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Letter from Bethlehem (4)


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By Toine van Teeffelen


Saturday 27 October - It's the eighth day of the invasion, supposedly the day of withdrawal by the Israeli army but throughout the afternoon there is no let-up in the fighting. Despite the total abnormality of the situation, one gets accustomed to certain patterns. When the battle starts, Palestinian gunmen take position at strategic points in town. Some 50-100 meter behind them stand youth and further down common people or TV journalists who look from what is considered a safe distance. The gunmen give directions to common people like me which areas not to enter. As soon as the fighting calms for a while, I phone Mary with my mobile to hear whether her area is safe; take my way to my family in law's home by walking closely along the street walls, then taking a safe way by jumping over walls and sneaking through the neighbours' gardens.

* * *

These days Mary and my family-in-law, like so many others, stay at home as much as possible. The area where my family in law live is rather close to the fireline but the house is somewhat covered by other houses in front of it. Our upper neighbour's watertank was hit and he had unintentionally closed off the access to all the watertanks on the roof, leaving us without water. During shooting let-ups we bring, with the help of Jara, water out of another neighbour's well. I sing "Bringing two buckets of water," a Dutch children song. One rule I follow these days is not to make Jara feel afraid, to keep life as common as possible. Indeed she stays cheerful, only crying when we oblige her to stay inside. Once in a while, I take her to the neighbour's garden to play with the dog but when the shooting starts we rush inside. When Mary tells Jara the story of Little Red Riding Hood, she makes a shooting sound -saying that she is killing the big bad wolf. The water is back after a day, but suddenly the electricity falls out while it is dark. Mary, who is fond of candles, lights the many candles we have and strategically puts them in their place. Jara takes her toy mobile phone (a shoe she puts on her ear), put on a serious face, calls Santa Claus and asks him to bring electricity. We laugh, at least for a brief moment. Water, electricity, telephone - nothing is certain these days. The telephone does not work after bullets had hit the telephone post in front of the house. Mary contends that water is more important then electricity. But without electricity, we cannot charge the old, electricity-eating mobile she borrowed from a cousin. When Mary and I sneak out of the house in the early morning to buy fruits and vegetables at the market (only two stands are open), she carefully selects food which doesn't need to stay in the fridge. When we come back at the house, the electricity works again.

* * *

Our problems are small compared to others in Bethlehem. Ramzi, a designer who presently prints the bodywarmers of the group of Dutch civilian monitors for which I am the local coordinator, had to bring over all his equipment to his house after his office was hit by a tank shell. All windows and much of the furtniture are broken. Together with two of the monitors I walk through 'Azza camp. My own house in fact borders this small refugee camp in which some hundreds of people live in crowded conditions. We observe among other things leaking water pipes, broken windows, telephone poles on the ground, car tyres shot flat. All houses in the camp are without water, electricity and telephone. We check at random, and everywhere the same answer. It's incredible how they can continue to live. People invite us to come inside but the damage is clear enough. At the end of the road through the camp we arrive at Paradise Hotel, nicknamed Hell Hotel. Burnt out. I can't believe my eyes when walking through the part of the street which is only fifty meters from my own house: tanks simply broke into a row of shops, including the pharmacy where we usually buy our medicines. Somebody on the street, whom I know from my previous experience as a guide - he has a restaurant in Jericho - tells me that a week ago he opened a new restaurant here. A restaurant in this firezone? He says laconically that he doesn't mind too much losing money as long as his family stays unharmed. We'll walk further as if watching a war movie. Stoplight poles are lying on the ground, walls along the streets bulldozered, remains of fires, everywhere bullets and glass. Yesterday the muezzin, used for the Moslem prayer, called children not to pick up anything suspicious.

* * *

It is raining this Saturday morning. We decide that the rain may lead to a let-up in the shooting and I go with Jara to the square in front of the Church of Nativity. Between the heavily armed people around who wearily discuss the situation, she plays, climbing upon a wall and throwing herself into my arms just before she hits the ground. Some women have to laugh when she playfully jumps with her boots into the water pools on the street. At the Peace Center, hundreds of members from the Moslem 'Abayyat family - a family particularly hit, with perhaps seven casualties over the last week - shake the hands of those who bring their condolences. Customarily, the men sit in long rows next to each other, in silence, under banners denouncing the Israeli invasion. We walk into the Church of Nativity. Jara prays Our Father in Arabic, and lights a candle in the empty church in commemoration of the deceased.

Toine van Teeffelen is project manager at the Arab Educational Institute and coordinator of the Dutch "United Civilians for Peace" initiative.