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An American Under Siege in a West Bank Camp

[Written April 1st, dictated over the phone.]

Each night I think to myself this is the most terrifying night of my life and each night it gets worse.

All night I counted my life in hours. I just have to stay alive until 6 o’clock. Until 7 o’clock. Until 8 o’clock. Each passing moment a new gray hair on my head.

We waited all night to be invaded and the birds twittering in the morning were like water to parched lips.

I opted to stay in the Aida Refugee Camp with eight other internationals and come morning the other eleven internationals returned to Bethlehem for supplies.

Our cell phones were dangerously low of charge and time. The sun came out for a while and I actually began to feel calm. International Solidarity Movement (ISM) organizers called to say that the remainder of the international group was going to march to Beit Jala and try to visit with the Palestinian families under threat. Three of our nine in Aida Refugee Camp went to the Beit Jala march, the other six of us stayed.

The kids in the refugee camp scrounged up a guitar. We taught them yoga out back on the concrete. They set up another game of volleyball and begged me to play while I looked at email. In the middle of a phone conversation Sean (from the U.S.) comes to me with fear in his eyes. Four internationals were shot during the march! Internationals shot?! Real bullets, not rubber bullets.

The six of us gather and the first thing that comes out of my mouth is, “I want to go back to the hotel.” A “me too” pipes up on either side of me. The others raised the question, “What about the people here?” All I can think of is that our nonviolent weapons, and purpose in the refugee camp, was to protect the Palestinians with our international status.

We all clearly all now see that the Israeli military is unconcerned with our international status and our lives in the refugee in the camp feel like more logs on the fire. I want to get out. Four of us decide to go, two to stay. Put on layers and bright colors, I advised. The Palestinian mothers, the doctor — they tried to be understanding, but under their wan smiles is a layer of disappointment, under that layer is fear. I start crying and hugging them feeling like a rat fleeing from a sinking ship.

I call the ISM to coordinate. I’m told there are seven shot, not four. They insist that we walk and not drive. The two that are staying are crying. I am crying and ashamed. But I desperately need to get back to the hotel in Bethlehem, that’s all I can think about.

I yell “tomorrow” to the group of boys halted in their tracks holding a volleyball. The thin wire stretched across the alley looks like a deserted IV tube. Six or seven of the refugees escort us to the end of the camp and point the way.

My son is ever present in my mind. We hear gun shots, the roads are deserted, not even a scrap of paper floats by. More shots. We curse under our breath. “Oh Fuck!” It seems like we’re walking right towards the shots but it seems like the only way back to the hotel. All around us I imagine Israeli snipers taking aim. Different kinds of shots are going off, some booming, some single rifle shots, some rat-a-tat-tat.

Under my breath I’m whispering, “almost there, almost there.” Sky is the color of oatmeal. Mysterious flakes of white are falling like snow in the cool humidity. I can only think about putting one foot in front of the other, constantly scouting for a place to hide with every step.

We round the corner on the main street of Bethlehem and the road is completely littered with bombs the size of small TVs, wired one to the next. I can’t be sure when they’re going to go off, but we have to cross that street. Ahead I see a group of boys frantically motioning to us. I want to run as fast as I can. Then I hear another international, Rory, reminding us not to run, imagining snipers looking for panicked targets.

We cross the booby-trapped street. The next hurdle is the tower (tall narrow building), it looms above the town of Bethlehem and we’re sure that snipers will be there. And for one complete stretch of road we’re completely unprotected from it.

I keep saying “almost there, almost there” like a mantra. Roosters are crowing from all directions. “I wonder why the roosters are crowing,” one of us asks. “The rooster crows three time because we’ve betrayed our friends,” comes a solemn answer behind me. My heart sinks.

We turn off the sniper street and step behind the wall of Bethlehem University, where the giant white stone walls only give a small sense of security if you forgive the tank shell marks – big holes the size of a grapefruit, with charred black rings, but I know we’re only a 100 feet from the hotel, round a few more corners, and we spill into the lobby.

The lobby of the Bethlehem Star Hotel is chaos with press and medics and bandages adorning the bodies of my international friends. I try to relay what just happened to us but everyone is preoccupied with his or her own trauma and the horrifying truth is that no one has suffered any less than anyone else.

I run up to my hotel room and lie down on the floor. The explosions sound like a 4th of July fireworks show gone terribly wrong. I call Ben from CCMEP on the phone and proceed to freak out. He’s able to calm me down and I’m able to get off the phone.

One of the other people who just walked through hell finds me in my room. At this point everyone who isn’t sobbing has eyes caught in a perpetual flash bulb. I feel like I finally calm down and I go downstairs to where I see Issa’s injured leg, a piece of shrapnel is still embedded and they’ve only bandaged her – she was one of the internationals shot by the IDF at the Beij Jala march

I’m envisioning a long night of fending off her infection. Then I notice that I’m shivering and my mind feels sluggish. In retrospect I’m pretty sure it was post-traumatic shock. The Israeli invasion lasted until the wee hours of the morning. I slept on the floor with my cell phone in one hand and my passport in my other.

Nancy Stohlman is one of three Coloradans in Palestine in solidarity with Palestinians under siege by the Israeli military. More information about their trip can be found at: http://www.ccmep.org

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