Monday, June 07, 2010

An Eye for an Eye

One week ago a young American woman, Emily Henochowicz, lost an eye while bearing witness to a clash between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers at Qalandia checkpoint on the border of Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank. She was attending a demonstration with the International Solidarity Movement in response to the murder of activists in international waters off the coast of Gaza by Israeli commandos.

The Israeli military did not comment on the incident. The United States government registered no formal protest. The major media outlets in the United States made no mention of the attack. Reporters walking the Gulf Coast beaches pointing out tar balls in the sand along with the IDF supplied video and talking points of their commando attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla dominated the 24-hour news cycle.

If the media thought the story was worth reporting, they undoubtedly would have talked about a tragic accident. But it wasn’t.

It was another deliberate attack on an unarmed peace activist by the Israeli military. In and of itself this incident, an American student maimed by our main Middle East ally seems newsworthy. (Imagine for a minute that Hamas, Hizbullah, or Iran had maimed an American- the threats and condemnations would have been fierce and immediate.) Coming within 24 hours of the Freedom Flotilla attack it certainly should have been considered newsworthy. But it wasn’t.

If the Israeli military commented, they most certainly would have expressed regret, but surely, soldiers are allowed to protect themselves from terrorists throwing stones. Put yourself in their place- a mob with weapons (certainly any sensible person would agree that a teenager with a stone is a deadly threat) descending upon the checkpoint need to be subdued. Unfortunately for Emily she found herself amidst the mob. But she wasn’t.

When it was revealed that Emily was standing on the opposite side of the street 20 meters or more away from the stone throwers, certainly the military would amend their statement. An un-named soldier would comment that Emily had stones in her hand or maybe it was a metal pole or maybe it was a knife. But she didn’t.

An IDF spokesperson would step forward and with innuendo and slander imply there were connections to Al-Qaeda or Hamas or maybe just some shadowy “terrorists”. But there isn’t.

ISM witnesses’ state about 100 Palestinian and International activists had gathered at the checkpoint to demonstrate when Palestinian youth clashed with the security forces. As the clash began, the international activists retreated and were on the opposite side of the road from the youth. Emily was hit in the face with a teargas canister fired directly at her by a soldier at the checkpoint. He was no further than 15 meters from Emily. A Swedish international standing alongside Emily claims the soldier fired 3 teargas canisters in rapid succession directly at them. The third one hit Emily in the face.

If the truth were revealed, the American media would certainly decry the unfortunate accident. Certainly a member of the Israeli security forces would never shoot an unarmed, non-violent demonstrator, apologizing for the soldier’s poor aim. After all, everyone knows the Israeli military is the most moral army in the world. But this is a lie.

This has always been a lie.

The Israeli military systematically targets non-violent, peaceful demonstrators in the West Bank with impunity. The army always investigates its self and never finds any wrongdoing. America, Israel’s main benefactor, arms supplier, and collaborator, turns a blind eye- even failing to protect it’s own citizens from deliberate, malicious harm.

Emily joins a long list of peace activists who confront the Israeli military and pay dearly for it. In May, Hasen Brejieyah from the West Bank village of Al Ma’asara suffered a serious head injury when he was shot with a teargas canister. In Bi’lin the month before, an Israeli protester, Emad Rezqa was hit in the forehead by an aluminum teargas canister shot directly at him by Israeli soldiers during the weekly anti-Wall demonstration in Bi’lin. He suffered a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage. One year earlier Basem Abu Rahma a Palestinian from Bi’lin was killed when he was targeted and hit in the chest with a teargas canister. Tristan Anderson, another American national, was critically injured in March 2009 when he was shot with a high velocity teargas projectile during a non-violent demonstration against the Wall in the West Bank village of Ni’lin. He is still hospitalized, recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

If the American media got wind of these facts they would certainly ask how so many peaceful demonstrators manage to jump in front of high velocity teargas canisters. They would go on to debate the morality of killing and maiming with teargas canisters as opposed to live bullets. There will be no mention of the indecency, the depravity, the cowardice of the soldiers who target non-violent demonstrators with lethal force.

Emily is a talented visual artist. Her last Facebook entry was dated May 31st and says, “Gaza on my mind”. You can access her blog and see her beautiful drawings. I scrolled through the comments- there was an outpouring of love and gratitude expressed by many who appreciated her work, not only on the page but also in the West Bank. In addition, i was not surprised to see the derisive comments spewed at her by the ignorant and the hateful. This is common ground for those who speak out against apartheid in Palestine.

Many people understand the concepts of the Israeli matrix of control and the establishment of facts on the ground that destroys any possibilities of a free Palestinian state. Emily, along with other dedicated, loving, and fearless activists, including untold numbers of Israelis, expresses a different kind of facts on the ground. These facts will be ignored, derided or denied by our media for as long as possible. Those who blindly support Israel will blather on about anti-Semitism and self-hating Jews, terrorists and existential threats. Our government, complicit in the crimes, will remain mute.

But these facts remain:

That loving people are willing to bear witness to injustice and will risk injury and death to right it.

That people realize that what happened to Emily is but a reflection of the collective punishment meted out to Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government and their US sponsors on a daily basis and are willing to take a non-violent stand to oppose it.

This act of resistance is both noble and beautiful. Though Emily would deny it, her act and the acts of innumerable Palestinians who non-violently confront the occupation each and every day give us a glimpse of the heroic. The artist lives her art, and in doing so opens our eyes and our hearts.

The fact of the matter is the only moral army in the world is the army of non-violent activists who give themselves for the freedom of others.

The fact of the matter is Emily lost an eye, but she has not lost sight of the truth.

Friday, May 28, 2010

I am a patriot

Today I’ll skip the parades, the empty words, the promises and the praise.

You’ll find me in the nursery rocking newborns, whispering in their ears. They’ll know the story from the start. I’ll be the one with the flag.

I’ll thank their mothers; bless their hearts, raising sons and daughters for the businessmen’s next slaughter. I’ll be the one with the flag.

You’ll find me at the churches, the synagogues, and the mosques where the words of Jesus, the prophets and all the saints have been twisted and manipulated to justify war. I’ll be the one with the flag.

You’ll find me in our schools where children learn our history. Preparing them to lay down their lives for a lie. I’ll be the one with the flag.

You’ll find me in our great halls with the men who profit from our soldiers lives. They honor your service with platitudes. The dollars they make fills them with gratitude. I’ll be the one with the flag.

You’ll find me in ivory towers, talking about honor, duty, and service as more young men become cannon fodder. I’ll be the one with the flag.

I’ll raise a glass with the Hollywood pimps who prostitute a young man’s pride. You’ll never hear them speak of suicide. I’ll be the one with the flag.

You’ll find me with the advertisers. “Turning boys into men”, “An army of one”, “A force for good”, “The few, the proud”, those men know how to tell a lie. They never talk about those who die. (But the last thing you’ll ever see on Madison Avenue is a man “who hears the call”). I’ll be the one with the flag.

You’ll find me in the VA hospitals filled with broken bones and shattered lives. I’ll be the one with the flag.

You’ll find me in the nursing home with the men from wars past. They’ll repeat the lies they use to justify. But when they fall into their restless sleep they hear the screams. I’ll be the one with the flag.

I’ll be in the homeless shelters, with all our dear vets. Returning to America, they still haven’t found a way home. I’ll be the one with the flag.

Our country is born in blood and until this day we haven’t learned. No, freedom isn’t free, I believe this to my core. Freedom isn’t free as long as we believe in war.

You’ll find me with the 50 vets who each and every day decide on suicide. They gave their lives in the service of a lie. I’ll say a prayer, I’ll wish them well. I’ll beg them for forgiveness for all the lies I tell.

I am a patriot.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Amal and Her Children

The names have been changed in the story below.

In late November of 2008 i was in Damascus, Syria interviewing Iraqi refugees. My translator recommended we spend some time at the UNHCR to see how Iraqis were processed after their arrival in Syria.

After contacting the UNHCR we were invited to tour the facility on the outskirts of Damascus. During the tour i had an opportunity to sit in on an interview of an Iraqi who had turned to the U.N. for help. This is where i first met Amal and her children. i documented the interview in a story on my blog called Amal’s Journey. Here is an edited version from the Fall of 2008.

Amal’s Journey

Outside the UNHCR compound a crowd is forming. There are three groups of people here, new and renewing registrants, people with an appointment, and people receiving their food allowance. Once you arrive, you get a number and wait. The only place to sit is on the curb. The only cover from the sun or the rain is a narrow covered sidewalk that runs the length of the wall.

Once inside the compound, things are better. Chairs are provided. It’s quieter. The staff seems less harried and kinder as they direct people and answer questions.
The people with an appointment for an interview are divided into groups for processing. The UNHCR tries to prioritize the refugees based on vulnerability, single woman with children being considered the most vulnerable population. When people’s numbers are called they are led down a long hallway to one of 30 curtained off enclosures where their information is recorded into the UNHCR database. Amal gets up and taking her 3 year old daughter Shams by the hand and cradling 15 day old Kamar in her arms she follows the representative down the hall to enclosure number 17. Noor, the UNHCR representative, has them take a seat and closes the curtain behind them. Amal produces passports and documents. Amal and her family look vulnerable. She is a small woman dressed in a black hijab and she sits at one end of the long bench, very quietly answering questions as Noor types them into the computer.

As they get to the special needs section, Amal begins to explain her situation in more detail. She arrived in Damascus in August 2008 with her daughter. She hasn’t renewed her visa, so she is technically in the country illegally. She left Iraq because she received death threats by the Jaish Al-Mehdi. She was a Sunni woman married to a Shia man. It was her husband, a member of the militia, who threatened her.

Amal was married four years ago at age 21 after a one-month courtship with a 27 year-old man. Her parents disowned her because she was marrying a Shia. Headstrong and in love, she married anyway. At the time, her husband told her he didn’t care about Sunni or Shia and Amal believed him. In 2005 after the birth of her daughter, things began to change. The militias were gaining strength in neighborhoods throughout Baghdad and consolidating their power bases. Her husband began demanding she convert to Shia. Amal refused. He became violent. As their problems grew it became apparent that he was abusing drugs. As his demands changed into threats, he told her he belonged to the Badr brigades as well as the Jaish Al-Mehdi. He became physically violent as well, trying to throw his young daughter out a window. He told her he would give her to the militia. Seven months pregnant, she packed a bag, took her daughter and fled to Damascus.

Amal has turned to the UNHCR because she seeking monetary support, food aid and resettlement. The UNHCR representative identifies her as a highly vulnerable individual and schedules her to meet with a protective services agent as well as a community services representative before she leaves for the day. When i leave the UNHCR, i see Amal cradling her tiny baby in the reception area waiting for her next appointment.

I catch up with Amal a few days later. She is not wearing a hijab, but is stylishly dressed in a matching tan corduroy skirt and top and a tiger print hat and a small purse. I smile as i come face to face with another one of my uninformed assumptions regarding Iraqi women. A neighbor is watching the kids, so she only has a short time to talk. We meet at a restaurant in the Jaramana neighborhood as Amal feels it would be too dangerous for her to meet a foreign man near her apartment in Saida Zainab. We order coffee and i ask her why she is staying in Saida Zainab as there is a strong concentration of Shia refugees there, and there is even a Sadr political office. She replies that her rent is very cheap, about $85 per month for a small, unfurnished room. But she feels targeted in the neighborhood because she is a young woman alone with two small children. She explains that she is eligible for UNHCR food aid and assistance, but that she needs to wait until the next distribution at the beginning of January. She will be able to receive blankets at that time as well. The nights are getting very cold and Amal needs blankets tonight. She says she will manage. She also needs to arrange a trip to the main UNHCR building to meet with lawyers for her visa issues.

Sipping her coffee she seems very tentative, but there is more to this young woman. I tell her she must be strong or stubborn to go against her parent’s wishes, and then her husband’s. She laughs and says “Yes, but I’m paying the price for my mistakes.” I continue by saying she must be courageous to leave Baghdad and come to a strange city, pregnant and with a young daughter. She says, “Many Iraqis are facing similar circumstances, my case is not special.”

Finishing her coffee, Amal takes her leave. We’ve talked enough. Words won’t keep the baby fed or her daughter warm at night. My questions will wait for another day. Her baby waits for her now.

Fast forward to May 2010. A dear friend returned to Damascus. i asked her to inquire about Amal and her children. i couldn’t quite believe it when i received an email a few days later of Shams and her mom and the now 1 ½ year old Kamar. The children looked beautiful and happy. The last year and a half has been trying and Amal’s eyes do not hide the truth. Her worst fears were realized when her husband found her and forced her return to Baghdad where he continued his abuse. He claimed the youngest child was not his and became physically abusive with Amal. He got in serious trouble with several men he had borrowed large sums of money from. He rigged the home with explosives and locked his wife and children inside, planning on blaming the men for the explosion. Amal managed to escape with her children to a neighbor’s home. Her husband was arrested, but managed some payoffs to the police and is now free.

Amal is once again in hiding in Damascus. My friend assures me Amal is in good spirits. Meanwhile, her efforts at the UNHCR continue. The UNHCR says the first cash assistance they can offer is four months away. Amal needs to file for divorce before any action can be taken on her relocation status. This will be a challenge from Damascus, but Amal has begun the costly process. Once again she is in Syria illegally because her visa has expired. She is working with the UNHCR to gain an extension.

Amal’s situation is not the “typical” refugee story, but it is not an uncommon one. The stress of war and occupation tears at the fabric of society. Culture is destroyed. Law and order is diminished. Families suffer under the extreme burden of trying to survive. Things fall apart.

Since i have returned home i have not forgotten her or any of the dozens of people i met during my brief time in Syria. In the intervening year and a half several families have been relocated to the United States where the struggle to survive in a strange land (amidst an economic downturn) continues. Many more are still waiting. Their story remains untold.

i am disheartened and angry that our country can continue funding death and destruction at the astronomical rate of 5.5 billion dollars a month ($5,500,000,000) for the occupation of Iraq and 6.7 billion dollars a month ($6,700,000,000) for the war in Afghanistan and leave the people that have suffered from our actions (which we claim are in their best interests) to fend for themselves.

In the coming months i am sending fifty dollars a month ($50), a pittance to be certain, to Syria to help Amal and her children. If you or someone you know can help in any way, please let me know.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bowing Without The Bow

The snow is all but gone, replaced by flowing water and muddy rich earth. Walking across the meadow, i step softly- new life is sprouting up everywhere. Each blade of grass, brilliant green against the straw that remains from last year is a reminder of our own precarious state and the delicate beauty of our lives. The landscape here is so immense it is easy to overlook the tiny white flowers shadowing my every step and the sage that baths me in the most exquisite fragrance. i step quietly, watching my dogs as they do their crazy dance across the fields. Feeling the earth between their toes for the first time since October, their exuberance makes me laugh out loud.

From a distance, the scene is not extraordinary, just a man walking with his dogs. Time does not stand still. There is no epiphany. In the moment, as i walk, nothing is recognized and nothing is acknowledged.

Seamlessly, intimately, a man bows to the universe, and the universe, as always, bows in return.

This is just the story. Understand that when you bow in complete surrender the eminence opens to you.