is not." But her memories of the camp `before’ are tied up with an irretrievable past. Before her mother and younger brother bled to death in their home. Before her own house was hit by two apache rockets.
To me, who knew this woman’s deceased relatives only from shaheed posters and who is glad to finally see her father and brothers without constant tears in their eyes, the camp looks alive. The most recent bout of 6 week of daily curfew, which halted all school and work, tell us if we need proof, that the trials of invasion and occupation persist irrespective of the news cycle. Yet everyone knows of Jenin, however they choose to remember it.
Nobody remembers Rafah where the bulldozers come every night. When 150-200 houses are destroyed it rates a mention on the evening news. The 1or 2 or 8 on a more typical night go unrecorded.
Rafah, one of the most densely populated places on earth has nowhere to absorb the 2000 newly homeless. It is full, with 90,000 registered refugees. Now people live in tents among the rubble, next to guard towers that spray machine gun fire all day and all night . The view through the ruins is of the new iron wall on the border with Egypt 10 meters closer than the old border wall, stealing yet more precious space for an enlarged military zone and endless patrols of tanks and bulldozers. They stay because there is nowhere to go. When asked if he will rebuild one man just shrugs. He can not even approach the spot where his home stood it is a free fire zone.
And beyond the endless piles of concrete and rebar, shoes and dishes, sparkles the Mediterranean Sea, like a mirage. Inaccessible to the people of Rafah for years and controlled by the army and the settlers of Rafiah Yam, the ocean can be heard from the edge of the camp and its smell is discernible even with the stink of sewage unleashed by inadequate and tank ravaged pipes.
Consistent with the infinite ironies of media attention, one of the best known images internationally from this part of Palestine is blonde, American Rachel Corrie, killed beneath the blade of an Israeli bulldozer last spring. The paramedic who took her broken body from this wasteland to the hospital where she died, now lies himself in a hospital bed in Khan Yunis, two gunshot wounds ripping holes from his chest through his back.
He was shot out of a sniper tower during the last invasion, really just an acceleration of the constant invasion that is Rafah. The last thing that Raja Omar remembers from Oct.10, 2003 is some children calling for him to retrieve an injured person from inside the UNRWA installation in the wrecked Yibna section of Rafah camp.
From here his older brother, a nurse at the hospital with perfect English, takes over and describes watching his little brother on life support for 4 days. His voice breaks as he gestures at his brother’s uniform hanging next to the bed. "Everyone, everywhere knows that this is the uniform of a medical worker". Raja winces silently clutching a picture of him standing with his ambulance and another with his 3-year-old son to his chest like talismen.
18 people were killed during the last invasion. Rafah has one hospital, founded as a 50-bed clinic. This ought not be a problem as 20 minutes away in Khan Yunis is a large, clean and relatively modern hospital offering many services. However, as is often the case during moments of acute crisis the road between Rafah and Khan Yunis was blocked by the army while they were invading the southern camps. The director of the small hospital said that the soldiers would open fire on ambulances that tried to pass "even on the sand roads."
So this clinic with no OBGYN department performed 10 cesareans in those two weeks and 70 high-risk deliveries. The 130 injuries all came here, including 35 critical cases. 13 serious operations were carried out in makeshift OR’s by one general surgeon. Things were particularly bad, Dr. Pardawed told us looking bleary eyed and inhaling deeply from his cigarette because the Israelis used "heavy bullets, not normal bullets. Explosive bullets and rockets from airplanes."
A gruff pride creeps into his voice as he describes the surgeries they carried out here. Sabra Shami, 45 hit by a bullet in the head, the army refused to allow him through to Khan Yunis so they performed impromptu neuro-surgery -20 hours after they finished they finally got permission to transfer him. An 18 year old boy `caught a bullet direct in their heart’ and so the general surgeon, trained no doubt for appendixes and tonsils, carried out his third open heart surgery of this intifada.
`Both patients,’ Dr. Pardawed says, not quite smiling, `are until now still alive’.
The ‘still alive’ fill the wards of EL Wafa rehabilitation hospital in Shifa. Rooms full of mostly young men and boys paralyzed from the neck or the waste or twitching in comas from which they will never wake up, their limbs curling into a fetal position. A boy of 15 smiles sweetly as he obligingly lifts the one limb that still moves slightly. His left leg. The doctors tell me his spinal cord was irreparably damaged by shrapnel from one of the missles that regularly fall from the skies here. He is the `collateral damage’ of the policy of arial extra judicial assassinations. They are ready to send him home, they say, but first they must train the family for a week to take care of him to prevent bedsores and such, there is nothing else to be done. The number of gravely disabled in Palestine has risen from 2.3 to 2.9 in the past three years, most of them are spinal cord and brain injuries.
This is Rafah. 259 dead in this intifada, 45 of them children, not to speak of the thousands of injuries that often make the entire city/camp appear as a giant rehab ward. 75% of the people here live in poverty and there is no moment at which it seems as though it will ever get any better because there is no moment at which it appears that anyone outside this cramped space knows what life is to the people unfortunate enough to live in this sealed laboratory of repression at the end of the world.
JULIANA FREDMAN is a film maker working on a documentary about Health care under occupation in the West Bank. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org