Jerusalem – Nestled in the rolling hills and mountains in Northern Israel/Palestine are numerous small Arab villages scattered among the olive trees and agricultural fields. Spring red poppies and wild flowers are in full bloom tucked among various breeds of tall grasses. When you enter into the Jenin area, solitude and peace seems to permeate the atmosphere. Men and women sit outside drinking their coffee and visiting with their neighbors on a cool spring day while children play football in the streets. However, something seems strange, it seems to be too quiet for a village that is populated with families. I look around and notice that the only cars I see in the streets are those marked with the famous “T.V” tape plastered all over the windows and sides. The residents seem to speak in low hushed voices with a since that someone is watching them. As I look across the rolling hills onto the city of Jenin from one village, everything on the outside seems normal and serene.
On the 15th of April, before the exit of the IDF from the city, I went into Jenin with a foreign camera news crew. We put on our flank jackets and gathered our equipment to sneak down into the valley and up across that beautiful rolling hill full of olive trees and tall grass. If things were different, it would have been a wonderful country hike on a lazy Sunday. Instead, we searched for the locations of tanks and Israeli snipers as we entered into the valley. We spoke in low hushed voices while searching the horizon during the entire trek. The flowers were beautiful, pinks, reds, yellows and whites glistening against the deep blue sky. Tall green grass waved in the gentle wind as if saying hello. I was glad for the trees and grass in hopes that the snipers would not see us so well. At one point, a crewmember spotted a soldier and started running while quietly saying, “Yella, run as fast as you can up towards that hill.” His eyes were full of fear it was almost as though I could smell that fear. There was nothing that we could do but run, so we ran and ran and ran. I am sure that many of us started to pray as we ran that all of us would remain alive and unhurt. We finally reached to the top of the hill looking at each other making sure that everyone was there, out of breath and alive. A vehicle met us at that point to take us across another valley and into another village.
We passed the village and the men told us that they dared not go any further then gave us directions into Jenin Camp. Our minds were on what would we find there, were the stories that we have been hearing all true? We passed through a field and tank with its barrels pointing at us the entire distance and enter into Jenin. Once again we counted our steps towards the city full of fear not knowing what type of person was behind the gun. Once we crossed the threshold into the city, I had a mixed feeling of relief that we made it this far and continuous fear as to what may lay ahead.
What I saw at the beginning of our walk was similar to any other destruction that I had seen in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus. Houses were riddled with bullets and shattered windows some homes along the narrow street were without a front or a side with the remains dangling in the air by a thread of steel. The camp was very quiet and a few residents ventured outside at our approach. The Palestinians in Jenin have learned to watch and know who or what was coming into their area, they knew that we were there and who we were.
As we moved deeper towards the center of the camp the destruction was getting worse, this time the signatures of destruction came from tank shells and apache helicopter missiles. You can tell when an apache missile was used by the typical utter devastation on the inside of a home with an entrance and exit hole in the building that was the target. We smelled the smell of fire while our eyes were continually on the search for Israeli soldiers. A few of the residents decided to risk stepping outside to burn their trash in the middle of the narrow streets. Jenin residents continued to point us towards the center of the camp, they wanted us to “Tell the World” what has happened to their city.
Around every corner, the view would change dramatically increasing with the intensity of destruction. At one point there was a tank, so we sat down and waited for it to leave the area. Finally, we turned the last corner into the center of the camp and for the first time in my life, I did not have words to describe what I saw. It was obvious that F-16 bombs plunged and exploded dead into the center of the camp. There were meters and meters of cement rubble, twisted steel, scattered clothes, shoes and unidentified objects. The destruction created a field of white and brown mingled with reds and yellows for the debris that was scattered. The sight reminded me of an earthquake it was/is utter devastation. The entire infrastructure is gone and 54 years of building a community is once again at its starting point. But this time it is much worse, there is the pain, the lack of trust and hope to those who live in the camp because of the oppression that they have continually been living under. This is the third generation of refugees to have been displaced and to rebuild, while the life inside is taken from them. The Palestinian children of today see Israel as their utter enemy. How could a child see it any differently that that when their eyes has seen the torments of their family and harassment from the Israeli solders while their bellies cry for food?
When I entered, a woman was crying while being comforted from her friends they all bore tears in their eyes, her hand was upon her heart in attempt to pull the pain out of her and then she held her arms up high towards the sky as if in disbelief. Her husband was not far away appearing restless, he would sit on the rubble then stand up and take a few steps and bend over and pick something up then throw it back on the ground and wave his arms in the air. This was the place where his home was and underneath was the place where their two children were caught, buried and left underneath meters of rubble. Somewhere under the powered cement and twisted steel were their children. No one could remove the cement with their own hands to dig and find their loved ones; this is a job for bulldozers and trained earthquake personnel.
I stumbled over the debris in a complete daze. A few of the residents who came outside for the first time in 14 days walked alone through the rubble absorbing the result of the latest occupation into their city. Children would walk around looking for lost treasures among the debris. Family members who found each other cried with both joy and sorrow. The city was silent and there was not any sound of laughter on this day.
I noticed charred bodies lying inside of their homes that surrounded the central point of the destruction. The bodies were burned due to the F-16 aftershock of heat that rolled into their homes. I stood on top of the rubble the devastation was as far as my eye could see and I felt a twinge of real pain deep inside of my heart for the pieces that would need to be picked up; both on the outside and the inside of the hearts of the residents. It was time to go, we could not stay long because we started to hear random shooting in our area and we didn’t want to have to spend the night.
We started our journey back to where it began, facing tanks and waiting for their maneuverings. While we waited, a family offered us tea and cigarettes. Imagine, a family without anything left of what they had welcomed us with open arms and giving us what little they had. The tank backed up a bit so we decided to venture through the field. None of us had a white flag, but we went out into the open field anyways. I think we were numb from what we saw and the reality of it had not sunk into our minds. The tanks barrel followed us once again as we walked across the open field in total and utter silence. There was nothing that we could say and nothing that we could do, but to go out there and try to tell the world. I see the analogy of the intense destruction similar to the cries and destruction of the hearts of those who reside in Jenin camp.
Susan Brannon (a.k.a Amanda White) is an American Freelance Photojournalist and MMN’s correspondent in Jerusalem.