On March 16, 2003, when Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer, I was thirteen. When I was in middle school, the death of a young woman on the other side of the planet didn’t mean much to me. My parents remember her. My parents’ friend, Peter Bohmer, who teaches at Evergreen College where Rachel was a student, remembers her. But it wasn’t until a little over nine years after her death that a headline made me aware she had lived. Rachel’s story might have been quickly forgotten, but her parents fought to raise awareness of her death, to share the words of this young woman who wrote poetry, kept extensive journals, and through frequent email reported the scenes of violence she encountered in Rafah to her family, friends, and fellow activists back home in Olympia, Washington. Thanks in part to her parents’ efforts the U.S. and Israel could not disregard Rachel, could not pass as easily over her death as they would have liked.
These last three months, I have read and re-read Rachel’s journals. As I discovered Rachel, as an entire person came alive to me through her poetry and diary entries, the Israeli government was absolved of all responsibility in her 2003 death.
I could write about Rachel’s love for bagels and veggie cream cheese or how she once knelt at a stream in Olympia and surprised her friends by plucking a fish from the water and swallowing it, whole. I could quote from the poems she wrote at just ten years of age: “Bring on their hungry smiles./We battle them with loose change.” I could describe her looks: blonde, pallid, waifish, beautiful. I could write about the house she died protecting with its modest garden: full of dill, lettuce, garlic, a fig tree, a sapling lemon tree, a rosebush, white plastic chairs on a patchy lawn. Or how after the bulldozer’s first pass, it then reversed over her body without raising its blade.
Instead, I want to focus on an image that opens a video tribute to her from Youtube, put out by Stay Human Or Die. In the footage she is a fifth grader making a speech at her school’s conference on World Hunger. Her eyebrows so blonde as to be lost, her hair parted precisely in the middle, her sweater sewn with snowflakes, she is pushed toward the microphone by an adult, then lisping but loud, she begins:
“I’m here for other children. I’m here because I care. I’m here because children everywhere are suffering and because forty thousand people die each day from hunger. I’m here because those people are mostly children. We have got to understand that the poor are all around us and we are ignoring them. We have got to understand that these deaths are preventable. We have got to understand that people in third world countries think and care and smile and cry just like us. We have got to understand that they dream our dreams and we dream theirs. We have got to understand that they are us. We are them.”
At ten years old, she was already articulate, already used to being listened to.
So unlike the Palestinian girl who appears at the end of the same video.
Unaccustomed to the camera, the Palestinian girl has a pressurized way of speaking. A little boy, presumably a brother, can be seen smiling in the background, perhaps at the novelty of the camera. Wearing a thin shirt with the image of a dragonfly sewn into it, the little girl hits her chest and says in emphatic Arabic: “The shelling struck the window, everything broke and got burnt. Why did they break my things and break my toys? I lost a lot of my stuff. We threw it all in the garbage. We also got rid of our clothes. We beg from our neighbors for clothes to wear. The food we eat smells like gas. We don’t want to get rid of our clothes, even if they smell like gas. Only if you’d smell our clothing, let the Israelis come and smell our clothes and see our home. Whenever we take a shower or do anything at home the smell of gas suffocates us to death.”
Here she thrusts a scrap of clothing at the cameraman, “Smell them! Gas!”
“I didn’t get to enjoy the sunglasses my dad gave me. What can I do? Even the bracelets and necklace my mom gave me. I didn’t get to enjoy my rings. How am I supposed to enjoy all of my belongings? How? On my way to school, I hear gunshots. I tremble all over.”
In Monday night’s presidential debate, President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney eagerly voiced their support for Israel’s security, with Obama describing his bond with Israel as “unbreakable” and both candidates pledging to stand with Israel should it be attacked by Iran. Neither had much to say on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This little Palestinian girl, who may or may not still be alive today, whose experiences are shared by thousands of other Palestinian children, had been passed over just as easily.
How long until she becomes human? How long until we can no longer disregard her, as we could not do with Rachel? How long until she becomes as human as Rachel?
Elena Carter is a graduate student and poet at the University of Minnesota.