Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Archive for March, 2003

The Mood of a Town

Posted by Andy Hockley on 8 March, 2003

It is sometimes said that cities have personalities. New York is brash and arrogant, Paris elegant and snobbish. It’s much less common that a mood or a feeling is ascribed to an entire town, but then it is rare that all the inhabitants of an entire town have the same feelings, simultaneously.

On the afternoon of March 5th a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up on a crowded bus in Haifa, killing himself and 15 Israeli civilians, many of them children, and injuring many others. When news of this terrible event came through I was in Hebron. As word filtered into the town, the atmosphere changed. From being just an average day in a war-zone, people trying to go about their lives despite the closures and the barricades and the soldiers, a cloud descended, a cloud of tension and of fear. Like the child of an abusive alcoholic father, who knows his dad will be home soon, drunk and angry. He hopes to lie low and remain unnoticed, torn between a desire to protect his siblings and a guilty hope that it will be one of them that is singled out for tonight’s beating.

As evening fell, still no group had claimed responsibility for the attack, and there was still no information on the identity of the terrorist. The city fell into a fitful and anxious sleep waiting for word to come.

In the morning, we woke to the news that the bomber was from Hebron itself. The mood changed again, not as dramatically as the previous day, but equally tangible. From a feeling of tension, the air was filled with deep foreboding, a black anticipation. We left our hosts’ house and travelled downhill toward the city centre in a taxi, the driver untypically subdued, his radio playing the news rather than music.

A crowd had gathered on one street we passed along, a large group of men milling around and blocking the way. We inched through the sea of gaunt faces, as our driver told us that this was the house of the bomber’s family. Contrary to popular myth this was no crowd exalting the memory of a new “martyr”, no Hamas delegation to thank the family for giving up their son – and, by association and in the near future, their house, their possessions, their freedom. At least in this particular snapshot moment, it was plain to see that this was nothing but mourning and grief. No doubt a scene not greatly different was being played out in 15 different homes in Haifa that same morning.

As we left Hebron the mood of the city was still dark. The storm clouds of revenge were gathering over the city, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

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The Old City

Posted by Andy Hockley on 8 March, 2003

Walking into the old city of Hebron is like walking into some strange twilight world. There is the “new centre” – bustling market areas, all effectively evicted from their traditional spots, surrounded by chaotic honking traffic, daily redirected and forced into ever tighter corridors, as concrete blocks are placed across roads and tarmac is ripped up. Then there is the traditional centre, the heart of the old city, now effectively shut down by the Israeli troops.

From the former area, Susie and I suddenly found ourselves alone on the street, a surprising and eerie hush after the cacophony of before. A few people wander here, but it is very few, and as we walked further down the road, even those few dwindled away. We turned a corner and found ourselves confronted with a sandbagged and barbed wire encrusted barricade, about 50 metres away and not on our intended route. We continued walking, and began to turn down another street when a shout came from the barricade. Out stepped an odd looking figure. A man, we assumed, wearing a helmet, and so much body armour as to make him appear like some military version of the Michelin man. He was carrying the kind of large super-gun that I had only previously seen in Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and which, up until that point, I hadn’t been aware really existed. He stood behind the fence and shouted again – “asking” us to come over to the checkpoint. As we approached it became apparent that the figure buried under all that padding was in fact a bespectacled teenager who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a high-school chess team. Relatively relaxed with these two unthreatening foreigners, he merely checked our passports, asked us where we were going, and allowed us on our way.

Checkpoint
Checkpoint

As we walked from the barricade, a young Palestinian man appeared in front of us. This time the shout from behind us was much louder, much more aggressive, and much more fear driven. We froze. The shouts came again, louder and more urgently. Then we realised that the man before us was more than just confused. He had a blank open-mouthed look and an apparent imperviousness to the shouts of the soldier. It was clear to us that he was mentally retarded, lost, completely ignorant of the danger he was in. Blissfully unaware of the ugly and deadly war around him. We turned to tell the soldier just as he began his shouts again. Even more aggressive and fearful, and this time accompanied by the loud and terrifying cocking of his gun. Terrifying to me that is, whereas I doubt it even registered on the man it was supposed to terrify.

The soldier had ventured away from his guard post and stood maybe 20 metres behind us. Another soldier stood at the fence, providing cover. We called to him, telling him that the man had no idea what was going on or what was happening, and passed on our on the spot psychological diagnosis. The tension was palpable on the soldier’s face. It suddenly occurred to me that my wife and I were standing directly between a scared teenager holding a high powered weapon and a man who in his eyes was very possibly a violent and unpredictable terrorist. It wasn’t the most comfortable feeling. Everything seemed to stand still for a long drawn out moment, until, to everyone’s relief, the Palestinian, maybe having a brief flicker of insight into his unwelcomeness in that place, turned and ambled off down the street. The soldier began walking backwards towards his post, his eyes not leaving the slowly departing man. I let out a long breath of relief, and only then realised that it had been a few minutes since I had last done so. Finally, we too, turned, and ambled, with tense and affected nonchalance down the same street that the Arab had gone. Some young boys had obviously heard the shouts and had emerged from somewhere to gently usher the man away to a safer part of town. Susie and I turned the other way and headed deep into the old city, past the empty houses, boarded up shops and rolls of barbed wire.

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CPT

Posted by Andy Hockley on 6 March, 2003

In a small, rudimentary apartment up a flight of steps located between a fence and a roll of barbed wire in the heart of Hebron’s old city, live a small group of people who work for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a Mennonite organisation based in Chicago. Recognisable by their red caps and armbands, they daily brave the guns of the Israeli soldiers and the spitting and rock throwing of the Israeli settlers in the town as they go about the business of observing, documenting, and, as much as possible, stopping violence and illegal acts.

Every day Chris, a US Citizen born in South Africa, and full time CPT member, gets up early to lead a team of volunteers on school patrol, chaperoning the Palestinian kids who still live in the old city, through the checkpoints to their school. Frequently they are stopped by the soldiers and informed that they cannot pass. Chris talks to the soldiers and as gently as possible informs the soldiers that stopping kids from attending school is in violation of the Geneva Convention, and that they need to pass. Nearly always they do. If he were not there, it is possible that the kids would rarely get to school without being turned back by the soldiers or the gun-toting settler militias. Only by being there to observe and where necessary force the issue does CPT ensure that a semblance of adherence to international law takes place.

Susie and I walked with Art, a retired widower from Toronto, along the road reserved for the illegal settlers. Occasionally on this road CPT members are spat at or have rocks thrown at them by the settlers. This time, aside from a few hostile glances, we were not troubled. We walked along the road for about a quarter of a mile, passing a temporary military base stocked with armoured personnel carriers, numerous checkpoints, and sandbagged observation posts manned by nervous looking Israeli teenage soldiers weighed down by their bulletproof uniforms and unwieldy weaponry. We also passed a monument at a road junction, a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler who, in 1994, walked into the Ibrahimi mosque and opened fire at the backs of the praying muslims, killing 29.

We arrived at the entrance to the very same mosque that Goldstein had turned into a slaughterhouse, the resting place of Abraham, the father of all three major religions founded in this region. On a platform housing four unused and seemingly brand new airport-style metal detectors, lounged a group of about 5 very bored looking Israeli soldiers. Their spokesman informed us that the mosque was closed. We asked why it was closed, and learned that it was part of the curfew imposed on the city. The day before our visit, the curfew had been relaxed for the first time in 110 days, but today it was back on. No-one really knew why, and no-one responsible for imposing it felt it necessary to explain. We were invited instead to visit the synagogue in the other half of the same building. We pointed out the absurdity of the fact that the mosque was closed because of the curfew, but that the synagogue wasn’t, and were told that the curfew was for Muslims.

The illogic and inequality of it all was not lost on the soldiers – at least the ones who talked to us. Their captain, a very personable Ethiopian Israeli, eventually showed up to participate in what was possible the only action his unit had seen all day – talking to us. Like the others, he was prepared to talk, joke, and privately admit the ridiculousness of the situation. Of the fact that Hebron has a battalion of over 2000 Israeli soldiers to protect approximately 300 illegal Jewish settlers. That it needs a buffer zone between the settler community and the Palestinian residents of the city, a buffer zone that takes in the heart of the old city, an area which is now a permanent twilight zone of boarded up shops and abandoned apartments, their owners evicted without compensation. However, when pressed, they all, without exception, resort to the time-honoured “just following orders” reasoning.

Later that afternoon, from the CPT rooftop in this once thriving and vital old city, we heard gunfire coming from the direction of the mosque where we had been earlier. Two percussion grenades rocked the quiet and were followed by four or five rounds of high velocity rifle fire. The Palestinians that remain in the area, desperately hanging on through the abuse and difficulty of living there under virtual permanent curfew, emerged onto their roofs and, like us, looked nervously in the direction of the reports. As abruptly as it had started, the shooting stopped. We learned later that they had apparently spotted a “suspicious bag” and were shooting at it in order to verify that it wasn’t a bomb. Judging by the level of inactivity and boredom I had seen earlier, it must have made their day.

It was time for us to move on, but CPT members will stay there until such time as they are evicted too, and even then will move to the closest place they can get in order to stop or limit the abuses here. The thinking in Hebron is that Sharon will wait until the US war on Iraq starts and then use the distraction to “deal with” Hebron – and that doesn’t involve removing the few illegal settlers who are responsible for the problem. Chris, the school patrol leader, grew up under apartheid in South Africa. He saw his brother killed by the police on the street in front of him when he was just 11. He saw his father tortured by the security services. He himself was arrested and held without trial for a year and half simply for being out after a curfew that he didn’t know had been called. In his opinion, the situation in the West Bank is four times worse for the Palestinians than the situation that he and the rest of majority black South Africa endured under apartheid. And of all the places in the West Bank, it is Hebron that is the most clearly the front line of this new apartheid.

(published in the Brattleboro Reformer as Eyewitness Hebron)

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