Nothing Had Prepared Me For the Scenes of Devastation in Jenin

By Dr. Riad Abdelkarim
Posted: 18 Safar 1423, 1 May 2002

[The following informal report comes from American Muslims for Jerusalem Board Member, Dr. Riad Abdelkarim. Dr. Abdelkarim, a physician in the Los Angeles area, is in Occupied Palestine now on a delegation surveying the medical needs of Palestinians in light of the enormous devastation and destruction of Palestine's civilian infrastructure by Israeli forces.]


Salaam, dear friends:

After visiting the Jenin refugee camp yesterday (Sunday), I feel ashamed to be part of a world that has allowed such a monstrous crime to occur.

All of the pictures on the Internet, the images on satellite television, the thousands and thousands of words written already about this crime by others, my previous witnessing of the destruction in Khan Yunus, Rafah, and Bethlehem--did not prepare me adequately for the scenes of devastation and despair that I witnessed. 

The 18-year old boy was killed in front of his home. A mere 24 hours later the boy's mother was shot--also in front of the house.

I know, too, that my words cannot paint a thorough picture of what I felt walking through the camp yesterday, but I would like to share a few "random thoughts" and sample observations, upon which you may individually reflect. Please pardon the random, disassociated nature of these thoughts (as this is not reflective of my usual writing style). Honestly, I am so numbed by what I have seen that the rush of emotions blurs the cohesiveness of my thoughts. But I feel I owe it to the people of Jenin to say something, anything.


Upon entering the camp and passing a huge mound of rubble--the remnants of a building-- horrible, foul, spine-tingling odor struck me. It was the smell of death. We have all heard about it--seen survivors of this massacre talk about it--but I somehow did not expect it to still be present one-and-a-half weeks after the Israeli pullout. Yet there it was, greeting the dozens upon dozens of foreign and NGO delegations walking through the camp. Nobody knows how many are buried underneath, but there is no question that life was extinguished below this mound of rubble.


Camp residents were walking around as if in a trance, still clearly not able to comprehend--or accept--the wholesale destruction of their homes. It was as if the entire camp was drugged.


Everywhere I went, there were stories of terror. Stories of executions. Stories of huge D-11 Caterpillar bulldozers that would knock down a home with a single push...with entire families still inside. The story of the 85 year-old partially blind man whom I visited in a Jenin hospital. He had been struck by shrapnel from an Apache helicopter shell fired at his home. The story of a young man who lost his right leg and part of his right hand when his home was shelled as well.

The story of an 18-year old boy killed in front of his home. We sat to offer our condolences to his uncle and cousin. Then I learned that the boy's mother was shot--also in front of the house--a mere 24 hours later. She too had died. This was a double tragedy.

Stories of ambulances prevented from entering to evacuate the injured and dead. Stories of women being virtually strip searched by soldiers before being allowed to escape the camps. Stories like that of the young man who was used as a "human shield" by the crew of an APC searching a school. They would open each door to a classroom and push him inside, to test for any booby traps. Stories like the old man who stated he had lived in his home in the camp for 50 years. "What will I do now? Where will I go?" He walked away, stooped over, with a tear welling up in his eye. 

The story of the woman who said she had received donations of food, but had no gas or electricity with which to cook them. Multiple stories of burned out bodies of victims pulled from the rubble, days after they were killed. Stories of curfew and snipers. The story of the mosque whose loudspeaker was used as a toilet by Israeli soldiers.


Image: Graffiti scrawled in English on a wall: "Occupation is the real terrorism" 


Image: Four or five young boys playing in the dirt next to a heap of rubble. "What are you doing?", I ask. "We are building a tent, since our home was destroyed".....


Image: Home after home with significant structural damage, but not totally destroyed. A wall or two or three missing. In the US, such a home would be declared unsafe and sealed off. Not here. A few metal rods are used to support the structure, and children play on what was once a balcony. This is not safe at all.


Image: An old man sitting on the rubble next to his home, staring off into the distance, seeming oblivious to the camp's visitors, and indeed to everything else around him. A penny for his thoughts.....


Image: For as far as the eye can see (several football fields), not a single home that was left unscarred or intact. The earthquake analogy is quite adequate. The difference: no search and rescue teams, no sniffing dogs looking for survivors, no real coordinated international effort to remove the rubble.


Sound: In the distance, an explosion. Was it a mine placed by Israeli soldiers? Was it a booby trap placed by Palestinian fighters defending the camp? I don't know.


Image: At the camp's United Nations medical clinic, evidence of deliberate destruction and looting. Bullet holes in a scale used to weigh babies. A grenade tossed into the reception area, with holes all over the ceiling and walls. The electric motor to a dental chair device stolen. A sterilizing autoclave destroyed. Bullet holes in a door marked with a sign: Care of Pregnant Women


Question: Where is the UN Commission of Inquiry? What will be left if and when they come to Jenin?


As I walked through the camp, one particular phrase kept entering my mind (I'm not sure why): "I believe that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace."


Image: I run into a fifty-something, blonde American woman volunteering for a local medical non-governmental organization (NGO). She speaks to us in Arabic. When I mention I'm from the United States, she responds in Arabic: "So you are from the 'head of the snake!'" She tells me she lived in Berkeley some time ago.


Stories of executions. Stories of huge D-11 Caterpillar bulldozers that would knock down a home with a single push...with entire families still inside. The story of the mosque whose loudspeaker was used as a toilet by Israeli soldiers.

As I leave the camp's "Ground Zero", I feel an uncomfortable mixture of sadness, grief, anger, and shame. I also feel guilt.

My tax dollars helped pay for those bullets, those Apache helicopter death-ships, those monstrous Caterpillar bulldozers. When I tell camp survivors that I'm from the United States, I am ashamed. I, too, am responsible for this. Walking around with my video camera and digital still camera, I feel as if I am participating in some grotesque, macabre ritual.


Final thought: I spent last night in the Jenin area. I slept about two hours, then could not sleep anymore. My head still hurts. My nose still recalls that horrible odor. My mind keeps replaying these images and these stories. And my heart continues to ache--mostly for the people of Jenin, but also for what we used to call humanity.