The end and the beginning

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Text and photo: Bryan MacCormack, with Left in Focus

The 2016 Freedom Bus has come to an end. Throughout the ride participants were armed with stories of love and resistance, each departing with a new responsibility to spread these truths abroad. The power carried by our experiences is immense, as attested to by Abu Ashraf who said “You all are more frightening to the settlers than an army tank.”

As we learned from those at The Freedom Theatre, regimes of Occupation and Apartheid must also occupy the minds of the people: those under and outside of their rule. By bearing witness and standing in solidarity with those in struggle, we are now better equipped to change the hearts and minds of our friends, families and societies at home. Through articles, film screenings, photo exhibitions, participation in Palestine solidarity committees, and organising in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, we are now more committed than ever to furthering our solidarities with Palestinians.

Day 7 – Calls for revolution and solidarity

 

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Photo by Bryan MacCormack 
Written by Veronika Nýdrlová and Anika Machura

We spent our day getting to know about Aida Refugee Camp, which is one of the 59 refugee camps built in the occupied West Bank since 1948. Aida is home to more than 6000 Palestinians. We were welcomed in Alrowwad Theatre and Cultural Training Centre, a cultural community space which is a “Home for Dreams, Hopes, Imagination and Creativity”. Here all people, especially children, can gather for education and cultural activities such as traditional dancing, camera and photography workshops and music lessons. We were introduced to the concept of ‘beautiful resistance’, being explained to us as the opposite to the ugly occupation. We had quite a discussion about what the word resistance really means for Palestinians, and for all of us. Could resistance actually be described as beautiful, and if so, is every kind of resistance beautiful? Or is it more a necessary reaction which shouldn’t be classified or judged?

In a walking tour through Aida Camp we got to know many collective and individual stories of the people who lived here for many generations, nowadays right next to the separation wall. No one knows what is going to happen to the self-built houses in the camp, since the leasing of this area’s land is for 99 years of which 68 have passed. The inhabitants of the camp are threatened on a daily basis by the Israeli army that starts shooting tear gas into the camp in the afternoons or demolishes the water tanks on the roof tops at any time.

The afternoon was filled with a string of very interesting talks. We heard professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, teaching at various Palestinian universities and a former lecturer at Yale, who talked about the occupation in a global context and opened some other interesting topics. “I want to make a workshop on revolution”, he said after talking about all the initiatives, especially organised by NGOs, to support Palestine, which not always benefit the Palestinian communities.

One of our Freedom Riders and actors from The Freedom Theatre, Osama who grew up in Al-Azzeh Refugee Camp, explained his categorisation of the different refugee generations: the Nakba generation, the Stone generation, the Intifada generation and the Oslo generation, divided further into the Tank and the Wall generation. Growing up throwing stones at army jeeps every day to express his feelings and to show that he was a living human being, Osama said, “I believe that theatre is the way I can call for revolution”.

One other fellow Freedom Rider and leader of the Jana Natya Manch theatre group, Sudhanva, gave a talk about solidarity, its definition and why it was important for him and his group to get together with the Palestinian actors from The Freedom Theatre. He closed with the famous quotation of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus, and Ibraheem Moqbel

Omar Kettani from the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University continued talking about the effects of the occupation, especially on education in the West Bank. He connected to what Osama was talking about and introduced the Bank generation, children who are caught somewhere in the middle of their parent’s loans and their expensive lifestyle in the Ramallah area. Omar Kettani emphasized that “education is resistance, but not the education that brings you to a privileged level; that is the opposite”.

At the end of the afternoon, the director of the community centre, Abdelfattah Abusrour, summarised the vision of Alrowwad and focused on an important part of the resistance, which is the creativity of the new generation. “We are prisoners of the collective narrative, we need to recognise the individual stories,” he said.

The band Shajar closed with variations of traditional Palestinian music, being warmly appreciated by all of us after this really important educational day in Aida Refugee Camp.

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Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus

The Alrowwad stage became full of clapping and singing and the Freedom Riders left the camp with heads full of stories and impressions, singing on the bus back to our guesthouse.

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Drawings by Tim Sanders

Day 5 – Struggle and Solidarity: the Friday Demonstration in Nabi Saleh

Written by Janey
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus

Today we join the people of Nabi Saleh – a small Palestinian village of about 550 located in beautiful countryside 20km north of Ramallah – in their Friday protest against the occupation. Weekly protests are not unique to Nabi Saleh. Every Friday, across Palestine, villages and refugee camps protest against Israeli colonisation.

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Israeli settlers appropriated the land in Nabi Saleh in 1976. Ever since, more and more of the land and its resources have been confiscated by Israel. Most recently, Israel took over the village’s spring. This is a familiar tactic of the occupation: appropriate and control Palestine’s water sources. This disrupts, deprives and destabilizes whole communities by halting agriculture and cutting off water supply to Palestinian homes. Under the control of the Israeli military, Palestinians are allowed access to the spring only 12 hours per week. Settlers have 24-hour access.

In addition, locals have been harassed, attacked and killed by Israeli soldiers and armed settlers.

Heavy anticipation and worry weighted the air on the bus to Nabi Saleh.  The groups’ experience with political demonstrations varied: some of us were seasoned protestors; some of us were completely new to it. Regardless, many of us were nervous. The Israeli army and police are hostile and act with total impunity. They don’t hesitate to use tear gas, steel-coated rubber bullets, ‘skunk guns’ (foul smelling water), tanks and live ammunition. They also don’t hesitate to arrest people – including children.

Once we arrived to the village, we met with Manal Tamini, a member of the Popular Resistance Committee. Manal asked that if we were tear-gassed, we would not run away and show our backs to the oppressors. Instead, we should run in the opposite direction of the wind for about 10 meters to escape the burning fumes, and try not to rub our eyes if the gas did reach us. We were warned that if we took cameras, they could draw attention to us.

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And so, under the midday sun on a beautiful, grassy hillside, the march set off along the main road in Nabi Saleh. About 70 of us, including local children, followed Nawal – a local community activist and Manal’s sister-in-law – who waved a huge Palestinian flag, leading the group in chants: “1-2-3-4! Occupation no more! 5-6-7-8, Israel is a fascist state!”

Within minutes, a military truck was driving down the road towards us. As it slowed to a halt right before us, eight armed soldiers piled out. I was struck by how young they were: 18-year-olds covered in armor, carrying huge guns and tear gas. I won’t lie: children with guns scare me. Nawal was unfazed, though. She stood close in front of them, calling out her chants and waving her flag, and people gathered behind her. Her life and the lives of her children and family depend on this resistance; the Israeli army has already killed two of her cousins. Within minutes, the soldiers began to throw canisters onto the road that exploded with a loud noise. This startled the crowd and we split, running in different directions. Shortly after, several tear gas canisters were thrown.

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The sound bombs and tear gas are “crowd dispersal” tactics. Tear gas overwhelms your senses: your throat is raw, you struggle to breathe and your eyes sting so much you can barely keep them open. All the while, you’re running. As we ran onto the grassy hillside in different directions to escape the tear gas, trampling through thistles and thorns, the truck reversed to stop between us.

As I ran, I saw an 11-year-old boy fall on his hands and knees coughing and retching. Lots of children were caught up in the tear gas, but Manal had told us earlier that it’s safer for children to come out into the streets than stay inside, as soldiers have been known to shoot tear gas directly into homes. Manal had already shown us footage of communities evacuating distressed, coughing children from second story windows. I wondered about how weekly tear gas must affect children’s lungs. I wondered about how anyone could throw tear gas at children, let alone use live ammunition.

Nawal and other locals shouted instructions to us: “run over there!”, “don’t rub your eyes!” Nawal ran among us, checking if we were okay. Crouching in long grass and behind houses, we learned that smelling wet wipes helps you breathe. Cigarettes, too – although maybe they just help to slow your breathing and give you something to focus on besides your racing heart.

Hiding from tear gas, I met Adaya, a young Israeli social worker who has been joining the protests with her friends for two months. She told me, “If the soldiers leave first, we win. If we leave first, they win”.

Once we had recovered from the first round of tear gas, many of us re-grouped to the road, and children remained on the hillside above, gathering stones to throw at the soldiers. In response, the army released several more rounds of tear gas and used a hand-held cannon to launch them from 50m away. Soon the whole hillside was covered in tear gas fumes, spreading with the wind. I found myself kneeling in the grass next to an olive sapling and an empty tear gas canister, a striking image of Israel’s violent assault on Palestinian land.

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Before long, the soldiers began to retreat down the hill. Children followed them, using slingshots to throw rocks. Eventually, the army left.

Overwhelmed by the aggression we had witnessed, we returned to Manal’s home. She told us how she had recently been released from prison on false charges, explaining that this is common. The Israeli authorities do all they can to grind Palestinians down, including fabricating crimes that people have committed, even children, and demanding large bail payments.

After the demonstration and an incredible lunch that Manal cooked for us, I spoke to her about the day and what international solidarity means to her. She told me she thinks the Freedom Riders were amazing, and that she had been touched when she saw tears in people’s eyes (not just because of the gas), because it showed that we truly understood their struggle. She also told me that the Freedom Riders were a welcome relief in comparison to people who travel to Palestine as “war tourists, ” attending demonstrations to take photos or “experience a live action movie,” the kind of people who also have a habit of criticising Palestinian protest tactics.

In Nabi Saleh, we experienced a tiny dose of what the Israeli authorities are capable of. However, my main learning from the day is that solidarity is twofold:

1)     Showing up on the ground, sharing risk and taking direction from the people who are at the forefront of struggle, and not criticising or questioning their decisions.

2)     Returning back to our countries as witnesses of the violence and advocate for Palestine.

This is exactly what the Freedom Ride facilitates, and I’m glad to be part of it.

Before I left to get back on the bus to Bethlehem, I found Adaya to say goodbye: “We won, for today! Maybe even just until tonight. But we will keep winning like this until the occupation is over.”

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Day 4 – A Village That Never Sleeps & Always Resists

Day4-8(Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus)
Written by Roberta Verde, Karin Gisler & Bryan MacCormack

Last night we learned that the countryside is not as quiet as we expected it to be. A whole symphony of animal voices lulled us to non-sleep: dogs, cats, chicken, donkeys, birds and last but not least, mosquitos took part in the concert. And the beautiful full moon shined upon us women sleeping in the open on the terrace.

In the morning, we split in two groups; one staying in Fasayel painting the community house together with the children of the village, the other group driving back to Yerza village to help rebuild the community center.

Reconstruction as Solidarity and Resistance

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On the way to Yerza the Freedom Bus got two flat tires. There was only one spare and it was clearly Palestinian, as it maintained steadfastness through the rocky roads of the mountains until we were able to buy a second.

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The Yerza community center has been destroyed by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) several times. Each time the village has rebuilt it.

A villager told us that the IOF fly over the area regularly. When they see something new has been built they will come with bulldozers and destroy it.

International support has at times been counterproductive, as it attracts even more attention. Yet, rebuilding something that will likely be destroyed once again is one form of resistance and an example of Palestinian steadfastness.

We started by clearing a path to allow cars to reach the community center then went on to build a platform fort the community center’s floor. Our workers squad included some members of The Freedom Theatre and the Hafez family.

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We then began throwing aside the smaller stones that lied on the ground. Then one of Naeem’s sons brought a pickaxe to take off the bigger rocks that were stuck in the ground.

One of these rocks was particularly big and went deep into the earth. Observers gathered around the rock and everyone in turns gave a hand; men and women, the Hafez family, Freedom Riders, The Freedom Theatre actors and neighbours that had now arrived.

It’s something that happened spontaneously: everyone wanted to give a hand and with the help of all, the rock was moved.

Mural Painting

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Local children released from their morning school session joined us to put their energy into decorating the outside wall of the community centre.

Freedom Riders, Orijit Sen – a graphic artist from Delhi, and London-based cartoonist and teacher Tim Sanders were on hand to guide the mural painting. Osama from The Freedom Theatre interpreted and facilitated interaction with the kids.

Orijit and Tim had given the work a start and asked the children to paint familiar shapes and figures.

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After a few minutes the children were brightly painted and the walls portrayed the energy that had been expended.

Reflecting on the work, Orijit said, “I am very glad we got this opportunity to do something with the children. It was an unexpected event and very exciting. The children were energised and probably frustrated by a childhood under occupation. This comes out in the way they express themselves. That’s what matters. It’s not about good and bad, but an honest expression.”

Tim and Orijit painted two panels depicting suffering and resistance.

The mural we collectively achieved is very striking. The local cockerel enjoys pride of place on one of the panels; unsurprising to anyone who has been here.

 

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On another panel the children created an explosion of energy. The mural is memorable, much like our visit.

Performances

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At night the people of Fasayel came together with Freedom Riders for three theatre performances. The first was Platform, about a Palestinian-American coming back to Palestine for the first time. Facing the oppression of the occupation and embracing his people’s culture deepened his connection and understanding to the land of Palestine.

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Following Platform came a performance of a short Hindi-language play called Yeh Bhi Hinsa Hai (The Faces of Violence) by Jana Natya Manch (or Janam for short). Earlier in the day, Janam had performed for a group of women in Fasayel. They were thrilled that the women embraced the play and led an engaging discussion amongst themselves. “It was one of our most memorable performances,” said Janam member Sudhanva Deshpande, “I will carry it with me for quite some time.”

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To end the evening, students from The Freedom Theatre School performed Playback Theatre. An elder man in the village told a story about his family being unable to buy a wedding dress for their soon to be daughter in law. The Israeli Occupation Forces refused to let half of them through checkpoint leading to the markets of Nablus. The family tried another checkpoint and were also denied entry. The bride realised they would have to buy the dress from elsewhere. This deeply saddened her because she knew the dress would not be the same quality.

Another audience member from a refugee camp in Bethlehem told a story about his mother’s role in the resistance during the second intifada. In her home she had a window with bars over it. When the IOF invaded the camp to capture freedom fighters, she would remove the bars allowing fighters to come in and hide. When the IOF arrived to raid her house the fighters would climb back out the window. She then let the soldiers in and continued cooking as if nothing was happening. The IOF never found the fighters.

 

 

Day 3 – Northern Jordan Valley

Day3-2Written by Urvashi Sarkar; Photos by Bryan MacCormack with Left In Focus

Large parts of the day were spent in Area C in which Palestinians have very few rights. We spent a significant part of the morning in Tubas, where members of Jordan Valley Solidarity such as Rashid Sawafta explained the various ways in which Israel controls water resources and prevents Palestinians from accessing water. The control of water resources happens in many ways: by confiscating/destroying Palestinian tanks and wells, and controlling access to the Jordan River. People have to travel many kilometers to buy water, which can cost up to 7 or 8 USD per cubic meter. For many Palestinians, accessing water can be an everyday struggle, often resulting in violence and even death.

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The Israelis have designated large parts of the Jordan Valley as closed military zones. The irony, however, is that the Jordan Valley is part of the West Bank which is Palestinian territory under the Oslo Accords. By giving military labels to these areas, Israel forces Palestinians off their own land, preventing them from building, farming or living on the land. Even if they try to build as much as chicken coops, the Israeli army will demolishes them.

The designation of an area as closed military zone is arbitrary. Therefore, Palestinians living in such areas will not know when the area they live in will be declared a military zone. Many areas designated as closed military zones are then given to Israeli colonists to farm. Later, Rashid told us that in 2011 alone settlers made approximately $125 million in profits from exporting produce grown in the Jordan Valley. In addition, the Israeli military leaves explosives on the land which have caused loss of limbs and life.

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In Yerza village, we heard from farmer Naeem Hafez who was shot at by Israelis. His wife was shot at as well. He also lost a 12-year-old son to shooting by the Israelis. Whether being shot at, losing someone to death, or having a family member in prison—each of these elements is present in varying degrees in many Palestinian families.

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Five checkpoints control entry and exit from the Jordan Valley; the worst of them, Al-Hamra, is known as “the checkpoint of death” because young people have been shot by Israeli occupation forces. Long lines of vehicles form as the Israeli Occupation Forces interrogates people and searches vehicles, often causing produce to go bad while being transported.Day3-11

In the evening, the Freedom Bus took us to Fasayel village where Rashid gave a detailed account of the activities of Jordan Valley Solidarity including solidarity building, working with communities in education and sustainable building, and organising resistance. Fasayel is a small village with little infrastructure and limited supplies. However, next to Fasayel is a colony with Israeli settlers with greenery and swimming pools—this was shown to us on a map.

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The day concluded with initial discussions for organizing solidarity around the BDS movement. Organisation wide solidarity in countries like the UK and unity between international trade unions could help in building resistance and pressure to boycott Israeli made products, especially those manufactured in the West Bank.

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Day 2 – Welcome!

Written by Christine
Photos by Bryan MacCormack, with Left in Focus

Welcome, welcome! You hear this a lot as a foreigner in Jenin. It comes in many languages: English, sometimes. Sometimes Arabic: ahleen. And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you are welcomed with music.

Two nights ago when I arrived, I was welcomed by Samer Abu Hantash improvising on the oud—a popular, traditional stringed instrument—on the second-story balcony of the Cinema Jenin Guesthouse. Samer is Palestinian. He will travel with me and about thirty other international visitors for the next ten days throughout the occupied West Bank, accompanying a troupe of Palestinian actors that will perform improvised theatre pieces based on the accounts of audiences living in the different cities and towns we will visit.

This kind of theatre is called Playback Theatre. Developed in the 1970s, Playback Theatre has been used in over fifty countries in a wide range of social and political contexts. A typical performance lasts about 70 minutes. The “conductor” of the show invites members of the audience (the “tellers”) to share their experiences. Once the teller has finished their story, the performers reproduce it as a short piece of improvised theatre accompanied by a musician.

This afternoon—after a group-building exercise with the other international visitors—I caught up with Ihab Talahmeh to ask him a little bit more about the form.

“The main thing when we are working with Playback,” Ihab told me, “is to make the stories alive.”

Ihab is twenty-three, a third-year acting student at The Freedom Theatre. He grew up in a village south of Hebron, and will conduct the Playback Theatre performances that we have scheduled over the next ten days. 

When I asked him what he was looking forward to most on the upcoming Ride, he told me a story about Atuwani, one of the villages the Freedom Bus stopped at last year. The village is very near the town he grew up in—fifteen, twenty minutes away.

“But before I came to The Freedom Theatre,” he told me. “I didn’t know about this village.”

One of the objectives of the Freedom Bus, we learned the night before, is to connect villages throughout the West Bank to one another. Because the West Bank is so fractured by illegal settlements, Israelis-only roads and military checkpoints, Palestinians who wish to travel from place to place suffer the constant threat of arbitrary arrest and harassment, long delays and unexpected roadblocks. As a result, even geographically close communities often can’t communicate with one another.

“When I went there,” Ihab said, “I was shocked about the situation, about how people can live there. When I saw them—how they resist the occupation—when the occupation came before my eyes, to destroy a house or something: all the people from the village stood in one line and fight the army.”

He smiled. “This is amazing for me,” he said. “I learn from them.”

Earlier, when I’d asked Ihab what he feels Playback Theatre has to offer the people of Palestine, he told me he felt that, as an actor, he was bringing energy and power to the communities he visited.

After Atuwani, though, he feels differently about it.

“I am not going to give them the power,” he told me. “They already have it. They give it to me.”

– – – 

After speaking with Ihab, I rejoin the rest of the group for a walking tour of the Jenin refugee camp: a half-kilometer square of pale white, bullet-riddled concrete block buildings, huddled close to one another and connected by a network of dim, narrow roads and alleyways. Together we walk over the uneven ground, pausing to observe discarded bullet cartridge casings or to peer into the small square windows of old abandoned houses.

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“People who live here,” our guide told us through a translator, “originally came from Haifa, Akka, Yafa, and the villages. In 1948, they were forced out of their own homes and the land by the Israelis.”

He goes on to tell us that when people first came to this area, they were given tents to live in, assuming their expulsion from the land would be temporary—maybe one or two months before they could return to their homes.

“But things took a long time,” he said. “So people put brick over brick, stone over stone, something to avoid the rain and the sun.”

Our guide—a resident of the camp himself, his family hailing from near Afula—frowned then, and spoke a short line in Arabic.

“It’s been sixty-eight years since then,” he said.

– – –

Our evening ended at Al-Kamandjati music school with a performance by the visiting theatre troupe from India, Jana Natya Manch, another playback performance, and sandwiched between both: a short musical performance by the student Oriental Music ensemble.

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Welcome, welcome. The drum tapped, the flutes sounded in and around the ouds, the violins, the cello. No one on stage looked much older than fifteen.

And I want to tell you something hopeful, here. End this blog with something beautiful inspired by the music, the drumming, the rhythm that surrounded me in the school tonight.

Instead, however, I’m going to tell you what Osama, one of the six acting students, told me thirty minutes ago after dinner.

 “Sometimes,” he said, “growing up in the refugee camp, you know, I get the feeling that… okay, I have this dream.” He made a fist above his head. “And I am holding onto this dream so hard, so hard.”

Osama looked up at his fist. “But I am afraid, sometimes, that if I open my hand—” he opened it — “There will be nothing inside.”

For a moment, neither of us spoke as we looked together at his empty palm.

But then Osama shrugged. “But I have to hold on,” he said. “And I believe—really, I do—that even if there is nothing, nothing in my hands to hold—that I can put something there. I can create the dream, yani. From inside.”

Tonight, as the full moon rises over Jenin, I am dreaming inside of what will be created these next ten days, and feeling welcome, welcome, welcome.

The 2016 Freedom Ride Begins

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All 48 participants of the 5th annual Freedom Ride arrived in Jenin safely. Gathered at Cinema Jenin, they received a warm welcome from Freedom Ride coordinators, followed by a descriptive introduction to The Freedom Theatre and cultural resistance from Artistic Director Nabil Al-Raee. Ben Rivers, renowned theatre practitioner, gave his insights into the local context and purpose of Playback Theatre and the Freedom Bus.

Sitting around tables in the Cinema Jenin Guesthouse, participants shared a meal and introduced themselves, nurtured new relationships and rekindled old ones. Many months of preparation and a long day of travel have come to fruition as this year’s Freedom Ride makes its way across the occupied West Bank.