Csíkszereda Musings

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

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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