Day Three: Break the siege! Stand with Gaza!

Day 3 of the September Freedom Ride found us in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the West Bank, and home of the Palestinian Authority. We were kindly hosted in the Jawwal building by the PalTel Group, who provide cell phone coverage in the West Bank and Gaza. Their facilities allowed us to hold a video conference with a group in Gaza.

In the unlikely setting of a corporate conference room, we heard stories from Gazans, all of whom lived through the incredibly violent Gaza War of December 2008 – January 2009. The actors of the Freedom Bus were filmed by a cameraman and the performance was beamed to the people in Gaza. This was perhaps the most difficult performance of the ride so far because of the enormous amount of technology and manpower needed to connect our group to the group in Gaza. We were nervous that something might go wrong with the sound or the video link, but in the end the performance passed (almost!) without a hitch.

No travel has been allowed between Gaza and the West Bank since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. This has meant that the Palestinian people have been cut in half, fracturing their sense of national unity. The horrors suffered by the people of Gaza are felt keenly by those living in the West Bank, and as the actors introduced themselves they said they dreamed one day of being able to perform in Gaza without the need of wires and cables. A woman from the Gazan group summed up what many were feeling when she shared her emotions about the day; “I am happy to see you, but unhappy about the borders between us.”

The first story we heard came from a man called Mohammed from Gaza. During the attacks of December 2008 he was living in a rural area in Northern Gaza. The area came under heavy attack. One day his neighbour was shot in the chest by a sniper. When Mohammed reached him he saw that he was “bleeding and writhing like a slaughtered sheep”. He had been shot just above the heart but the bullet ricocheted through his body, entering his stomach and exiting through his back. Mohammed held his neighbour in his arms, convinced that he was about die. He put his hand over the wound to try and stop the bleeding. Mohammed wanted to give him First Aid but felt powerless because he did not know how to. An ambulance was called but they said they could not enter the area because it was too dangerous. Despite the risk, Mohammed drove his neighbour to the hospital in a car. As they drove, Mohammed prayed for him. When they reached the hospital, Mohammed’s neighbour was rushed into the operating room. Miraculously, he survived.

We also heard from Gazan fisherman called Amjed. In April 2012, Amjed’s cousin Sadat came to visit him from Egypt. On the last day of his visit Amjed took Sadat to the see the sea shore. They went out on a boat. When they were three miles out, they were attacked by Israeli boats. He explained that in Gaza, the Israelis place limits on Palestinian access to the sea. Amjed told his cousin to stay quiet. The Israeli soldiers wanted to arrest them. They told Amjed and Sadat to take off their clothes and swim to the Israeli boats. Amjed told the officer, “My cousin cannot swim. He is from Egypt.” They were taken on a twelve hour journey, ending in a detention centre in Israel. His 6 day trip turned into a 6 month imprisonment. He is still being held, and is charged with entering Gaza illegally.

The final story was a very powerful one. An older woman, dressed entirely in black came forward to talk about the arrest and imprisonment of her sons. “My whole life has been a tragedy,” she began. Her oldest son was arrested when he was sixteen-years-old. He is now in prison for life. His mother had to wait 6 years and 3 months before she was allowed to visit him in prison. She described that day she saw him, “I forgot all my suffering. I am sixty five but when I saw my son I became fifty. Perhaps when I see him again I will become forty!” She also told the story of her younger son, aged twenty one. He was ambushed by Israeli soldiers at 11.30pm on his way home from work. She did not know he had been arrested until the next morning. She searched everywhere for him. “I was looking on the ground,” she said, “I found his mobile, his shoes. I did not know where he had been taken.” Although both her sons have been on hunger strike they have not been released. She has not yet been allowed to visit her younger son. His name has not appeared on the list of prisoners that can be visited. When asked how she feels about her sons, she said, “A mother is a mother anywhere. Whether she is Muslim, Christian or whatever, she is still a mother. I love my sons.” This story was undoubtedly among the most powerful we have heard on the ride.

The Freedom Bus packed up and headed to Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. The drive took us past the infamous Kalandia checkpoint, a huge military checkpoint that separates Ramallah from Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, and from towns in the southern West Bank. In the shadow of the graffiti-strewn dividing Wall, we saw young boys from the adjacent Kalandia refugee camp throwing stones at heavily armed Israeli soldiers, who shot back tear-gas cannisters. We rolled up the windows of the bus to stop the gas getting in, but the smell hung heavily around us. It was a potent reminder of the constant skirmishes between Palestinian youth and the occupying forces.

The atmosphere changed as we reached the beautiful old town of Beit Sahour and the sun set, turning the hills a dusty orange. In the evening there was a concert and poetry night, held on a stage set up in an alleyway in the Old City of Beit Sahour, between two beautiful old stone buildings. Musicians Awlad Al-Balad Band and Charles Rishmawi performed, and Samer Badami shared his poems about growing up in exile from his homeland.

Images by Al Mayuk and Bryan MacCormack

Day Two: Stand with Nabi Saleh!

The next stop on the Freedom Ride was Nabi Saleh, a small village surrounded by settlements, which is well known throughout occupied Palestine as a centre of non-violent resistance. Every Friday the villagers march towards a confiscated spring owned by the Tamimi family. The Israeli army try to disperse the crowds with tear gas and stun grenades, often injuring villagers. The army also routinely raid houses in the village, arresting people in the middle of the night because of their involvement in the popular resistance. A young man, Mustafa Tamimi was recently killed by soldiers after being shot in the face at close range with a tear gas cannister.

It is hard to do justice to the experience the Freedom Bus had visiting Nabi Saleh. The strength and unity of the villagers in the face of land confiscation and military violence is inspiring. The stories we heard from the people of Nabi Saleh were remarkable. Towards the end of our performance two cars drove into town square where we were performing, with car horns blasting and Palestinian flags flying from the windows. A prisoner, Mohammed Tamimi, from Nabi Saleh, had just been released. The villagers joyfully crowded around him to welcome him home. We asked him to come onto the stage and share his story.

|Mohammed was arrested at 2.30am on a Monday by soldiers with camouflage facepaint. The soldiers told him they just wanted to ask him a couple of questions and it would not take long. He was held for two weeks. They told him they wanted to stop the non-violent resistance because it was causing too many problems for the army. He said they blindfolded him, handcuffed him and chained his feet together. While he was in prison they would make him stand in a cage and hold one position for many hours at a time, before interrogating him. Often he was not allowed water. When asked how he felt about the performance of his story and his release, Mohammed said, “I have a beautiful feeling. I cannot put it into words.”

We heard several stories from women in the village, who are very involved in the non-violent resistance. A young woman from the Tamimi family told us the story of when she was arrested on a Friday demonstration in August. She became separated from the group of young girls she was looking after. When she found the girls they were being attacked and beaten by soldiers. She intervened and was arrested. As she was driven away in a military jeep she could see and hear the little girls running after the vehicle calling out to her. “I am a strong woman,” she added, “I am not afraid of the army.”

Another woman came forward with her 6-year-old daughter and told a story about sheltering in a house with fifteen young children during a particularly violent Friday protest. The army threw teargas cannisters into the lower floor of the house, and the women fled upstairs with the children. The gas started coming in under the door and the children started coughing and crying, and became unable to breathe. They were too scared to leave because of the violence outside. The effects of the gas became so bad that some of the children lost consciousness. The woman started shouting for help from the street. Some of the youth from the village climbed up under the windows. The woman tried to pass the children out of the window to the youth below, but the children were terrified. The woman said her daughter cried to her, saying, “Please don’t throw me out the window, Mama. I love you!” The conductor asked her daughter how she felt at that time. “I was afraid. I was shivering. My heart was beating hard.”

After Mohammed Tamimi’s story, the actors joined hands in a dance, and members of the audience joined in. They danced through the audience and then returned to the stage. Four children from the village came forward and recited poems and songs they had written in memory of Mustafa Tamimi. Their voices echoed out through the streets of Nabi Saleh. “We are the steadfast,” they sang, “We will not give up.”

 

Images by Al Mayuk and Natasha Andrews.

Day Two: Stand with Nablus!

Yesterday, The Freedom Bus joined with Nazareth Playback Theatre Company to perfom in the Old City of Nablus. Hoards of children crowded onto plastic chairs, in a crescent shape in front of an ancient wall. People watched from the windows overlooking the square and from the nearby bakery.

The four actors listened to stories from the audience and then performed improvised re-tellings. The performance was facilitated by a conductor, who asked the person telling the story questions to find out about their experiences in more detail.

The conductor asked the audience for story that linked to the street we were sitting in. A woman called Ranin came forward a told a story about an Israeli army incursion in Nablus. She lived on the street where we were sitting. It was night-time and no one could sleep. Everyone, especially the children, were afraid that the army might attack. When the soldiers came they demolished a house in the street, killing those inside. When asked how she felt at that time Ranin replied that she was terrified and could not sleep. “How can you really sleep,” she asked, “when you think the army may attack you at any time?”

A man called Sa’ed came forward and told a story about one of the most memorable days of his life. It was 27 April 1982, and four Palestinians had recently been killed. Sa’ed was a fifteen-year-old student at the time, and he joined the street protests. A group came from the boys’ school and another from the girls’ school.  At the protest Sa’ed was shot at close range by an Israeli soldier.  He was shot three bullets one in his left leg, one in his abdomen, and one in his left shoulder just few centimeters above the heart.

The pain made him feel as though his stomach was falling out. He ran until he found a car to take him to hospital. In the car he was sure that he was going to die and he said the traditional words of the dying: “There is no God but God, and his prophet is Mohammed.” But he did not want to die, because he wanted revenge. His revenge, he said, was the fact that he was alive, and able to share his story today. During the performance of his story one of the actors recited a poem with the repeating line, “I am the possible impossible.”

The final story came from a small nine-year-old boy. The conductor asked him how he felt when he saw the Israeli army. “I am afraid,” he answered. The conductor asked him why. “I am afraid they will shoot me.” The conductor was deeply affected by the boy’s words. He told the audience he was moved because in Europe children do not go around fearing that they might be shot, but in Palestine it is ordinary.

Images by Al Mayuk and Natasha Andrews.

Day One: Stand with Faquaa!

Today the Freedom Bus visited the small village of Faquaa. Although the town’s name means spring water bubbles, it has been a long time since the villagers had easy access to clean water. Since Israel erected the separation barrier, the inhabitants of Faquaa have been cut off from their land and can no longer use their traditional underground springs.

Although the village is allocated 300,000 litres of water per day by the Israeli Civil Administration, the only filling station is 6km away from the village, and the water, once divided evenly between the villagers, leaves only 75 litres a day per person. This is well below the 100 litre minimum put forward by the World Health Organization.

To access the water the villagers have to pay to hire tankers to collect the water from the filling station and ship it back to the village. This option remains unaffordable for many, who instead choose to collect rain water in tarps or large containers. This water is often difficult to sterilize, leading to an increase in illness.

The view across the dividing fence

The Freedom Bus performance took place outside, with a view over well-irrigated Israeli fields on the other side of the dividing fence. We were watched, from a distance, by Israeli soldiers looking through binoculars and photographing and filming the crowd over the barbed wire.

The acting troupe of the Freedom Bus performed for the villagers, inviting them to share their real-life stories of water shortage and then transforming them into short pieces of theatre, using a technique called Playback Theatre.

We heard from an older woman about how her family’s well water became polluted with sewage. The family tried everything to clean it, adding chlorine and other chemicals, but nothing worked. In the end they had to replace all the water in the well. She added that lack of access to water was so difficult because it is used for everything; cooking, bathing the children, cleaning the house, washing clothes etc. A young man also shared a story about his grandmother,  whom he described as an extremely strong woman who was able to carry large jars of water. However, fourteen years ago she was collecting water from the well when she was chased and attacked by settlers. She injured herself and broke the jar. This story highlights that the problem of water access in Faquaa is not a new one, but is part of a long struggle that goes back generations.

It was a powerful setting for the start of the September Freedom Ride.

Images by Al Mayuk and Natasha Andrews.

The night before the September Freedom Ride

The evening before the September Freedom Ride set off, the actors of the Freedom Bus performed Playback theatre for the international participants who have come from all over the world to take part in the ride.

We heard stories from participants from England and the United States, who spoke about what made them want to come to Palestine. We also heard from a Palestinian member of the audience, who shared a story about watching Zakaria Zubeidi’s recent court appearance.

All images by Al Mayuk.