Excerpt from the book My Father Was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story
AUTHOR: Ramzy BAROUD رمزي بارود
Which Hand Do You Write With?
Schools in our refugee camp were closed for extended periods, as were schools throughout the Gaza Strip. On one such typical school-free morning, my brothers and I were sleeping late. My mother was ready to watch an early morning re-run of “MacGyver”, an American TV show that was aired on Jordanian television. Sometimes she asked me to read the subtitles, but on that morning, she was content to watch MacGyver without my commentary, as he turned negligible everyday items into impressive devises that bewildered his adversaries. My father was locating the channel as my mother went to prepare the morning tea.
Unexpectedly, I was awakened by a large boot pressing against my face. My older brothers were particularly bothersome, but stepping on my face while sleeping was even too cruel for them. I woke up to find a swarm of soldiers inside the house and standing over me. They pushed the main door open, walked in quietly, and found their way into the main bedroom where my brothers and I were sleeping. Anwar was a heavy sleeper, and only woke up after two soldiers began violently kicking him and his mattress.
My mother came running from the kitchen, thinking the chaos was the result of a morning scuffle between her five sons, only to find an Israeli army unit handcuffing her children and dragging them out into the street. The event was customary. Soldiers often stormed into people’s homes and broke the arms and legs of men and boys so as to send a stern message to the rest of the neighborhood that they would receive the same fate if they continued with their Intifada.
My father spoke good Hebrew, which he learned during his years of business dealings in Israel. My mother spoke none, but even if she did, she would not have been able to articulate one legible sentence. After a brief pause, she let out a howl, and cried out to one of them, “I beg you soldier. My sons were sleeping. They have done nothing wrong. I kiss your hand, don’t break their arms. I beg you, may Allah return you safe and sound to your family. How would your mother feel if someone came to break her children’s arms? Oh Allah, come to my rescue. My children are the only thing I have in this life. Oh Allah I was raised poor and orphaned, and I don’t deserve this.”
At first, the soldiers paid no heed to my mothers’ pleas, and merely responded with “shut up and go inside”, but her crying alerted the women in the neighborhood, who served as a first line of defense under such circumstances. Neighborhood women gathered outside their homes, screaming and shouting, as soldiers lined us against the wall and brought in their club. The custom was for the soldier to ask a person singled out for a beating, “Which hand do you write with?” before the club would break it, followed by the other arm, and then the legs.
When the soldier asked one of my brothers the same ominous question, my mother’s pleas turned into unintelligible cries as she dropped to the floor and held onto one of the soldier’s legs with a death grip. The soldier tried to free himself, as two others came to his rescue, pounding the frail woman over and over again in the chest with the butts of their machine guns, and as my father forced his body between the angry solider and the desperate mother.
Made more courageous by the violent scene, especially as my mother seemed to be drowning in the gush of blood flowing from her mouth, neighborhood women drew closer, throwing rocks and sand at the soldiers. What was meant as an orderly beating of several boys, turned into a chaotic scene where women braved guns and tear gas and verbal abuse by Israeli soldiers, who eventually retreated into their military vehicles and out of the area.
Thanks to my mother, our bones were left intact that day, but at a price. She was left bruised and bleeding. Her chest was battered and several ribs were broken. She was rushed to a local hospital and was incapacitated for days. Her health deteriorated to the bewilderment of Ahli hospital doctors who hoped for an eventual recovery. Days later, doctors discovered that my mother had multiple myeloma. Apparently she had been sick for some time, but her illness was exacerbated by the violent encounter, which made her prognosis bleak.
With this, she announced to the family that she wished to die at home, for there was nothing that under-equipped local hospitals could do to help. My father would not even entertain such a notion. But how do you treat a cancer patient, with broken ribs, without health insurance, with little money and in an area that is paralyzed by strikes, curfews and daily violence?
My father used what remained of the family savings to treat my mother’s aggressive illness. He hired a taxi that accompanied them to clinics, hospitals and pharmacies. On days when general strikes were announced, they had to walk, at times for hours. They were frequently absent, and when they returned, they were exhausted. My mother would throw herself on her bed, and my father would sit for prolonged periods dividing his time between coughing and crying.
But my mother got even weaker, and as time passed she was unable to move without suffering severe pain. My parents resolved that they could no longer leave us alone in our neighborhood, which had become a very dangerous area, thus we were dispatched to ‘safer’ places; the home of relatives, friends and, at one point, a little shack in the middle of an orchard, with no running water, no electricity and the constant fear of being discovered and maybe killed by Israeli soldiers.
My two older brothers were sent to stay at a friend’s house, near Gaza City, while I and my two younger brothers were left in the hut in the Gaza orchard. My mother was hospitalized in Gaza City, and my father divided his time between us and her. Whenever he arrived, carrying bags of bread, apples, bananas and water, we ran to greet him. His news was increasingly grim. “Your mother’s fate is in God’s hands,” was his oft-repeated medical assessment. Finally, he decided to take her to Egypt to be treated at the Palestine Hospital in Cairo. Zarefah resisted. She told him that she would rather die in her house in the refugee camp, but he maintained that there was still hope and that he would not give up until his last breath. They went to Egypt, along with my younger brothers. My older brothers and I were relocated to a small room atop the roof of a building in Deir al-Balah. We had no telephone, and soon ran out of money. Two months later, my parents returned.
The Car Downstairs
I was awakened by a friend who told me in a somber voice that my parents were home. He wanted to elaborate, but I gave him no chance, throwing the cover to the side and running to wave to them from the roof. My father was being embraced by neighbors, as he stood by a truck with an open flat-bed. Inside the truck was a coffin draped with a Palestinian flag. It was my mother. My father soon came upstairs. He hugged us and we all cried. He gave be a small plastic bag, filled with knickknacks that my mother had bought me in Egypt. “She sent you her love and many kisses,” my father said. I hid her gifts under my mattress, and joined the rest to the refugee camp to bury her.
Nuseirat was under a curfew, and the Israeli army agreed to allow her burial on the condition that only the immediate family was to be present under the monitoring of Israeli soldiers. We arrived at the graveyard, carrying the coffin and were soon joined by Mariam, Zarefah’s mother, who came running into the graveyard calling out her daughter’s name. We began digging, but neighbors peeking through their windows quickly concluded that Zarefah has died and was being buried. My mother was a beloved neighbor. She was particularly adored among the older women of the camp, whom Zarefah treated with untold kindness. “Allahu Akbar,” resonated a voice, coming from one of the refugee homes. “Um Anwar has died” cried another. Within minutes, shouts of “God is Great” echoed throughout the camp. People appeared from everywhere, carrying Palestinian flags; women, children, old men and women, and youth, all descending onto the graveyard. Refugees were outraged that the poor woman was to be buried based on military instruction, and was followed, even to her grave, under the watchful eyes of the occupiers, their guns, tanks and a hovering army helicopter. Youth began throwing stones, and soldiers responded with bullets and teargas. But the people were not to disperse easily this time. Thousands of them ensured that Zarefah would depart the earth and enter Paradise in the company of friends, treated as a martyr should be treated. As an ambulance hauled some of the wounded to the local clinic, Zarefah was lowered in the ground amidst chants and Quranic verses, recited en mass. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar” were intermingled with the whimpers and prayers of the crowd, the sound bombs, the teargas, and the hovering helicopter. My mother was 42-years-old when she died.
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