By Tapani Lausti
(Ramzy Baroud, My Father was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. Pluto Press 2010.)
It is hard to finish reading this book without tears in one’s eyes. Mohammed Baroud’s life story, as told by his son Ramzy, encapsulates the tragedy of the Palestinians in general and the Gazans in particular. It is a story of the amazing resilience of people whose life and dreams have been shattered for decades, with much of the world watching with indifference or incomprehension.
Mohammed Baroud’s home village Beit Daras, in Southern Palestine, was taken over in May 1948 by Israeli forces with extreme violence. Thus began Mohammed’s story as a refugee in one of Gaza’s many refugee camps. He became a freedom fighter. He was once a fighter in an Egyptian army unit, and later a member of a Palestinian Liberation Army brigade. He was also a husband and father of five sons and one daughter. Sometimes he had to engage in imaginative business transactions to help his family survive. With extremely limited resources he helped his children to get an education. Utter poverty and constant humiliations did not destroy Mohammed’s spirit. Like so many Gazans he dreamed of the end of their nightmare. However, they had to endure constant Israeli aggression, Arab governments’ indifference and Palestinian leadership’s internal feuding.
Before emigrating to the United States in 1994, Ramzy Baroud grew up in the middle of this all. One morning, when he was still a school boy, he woke up with a soldier’s boot on his face. He recounts: "Soldiers often stormed into people’s homes and broke the arms and legs of men and boys so as to send a stern message to the rest of the neighborhood that they would receive the same fate if they continued with their Intifada." (p. 143)
Ramzy’s arms were saved from being broken by his mother Zarefah and other women in the neighborhood who were able to create enough of a scene to make soldiers retreat. Baroud’s mother paid a high price with broken ribs and soon afterwards she died of her injuries combined with a previously undiscovered illness. She was 42 years old.
Baroud describes his mother’s funeral: "Zarefah’s burial represented everything pure about the Intifada: the unity of purpose, the courage, the sheer rage and resentment of the occupation, the sense of community, the resolve and the determination of the refugees. But the Intifada’s uncomplicated, yet poignant message was to be co-opted and corrupted by those who wished to use its achievements for personal and factional gains." (p. 145)
Breaking school children’s arms reveals the utter depth of Israeli brutality. Of course, this manifested itself in even more severe violence, fed by deeply ingrained racism. When these facts are reported, Israel’s propaganda machine goes into full gear screaming about bias and extremism. Too many journalists swallow the bate of "balanced" reporting as if there could be some unbiased reporting concerning perpetrators of violence and its victims. Of course, Palestinians often react violently but their weapons are ineffective home-made missiles, or more often stones thrown at soldiers of one of the most powerful armies in the world.
After Hamas’s election victory in 2006, the Gazans were punished even more. Baroud writes: "It was not that Gaza had never experienced life under Israeli siege. But this time, the blockade was worse than ever before, and Israel was cheered on by many parties, including Europeans, Arabs and even some Palestinians. All the masks had fallen away and tiny, impoverished Gaza stood alone in defiance of those who broke the very humanitarian laws they themselves had designed." (p. 186)
Throughout these miserable decades Mohammed Baroud maintained his sense of humor and personal dignity. He insisted that Ramzy’s emigration would make his life easier. Mohammed was often depressed but only towards the end of his life he showed signs of desperation. Because of limitations imposed on financial institutions his sons were unable to send him money. He sold his refugee camp house but could find no medication for his severe asthma. The Israeli authorities considered this 70-year old dying man as too much of a security risk to allow him to the West Bank to receive treatment. Thus they condemned him to die under the eyes of his neighbors and friends.
The funeral was attended by a large crowd of Gazans, as Ramzy Baroud describes: "Thousands of people descended to his funeral from throughout Gaza; oppressed people, who shared his plight, hopes and struggles, accompanied him to the graveyard where he was laid to rest. He didn’t even have the money to buy his own coffin." (p. 188)
There are signs that more and more people in the world have begun to understand the plight of the Gazan people. Baroud’s book certainly helps this awakening.
– Tapani Lausti is a Finnish journalist living in Spain. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.