A night among the refugees

Life in the embattled refugee camp of Jenin is one of fear and conflicting stories.

By Ferry Biedermann
Published April 15, 2002 4:35PM (EDT)

Spending just one night in this city under curfew, as a Western journalist with the freedom to eventually leave, gives at least a sense of what it's like to feel under siege. It's to live in a city patrolled by tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs), which lumber through the streets and fire gun blasts as tens of thousands of people remain confined to their homes without electricity, water or phone service, or much food or medicine.

In Jenin, most people have been subjected to this way of life for more than 10 days, and especially traumatized are the survivors of the assault on the Jenin refugee camp.

It is still unclear what exactly happened during the assault on the Palestinian fighters in the refugee camp. There are widely conflicting stories about the number killed and the manner in which they died. There have been allegations of a massacre that have been strenuously denied by the Israeli army. It is known that 23 Israeli soldiers died during the fighting, but on Monday, the Israeli army itself claimed that reports of hundreds of Palestinian deaths were wrong, and that they had only verified 45 dead.

Whatever the numbers turn out to be, the Israeli assault will have created a whole new generation of fighters for the Palestinian cause. Newly battle-scarred children still cower in the town of Jenin, while the Israelis maintain their tight grip over the city.

"Don't run, they may shoot, just walk," says Jabr on Saturday, a volunteer at the Jenin Charitable Center where some 800 refugees have found shelter. He moves into a near-slapstick speed-walking mode to get away from two Israeli APCs and a tank that have come out of nowhere and are rumbling toward us. The people who felt a certain measure of safety in the streets around the center scramble to get inside the building. A fellow reporter gets trapped in a garage across the street with a terrified young Palestinian boy, Addas. The Israelis stop right next to the center and fire off a few rounds with their machine guns, at no particular targets.

Inside the center, Dr. Jamil Al-Hamad of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees desperately tries to cope with the influx of refugees, and speculates that the Israelis decided to put a stop to the traffic to and from the building. "Many people in town hear that we have some food and medicine, so the ones who dare, brave the curfew to come and get some supplies." The center has so far received two shipments of food, bottled water and drugs from the outside.

In his small office, with a variety of drugs set out on one table, Al-Hamad serves as doctor, administrator and sympathetic ear for the distraught refugees. Apart from some over-the-counter painkillers, he mostly hands out blankets, one to place on the floor and sleep on and one to use as a cover. "The biggest problem we face, though, is water. It just means the hygiene situation is getting very bad," he said. "Yesterday we received some cases of bottled water and instead of drinking it, some people used it to wash."

Outside, as the sun sets, the Israelis occasionally move positions and let off some more gunfire. The refugees, mostly women, children and old men, get audibly upset at every volley; some people dive to the ground and others wail and curse. Says Al-Hamad: "The people here are not only tired, hungry and thirsty, most have also lost everything and they are traumatized by the things they have seen. We cannot really provide all the care here, and now there's shooting again outside, which doesn't help."

At dusk, the Israelis finally rev their engine one last time, fire a few parting shots and drive off. Anybody who doesn't spend the night at the center hastens home. The electricity is still off over the weekend, and there's not a speck of light to be seen in the entire town, apart from the eerie flashing red glow of some emergency vehicles. My colleague emerges from the garage where he's been hiding for almost two hours. Addas, the little boy who was with him, wet his pants from fear when an APC parked particularly close by.

As night falls, a group of men say their prayers in a hallway on one of the upper floors and volunteers start cooking simple meals for the whole building on two gas burners in an improvised kitchen. The food is relatively plentiful. There are some potatoes, eggplants, hummus, pita bread, olives and cans of tuna. Many people are too exhausted to wait for the meal and just curl up on their blanket wherever they can find a spot in one of the hallways. Many rooms are filled to capacity, some 25 people, often from the same family, sleeping close together. The corridors and some rooms are faintly lit by shimmering candlelight.

A family of some 30 people, all women and children, has bedded down in the central hall. "We are alive, thanks to God, but we lost everything and we are very worried about our men," says Intissar Abu Johar, who escaped from the refugee camp on Thursday. Despite the difficult circumstances in the center, it is a huge improvement over how the family spent the previous days.

"When we walked out of the camp we were stopped by a group of soldiers near the old government building in town. We all had to spend the night out there in the open," tells Abu Johar. She thinks the family's house in the camp may still be standing but it was completely ransacked. "The soldiers came in on the second day of the fighting and forced all of us into one room while they took over the house. They came with dogs and we heard them move around. When we left we saw that they had used the sofas as a bed for the dogs."

In one of the rooms, an 8-year-old boy shouts with a show of bravado: "I don't want to stay here, I want to go home." Home is dangerous; that is why they had to leave, his mother tells him. "I am not afraid, I will fight the Jews." The adults laugh, telling him to first get some sleep and grow strong.

Sunday morning, the army has a surprise: The curfew is being lifted for a couple of hours to allow people to do some shopping and stock up on food. But the streets are still deserted an hour after the announcement, because no one has been notified in advance and most people do not have access to radio or TV because the power was cut. Slowly the town comes to life as people gingerly lean out their windows and ask passersby if the curfew has really been lifted.

The center of town bears the scars of some heavy fighting, the roads and pavements churned up by tank tracks, cars and dumpsters flattened, windows shattered and walls penetrated by heavy-caliber machine gun bullets. Several buildings have been reduced to rubble. "Over there, that was a pharmacy," somebody points to a collapsed building on the edge of the old town, "and that was a bakery, for pita bread."

The Israeli army has laid a cordon around the refugee camp, where the curfew has not been lifted. A young woman who lives just outside the camp wants to go out to do some shopping just as an Israeli APC pulls into her street. The soldiers who jump out of the back point their guns at her. "Go back into the house," one of them summons her several times, "go back inside or I swear I'll shoot." Another soldier, on the other side of the road, shouts a warning: "Are you crazy, don't argue with her, don't let her get near you, maybe she has a bomb on her and we'll all be blown up."

The soldiers seem genuinely scared of the civilians, a result possibly of the heavy fighting for the camp. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters that the defenders had used every means at their disposal to kill soldiers: "Palestinians who raised their hands to surrender while wearing explosive belts in an attempt to detonate themselves among our soldiers." To explain the destruction in the camp, he said that many buildings were demolished because the Palestinians had wired them with explosives. "There wasn't a house that wasn't booby-trapped," Peres said, "and there was no way to neutralize the danger without demolishing the structure."

The refugees from the camp at the Charitable Center all have stories of the horrors of the fighting. Most of the adults say they saw one or two people being killed or lying dead in the street. None of the people who tell their stories say they themselves saw any massacres being perpetrated. One man tells of an army bulldozer pausing to let 70 people out of the basement of a building it was demolishing. Some people, though, have stories of what they say were random killings of single civilians, and one man tells of many more being buried under the rubble.

"In front of my eyes, I saw the building collapse on my wife's family, the Al-Fayeds, all 67 of them," one man says. "The house was first hit by a tank grenade and then by a missile that brought it down, right on top of the basement where they were hiding." There is no way yet to confirm the story or to ascertain the people were still in the cellar when the building came down or if the family was able to get out afterward. But there are rumors of people trapped under the rubble, using their cellphones to call for help.

Diab Abu Hassani, a coffee vendor in his 60s who has escaped from the camp, relates a harrowing experience he has also repeated to other reporters. He managed to escape from a house that was to be bulldozed, but his neighbor's son was not so lucky. "She was out of the basement and asked the soldier to stop the bulldozer because her son was still inside. She asked me to talk to the soldiers, but why would he listen to me if he didn't listen to her?" The bulldozer leveled the house, he says, entombing the neighbor's son who was deaf and had trouble moving, and was unable to leave.

"The new generation will fight the Israelis hard," says Abu Hassani. "They have a lot of hatred in their hearts now." The Israelis arrested his son on the second day of fighting in the camp, but his two daughters are still with him. He does not know what to do next. "I lost everything I built up over the last 50 years, like most people in the camp. I already lost everything once, when my family was expelled from Haifa in 1948. How can we start over again?"

Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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