Thursday April, 9 - Aida Camp / Deheisheh Refugee Camp

Tuesday 5 January 2010
popularity : 9%

It is already our fourth day in Aida Camp. No one among the "less than 30" wakes up anymore at the first call of the muezzin (before sunrise), nor at cockcrow (a little bit later). No reaction either at the news on Al- Jazeera so, according to the mood of the moment, we either have Tanguy at the guitar ("Get up, stand up guys..!"), or Louise at the accordion. Unless a delicious smell of hot chocolate titillates our nostrils... We have a quick wash (water is rare, thus precious in the camp and we have learnt to use as little as possible of it when doing the washing and washing up) and off we go!

JPEG - 30.6 kb

This morning Diane, Laetitia, Théodore, Anne-Claire and Tanguy go back to Al-Rowwad to continue with the interviews. Today however, we won’t be able to use any of the four little offices on the first floor as they are needed for administrative tasks (among others, getting ready for the theatrical company’s Austrian adventure!). It doesn’t matter, we’ll work upstairs, amidst the cement sacks and rubble. We sit down on breeze-blocks we have put in a circle and, as there are no windows yet, we make the most of the draughts and noise rising from the street !

Our young friends are a bit nervous but we tell them they have got nothing to worry about : we aren’t more "pros" at it than they are. We tell them that in fact we are fed up with what we hear and see on the western media, more especially with what they don’t let us hear and see about the people in Palestine : what we want is bring back home pictures, sounds and voices, testimonies about the life and dreams of simple Palestinian citizens...

JPEG - 27.9 kb


Today it is Mazen (19), Ayssar (18) and Youssef’s (23) turn. Just as we did with Salam and Marwa yesterday we ask them to answer our questions in Arabic. Today Oussama (31 years old) will translate into English for us. A last cigarette for Mazen (it’s amazing how much the teenagers and young adults of Aida can smoke !... Smoking as an oxygen bottle... ), and he is ready to tell us about how important the activities at Al-Rowwad are for him, as well as about the Rap-band he created together with Moustapha and Jamal: "Our aim is to show the people outside who we really are, let them know what really happens here : we are not terrorists, which is the image most of you have. We are human beings who can sing, dance, laugh and not only cry, be injured or be dead!… Of course, I’m very happy to sing and be able to speak about the situation here, the problem of the seniors, of the refugees… That way, I’m trying to bring about changes in our daily life".

Everything goes on fine until we ask him about his dreams. Mazen suddenly becomes flustered, can’t find his words anymore and finally keeps quiet. Oussama takes the floor then and asks us to stop filming : "Cut!, Cut, please!...", but Anne-Claire whispers to Diane to go on while Oussama explains what’s going on : "You see, this is one of our problems… Many children, many adults too have real difficulty expressing themselves, talking about themselves. We try to solve that in the workshops, through the work we do here in the Center… It comes from the heart, you know ? And Mazen isn’t strong enough to talk to you like that, normally, to find the words to. That’s what you are touching…”

We tell Mazen and Oussama that we are well aware of it, but that it is exactly what we want to bring back to Belgium : the image of real men and women, with their strengths and weaknesses, pictures and voices showing that people in Palestine are just human beings like us. It doesn’t matter if Mazen can’t find his words. What is important, just and fair is to share all this. We say to Oussama that we can imagine how difficult this exercise must be for Mazen and we ask Oussama to tell him in Arabic that he needn’t feel ashamed or shy. We beg him too to tell him how much we love him… Oussama translates. Mazen smiles gently at us and whispers : “I love you too… And I really appreciate what you are doing for me”. A moment of strong emotion for all of us. The interview is finished, we all stand up and give Mazen a big hug : "You were simply great, Mazen. Thank you for trusting us..." Then, looking at Oussama, Anne-Claire smiles at him : "Do you want a hug too?", and she clasps to her chest this big thirty-something boy who is obviously still overcome with emotion. Tears are misting our eyes. We are all surprised and shattered by this precious moment of pure grace...

JPEG - 27.3 kb


We interview Aysar now (link recording 62) who tells us how angry he is : “I hate the soldiers and the army. The Israeli soldiers... I can’t help thinking about the occupation… I think about it all the time, the checkpoints, what happened in Gaza, what’s happening all around Palestine…“, about what he does at Al-Rowwad Center : “ I like my work here at Al-Rowwad : doing theatre, being on stage… I really enjoy the “Images for Life” workshop, because it gives me the opportunity to take pictures about our situation, and so to break the rule : we are always in front of the cameras but now, I have the opportunity to be behind it and to take the pictures I want and to show what reality is like here the way I see it. It’s a really great opportunity to say what I think about our daily life and also about the political life : I’m not really interested in it but I want to talk about the problem people have with water, food, living in a refugee camp …”, and about his dream : be able one day to exhibit his pictures all around the world, in Europe, America, Israel, Russia, in all the Arabic countries, everywhere…


It’s Youssef’s turn to come and sit with us. We first congratulate him for yesterday’s match : it was really impressive ! We ask him to tell us how he joined this team of basket-ball players in wheelchairs. Youssef tells us about himself referring to the events as “before or after what happened to my leg“, without saying much more about it. We asks Oussama then if he thinks we can ask Youssef to tell us what happened to his leg. Oussama notices that we are moved and, before he translates the question to Youssef, he warns us : "Be strong!", he tells us, "It’s important for you to take care of yourself and to be strong!" ... Such concern for us...

JPEG - 23.2 kb

Youssef takes a deep breath : "It was in 2001, I was 16 years old then… I was with a journalist, here in front of Al-Rowwad Centre, well before it was built here. I wanted to show him the Israeli tanks that had come to demolish the houses. At that moment, I got injured, a tank had fired at me… I lost a lot of blood…. I spent 60 days in hospital. People thought I was dead. They called me a martyr… Strange thing to hear people call me a martyr… When I came round, they were all in shock, they couldn’t believe it : Youssef, you are alive!…I’m a lucky man, really… I have a brother, he is a martyr…. He had come to see me after the accident… But a few days later, he was killed… He was only 23.

We tell Youssef we are sorry but he shakes his head : " No, no... There are more miserable stories than mine. You can check : in every house of Palestine, there is a sad story to be told...You know, we are like in a prison here, in a small prison... Three months ago, I tried to go to Jerusalem. I took all kinds of twists and turns, a real zig-zag route. I spent more than 7 hours in the car... In vain..."

The interview is coming to an end and Youssef concludes it with a large smile : "Thank all of you for coming all the way from Belgium to stay and live with us for a while, share our situation. Thank you also for wanting to bring back a real picture of us. And also… This video of me, Youssef… Maybe, you will show it to the Belgian basket-ball team… And, maybe, one day, I will be lucky enough to play against them?…"

We thank our three friends and our Super-Translator for agreeing to participate in this project. We are deeply touched by their simplicity, their generosity and well aware of the great gift they are offering us by talking about themselves the way they do.

In the meantime...

JPEG - 31.8 kb

In the meantime Louise, Guirec, Julien and Bénédicte have gone round the camp again, hunting for more pictures, more especially of the messages painted here and there by the inhabitants of the camp, which, like all the others, was supposed to be an assortment of temporary living quarters. Yet none of the refugees could go back home : their houses were destroyed or are now occupied by Israeli settlers.

On a wall of the camp, a long and really beautiful fresco – painting and mosaic – tells the Nakba (= the 1948 and 1967 catastrophes) : armed soldiers all of a sudden there, inside the houses, the bombing and firing, the dead and injured, the flight on the country roads, the nights spent hiding in the middle of the uprooted olive trees, far enough but not too far either from their burning fields and gardens, their desecrated cemeteries and mosques, their lives blotted out from the earth…

JPEG - 29.1 kb

Then the uprising, the Intifada (literally “getting up on one’s feet again, rising from one’s ashes”) and demonstrations to demand the implementation of their right to return, which the UNO had granted…

But nothing, nobody lifted a finger to defend their rights… The tents of the first camps set up by the UNRWA (which “specializes” in the protection of the Palestinian refugees) were slowly but surely replaced by permanent structures, basic and scanty but that looked all but temporary anymore…

Life goes on, despite poverty, despair and the injustice done to them. The children grew up, got married, had children in their turn while one after the other, their grand-parents died, roots and memories of the life before...

JPEG - 30.4 kb

So, instead of yielding to the invaders and their allies who would like to make the world think and believe that before them, the Jews, there was nothing and nobody in Palestine ("a land without a people for a people without a land" the Zionists keep saying), the children of the first Palestinian refugees of Aida painted a long series of pictures on the concrete walls surrounding the camp, each of them representing their native village, the place their family was thrown out of : Beit-Awa, Deir-Ayab, Al-Ramlah, Khouldah, Beit-Jibreen, Al-Quds... , a long list of 27 villages to be added to the lists set up by each of the tens of refugee camps in the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, with a promise deep in their heart and passed on from one generation to the next one : we will return...

Before the Israeli admit and right their wrongs, before the International Community plays its role and at last shoulders its responsibilities, the Palestinians of the camps, and in this case the Palestinian refugees of the Aida camp, try something else than armed struggle, which ruined their reputation and discredited them in the whole world : they have launched a Beautiful Resistance. To exist, to have an identity through culture, to make the walls of confinement explode and open the doors of the imaginary, to turn the negative energy (anger, frustration, helplessness, resentment…) into a creative one and to live as dignified human beings... Stronger than the wall of separation…

***

On their way, our photographers come across three veiled women and Louise decides to go and speak with them. Fortunately, one of them knows English. She is in fact a teacher and tells them she used to give private lessons to some children of the camp who have difficulties at school : she had to stop doing this as the parents couldn’t afford it anymore. She offers to show Louise and the others around one of Aida three kindergartens, which they all accept with enthusiasm.

JPEG - 36.8 kb

They are quite surprised however when they see her stop in front of a dilapidated building that looks more like a very old house than a school : inside, there is a tiny playground (hardly enough room for 2 trees and a bench), and inside the building, about 40 children split into 2 stuffy little rooms. They are all extremely curious about these four so oddly-dressed strangers.

And there they are, the infernal Quartet singing good old "Brother Jack", to which the kids answer with an Arabic nursery rhyme : they are too cute, really ! And it is so great to see and hear them sing like that!... Seeing the children’s reaction, the teachers suggest the Fab’ Four to come back next week and take charge of one or two activities with the kids : it’s a deal, they will and they’ll bring pots of paint, papers, scissors, glue, pearls, musical instruments and colourful balloons !…

***

After we have had lunch, we all go to Deheisheh refugee camp (12.000 inhabitants on one km²). That’s where Oussama lives, still with his parents. He confides to us that he’ll get married when he has got enough money : indeed the Palestinian tradition requires a big feast for all the family and neighbours on that occasion, which is a real problem seeing the situation the Palestinians are in...

We reach Deheisheh by car then all pack into Oussama’s sitting room and meet members of his family, among whom Tarek we saw on Thursday in Al-Rowwad center (Game-activity). He got married last year and has got a 4-month-old baby boy called "Watan" ("Homeland", in English) he is obviously completely crazy about.

There is also Maysaa’ (21) who like Salam and Ribal is studying at Alquds Open University so she can spend as much time as possible at Al-Rowwad. Oussama tells Anne-Claire that Maysaa’ is such a great dancer ("When she dances, she becomes the music itself, I’d never seen that before!"), but it is impossible for her to make a career out of it ; this would be badly considered by the family and neighbours : "Palestinian culture", he says...

JPEG - 25.7 kb


Then we hold the microphone out to Oussama and let him tell us a few words about the political situation in Palestine and in the refugee camps (Fatah, Hamas and Israel who would like to set the first ones against the second...) and his personal feelings about all this : "I have never seen my native village. I was born in Jordan and I grew up here, in Dheisheid camp, but I’ll tell you I have the strange feeling I was there because my father and my mother have talked so much about it and have made me repeatedly promise I won’t forget it. They put me this strong idea in the head : I must go back to it…"

"And when I am back home, then we can start talking of making peace. It is not a problem for me to have Israeli neighbours. It’s Ok with me, but what kind of neighbours, That’s important… As for this country to be called Palestine or Israel, I don’t care really… I just need to be allowed to live normally, like you…”.

JPEG - 34.7 kb

Oussama tries then to make us understand what everyday life is like here for a Palestinian refugee : “If, for example, you want to go to Ramallah or Jerusalem, or anywhere else, you can do so without it being a problem. For us, it is really difficult… I remember how shocked you were on the first day in Aida : you had asked me if I had already been to Jerusalem and seen all you had seen there, and I answered, yes, I went once; it was 10 years ago… Yes, this is all too crazy. Jerusalem is so close, so close/ Maybe if someone from Aida laughs or speaks a bit loud, he will be heard over there…”

Israel does nothing for the Palestinians of the occupied territories, Oussama says, so , in each refugee camp, a popular committee tries to organise life inside the camp : "There are fewer and fewer people from the UN to do so and who know our rights… If you have been a refugee for 60, 70 years, nobody talks about your problem anymore.. And then, when you see these UNO soldiers giving out flour and petrol… This situation is so humiliating for the refugees, so humiliating. The soldiers are loud, they shout, talk to them as if they were animals… Where is their dignity then ?… But, at the same time, you need to be strong, to be able to survive…"

JPEG - 25.7 kb

What keeps the Palestinian people up on their feet ? : "Ask any Palestinian that question : hope, this small word, what does it mean to him, to them ? just do it, you’ll see. They probably won’t tell you what their dreams are. They just want to be able to live normally… Ask them… The fact is we can’t afford to stop hoping. We can just cry and do nothing, feel hurt, miserable… When we saw what happened in Gaza in January, it broke our hearts . Yet we keep smiling. We don’t know why, believe me !…" And he concludes (quite tired to have spoken so long in English !) by saying that he works as well as he can to help things change…

The philosophy of Al-Rowwad suits him perfectly, this idea of a Beautiful Resistance : "As for our photo workshop « Images for life », you may think that we are only working on our image for the « outside » but at the same time, we are working on something really important : help the young people build their personalities, mould their character".

We go back to Aida on foot in the company of our favourite Palestinians. We need this time to digest what we have just heard…

JPEG - 23.5 kb

Back in the centre we give a hand to Mourad and Ahmed (20, in charge of the IT workshop - Information technology : setting up of computer systems, creation of sites...) who are busy mounting the forthcoming exhibition of pictures taken by the participants of the "Images for Life" workshop : we help them put up boards, hang the pictures (which are REALLY great, beautiful, clever, moving), all this in a hubbub of calls, cell-phone ringing, people shouting their head off if something isn’t going the way it should...

Read the continuation of the trip