Fatima Al-Ja’affari

Umm-Ahmed

Full name: Asira muhrara (freed prisoner) Fatma Shahada Aljafari

Born in 1948; lives in Deheisheh; mother of five; grandmother to 30 grandchildren. 

 

The Nakba Baby

I was born during the Nakba, and have been in an ongoing Nakba ever since.  I have not had a single good day in my entire lifetime.  When I was forty days old, people started fleeing our village, Deir Rafat (Near Beit Shemesh, 1 km from Kibbutz Tzora; the monastery bearing the name of the village is still erect.), in wake of a rumor concerning a massacre that the Jews had carried out in another village.  Somehow, in the great tumult that prevailed, my mother must have fainted and lost me in the crowd.  For three days I lay all alone in a field, wrapped up in the coat my mother had put on me, and no milk came to my lips.  My brother, Khader, who was ten at the time, was the one who finally found me and carried me all the way to my mother, who was sure I was dead. 

After ten days in Surif, my father and some other men decided to take the cows and go back to our village.  The Jews caught them, confiscated the cows and placed the men in detention for six months.  From Surif we moved to the refugee camp of Deheisheh.  We lived in tents for six years.  I remember that in the winters the water would seep into the tent; sometimes the tent would blow away altogether during a storm.    We, the girls, did not attend school and till this day I am illiterate.  We would play hajla (hopscotch) - draw squares on the ground and jump between them.  We never had a playground with swings.  We still don't.

From Deheisheh we wandered to the refugee camp of Aqabat Jaber near Jericho, and later to Jordan, where my big brothers had a plant for tile production.  I was 12 when I became engaged to my cousin from Deheisheh.  Mahmud was fatherless and was twelve years my senior.  I saw him for the first right before the wedding, after a year of being engaged to him.  The Mehndi ceremony took place in Aqabat Jaber and the wedding in Deheisheh.  There was no bride parlor back then, and one didn't get one's hair fanned.  But they did sew me a white dress.  There were songs and dances, and the guests brought cash without envelopes. 

We lived in a 2-room apartment: Mahmud and I in one bedroom and his mother and sister in the other.   Deheisheh, like the rest of Judea and Samaria, was under Jordanian control back then, and Mahmud was a soldier in Jordan's National Guard.   I continued playing with the girls in the alleyways of the camp.  Four years after the wedding, my daughter Rada was born.  Mahmud had been released of his military duty in the meantime and was working for the Jordanian National Roads Company.  Five people lived off the 40 pennies he made a day, but life was still better than it is today.  For half a Lira one could go to the market and fill up the home with vegetables.

 

The Jews are coming

In 1967 I was 19 years old, the mother of one child and with another on the way.  My husband was called to war and was not around.  We heard shooting and shelling from afar, saw fighter jets flying above us and didn't know who was victorious.  People standing on the main road of the camp saw tanks coming closer from the direction of Bethlehem and started celebrating and clapping their hands.  They were sure it was the Iraqi army approaching (Iraq had sent one division which came through Jordan).  They called on everybody to go out and welcome the soldiers, and I went out too.  When the soldiers reached the junction, they ordered us to hoist white flags and surrender.  We were confused.  Soldiers jumped off one of the tanks and walked towards my husband's brother.  They took the hunting rifle he was carrying and his cartridge belt.  People all around us started running.  It was the first time I saw Jews.

After the fighting abated, my husband went missing for 57 days.  At one point I was told he was hurt in a tank; another time I was told he had been killed in Jenin; others, still, said he was in Jordan.  One day he came back.  He had managed to infiltrate the new border with Jordan which had moved east of the river.  Mahmud wanted to take us to Jordan, but his brother objected, saying we either all leave together or we all stay.  So we stayed and lived normally for the first few months.  The Israelis started operating collaborators.  Anyone who wished to avenge somebody would report that the person in question had weapons, and the Israelis would come and arrest him. 

 

A family of fighters

My elder brother, Ali, was affected by the Nakba and the 1967 war and decided to join Ahmad Shukeiri's organization - the Fatah (PLO).  Ali trained in Jordan, and a year after the occupation began, he infiltrated Israel with a cell in order to carry out a terror attack.  But the Israelis were on their trail.  During the battle, which took place in Wadi Kelt, two of the Palestinian cell members were killed, as well as the commander of the Israeli force.  My brother, who was wounded and sentenced to seven life sentences, was charged, inter alia, with entering Israel without a permit.  He said to the judge: "I don't need a permit to enter my own country."

My brother Muhammad decided to continue in Ali's footsteps.  In 1970 he infiltrated the country from Jordan and was killed near the border in an encounter with the Israeli army.  A month later I also lost my brother Ibrahim, who was killed in Jordan in "Black September" (in September of 1970, King Hussein instigated an offensive against the PLO, in which thousands of Palestinians were killed, after which the PLO moved its bases to Lebanon).  Mahmud, my husband, was a member of an armored Fatah cell.  He was arrested during the planning stages of an attack.  He served two and a half years prison time till his release in 1976.  When he was in prison I looked for ways to feed my four children.  I bought a sewing machine and started sewing sweaters. 

After the period in which I visited my husband and brother in prison, I started visiting my sons.  In 1982 Ahmed was arrested for the first time, aged 12, and later at age 14,  for throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at a small settlement established by Rabbi Levinger in Deheisheh.  A week before his arrest, his school friends were arrested, so we were expecting it.  When there was knocking at our door at midnight, I managed to wake up Ahmed and have him put on some warm clothes before opening the door for the soldiers. 

 

Ali

During all those years I was the only one who visited Ali in prison because my parents were in Jordan.  After 12 years in the Ashkelon prison, he was moved with all the other senior prisoners to the new Nafha prison that was built in the desert.  Conditions there were very tough, and at some point the prisoners went on hunger strike.  I was eight months pregnant at the time, and I joined the prisoners' family in protest marches and demonstration in front of the foreign embassies.  One morning, before embarking on one such activity, I listened with my husband to the news broadcast in Arabic on Radio London.  It was reported that two hunger strikers in the Nafha prison had passed away.  I hurried outside to take the newspaper, but that morning the paperboy had failed to place one at our doorstep.  I walked out into the street, saw all the family members crying, and I understood. 

On that day we drove to Jerusalem and joined a protest march in the Old City.  The police arrested many of the protestors, myself included; however, the Red Cross intervened and I was released because I was pregnant.  The reason for Ali's death was kept hidden.  Only after putting up a legal fight did we manage to find out that  Ali was force-fed through a feeding tube, so as to end his hunger strike, and the substance from the tube entered his lungs.  They did not give us his body for burial.  For years his body was kept in a refrigerator in the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute.  I think they did it to punish us.  The reason we were given was that if he were brought to burial, riots would break out. 

After nine years he was buried in the "cemetery for enemy casualties" in the Jordan Valley.  In our jargon, it is called "the cemetery of numbers", as there are no names on the tombstones.  We weren't informed of anything, and we continued to think that he was still in Abu Kabir.  In 1993, in wake of the Oslo Accords, it was decided to give us the body for burial.  It was demanded of us to commit to having no more than fifteen people present at the funeral as to prevent any disorder.  I refused.  I had not waited for 13 years for a funeral of this nature.  At the end my brother's body was delivered at night, and it was agreed that the funeral procession would not pass through the main road, since it was still used by settlers back then.

 

The Prison

In 1977 I was arrested for the first time.  It was after the Ramadan, when I had collected charity money in Jordan and handed it to a needy family, recommended to me by my brother in prison.  I was accused of transferring money from the PLO in Jordan to Gaza.  I was tried and sentenced to a year, most of which I served in the Neve Tirza prison in Ramla.  My youngest son, Thaar, who was eleven months at the time, had already been taken from me at the beginning of the interrogation, and because of engorged breasts I was taken to hospital to have my milk dried up.  The children were placed all over: two stayed at home, two were put in a dormitory in Jerusalem and the baby was given to a relative.  During the course of a year I saw the baby only twice during visit hours. 

Life in prison strengthened me.  The prison warden treated us harshly, but the company of the other prisoners was good.  One of them would read out newspapers and books to me.  In prison I tried learning how to read and write but never quite completed the task.  In merit of the experience gained and ties formed during my prison time, I later became a central Fatah activist.  I was one of the heads of the "Women's Committees" that founded kindergartens, summer camps and dance groups.  Our social activity was a cover up for the Fatah's secret organizational activity and for the recruitment of new members. 

In 1981 I entered prison for the second time.  The Shabak (Israeli Secret Service) arrested me in order to pressure me into turning into a collaborator.  My health wasn't good following an operation and I was interrogated for 48 days.  Young lads from Deheisheh who were arrested, exposed an amassment of weapons that was hidden in a stone fence near my home.  They claimed I was aware of this, and on basis of their testimony alone I was sentenced to eight months imprisonment. 

A year later, an addition that had been built to my home was demolished.  The excuse given was that I did not have a building permit.  However, this was in fact revenge - they knew of my activities in Fatah but could not condemn me.

 

Intifada

The First Intifada broke out because of the great bitterness, hardships and humiliations that we suffered in the course of the occupation, and we looked for an outlet for our frustrations.  We knew deep inside that the Intifada would not liberate Palestine, but we could not continue being silent either.  I personally felt an obligation to take part in every demonstration and protest march.  Sometimes curfew would be imposed on us for two weeks in a row and we could not even get hold of bread.  Bored soldiers would throw gas grenades or would shoot at water tanks on the roofs. 

Once a month a proclamation regarding the continuance of the uprising would be written up and disseminated.  I would get the proclamation from the united command and pass it on to the Bethlehem region, where I would hide it in some pre-arranged location.  The activists would pick it up from there, make copies of it and disseminate it further.  Sometimes I would transfer spray paint so that slogans could be sprayed on alleyway walls.  I never transferred weapons in my life.  I am afraid of weapons. 

My son Ahmed, who was detained, heard my name come up in the interrogation of a group of Intifada activists from Beit Fajar.  I ran away from the house and slept at different relatives each night.  Seven months later I came to one of Ahmed's trial session and was arrested.  The interrogator threatened to undress me.  I told him I couldn't care less, because it would not feel like I was undressing in front of a man.  In other words, I was saying that he was no man.  I was imprisoned for three months. 

I did not take part in the Second Intifada at all, except for participating in the funerals of Shahids.  The joyful cries of the mothers of Shahids are not really expressions of joy.  No mother on earth is happy at the death of her son.  When my brother died, I, too, was supposed to demonstrate happiness because it was my way of protesting against the world for my brother, the freedom fighter, who was killed for a sacred purpose he believed in.  But I did not support the suicide attacks.  When I saw the sights after such terror attacks, I was reminded of my dead brothers and all my own pains.

 

The meeting: The grandmothers group

In the past I did not believe peace between Jews and Palestinians was possible.  I thought the occupation was a decree from above from which there was no escape - a maktub.  I did not imagine that I would sit with Jews, visit their homes and join in their eating.  It was beyond the wildest dreams.    I cannot deny the fact that when Saddam Hussein fired rockets on Tel Aviv I rejoiced, but I wanted him to strike the army only.  When I saw women crying on TV it pained me.  I have always made the distinction between the army and the people.  I once saw a soldier pushing over an old woman.  I asked him: "Could you stand seeing your mother like that on the floor?"

After the Oslo Accords I got a position with the Palestinian Authority: I became a member of the political steering mechanism responsible for the security and education mechanisms.  Today I do not hold an official position, but in recent years I have been active in the promotion of women.  I got together about a hundred women whose husbands are either serving time or are Shahids, and other needy women for whatever the reason - and founded an organization for traditional embroidery.    The women sew bags, scarves and sweaters, which are then sold to tourists in Bethlehem, and later receive the money these items bring in.

In prison I had a friend, Umm-Yousef, who is the mother of Haled from the Parents Circle Families Forum.  In 2005 Umm-Yousef passed away.  In the mourners' house I met Ruby Demlin, also a member of the forum, who had lost her son in a shooting attack carried out by a Palestinian sniper during the Second Intifada.  An argument broke out between us.  I said to Ruby: You lost one (son), and I lost three (brothers), and your son went to fight in a place that wasn't even his land."  Ruby told me that after her son was killed, she started understanding our suffering.  I was not convinced by what I heard from her.  Umm-Yousef's sons are active in the Parents Circle Families Forum and they tried convincing me to attend the meetings with Jewish women.  For a long time I refused.  From sheer pain and bitterness I couldn't meet with them without feeling that I was pretending.  But I finally agreed to go to a two-day meeting session that took place in Tel Aviv.  I even slept in their homes. 

That was the turning point.  I touched them, and my natural animosity towards them evaporated.  I saw that my hosts identified with our pain although they didn't quite know the extent of our suffering.  I understood that the State was trying to prevent its citizens from knowing what was going on.  I continue meeting with Israelis, and this change has not been an easy one.  Not many are those who can undergo it. 

In the Narratives Project we visited Yad Vashem together.  I had known about the Holocaust beforehand, but I was not aware of the extent of the horror.  I cried there and I cried after the visit too; and, yet, I must say that we, the Palestinians, are paying the price for those horrors.  We visited Ein Kerem, previously a Palestinian village near Jerusalem, together with the Israeli women.  I saw all the homes in which Jews are living and it reopened the wounds of my own life.

The first thing I learned in those meetings was how to listen; how to get to know the other.  The most significant change that I have undergone is the fact that I no longer have any desire whatsoever to avenge.  The feeling that our generation has responsibility has become more acute: we have suffered enough and must therefore act so that future generations will not suffer as we have. 

 

 

 

 

 * Um Ahmad participated in the Grandmothers group.

* Upper photo by Eddie Gerald

 

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