25 April 2002 Edition
Besieged but defiant
An exclusive interview from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
BY SILVIO CERULLI
When I met him three months ago, Salah Ajarma was setting up a community centre to keep the children away from tanks and missiles in his refugee camp, Aida. "It's our duty to build hope, dreams and a future for them," he explained.
Now Salah won't see 'his' children again. On the first of April, two days into the latest Israeli aggression of the West Bank cities, with some of his friends he survived Israeli Army artillery and found shelter in the Church of the Nativity in the heart of Bethlehem. I have been speaking with him by mobile phone.
"There's about two hundred of us, 40 Franciscan monks and some families with their children," he said. "Israeli fire burst the water pipes and drained the wells. We shared the poor food the monks had in the convent and until a few days ago we ate half a cup of rice each. Now it's more than a week without any food at all, for all of us. The IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) don't allow in water, food or medical supplies but we are all fine anyway, the spirit is high. We know that in three or four days some of us will start to die, one by one. And the army outside know that too. Yet they still attack us with machine gun fire, tossing stun grenades, using snipers, even if time is on their side."
A huge crane outside holds a box full of speakers bombarding the town with noises from a horror film: scratching sounds, women screaming, dogs barking. Sometimes the other churches ring their bells to try to cover the white noise bombardment.
In the holiest place for Christianity, where Jesus is believed to have been born, more than 250 people will soon die, either by a bullet or through starvation. I have spoken to Salah over the last few days and each time his voice appears more tired, words come out painfully. Breathing heavily, Salah continues: "Last week Sharon offered us the choice between a permanent exile away from Palestine and being prosecuted by an Israeli court. In other words, he asked us to surrender in two different ways. We will not. He can 'transfer' us to another country but we will be back; he can kill us here and someone else will take our place in the next church. We have been here for 21 days, now we are approaching the point of no return. No one can do anything for us."
For how long will you still be able to resist, in terms of defence and lack of food and water? "It has been raining heavily, we have managed to save some water, but the children need milk and bread and some of the elderly are getting ill. We have four people injured by IDF gunfire, the last one early this morning, and their condition is deteriorating. Yet, we are lucky to be still here, I mean alive, when so many of our children and women and comrades are being killed every day in Palestine."
Salah's voice weakens again: "I think they want to exile us, push all the Palestinians out of our land; those who refuse, like in Jenin or Nablus, will be shot. I don't feel sad because I'm here and the Israelis are firing at us, but you know how many friends I had in Hebron, Jenin, Gaza, Ramallah and I can't find any of them. They are all dead. My brothers are dead, my country is dying and it's everyone's duty to stop the ethnic cleansing."
Only two hours after our conversation, the Church of the Nativity came under renewed fire by the Israelis. By now, with the exception of Arafat's compound in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the IDF has 'pulled out' of the occupied cities. But it is only a smokescreen, the tanks and artillery are now outside Jenin, Nablus and the West Bank, besieging the towns. The occupation continues.
"In both cases," says Salah, "there is strong evidence that the Israelis may be preparing to remove the source of the problem, in their own way. Who will be surprised if they attack even Arafat or this holy place? We don't know how many Jenins Sharon is prepared to plunder to see the Palestinians out of this land once and for all. We are the hostages, the Middle East is his hostage, the UN and the Americans are his hostages. He can act above the law and kill as many as he wishes."
After the last bombardment, those in the church are holed up in the darkness: soon mobile phone batteries will be gone and they'll have no more contacts with the world outside. Like a soldier leaving for battle, Salah wants to thank everyone for their support. "We are not fighting alone here. Whoever believes in freedom is fighting with the Palestinian people."
I don't know if I will ever hear Salah's calm and tired voice again. I think of 'his' children in the Bethlehem rain, trying to save something from the ruins of his centre, now partially destroyed by the tanks. The Israelis are still firing into the church. Inside the building, which symbolises the joy of birth and life, death is waiting.
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