By Kholoud Al-Ajarma – Aida Refugee Camp, West Bank
“This is normal, we got used to it!” Salah, the Director of Lajee Center responded to me when I comment that the center smells like tear gas even though the clashes had not started yet. Lajee Center (Lajee means refugee in Arabic) is a Palestinian creative cultural center for children and youth that was established in 2001 in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem. Believing in its ideology and support of national, human and moral rights, I joined Lajee Center 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 center in order to learn about their daily experience in the camp. It was 11am when I left my house at the entrance of Aida camp and walked the 50 meters between my house and the center. Nowadays, even a two minute walk from my house to the center is a challenge. The clashes start sometimes early in the morning, other times in the afternoon, and continue until after sunset. Reaching Lajee Center, which is located between the military base at Rachel’s tomb and the UN distribution center 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 Lajee Center I notice the bricks and stones covering every inch of the street that were left from yesterday’s demonstration along with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. Closer to the center I see two small boys, who upon seeing me one of them points his finger at the blue gate of the apartheid 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 could notice that the soldiers are walking down towards Lajee Center. The older child continues in a proud tone of voice, “Now I do not run when they start shooting I got used to the sound. It is “aadi” (normal)…”
A little girl who looks seven or eight is near the center runs towards the camp when she sees the soldiers. When she approaches us she says, “I better go hide at home. The soldiers will start shooting soon. zay dayman (like always).” I walk up the stairs to the center and see a mural of late Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. Kefah, the librarian of Lajee Center, stands to greet me. She speaks to me about today’s activity with the children. The aim of today’s activity is to give the children the chance to express their feelings and talk about their experience of two days ago.
“On Friday,” she said, “we had a regular storytelling activity for the children. The kids started coming to the center around 10 am. Together we read a story, played some games and watched an animated film. Around 1 pm 30 children (7-14 years old) were at the center playing games and drawing. At 2 pm, the Lajee Senior Dabkeh Troupe (15-20 years old) had their regular dabkeh practice. When the children and the youth tried to leave the center to their houses around 4 pm, they were trapped in the center because the Israeli soldiers fired tear gas continuously into the camp. A few minutes later, ten heavily armed soldiers stormed the center. 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 center to pick up their children and take them home. Once outside, they were again inflicted by the soldiers firing tear gas. We tried to go the camp, but we could not see. No it was not fog but a thick cloud of tear gas.”
A day after these event only three children showed up for Kifah’s story telling activity. Kifah says that she is worried that fewer children will start coming to the center. Yet, when I go into the center 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 the Raghd’s suggestion, 9-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 will go into the library.”
Salma and the some other kids teased Rand because she 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 that 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, “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, the rooms, and 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 that 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 would 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 is 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 fruits fell and in a week the tree was dead.” Although I am surprised to hear this from Raghd it was not my first time hearing about such news. A few weeks ago, a similar destiny was drawn to an old olive tree which our neighbors had. 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-years-old Ehab, enters the library. He opens his hands to show his collection he has gathered on the way to the center. Between his hands he is holding three rubber bullets, two bottoms of live bullets, and three different types of tear gas canisters. He says, “Look! I collected these! They were on the street from yesterday’s shooting. The children collected more yesterday. And more is left.” Yumna, age 8, picks one of the bullets from Ehab’s hands and comments, “This is a rubber bullet, look from the inside it is steel. My cousin was shot by one of those while he was filming a demonstration. His cheek was smashed and his bone was replaced by metal.”
While the children continued their paintings, we hear some shooting outside the center. Living through these circumstances on a daily basis, the children do not need to reach to the window to know what is happening outside. Otherwise, all would know by Rand’s immediate reaction that upon hearing the shooting crawls under the table and hides her face between her hands. I can tell from the movement of her head, hand, and shoulders, Rand is crying.
When I look out of the window, I can see about 20 children under the big key that marks the physical entrance to the camp. Some are throwing stones others collecting. About 30 meters from the children 4 soldiers are shooting from behind the garbage, 4 sneak to a neighboring house, while some more are in the jeep about 50 meters away. Four more soldiers are walking down from the jeep towards the center. They kick the gate of Lajee’s garden and try to enter.
After failing to kick open the gate the soldiers give up and move towards the door of the center. Salah, hearing hard knocking on the center’s door, runs down the stairs to confront the soldiers and prevent them from storming into the center. Salah opens the door and refuses to allow the soldiers in. He tells them that there are only children in the center and that they cannot use the center as a shooting point. Again, for Salah and the people at the center this has become a normal encounter.
Is any of this normal? I wonder. No! None of this can be normal. One needs to look at Rands crying face to realize 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 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 Saed” she says, “the soldiers came at night, took him from home, and I never saw him again”. Rand’s wish comes true, yet her baby sister, Rawand, also has to suffer from the teargas that reaches her bedroom. It is not normal to know that one of the first words Raghd said when she was a few months old baby was jaish (soldiers) at the same time with mama and papa. It is not normal to wake up and see soldiers in Salma’s living room, searching in her closet and walking on top of her toys. It is abnormal when 5000 children, women, men, and elderly have to endure tear gas and shooting on a daily basis.
Normal would be when the children sit at Lajee’s library to draw flowers, happy faces and colorful images. In a normal situation Salah should be working on a new project to develop the lives of the children instead of trying to keep soldiers from invading the center. In a normal situation instead of the children standing at the window to look at soldiers shooting other children they should be in the garden playing games.
The life of a Palestinian refugee is not normal. We can never be satisfied if the life under occupation is called normal. People should be born free and live with dignity. We cannot be satisfied if it is normal to live in a refugee camp when our lands sit mere kilometers away. Normal would be for the children to be playing on their original lands in Ajur, Beit Jibrin, Al Walajah, Ras Abu Amar, Al Kabu, etc. Yet more and more of the abnormal are turning into normal experiences for the people of Aida. Yet normal can never be the violation of our rights nor the 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 Al Azza camp with a live bullet with a silencer on the gun (a violation of international law). Six youth 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 Lajee Center was struck with a rubber coated steel bullet in his head requiring stitches. On the same day the soldiers sprayed Lajee Center and the camp with filthy water that caused a nauseating smell that lasted for hours.]
– Kholoud is a Palestinian refugee living in Aida Refugee Camp, Palestine. She is a candidate of the MPHIL program Anthropology of Development at the University of Bergen, Norway and holds a Masters of Peace Studies from Coventry University, UK. Her latest research project focuses on representation of identity and politics of belonging among the Palestinian refugees in Chile. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.