Thursday, July 28, 2005

House Demolitions

I write this today with an extremely heavy heart and burdened spirit. Yesterday I stood in protest and watched helplessly as a bulldozer demolished two houses right before my eyes. But let me start from the beginning.......
Yesterday morning I woke up, took a nice hot shower, sat around and ate breakfast with Michelle (my roomie). We had decided to go into work with Rafat, our host dad, as he works at Holy Land Trust (the organization that we are affiliated with). The plan was to go to the nearby refugee camp, Aida, as their was a creative protest going on there. An artist had come in and drew a large beach scene on the Wall and then HLT had a truck full of sand brought in and dumped in front of the mural. Chairs, umbrellas, and a barbeque were set up, all in a way to say: this Wall is not going to ruin the spirit of the people in this land. I thought this was a great idea and both Michelle and I were excited to go. However, when we got to the office Sami Awad, the director of HLT, came in and told us that they just found out about 2 house demolitions that were going to take place soon in Al Khader. Al Khader is very close to Bethlehem and he said that they were all going to go out there if we wanted to join. Knowing that it would not be easy, but important for us to see, we both decided to go with them. Little did I know just how hard it would be.
When we arrived at the "protest" there were already a group of locals gathered to watch and stand in solidarity with the family. As a group from HLT, there were 3 Americans and 5 Palestinians with us. Rafat led the way holding the Palestinian flag and as we marched down that hill towards the grieving families, more people fell into line and marched with us. Scared and unsure of what was going to happen, I prayed the whole way down.
As we got closer to the homes, a group of IDF soldiers began to form a line in front of us - it was clear that they were not going to allow us to go any closer to the homes or the families. Sami and Rafat spoke with one of the soldiers saying that this was a peaceful protest and we only wanted to stand in solidarity with the family. However, the soldiers used force and pushed Sami and Rafat telling them that there was no way that they could pass. Important to point out here is that the road which we were marching on is a Palestinian road, under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority and it was completely illegal for the IDF to block us from proceeding. We tried to compromise with the soldiers for another 15 minutes, until all of a sudden I heard the noise that completely broke my heart.
I heard first the screeching of the demolition crane followed by the torturous squeaking of the bulldozer - and in front of my very eyes I watched as a home was completely destroyed. As my eyes took in the evil sight, my ears went deaf and my head began to spin. It was as if the entire world had stopped moving and I was the only one who existed in that moment, just me and that crane, that horrible, ugly, monstrous crane. In this same moment I realized that I could no longer hold it together. I fell to my knees and sobbed. My heart was so full of grief and my head was so full of confusion. How could anyone possibly do this to another? How can the men, operating those vehicles sleep at night? How did such evil ever become okay in this world and where were all of the people who did not think that this was in fact okay? Even though I was surrounded by many people, I felt so alone. My heart physically hurt and I did not think that my tears would ever run dry.
As I looked up through my blurred vision, I saw that most of the Palestinian men had gathered in a line, standing face to face with the IDF. As the demolition continued, I watched as these men grabbed the hands of those next to them, intertwined their fingers and raised their arms symbolizing to the family that this tragedy was not going unnoticed. Of course this made me cry harder and I was sure that someone would have to carry me out of there.
However, I knew that my tears would only be effective to an extent and I tried to compose myself. For the next three hours, I took about a hundred pictures and talked with some of the locals that had gathered. As time passed I became bolder and bolder, knowing that what was happening was so wrong. Finally I approached a soldier who was giving a Palestinian kid a hard time. I told the soldier to leave the kid alone, he wasn't going to hurt him. After all the kid was about 12 and defenseless. Meanwhile the soldier had two guns, tear gas, and a grenade. I asked the soldier how old he was. "20," he replied. "So we're the same age," I got out through my gasp. Then I asked, "How can you honestly live the rest your life knowing that you have helped carry out this destruction today? We have so much life left to live, do you honestly believe that this is what it's about." As he averted his eyes from my gaze, I knew what his answer was. "Why are you doing this anyways, what has your government told you that makes you think that this is okay?" His answer did not surprise me as I know what the Israeli government tells these men. "This house is an illegal structure. It's a security risk." Calmly, or what I thought was calmly, I told him "This house has been here longer than the Israeli Authority has even been in power. This land is Palestinian land, although it is slowly being stripped from their hands. The only thing illegal about this whole thing is the demolition and the settlement on the other side of this road. Do you honestly think that your duty as a human being is to ensure the security of an illegally built settlement at the expense of an entire generation of Palestinians?" "It's my civil duty," he replied. "No, your civil duty is to humanity. Not to a power hungry government that is stripping hope and peace from a Holy Land. The only civil duty that you have is to say enough and to tell your government to stop these atrocious, inhumane and spirit destroying orders." At this he looked into my eyes one more time, turned around and walked away. Throughout the rest of the day I noticed that every time I looked at one of the soldiers, they could not hold my gaze. Their hearts were so obviously conflicted that it was painful to see.
After both homes were demolished, the soldiers continued to refuse entry to the sites. However, Michelle, Stephanie and I played the American card and told them that we were going up and that it was probably not wise to stop us. As we marched towards the rubble of the homes my heart was pounding. I turned a corner and saw the first heap. Stone, steel, wood, all kinds of material whose purposes were now indecipherable. It was hard to tell that this had actually been a home. Three children were sitting on top of the rubble, not saying a thing, just looking. I couldn't handle it, I turned to leave. And as I was turning I saw out of the corner of my eye, under a tree with his face in his hands, the owner of the home. He must have been around 70 years old. He was sobbing. I probably do not need to tell you my reaction.
Next to this man was a pile of chairs and table, some tapestries, etc. I asked Sami what that pile was and he replied, "It's what they were able to salvage in an hour. That's how quick the notice is. The IDF shows up with the caterpillar and crane and tells them they have one hour. After that, if they aren't out of the home, the IDF claims that they cannot be held accountable."
Feeling ill, I told Sami that I had to leave or I was going to throw up. I slowly started walking out of the site and stopped next to the family that had gathered under a tree. One woman looked up at me and I held my hand to my heart, nodded through my tears, and choked out a "Salaam." In that moment, in her eyes I think I was finally able to see what my trip is all about. I'm not here to save the world or to be the restorer of peace to this region, I'm not even here on a political agenda. I am here to bring what peace I do know, that comes through my God and to stand in solidarity with these people. To let them know that they are not going unrecognized, that the world is not ignoring them, that I care enough to stand there with them and to cry for them, for humanity. Maybe all I will do is restore a little bit of hope in their hearts, but maybe that's all I need to do.