Sunday April, 12 - Nablus / Refugee camp of Balata

Thursday 7 January 2010
popularity : 20%

Nablus-day today. Martine, Tarek, Mohammed (our little singing bird) and Oussama are coming with us as well as Ty and Michaël. (Mazen got lectured by his father who wants his son to stay in Aida and study : our young friends are indeed all having their final exams now. They study all nights long to be able to spend as much time as they can at the centre or with us!).

Martine has warned us : the journey to Nablus is quite long, not because the town is far (it’s about 70 km away from Bethlehem) but because of all the controls : il will take about 2 hours and a half so we had to get up early this morning too. Oussama has arranged for a coach to come and fetch us in front of the centre. We all climb in, too happy to spend this day with our friends, and eager to tell the two Americans about our experience so far : they should forget what they were told, the people in the West Bank are soooo welcoming!…

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Everything goes fine for the first half hour : we drive up the West Bank, across a landscape of arid hills that gives us an idea of what Palestine must have looked like in Jesus’s time… Yet we can’t escape the scar the separating wall makes and the settlements as always proudly perched on the top and dominating the valleys... We drive past Ramallah and through different villages...

Suddenly our mini-bus slows down, then comes to a standstill : there is a traffic jam ! In the middle of the countryside ! Anne-Claire, Theodore, Ty, Tarek and Michael get off the bus and start walking along the road that slopes down steeply to the next valley. As they go past the line of cars, trucks, vans they are quite surprised to notice that the drivers stay seated in their car and smoke without even getting nervous about it all. After a few minutes’ walk, Anne-Claire and the four boys climb on the road shoulder to get an idea of the importance of the traffic jam and… understand the problem : a vehicle has lost a lot of oil which is making the sloping road as slippery as a freshly polished floor !

The cars going up and down have stopped two hairpin bends below (some in rather unorthodox positions!) What’s crazy is that the few people who have got out of their cars just admire the catastrophe, comment on it but don’t do anything to try to solve the problem. Except for one man who has started collecting dry earth in his hands and throwing it on the oil tongue that covers the road. Seeing that, Tarek, Ty, Michael, Theodore and Anne-Claire roll up their sleeves and organize themselves in an assembly line : three of them scratch the dry ground with stones so as to turn it into dust they put on plastic bags, torn cardboard and bits of tyres which the rest of the team carries up to the oil spill and tip out over it. Slowly (many watchers, few actors...) but surely, the oil is covered with gravel and, believe it or not, it works !... The cars start again and manage, the tyres having found something to cling to. The people wave and cheer at the improvised "road workers" who have got things moving again . Our bus collects them passing and off we go again!...

As we are getting near Nablus, we stop at Howara checkpoint, where Layali (a beautiful young woman wearing a purple veil and a striped cardigan) and Mohammad are waiting for us. They are former students of the French Department at Nablus’ An-Najah University and speak a wonderfully good French!... Mohammad is particularly keen on showing us what he knows and makes quite a noise speaking with a (for us, Belgians) painfully Parisian accent. Yet they are both extremely nice and anxious that we should spend a great day in their town.

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They first take us into a soap factory where everything is hand-made The man in charge explains how the soap-soup is poured on the ground, left to harden, then cut into small blocks that are piled up in open-work towers to dry. This has just been done, which explains the slippery soil. We go and admire and smell the delicate perfume of the soap towers, stand in awe in front of a man sitting cross-legged on the floor and wrapping up soap bars at unbelievable speed, and leave the place with a box of the famous Nablus soap we will share between us and bring back home.

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We then meet our third guide, a young man working for the Project Hope Association and follow him into the hustle and bustle of the souks (where we try the local speciality : melted goat cheese covered with orange sugar, absolutely de-li-cious!) and alleys of the old city, then to the old Turkish baths : we enter a splendid tiled room where we all lie down, some for a chicha, everybody for sugared tea or coffee. The girls feel like princesses in this refined place that makes us think of the tales from the Arabian Nights...

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Back into the streets, we go and visit a real spicery : baskets and woven sacks of spices we have never heard of, a real painter’s palette : wonderful colours and smells !

Then we climb up onto the private terrace of a man we have just met on the street. He tells us how his house was demolished and how he now is living in this half-dilapidated place. He welcomes us with a wonderful simplicity and lets us discover the view on the old town of nablus... as well as the holes into the water tanks on the roofs : a testimony of the Israeli machine-gun fire on the inhabitants ("rebels / terrorists") of Nablus a few years ago...

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Our guides take us now to the DIA French Centre (DIA for Dialogue) which is close to the university : there we meet about 12 students who introduce themselves in Voltaire’s language… It is really impressive to hear them speak it so well ! Professor Wasim Bichawi is in charge of the association whose aim is (among others) to organise cultural exchanges with French-speaking people. We chat together while having an improvised lunch (all sorts of delicious Palestinian pizza-omelettes), and laze a bit about on the terrasse of the centre while some us (Louise, Théodore and Anne-Claire) go and meet the people in charge of the Project Hope Association (where they buy cute Handala key-rings for everybody as a souvenir) and Laetitia has a quick tour round Nablus university.

Around 3 p.m., we warmly thank Professor Bishawi and his students and get back on our mini bus to our next destination : the refugee camp of Balata, which is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank. When we get there, we are immediately directed to the YCC (Yafa Cultural Centre : an NGO set up on the initiative of the Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Palestinian Refugees ).

The director welcomes us around a big oval table to tell us about « his » camp before letting us go around it : "The refugee camps are the living testimonies of the Nakba (= the Catastrophe) that was inflicted on the Palestinian people in 1948 and 1967, he first tells us. The deterioration of the living conditions de vie (on the social, economic, sanitary and environmental levels) the refugees have to live in turns the camps into places of deep human distress. Balata is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank : 25.000 peopkle are currently living on a territory of hardly one square kilometer. this camp was opened in 1951 on land belonging to the UN to accommodate the 6000 Palestinians who had been driven out from their house and village by the settlers or the Israeli soldiers in the area of Nablus. As with the other camps, this one wsa supposed to be temporary : lthe Palestinians didn’t doubt that they would soon get their lands and properties back and had left taking the key of their house with them. But the Israeli occupiers have denied them the right to come back and from temporary the camps have become permanent living places".

"From 1960, he goes on, the UNRWA has devoted itself to replacing its 1951 tents with permanent structures. In Balata, there are now one marketplace, 3 mosques, 3 scgools, a cemetery, the cultural centre and "houses" ; in fact breeze-block buildings 3 or 4 floors high as the population increases : one room per family, without any comfort nor style. The young people who get married can’t afford to live on their own : they live at their parents’ who had to stay at heir own parents’ too."

The director of the YCC will be interrupted a number of times while talking to us : documents to be signed, messages discreetly whispered in his ear by his colleagues, phone (cell-phone) calls, obvious evidence that he never stops working and, indeed, he does look tired... He carries on : "Thanks to the help we get from the Nablus town council, a sewage system was installed in Balata but the ventilation system of the camp is of poor quality, there is much damage caused by damp in the houses, which is responsible for breathing problems and more especially among the children, skin problems because they don’t spend enough time in the sun… You’ll understand why when you go through the camp."

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Suddenly, there is a chorus of horns and cheers outside. The director smiles : "Balata is a pioneer camp in political activism : not a day goes by without an inhabitant being arrested or released by the Israeli police (hence these cheers in the street today !)… The Israelis don’t like us. They consider Balata as a pocket of terrorists, but everything is a question of viewpoint : from the point of view of the Palestinians shut up in the camps, the people the Israeli army calls « terrorists » are in fact men and women fighting for our freedom, our right to return to our lands and the end of the vexations, humiliations and sufferings we have been subjected to as "exiles in our own country" for so long. There have been too many promises, of which none has been kept : nothing has changed for the inhabitants of Balata since 1951". And he adds : “You’ll see nothing and will be able to go round the camp safely in the daytime, but our nights resound with shouts, bomb explosions, machine-gun fire launched by Israeli soldiers who bolt daily into the camp to carry out a few arrests.”

"There are currently thousands of Palestinians in jail, he tells us, 80% of whom under 1. They have committed no crime apart from being Palestinian. Nobody is safe from an arbitrary arrest : the Israelis don’t knock at the doors, they throw grenades that send them flying off, make holes in the house walls so they can move from one room to another and shoot at anybody who is in their way, children, old people, women".

"The larger part of the population in Balata lives under the poverty line. They were not born poor, he makes clear, some owned their own farm, others were thriving businessmen. But they lost everything with the Nakba. In 2000, 60% of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories could still find work in Israel. But the checkpoints (endless waiting, passage subjected to the arbitrary of the young soldiers in position), the untimely curfews, lthe building of the separating wall has reduced their number by half : today, Israel has replaced them with people coming for the most part from the Philippines, ad the inhabitants of the camp are now out of work, with greater and greater difficulties to live/survive".

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"Nothing looks really promising on the political level, he concludes, and, frankly speaking, nobody knows how all this will end... The main victims of the occupation are the children : they live in poverty, some are handicaped following the Israeli attacks, others are orphans or have one or both parents in jail. Many have seen people being killed and suffer from deep psychological troubles. They have no place where to play : there are no gardens, no parcs in Balata, only the street and the problems linked to it, fights, violence... A special effort is made to supervise them : the 3 schools of Balata take more than 6000 7-to-15-years old children (55 children in every classroom) and volunteers organize different activities in this Centre Yafa : it is all about offering things to do, creating a place where they could feel safe, at ease and know a bit of pleasure".

"The Centre YCC organizes different workshops for the children and teenagers as well as for women : music, dance, computers, theatre and reading. We have also set up a programme of psychological aid to help the women and children manage the sufferings the Israeli occupation causes them as well as various training under the supervision of professional volunteers. The aim of all these activities is to try to bring a smile back on their face, make them aware of their rights and enable them to build themselves a better future. But the Centre doen’t forget the oldest people, those who lived through the 1948 Catastrophe and whose "first hand" experience is an important foundation of the Palestinian people’s collective memory."

The director stops his talk here and suggests that, before going round the camp, we had a look at little objects (jewels, embroidery...) hand-made by the women of the camp. "If you want to support us, buy something..." : we all leave with embroidered wallets, bracelets, T-shirts...

Visiting the camp of Balata drives us crazy : we aren’t allowed to wander as we would like to but have to stay clustered as a cattle or tourist herd. In Aida, we have got used to walking around on our own or in very small groups as it makes creating contact, immersing and meeting the other one easier. But the guy "in charge of the visits" won’t budge an inch : we have no choice but do as he says… We’ll understand later that this is the only way our security inside the camp could be ensured.

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We are completely shocked as soon as we leave the street where the center is. The camp is divided into districts by "large streets" (5-to-6-meter wide at the most) where there are a few workshops and people sitting outside in the sun, but inside the "districts", it is simply horrible : between the high concrete houses, narrow alleys where we have to move in single file and in which kids play without indeed ever seeing nor feeling the sun on their skin... On the walls torn posters of martyrs or calls to join activists. We must make an effort not to get caught in our “fear of the terrorists” and to remember these people are the victims of an unbearable situation…

When we finally emerge back onto a larger street, we feel awful and in a hurry to leave this oppressive place in which even the kids frighten us, which is absolutely stupid from us. Oussama, Tarek and Mohammed who have never been to Nablus nor Balata before, don’t miss a scrap of what they are discovering : that there are even much worse places than the camps of Aida, Deheisheh, Al-Aaroub… about which they know nothing. It’s crazy to think that the Palestinians know so little about each other. The separating wall is indeed doing its job and well…

We now head back to the entrance of the camp where we warmly thank our young guides from DIA and Project Hope Association for their company throughout the day. We get back on our mini-bus with quite a relief and all keep silent for a long while, tired and overwhelmed by what we have just experienced in the camp of Balata...

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- 17.10, we have been driving only a few minutes when the traffic suddenly comes to a standstill. « Checkpoint », Martine tells us with a serious look. Indeed on both sides of the road, cars, coaches, vans are now waiting bumper-to-bumper until they are allowed to pass the organized bottleneck : it calls the toll motorways to mind except that here the inspectors are soldiers, young, nervous, armed, rude. We watch how they have ordered everybody to get out of the coach stopped a few meters ahead of us : about thirty young Palestinian students, boys and veiled girls wearing long dark coats in spite of the heat. The soldiers separate the boys from the girls, send the first ones to the left-hand side of the road, the others to the other side, then reverse the movement and make the girls and boys pass each other, then again, as if in a choreographed ballet...

As we watch the scene, we cannot help letting out some exclamations of surprise then indignation : it really looks as if the soldiers were making fools of these young men and women who have no other choice but to obey the humiliating orders. "The soldiers at the checkpoints have all the power, Martine says. They can decide to let them go or prevent them from going back home tonight. They can yell at them, knock into them, rush them, abuse them, hit them : they have their superiors’ and government’s blessing. The Palestinians are all terrorists, aren’t they ?" Our three friends from Aida are silent and painfully tense. "They deprive us of our dignity", Oussama whispers to himself, completely sick of it all.

- 17.15, the students’ coach has eventually been allowed through the control-post and so has the car just behind it. Our driver goes through the motion of starting the bus but 10 meters ahead, a helmeted soldier raises an open hand meaning "don’t!", then another sign : "everybody out !". While we are complying, he goes back to the sentry box where his colleagues make the most of the little shadow there is and lets us wait for a moment in the sun...

We are all getting more and more nervous as the time passes, exasperated too : this is such an absurd situation ! At home we would immediately sense a candid camera, a bad joke. But we are not at home, and this is no joke. The soldier finally comes back towards us then, from far, orders us to move further to the side of the road, behind the protection railings where he lets us wait again. Finally, he and three of his colleagues come up to us, look us over from head to toe and then point at Tarek. They make a sign "documents!", examine them carefully before giving them back, do the same with Oussama and Mohamed without saying a word to any of them. They turn then towards our mini-bus, make a sign to the driver who starts the engine and drives level with them before stopping again. They all climb inside and search the bus. Then one of the soldiers comes out, machine-gun pointing at us and asks dryly : "Where you from ? What you do here? Why you here ?..." We answer : "From Belgium. We are tourists. Beautiful country here". "What you do in Nablus ? Dangerous city!". We put on an air of surprise and answer in their kind of English, seasoned with a terrible Frenchie accent : "We meet architects from Comité de Réhabilitation. We no problem there." Obviously, it doesn’t satisfy him. He goes and fetches his colleagues who again go through the whole group with a fine-tooth comb and stop at Laetitia : "Where from ? what you do here ?" Laetitia answers with her sweet quiet voice : "I from Belgium. I visit ze country". They hold out a hand : "Passport !". Laetitia doesn’t have her papers with her. She points at the mini-bus and pronounces clearly, as if in an English class : « My passport is in ze car ». With the end of their machine-guns, they show her to go and get them. A magnificent scene unfolds then before our eyes : majestically upright, beautifully flowing in her long dress waving in the wind, Laetitia goes to the coach in quiet, slow strides surrounded by the helmeted-booted men, a Queen, and disappears from our sight for a few minutes...

On the other side of the road, a dog on a leash goes round a car, sniffing at it inside and outside. The Palestinian driver follows its little game patiently, anyhow he doesn’t have his word to say, that’s the way things happen at the checkpoints : automatic presumption of guilt...

There comes Laetitia again, as peaceful as ever. She smiles at us : "They took me for a Jew because of my dress and the scarf in my hair. They asked me the same questions again, " where from, why here ?", made me repeat my name, my Christian names, asked again if I was Jewish". As we don’t see where the problem could be, Martine explains : "It is considered a crime, punishable by imprisonment : Jews are not supposed to be in the company of Palestinians. This would be treachery"...

- 17.45, we are allowed back into the coach. We all hold our breath as we watch the checkpoint slowly grow more and more distant and finally disappear behind us and then Tarek, Oussama and Mohammed give free rein to their relief, call each other from one end of the coach to the other, congratulate and kid each other and we understand that all this noise only measures up to the agony they have been through.

- 17H55, we have been driving for about 10 minutes when we hear our driver swear : 3 soldiers are standing across the roads, exact replica of their colleagues : booted, helmeted, pointing at us with machine-guns. We all cry out in exasperation : not again! « Flying Checkpoint », Martine says, pulling a wry face in disgust.

The soldiers still look as young, as rough. Yet, what is new is one of them is black. We remember Saïf’s warning before we left : "Beware of the black and female soldiers, they are so ill-treated, so badly-considered in the army that they are ready to anything to prove they are "real" Israelis and deserve being with them. Thus they are often worse than the others..." This is borne out immediately. The driver is ordered to draw the coach up on a small gravelled parking-place alongside the road. Anne-Claire and Louise get down and explain : « We are from Belgium, we are tourists, a group of students from a catholic school ». The soldiers don’t even pretend they have heard them. They hold out a hand, take the passports and yell at them the same questions again : "Where from ? Why here ?" They both repeat patiently « From Belgium ». As it doesn’t seem to ring a bell at all, they try, « Brussels ? », in vain. then; using her both hands, Anne-Claire draws a map of Europe in the air : « France, here, England, there, Germany, here, Belgium in the middle, you know ? ». Obvious waste of time and effort, they don’t know...

Still holding the passports, the soldiers climb into the mini-bus. They quickly spot the Arabic heads that are with us and order : « Passport ! » then all leave the coach to go to their jeep where a fourth soldier checks the data on a portable computer, they write down we-don’t-know-what then come back. Anne-Claire smiles at them and holds our her hand to get the passports back but from the end of his machine-gun, one of the soldiers orders her back on the bus. He follows her and shouting at Tarek, starts questioning him in Hebrew. Tarek (who understands Hebrew) answers back « Speak English ! ». Surprise : the soldier keeps quiet, turns round and goes out to rejoin his colleagues. The bus starts again while we ask Tarek what has happened. He smiles : "He doesn’t know English. He probably felt stupid in front of you all, tourists, and preferred to drop it". And Myriam confirms : "Two of them were Russians, the third one Ethiopian. The Israelis are Jews who have come from everywhere. Most of them speak English but not all of them. Between them, they speak Hebrew…" Anne-Claire’s question : "You must hate them, don’t you ?" Oussama shrugs his shoulders : “That’s the way things are, there is nothing we can do about it…”

- 18.10. Checkpoint again. We didn’t go through any on our way to Nablus, but on our way back, there is one every 200 metres, because we are heading to Jerusalem, Martine explains again. Here speed bumps again, sentry-boxes again, soldiers again, helmeted, booted, armed again, but it is the end of a long hot day for everyone (and, after all, his colleagues have already checked it all !) : the soldier in charge just makes the coach stop, has a glance at it through the window-panes : there is nothing inside but angel-faces so he makes a sign to the driver « yallah ! ».. Move on !…

One hour to cover about a hundred metres, one hour of stress generated by the painful feeling we have that are mere toys in the hands of young immature but omnipotent soldiers who could go mad at the slightest thing. One hour only, only once in a lifetime, with the assurance that our status as foreign tourists guarantees that nothing really awful can happen to us. As for our Palestinian friends, for all the Palestinians, it is so every day of their life, any time they need to go from one place to another : waiting for hourS, totally dependent on the good will (the whim) of soldiers who have barely left their teenage years, with the painful certainty that they have no means whatsoever to influence the soldiers’ decision to keep them waiting or not, allow them to go through or not, arrest them or not...

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We cross the West Bank again, its bare landscapes, its haughty settlements, its dilapidated Palestinian villages. Most of us have fallen asleep now...

At the front of the mini-bus, Tarek tells Anne-Claire how one night, his first night at university, soldiers came into his little student room, arrested him and took him to the post, beat him to make him admit he belonged to a communist group. "I was 18, I had never done any politics".

In prison, he meets up with the boy again who is responsible for him being there, a guy of his age whom the soldiers had beaten until he gave names. Tarek holds no grudge against him. He will spend 13 months in jail : "There were 22 of us in each tent, with nothing to do the whole day long. Sometimes, a soldier would come in, point at one of us at random : the chosen victim would land up, bound hand and foot for 24 to 48 hours long in a square-meter-large cell, with nothing to eat or drink, unable to stretch out nor, above all, sleep. I was there too : there was a small control-camera in the room and each time my head and eyelids were about to droop, the soldier would come and kick in the door to wake me up brutally". Anne-Claire asks him what he did to while away the time and Tarek explains how each prisoner teaches the others what he knows : a doctor teaches first aid, the teachers English, the history of the country..., or tells about his experience. The last ones to have arrived give news from outside. "When they released me one year and one month later, they asked me « so, you are a communist or no?». I answered that before they sent me to jail, I didn’t even know what it meant but that I had time to read and learn a lot…" « Did prison change you, Tarek ? » « Of course, it did... I didn’t have any political conscience before... », « Do you belong to a political party today ? », « No, my only politics is Watan, my baby boy and the children I will have, as well as the kids I am in charge of at Al-Rowwad Centre. » « How can you still be this sweet, tender young man you are today ? How come you haven’t become an "angry man" ? », « I chose not to be. I wanted to stay a human being, become a man filled with humanity. If they had turned me into a beast, they would have won »… [1]

Bethlehem in sight : we drop Tarek at Al-Aaroub, then Oussama and our two American friends at Deheisheh... Aida, finally back home... Hebron, Nablus, the checkpoints, we will have to tell about it all, people must know. But, now, what we need is a bit of gentleness...

Read the continuation of the trip

Note : the maps/pictures marked with * have been found on the internet... We thank the authors not to see there any bad intention.