Sunday, February 23, 2014

A day at the Aida Camp Normal life can never be normal when it is lived under brutal military occupation, writes Kholoud Al-Ajarma from the Aida Refugee Camp in the Occupied West Bank

“This is normal. We’ve got used to it!” Salah, the director of the Lajee Centre, responded to me when I commented that the centre smelt of tear gas even though that day’s clashes had not started yet. The Lajee Centre (lajee means “refugee” in Arabic) is a Palestinian creative cultural centre for children and youth that was established in 2001 at the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Believing in its ideology and support of national, human and moral rights, I joined the Lajee Centre when I was 14 years old.

On Sunday, January 19, 2014, I met some of the children who participate in the daily activities of the centre in order to learn about their daily experience in the camp. It was 11am when I left my house at the entrance of the Aida Camp and walked the 50 metres between my house and the centre. Nowadays, even a two-minute walk from my house to the centre is a challenge. The clashes start sometimes early in the morning, other times in the afternoon, and continue until after sunset. Reaching the Lajee Centre, which is located between the military base at Rachel’s Tomb and the UN distribution centre at the entrance of the camp, becomes a mission impossible. This street is normally the main site for the demonstrations between the youth and the Israeli soldiers.

Walking from my house to the Lajee Centre I notice the bricks and stones covering every inch of the street that are left from yesterday’s demonstrations along with rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters. Closer to the centre I see two small boys. Upon seeing me, one of them points his finger at the blue gate of the apartheid Separation Wall and says to me, “look! They opened the gate and came out with a jeep. They will stand there until the kids come and see them, then the kids will throw stones at them.” The second child continues, “there are eight soldiers standing there now. More will come later”. I notice that the soldiers are walking down towards the Lajee Centre. The older child continues in a proud tone of voice, “now I do not run when they start shooting, as I have got used to the sound. It is aadi (normal).”

A little girl who looks seven or eight is near the centre and she runs towards the camp when she sees the Israeli soldiers. When she approaches us she says, “I better go and hide at home. The soldiers will start shooting soon, zay dayman (like always).” I walk up the steps to the centre and see a mural of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Kefah, the librarian of the Lajee Centre, stands to greet me. She speaks to me about today’s activities with the children. The aim is to give the children the chance to express their feelings and talk about their experience of two days ago, she says.

“On Friday,” she said, “we had a regular storytelling activity for the children. The kids started coming to the centre around 10am. Together we read a story, played some games and watched an animated film. Around 1pm, 30 children of seven to 14 years old were at the centre playing games and drawing. At 2pm, the Lajee Senior Dabkeh Troupe (15-20 years old) had their regular dabkeh (dance) practice. When the children and the youth tried to leave the centre for their houses around 4pm, they were trapped in the centre because the Israeli soldiers fired tear gas continuously into the camp.”

“A few minutes later, ten heavily armed soldiers stormed the centre. A member of the dance troupe was handcuffed, while others had to show their identity cards. Together with the volunteers, the children were locked in the library. Our staff remained firm in the face of the soldiers to protect our children; about half an hour later, the soldiers left. Even though we were able to keep the children physically unharmed, they were deeply affected by this experience. Mothers rushed to the centre to pick up their children and take them home. Once outside, they were again affected by the soldiers firing tear gas. We tried to go to the camp, but we could not see. It was not fog, but a thick cloud of tear gas.”

A day after these events, only three children showed up for Kefah’s storytelling activity. Kefah says that she is worried that fewer children will start coming to the centre. Yet, when I go into the centre today about 15 children attend the library activities. When asked to do freestyle painting, eight-year-old Raghd says, “I will draw the soldiers, the kids throwing stones at them, and the big jeep with the tear gas machine that shoots nine gas canisters at once.” Responding to Raghd’s suggestion, nine-year-old Salma says, “I want to draw the library, the books and the library activities that took place while the soldiers were shooting at the camp. I will draw Rand and the other kids who were scared that the soldiers would go into the library.”

Salma and some other kids teased Rand because she had cried when she was locked with the other children in the library two days ago. Raghd comments that one should not be afraid of the soldiers. She says, “I am used to seeing the soldiers now. After all, they enter the camp every day, if not during the day then at night, sometimes both. They arrest people and shoot. It is normal, and I am not afraid of them anymore.” She continues by saying that “the soldiers are cowards. Are they afraid of children? Yes. They hold big guns, wear heavy clothes and helmets, and have a big jeep. Yet, these soldiers attack kids and hide behind the garbage from which they shoot tear gas, rubber bullets and live bullets at children. The children only have stones but the soldiers fear them.”

Feeling encouraged to speak by the words of her sister, Rand comments, “I saw the soldiers when they came to our house last week. It was at night. I woke up, and the soldiers were in our house. I did not cry.” When I ask what the soldiers did at the house, Rand says, “they searched the kitchen and the rooms, and they talked to my father. When they left, my father was talking to my grandmother downstairs; eight soldiers went to their house. My mother looked out of the window and said there were more soldiers on the street. My mother said it was normal. The soldiers always come at night. But still I did not cry,” she reassures me.

Raghd comments, “Rawand, my baby sister, cannot leave the house, my mother says. We keep all the windows and doors closed so that she will not smell tear gas. Yesterday, she smelled it and coughed all day. Her nose turned red.” When I asked the girls if they thought that tear gas was dangerous, Raghd said, “a few months ago, after similar clashes, we found a tear gas canister under the lemon tree that my father planted on the roof of our house. After a few days the tree turned completely dry, the fruit fell off, and in a week the tree was dead.” Although I am surprised to hear this from Raghd, it was not the first time I had heard such things. A few weeks ago, a similar thing happened to an old olive tree that our neighbours had planted. After finding a tear gas canister under the trunk of the tree, half of the tree died while the other half survived.

While talking to the kids, nine-year-old Ehab enters the library. He opens his hands to show the collection he has gathered on his way to the centre. Between his hands he is holding three rubber bullets, two bottoms of live bullets, and three different types of tear gas canister. He says, “look! I collected these! They were on the street from yesterday’s shooting. The children collected more yesterday. And more are left.” Yumna, aged eight, picks one of the bullets from Ehab’s hands and comments, “this is a rubber bullet. But look at the inside – it is steel. My cousin was shot by one of these while he was filming a demonstration. His cheek was smashed and his bone had to be replaced by metal.”

While the children continue their painting, we hear some shooting outside the centre. Living through these circumstances on a daily basis, the children do not need to go to the window to know what is happening outside. Everyone knows by Rand’s immediate reaction, since upon hearing the shooting she crawls under the table and hides her face between her hands. I can tell from the movement of her head, hands and shoulders that Rand is crying.

When I look out of the window, I can see about 20 children near the physical entrance to the camp. Some are throwing stones, while others are collecting them. About 30 metres from the children, four soldiers are shooting from behind the garbage, four are sneaking into a neighbouring house, while some more are in a jeep about 50 metres away. Four more soldiers are walking down from the jeep towards the centre. They kick the gate of Lajee’s garden and try to enter.

After failing to kick to open the gate, the soldiers give up and move towards the door of the centre. Salah, hearing hard knocking on the centre’s door, runs down the stairs to confront the soldiers and prevent them from storming into the centre. Salah opens the door and refuses to allow the soldiers in. He tells them that there are only children in the centre and that they cannot use the centre as a shooting point. Again, for Salah and the people at the centre, this has become a normal encounter.

But is any of this normal, I wonder. None of this should be normal. One only needs to look at Rand’s crying face to realise that it is not normal for children to see an army invading their place of residence on a daily basis. One knows that life in the Aida Camp is not normal when six-year-old Rand wishes that her pregnant mother will not have a boy. “He will be arrested like uncle Said,” she says. “The soldiers came at night, took him away from home, and I never saw him again.”

 Rand’s wish comes true, yet her baby sister Rawand also has to suffer from the tear gas that reaches her bedroom. It is not normal to know that one of the first words Raghd said when she was just a few months old was jaish (army). It is not normal to wake up and see soldiers in Salma’s living room, searching in her cupboards and walking on top of her toys. It is abnormal when 5,000 children, women, men and elderly people have to endure tear gas and shooting on a daily basis.

Normal would be when the children sit in the Lajee Centre’s library to draw flowers, happy faces and colourful images. In a normal situation Salah would be working on a new project to develop the lives of the children instead of trying to keep soldiers from invading the centre. In a normal situation instead of the children standing at the window to look at soldiers shooting other children they would be in the garden playing games.

The life of a Palestinian refugee is not normal. We can never be satisfied if life under occupation is called normal. People should be born free and live with dignity. We cannot be satisfied if it is thought normal to live in a refugee camp when our land sits mere kilometres away. Normal would be for the children to be playing on their original land in Ajur, Beit Jibrin, Al-Walajah, Ras Abu Amar, Al-Kabu and other places. More and more abnormal events are turning into normal experiences for the people of the Aida Camp. But normal can never be the violation of our rights nor daily injustice. Normal is freedom and a life of dignity, nothing less.

Since this article was written, a 12-year-old child was shot in the Al-Azza Camp with a live bullet using a silencer on the gun, a violation of international law. Six youths were arrested. One child was shot in the face with a rubber-coated steel bullet; another was shot in the foot. In addition, the activities coordinator of the Lajee Centre was struck with a rubber-coated steel bullet in his head, requiring stitches. On the same day, the Israeli soldiers sprayed the Lajee Centre and the camp as a whole with filthy water that caused a nauseating smell that lasted for hours.

The writer is a Palestinian refugee living in the Aida Refugee Camp and an MPhil candidate in the Anthropology of Development Programme at the University of Bergen, Norway.

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