If crossing Kalandia and on to Ramallah brought tears, then travelling to Nablus from Ramallah by UPMRC ambulance is beyond tears, beyond words, beyond description, beyond anything I could have imagined experiencing. All senses are numbed; you ride on a sea of despair.
The roads are empty–for Palestinians are not allowed to travel in their own country. On the Western side of the huge dual carriageway, miles and miles of ‘confiscated land’ lie empty–with every living thing removed by order of the illegal Israeli Occupation Force. The East side is garlanded with miles of high electrified fencing–barriers which enclose the thousands of illegal houses of the illegal Israeli occupiers. We face road block after road block, wait after wait, search after search of the ambulance with the icy wind blowing in through the thrown-open doors. Everything is removed from the ambulance and everyone ordered out–except me with my bullet-proof EU passport. Desperately ill patients lie on the roadside in the rain–the wet cold chills to the bone. Doctors and drivers are insulted and bullied by insolent Israeli soldiers. At one roadblock, a young soldier spent 10 minutes picking at his spots in our door-mirror, while his mates searched the ambulance. At the Huwarah checkpoint (the last before we reached Nablus) an ambulance from the other direction was stopped and held for 30 minutes with its maximum emergency indicators going. Our ambulance waited 25 minutes there–I thought this was a long time; later in my stay I would consider this a short wait.
At the road block /checkpoint everyone, as usual, gets out at the one end and then walks until some minibus or taxi comes along to pick them up–but only, of course, if they have the money to pay and, with 70% out of work, most do not. So they keep on walking in straggling crowds on an exposed hillside, in torrential rain and with a freezing wind sweeping across the hills. Over-burdened, wet, cold, probably hungry people carrying children on one arm and baggage in the other, endlessly tramping through expanses of muddy water, piles of rubble, huge holes, and road-sides torn up by tank tracks.
The Doctor told me that the Director of a local school had a heart attack in a village which is ‘closed.’ A CLOSED VILLAGE is an area of settlement to which all roads have been blocked by massive barriers half a mile or so from the houses: an area into which, and out of which, no one and nothing is allowed to pass. So the ambulance could not go there. A neighbour drove the school director around the mountains to the checkpoint, where the Israelis would not let him through without proof that he was suffering a heart attack. In the long wait, the man died and the driver asked the guard “Is this enough proof for you?” This is a death which is not put down in the statistics as ‘killed by the Israelis,’ but, of course, it is.
This morning, a 5-year old child was taken to hospital suffering from acute appendicitis. The Israelis refused to let her mother accompany her because they said that the ambulance then became a taxi! Imagine a tiny 5-year-old in acute pain, forced to stay alone in the hospital for an operation. This would not happen anywhere else.
And then we reach the outskirts of Nablus, formerly the most beautiful city on the West Bank, the powerhouse of Palestine. We drive in along the once-elegant main road with its dual carriageway boulevards and colonnaded promenades of shops. Now they are strafed and covered in bullet holes with hundreds of shot-out windows; everything at street level is boarded-up. Where was the street? ‘This is not a road’, says our driver–‘where is the road?’ We bumped and bottomed and rocked and jolted along a wilderness with huge mounds of rubble and piles of rocks to negotiate–a journey whose jolting pain must have contributed to the death of many an injured person.
The bombing of more than 200 factories has destroyed most of Nablus’ formerly thriving industry. Two schools and a mosque have been demolished, and more than 300 houses completely destroyed–tanked or bulldozed; whole blocks have been gutted by bombs from F16’s or missiles from helicopter gunships. I saw the Municipal Building reduced to ashes together with ALL the civil records of 186,000 people, and the Ministry of Health, which has been denied access by 20-foot high roadblocks to either side. We passed a house where eight people were bulldozed to death (‘a mistake,’ said the Israelis), the house where a 75-year-old woman was shot to death, and another where three young women were killed. Further along, I saw the house where 9 people were massacred, and another where two women were killed and a third lost her legs. During this preview of the sights of Nablus, we passed rows of gutted shops (now re-stocked with the help of bank loans), a school covered with bullet holes, and another with huge shell holes in the walls.
At the UPMRC Centre stood an ambulance with bullet holes in the sides and rear, but also in the handles of its stretchers–bullets in the handles of a stretcher! It seems that soldiers routinely shoot at Medics’ hands as they carry the injured and dying. At the Centre, bullets constantly ping along the roof as soldiers from the notorious checkpoint on the hill take pot shots at the city–or the ‘settlers’ on the hilltops do. Nablus is exquisitely situated in a bowl with a flat base surrounded by the white rocky mountainsides which glow in the sun. On the hills to the West and to the East are Israeli Military Camps numbers 1 and 2, and on the other hilltops the guns of the ‘settlers’ are ready to kill. From these encampments, the tanks and armoured cars roll in every evening to enforce the 6 to 6 curfew. Anyone venturing outside can, and often is, murdered by Israeli guns.
This afternoon, we passed the street where courageous residents have removed a huge iron gate which effectively cut Nablus in two. Sidewalks do not exist, because the tanks which roam the city in search of prey during the night are so big that when they turn any corner they tear up the pavement leaving huge holes, often taking the corners of houses with them too. Gardens and trees have been destroyed by tanks–wide avenues of palms and tree ferns have simply been uprooted and driven over. Walking, driving, working, and learning are all impossible here–impossible that is to anyone but the people of Nablus, whose bravery and strength seems without limit. Their resolve, courage and determination never to leave their city is palpable–everywhere. Their welcome is warm, they are full of affection and friendship, their banter is laughter-filled, and in their eyes is a look so direct that you feel they see right inside you and that they let you see into their souls. Their sense of fun pervades everything and their hospitality and generosity is legendary.
On my first morning, the delightful youngsters of the Medical Volunteers insist I join them for a breakfast they prepared themselves–delicious pitta, hummus, fuul, tea and fun. The notice on the door of the kitchen reads “help yourself, by yourself–no need to ask–what is ours is yours”. They are extremely interested in each other and in me, and they want to know what my country is like. They ask if there is anyone in the world who cares about them. They want to know everything–language, foods, customs. Denied the universal right to education and cooped up in villages for three months at a time, prevented from attending school and university by the closures–it is amazing how much they know. Their intense curiosity is touching.
The Medical Centre here was set up 6 months ago. Nablus has six hospitals, the largest containing 80 beds. Two are Municipal (free) and 4 are private. There are sufficient beds in normal times, but the incursions, murders and injuries place a great strain upon these resources. The clinic here charges 5 shekels to see the doctor and three shekels for medicine, which can be very costly. If anyone cannot pay, he does not have to–the director feels that even this little money can mean the difference between a meal for the family and no meal at all.
So, I come to the end of my first day in Nablus–everyone has a story to tell but I have been typing for a long time and it is very cold in the evening with no heating–no one has any oil for that because the Israelis do not allow it. All this would be a tough movie to watch–but these are real people, suffering every moment of their lives. This is a great city in the middle of Palestine–how on earth can we let these crimes happen?
ANNE GWYNNE, Independent International, is currently working with the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees in Nablus. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org