23 May 2002 Edition

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Deported from Palestine: Mary Kelly's story

The reality behind the world's great historical events is not much like its painted picture. As the bulldozers and tanks rolled into Palestine, an army was deployed to deny a whole people their lives, their very right to exist.

The invasion of Palestine last week telescoped to the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In that church, which drew the world's media attention, were 150 people who by chance of the moment had run there for sanctuary, who were hungry, thirsty, afraid, and surviving. The Israelis waited on these frail people to come out.

Amongst them was Mary Kelly, a small, fragile, strangely determined, Irish woman who, again by chance of history, and a touch of iron in her soul, happened to be there.

"We walked up the main street, in the centre of the road, in the silence of a curfew, to Manger Square, as we had done several times before that week. We were carrying food and medication, not daring to look behind, afraid of the tanks that might come up behind us, or that soldiers above and around us might open up.

"We got up to the razor wire they'd placed round the church and climbed over it. Whilst some of us created a diversion, ten of us ran towards the door of the Church - The door of Humility - the low door where humans must bow down - and we were into the church.

"No one could ever forget the welcome. The 150 people who were besieged were overjoyed to see us. Separated from their families, some wounded, some already killed or wounded by the firing that went on into the compound. Our arrival was like a new lease of life to people who were under continuous attack for the 30 days they had been there.

"We slept on the floor, each to his or her own space. The church has no benches. There was a part with a little carpeting. We had a few blankets from the priests who had living quarters. The food we had brought did a soup for two days, carefully ladled out. Then it was soup, water and leaves. We had no other food.

"There was much to be done, caring for the wounded, cleaning, sweeping, dressing wounds. No painkillers. People sat, they talked, shared news, survived. Sometimes we could go out to the air in the courtyard. A Palestinian had been killed out in the yard, hanging up some washing. The Israelis had two huge cranes, which would lower cages down with snipers to fire on us.'

Mary tells her amazing story. She is a nurse and a human rights/peace activist. "I read about what was happening in Palestine on the internet, she said. "I saw reports of how the women could not get through the checkpoints to get across town to hospital to give birth. Women had given birth at checkpoints where soldiers would not allow them through. I saw an appeal from an international solidarity group to come and help. I answered it and went.

"The Israeli invasion happened two days after I arrived. There were about 90 of us, peace activists, human rights workers, observers, who had come - from all over the world, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, England the US. They were old and young, men and women, who'd come out of the Globalise Resistance movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement; one even had worked with the Peace People with Mairead Corrigan.

"We had a couple of days' training together as peace 'observers' and then a baptism of fire. We decided to hold a demonstration, a peace march, through the curfew, to visit a house that had been bombed. We were met by two tanks. A soldier opened fire on us. I thought they were firing in the air, until a man beside me fell wounded. Seven, including a press man, were wounded. We had to turn back.

"Some of us decided to go to Nablus, where, we had heard, the town had been bombed, the people curfewed and there were many injured. Five of us went. Our car was continually stopped at checkpoints - "No foreigners allowed in" - and turned back. We took to our feet, across the hills, following a goat path. That night we stayed in a village with a farmer and his extended family - a grandfather perhaps 70 years old, who told us his story.

"It was everyone's story. He had been arrested along with his son and had been detained for three days. He was tied up, beaten, blindfolded. His son was still imprisoned. He wanted to know where we were from. All of them knew about Ireland - from films like Michael Collins, Some Mother's Son, and In the Name of the Father.

"An extraordinary people. So immensely dignified, graceful so grateful to us, so attentive to our needs. Surviving in a world of systematic destruction of their livelihood; their crops bulldozed; olive groves levelled; the water system, the sewage system, their irrigation trashed; their houses destroyed or taken over and ransacked by occupying army, or purloined as sniping posts. They had surrounded the town, called over loudhailers for all men between 14 and 60 to come out. They had blindfolded them and taken them away to detention camps, interrogation centres, leaving the old, the children and women under curfew at the mercy of the invading army.

"The next day we walked into Nablus. Our little group of five were the first people into the town. We went to the Rafidia Hospital. They couldn't get the wounded to the hospital or get to the dead on the streets. Ambulances were shot at. I travelled in ambulances that had bullet holes. I stayed three weeks and worked with ambulance crews driving into the Kasbah to rescue the wounded.

"We organised a group of us and six medics to go out to the bombed area. We were stopped at a checkpoint, roughly, brutally they said we were not getting through and they would shoot us if we tried. They demanded we hand over the Palestinian medics who were with us. We refused. They called up reinforcements and started to beat us with boots and rifle butts. Some, especially the men, were fairly badly beaten. The soldiers got the Palestinian men away from us. They stripped them, made them kneel down in the position for execution. They said they would shoot us if we didn't hand up the women. We formed a circle round them and held on. We stayed put. They backed off and in the end decided to march us all back handcuffed into town, and as we marched some media people happened on the scene and the soldiers in their shame released us all. It was a victory that strengthened us all greatly.

"I went to Ramallah. The people were living in fear. A group of women, social workers, students, teachers, counsellors got together to go into the schools. I went with them. We'd work with a group of 30 or so little kids - to offer them ways to take out their anger and their fear - all through play and creative projects - painting murals, beautiful things, that they did not lose their sense of humanity. It was an extraordinary venture to let the kids survive and not let the horror of what they had seen and suffered take over their lives. Shades of Holy Cross. The Palestinians survive, whatever the cost, because they have no choice - they cannot, no matter the cost, be defeated."

Mary Kelly is an amazing woman and the story she tells is the story of our struggle, of what Bobby Sands spoke about in The Rhythm of Time. It is the story of all those strange courageous fragile people, with a touch of iron in the soul, who answered the international solidarity appeal for help, and gave it.

An Phoblacht
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