On the evening of Day 4 we visited Aida refugee camp between Bethlehem and Beit Jala, established after the Nakba in 1950. The camp was severely affected by the violence of both the First and Second Intifada. From 2003, the construction of the Israeli separation wall added to the hardships of Aida residents, resulting in house demolitions to make way for the wall and a huge rise in unemployment as workers from Aida could no longer cross into Israel.
In Aida the actors of the Freedom Bus had the opportunity to perform in a beautiful purpose-built outdoor theatre with raked seating. The stage stands directly next to the separating wall. As we performed in the shadow of the wall the lights of our show lit up the resistance graffiti. It was a truly astonishing setting. The children and youth of Aida crowded onto the seats, singing protest songs while the technical crew began the set-up. The crowd were full of energy, rowdy and unruly, singing political songs and shouting slogans throughout the show.
When a storyteller rose to share his experiences they were applauded and cheered by the crowd, and often called up by name from where they were sitting. The storytellers were clearly well-known figures of the resistance, and it was inspiring to see the way a hush descended on the crowd as they leaned forward to listen and honour the lives of local heros.
It was interesting to see how the stories told seemed to talk and respond to each other, bringing up the same images and themes. The conductor asked one man, “What kind of story are you going to tell?” He replied, “Well, a story about incursions and violence of course, what other stories do we have to tell? These are the only stories we have.” Often the most violent parts of the stories were delivered with a lightheartedness, a kind of black humour that is a way of dealing with the horrors of occupation.
A man called Mahmoud told a story about his experiences during the Second Intifada. Everyday life in Aida camp during that time was held hostage by the constant threat of military strikes. There were frequent Israeli strikes and invasions from both land and air, and severe curfew restrictions. Even when no curfew was in place it was dangerous to move within the camp due to Israeli gunfire.
The Israeli army had set-up their headquarters inside the abandoned Intercontinental Hotel, which was visible from Mahmoud’s roof. One day a Frenchman came to the house with his son, and asked if he could take pictures from the roof. Mahmoud took him up, and he began taking pictures. Suddenly the Frenchman fell to the ground and started crying out in pain. His son was screaming. Mahmoud saw that the Frenchman had been shot in the leg. He was shouting and pointing at Mahmoud, but he could not understand what he was saying. Finally, Mahmoud realised that he had also been shot in the stomach and in the thigh. He had not been able to feel the bullets. They dragged themselves down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs Mahmoud found his brother, who had also been shot, and a friend who was lying dead. Mahmoud felt his head begin to spin and he became unconscious. He woke up twelve days later in a hospital bed. He spoke about what it is like to see everyone around you die, and be the only who survives purely due to luck.
An older man spoke next. He began with a joke, “When people come into your house, usually they choose to enter through the front door. But in the Second Intifada our visitors [the Israelis] came through the walls.” He was referring to the Israeli practice of bombing the walls of neighbouring houses to move through the camp internally. His house was entered in this way and occupied by a group of soldiers for seventeen days. At first, he said, they would ask the Israelis for permission to eat or to use the toilet. But when he saw how the soldiers had destroyed his kitchen, used all his gas and eaten all his food, he decided that he could no longer ask for permission. “We are here,” he said, “whether they like it or not. And we will never leave.” The crowd in the stands roared their approval. After seventeen days, he continued, the Israelis set off a bomb that exploded through the walls of five adjacent houses, killing a woman in the fifth house when the masonry fell on top of her.
Despite the suffering detailed in the stories we heard in Aida, the overwhelming feeling amongst the crowd was one of continuing resistance, of refusing to give in to the threat of violence, or even the looming shadow of the wall.
Images by Al Mayuk.