Retaining One’s Dignity

By Mats Svensson

A while ago there was a big enough opening in the wall for a car to pass through. Now it is closed. The place is almost empty of people.

A young man walks towards me, passes me and disappears into a ditch. And he is gone. I follow him down into the wide ditch. The ditch is four metres wide with dirty brown water. I see four large cement pipes leading to the ditch. Three of them are blocked with cement blocks. The obstacles have been removed by the fourth one. It smells fowl, it smells of sewer. I loose my balance and my right foot sinks into the sludge. I lean down and look into the cement pipe, getting my camera ready. I see a shadow at the end of the pipe, 15 metres away. I lift the camera but immediately hear a man call out, “Please, please, don’t take any photo.”

I see an old man coming through the tunnel. With his legs spread to either side he tries to hop along. Sometime he supports himself on a cane that he drives into the sewer. In the other hand, he carries a little bag. He slips a little bit. When he comes out of the tunnel, he looks at me, sees my camera and says, ”Thank you.” I follow him a few hundred metres. First, he removes a pair of black shoes from the bag, changes and puts the dirty ones in the bag. Looks at his trousers, sees that they have not been dirtied. Wipes off the cane with a napkin. Tells me that he is going to visit his wife who is in hospital. She has been there for a few weeks. His wife was put in hospital when there was an opening in the wall. He tells me that he has always lived in Jerusalem but that the wall that now goes through the northern part shuts him out out the city. He lives in the Al Ram district. He is soon on his way to have as much time as possible with his wife before he has to return in the evening. ”I hope the water hasn’t risen by then,” he says.

I go through the tunnel. Come up on the other side. See some young boys who climb through. They ask me what I think about the wall. Tell me that they feel humiliated. Say that they come to school dirty every day and are dirty when they return home. The school on one side of the wall, the home on the other. Palestinians on both sides. The wall separates Palestinians. Divides up the land. On a daily basis, they have to use a sewer drain to get to school, to work or to visit a sick loved one.

Two young men that I photographed coming out of the tunnel ask me to stay for a while. They tell me that they have come through the tunnel to help their mother. Their mother wears a black dress and carries a little brown handbag. I promise the men that I will not photograph. They ask me to guard the bag for a short while. They carefully lift up her dress, almost carrying her through the tunnel. The water in the sewer is too deep, her feet drag in the water and she calls out. Soon, the three of them are back. One of the men say that they will have to try another time when the water is lower.

I came to the tunnel early in the morning. Most people from Al Ram use the tunnel to get to Jerusalem. They return in the afternoon, wanting to get back home before nightfall.

There is a large closed gate in the wall, 10 metres wide, close to the sewer pipes. The gate has an advanced locking mechanism and can only be opened by the occupation force, by young soldiers. Strangely enough, young children can squeeze through the gate because it has a 20 centimetre opening on one side. Some teenagers try, but they cannot squeeze through. For those under 15, there is a narrow opening. If you are older, you must use the sewer. At first, I did not understand why the military has left a small opening in the gate. And I did not understand why the sewer tunnel remained open. After a few hours, I begin to see a pattern and in the pattern the answer probably lies. In front of me I see the woman whose sons try to help her through the sewer, who gives up when the sludge is too deep, who wants to keep her dignity. I see the man who did not want to be photographed. The man who did not want his humiliation to be documented.

-Mats Svensson, a former Swedish diplomat working on the staff of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is presently following the ongoing occupation of Palestine. He can be reached at isbjorn2001@hotmail.com.

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