This message is one day late but I felt like a zambie yesterday following the events in Dheisheh on Wednesday 22 March, 2000. Digesting the fact that the Pope was here amongst us and then later witnessing the clashes between camp residents and police took time to sink in.
Wow! What a day.
It started out perfectly. The atmosphere in the camp was so festive all day. Schools were out. Flags and posters were up. Television crews and journalists were all over the place. Men, women and children in the camp were out and about. We all were waiting impatiently for the hour of the Pope's arrival (changed from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.).
In the afternoon, members of the Palestinian police and various security forces took their positions at all the locations where the Pope was going to pass. A few days earlier, there was a rumor in the camp that all the rooftops along the street inside the camp where the Pope was going to drive through (happens to be the street I live on) was going to be filled with police and security.
This wasn't the case. The only people up on the rooftops were the people who lived in these houses, their relatives and friends. The number of police and security on our street wasn't as substantial as we thought it would be. On the contrary, it was very reasonable number and much less than what we expected. The crowds and most of the police and security where down on the main Jerusalem-Hebron Road near the entrance (leading to the street I live on) and near the school were the Pope was going to be officially received.
I went up on the rooftop with two friends (an American couple), our cameras in hand, ready to get a glimpse of the Pope. Suddenly someone shouted that the Pope was arriving. Next thing we know the Popemobile, followed by a long line of VERY FANCY VIP cars drove, for the first time ever, up our street. I kept snapping pictures, and only took my eye away from the lens as the Pope appeared right underneath me. Couldn't believe it. Pope John Paul II coming up the street that we walk on every day. Geez! what a feeling. We thought that Arafat would be visible to the crowds and wave to us, but the car he was in had dark windowglass and we didn't see him at all.
As the Popemobile turned the corner up the hill, my friends and I made a mad dash for the school. We had tickets to get in (without them no one could even get close to the school). These was a bit of pushing and shoving getting inside the school gate but being a woman helped. "Make way for the women", someone shouted and we were inside the gate.
I was surprised that the school yard wasn't as packed as I thought it would be. The Pope was already there. The number of issued tickets didn't exceed 400-500 (sent both to people from the camp and to guests from outside the camp).
We couldn't see the Pope from where we stood so we climbed on the school rooftop where all the press were. We had a perfect view of the Pope as he addressed the crowd. His speech (not translated in Arabic) was hard to understand. He sounded tired and it was difficult to make out the words. Everything happened quickly and the crowd down in the school yard had to stand the entire time (there were no chairs) and so only those in the front could see the Pope. After he spoke, the Pope greeted a few school children who were allowed to go to him. It was hard to believe that we were standing there looking at him.....inside our school, in our refugee camp. Wow!
Then it was over and the Pope was leaving the school. I finished an entire roll of film. Although the importance and significance of his being there wasn't diminished, we all were disappointed that the Pope spoke along the lines of improving the living conditions of the refugees versus our right of return.
Sure, we knew the Pope wasn't going to say what we wanted to hear but following his remark at Manger Square in Bethlehem earlier in the day, we thought that maybe, just maybe the Pope will make a clear call for the right of return.
And what did the Pope say earlier in Bethlehem? I quote: ["In the international forum, my predecessors and I have repeatedly proclaimed that there would be no end to the sad conflict in the Holy Land without stable guarantees for the rights of all the peoples involved, on the basis of international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions and declarations."]
Several people from the camp were interviewed by various TV crews as the Pope started driving away. Then most of the TV crews left after him.
The crowd started leaving slowly but there were still hundreds of people out on the Jerusalem-Hebron Road. As my friends and I stood out on the street trying to decide whether to go to Bethlehem for a bite to eat or stick around the camp, a scuffle started a few feet away. We got closer to see what was happening (it looked like a brawl between a policeman and a camp resident). Several people from the camp were trying to contain the incident, trying to get people to disperse. but then things got out of hand. An officer or a a policeman took off his belt and wanted to hit someone and that's when the crowd started getting restless.
Suddenly the crowd started running in our direction so my friends and I we started running too. We took shelter in a nearby shop right inside the entrance of the camp as stones started flying into the air. Then the crowd started moving back out on the main street. We followed to watch.
Unbelievable!!!! The police were throwing stones at the people and the people were throwing stones back. Everyone was shouting. It was so out of control. Tens and tens of policemen stood next to each other along the width of the street, wielding their batons in a face off with the crowd. The stones kept flying in the air. Some police officers at the scene were beating fellow policemen on their legs with their batons, trying to force them back. Similarly, many men from the camp where trying to get the crowd of people to move back. The effort to put an end of the stone throwing was being made by individuals on both sides.
But the stone throwing persisted. The stoning from the crowds would force the police to retreat down the street and then the stoning of the police would force the crowd to retreat inside the camp. This kept going on, back and forth. My friends and I were out on the street, in the middle of it all. We kept running back and forth on the main road, hiding whenever the stones flew overheard.....it was the Intifada revisited. But sad, so sad. The members of the police (mostly from Gaza) are sons of the Intifada, and so was the crowd from the camp. Fellow Palestinian against fellow Palestinian. So sad. Women came out of their houses and started urging the police to move back. And all along, there were individuals on both sides trying to calm the situation by trying, but not succeeding, in pulling people back.
We saw people and policemen bend over as they were hit by stones. some people were struck by police batons. We could see a group of anti-riot forces (with helmets and shields) start entering the camp. Dusk had already turned to dark. the shouts from the crowd inside the camp were getting louder and louder and more and more camp residents were turning up. The police were throwing stones at the houses adjacent to the entrance as well as hurling stones inside the camp.
Then suddenly, the crowd let out what sounded like a unanimous loud shout and came dashing out of the camp all at once. The police started running down the street and the crowd ran after them...and after them until they got to the eastern edge of the camp.
Even though the police station is up the hill adjacent to the camp, it took more than an hour and a half of riots before an order was finally issued to the police to withdraw. Why did it take this long, no one knows? But it seemed that if the police were pulled out right away, the riots would have ended much sooner.
After the police withdrew, the main Jerusalem-Hebron Road parallel to Dheisheh was packed with people. some residents from the nearby Aida and Azza refugee camps came to show solidarity with Dheisheh as well as some Ta'amreh villagers. The sound of machine gun fire filled the air. Shots were being fired in the air to celebrate the fact that the police had pulled back. Dance and song circles sprung up here and there. The atmosphere turned into one of celebration.
But then word spread that some people had been arrested and everyone started walking up the hill toward the police station. Stones were hurled at the station as un-identified individuals approached the police station from the back side and fired shots. We heard shots off and on and then the ambulances started going back and forth. No one was hit by bullet wounds (thank God) but all the injuries (57 altogether) were either from stones or police brutality. One 16 year old boy from the camp sustained a broken nose, a broken arm, a bruised eye and a cut in his leg. He said he was beaten up by 20 policemen, lost consciousness in the process and came to at the police station.
The police also raided the hospital were the injured were being treated and beat up more Dheisheh people there (including camp residents who work for various security forces).
Local activists from the camp (as well members of the different security forces who are also from the camp) quickly intervened to contain the incident. Their efforts were tremendous, believe me. Political activists over 40 years of age received blows with batons and stones as they tried to stop the riot. Everyone, from all the different political factions, intervened to bring the events to an end.
A meeting was held inside the camp and a follow-up committee was set-up to investigate (most of you received the press release issued by the follow-up committee yesterday). The press release holds the chief of police responsible because he issued orders to the police to storm the camp.
The traffic lights that were finally installed near our entrance a day before the Pope's visit were smashed during the riot and the main road looks like a battlefield. Stones cover the pavement and sidewalks.
This incident brings home, to each and everyone of us here, the importance of building a civil society in Palestine. Our policemen aren't Israelis, they aren't the occupation. Rather, they are our brothers, our sons, our husbands. They are, in short, our people. And it has to be different with them. Has to be. It is the only way we can survive as a society and the only way we can have a future. Because in the end, when Dheisheh came under attack, no one cared who the attack was carried out by. The entire camp, with ALL its different political factions, came out to defend itself.
The funny thing is that on the day of the Pope's arrival, ABC Nightly News got in touch saying that Peter Jennings will be in Dheisheh and wants to interview me. Having studied Radio and Television at college and having always wanted to work as a TV correspondent, Peter Jennings is one of those correspondents I had always, always wanted to meet. I did. He's a great interviewer, the sort who acts human and puts you at ease. But meeting him wasn't the highlight of my day. Nor, for that matter, was the long-awaited Pope's visit. Rather, the highlight was seeing fellow refugees in Dheisheh come together to fight back police brutality. They did it with incredible dignity and an unquestionable sense of pride.