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The Boy Who Kissed the
Soldier: Balata Camp
-- By Starhawk
"What source can you believe in order to create peace there?" a friend writes
when I come back from Palestine. I have no answer, only this story:
June 1, 2002: I am in Balata refugee camp
in occupied Palestine, where the Israeli Defense Forces have rounded up four thousand
men, leaving the camp to women and children. The men have offered no resistance,
The camp is deathly quiet. All the shops are shuttered,
all the windows closed. Women, children and a few old men hide in their homes.
The quiet is shattered by sporadic bursts of gunfire,
bangs and explosions. All day we have been encountering soldiers who all look
like my brother or cousins or the sons I never had, so young they are barely more
than boys armed with big guns. We've been standing with the terrified inhabitants
as the soldiers search their houses, walking patients who are afraid to be alone
on the streets to the U.N. Clinic. Earlier in the evening, eight of our friends
were arrested, and we know that we could be caught at any moment.
It is nearly dark, and Jessica and Melissa and I
are looking for a place to spend the night. Jessica, with her pale, narrow face,
dark eyes and curly hair, could be my sister or my daughter. Melissa is a bit
more punk, androgynous in her dyed-blond ducktail.
We are hurrying through the streets, worried. We
need to be indoors before true dark, and curfew. "Go into any house," we've been
told. "Anyone will be glad to take you in." But we feel a bit shy.
From a narrow, metal staircase, Samar, a young
woman with a wide, beautiful smile beckons us up.
"Welcome, welcome!" We are given refuge in the
three small rooms that house her family: her mother, big bodied and sad, her small
nieces and nephews, her brother's wife Hanin, round-faced and pale and six months
We sit down on big, overstuffed couches. The women
serve us tea. I look around at the pine wood paneling that adds soft curves and
warmth to the concrete, at the porcelain birds and artificial flowers that decorate
a ledge. The ceilings are carefully painted in simple geometric designs. They
have poured love and care into their home, and it feels like a sanctuary.
Outside we can hear sporadic shooting, the deep
'boom' of houses being blown up by the soldiers. But here in these rooms, we are
safe, in the tentative sense that word can be used in this place. "Inshallah',
"God willing', follows every statement of good here or every commitment to a plan.
"Yahoud!" the women say when we hear explosions.
It is the Arabic word for Jew, the word used for the soldiers of the invading
army. It is a word of warning and alarm: don't go down that alley, out into that
But no one invades our refuge this night. We talk
and laugh with the women. I have a pocket-sized packet of Tarot cards, and we
read for what the next day will bring. Samar wants a reading, and then Hanin.
I don't much like what I see in their cards: death, betrayal, sleepless nights
of sorrow and regret. But I can't explain that in Arabic anyway, so I focus on
what I see that is good.
"Baby?" Hanin asks.
The card of the Sun comes up, with a small boy-child
riding on a white house. "Yes, I think it is a boy," I say.
She shows me the picture of her first baby, who
died at a year and a half. Around us young men are prowling with guns, houses
are exploding, lives are being shattered. And we are in an intimate world of women.
Hanin brushes my hair, ties it back in a band to control its wildness. We try
to talk about our lives. We can write down our ages on paper. I am fifty, Hanin
is twenty-three. Jessica and Melissa are twenty-two: all of them older than most
of the soldiers. Samar is seventeen, the children are eight and ten and the baby
is four. I show them pictures of my family, my garden, my step-grandaughter. I
think they understand that my husband has four daughters but I have none of my
own, and that I am his third wife. I'm not sure they understand that those wives
are sequential, not concurrent-but maybe they do. The women of this camp are educated,
sophisticated-many we have met throughout the day are professionals, teachers,
nurses, students when the Occupation allows them to go to school.
"Are you Christian?" Hanin finally asks us at the
end of the night. Melissa, Jessica and I look at each other. All of us are Jewish,
and we're not sure what the reaction will be if we admit it. Jessica speaks for
"Jewish," she says. The women don't understand
the word. We try several variations, but finally are forced to the blunt and dreaded
"Yahoud!" Hanin says. She gives a little surprised
laugh, looks at the other women. "Beautiful!"
And that is all. Her welcome to us is undiminished.
She shows me the shower, dresses me in her own flowered nightgown and robe, and
puts me to bed in the empty side of the double bed she shares with her husband,
who has been arrested by the Yahoud. Mats are brought out for the others. Two
of the children sleep with us. Ahmed, the little four year old boy, snuggles next
to me. He sleeps fiercely, kicking and thrashing in his dreams, and each time
an explosion comes, hurls himself into my arms. I can't sleep at all. How have
I come here, at an age when I should be home making plum jam and doll clothes
for grandchildren, to be cradling a little Palestinian boy whose sleep is already
shattered by gunshots and shells? I am thinking about the summer I spent in Israel
when I was fifteen, learning Hebrew, working on a kibbutz, touring every memorial
to the Holocaust and every site of a battle in what we called the War of Independence.
I am thinking of one day when we were brought to the Israel/Lebanon border. The
Israeli side was green, the other side barren and brown.
"You see what we have made of this land," we were
told. "And that-that's what they've done in two thousand years. Nothing."
I am old enough now to question the world of assumptions
behind that statement, to recognize one of the prime justifications the colonizers
have always used against the colonized. "They weren't doing anything with the
land: they weren't using it." They are not, somehow, as deserving as we are, as
fully human. They are animals, they hate us.
All of that is shattered by the sound of by Hanin's
laugh, called into question by a small boy squirming and twisting in his sleep.
I lie there in awe at the trust that has been given me, one of the people of the
enemy, put to bed to sleep with the children. It seems to me, at that moment,
that there are indeed powers greater than the guns I can hear all around me: the
power of Hanin's trust, the power that creates sanctuary, the great surging compassionate
power that overcomes prejudice and hate.
One night later, we again go back to our family just as dark is falling, together
with Linda and Neta, two other volunteers. We have narrowly escaped a party of
soldiers, but no sooner do we arrive than a troop comes to the door. At least
they have come to the door: we are grateful for that for all day they have been
breaking through people's walls, knocking out the concrete with sledgehammers,
bursting through into rooms of terrified people to search, or worse, use the house
as a thoroughfare, a safe route that allows them to move through the camp without
venturing into the streets. We have been in houses turned into surreal passageways,
with directions spray painted on their walls, where there is no sanctuary because
all night long soldiers are passing back and forth.
We come forward to meet these soldiers, to talk
with them and witness what they will do. One of the men, with owlish glasses,
knows Jessica and Melissa: they have had a long conversation with him standing
beside his tank. He is uncomfortable with his role.
Ahmed, the little boy, is terrified of the soldiers.
He cries and screams and points at them, and we try to comfort him, to carry him
away into another room. But he won't go. He is terrified, but he can't bear to
be out of their sight. He runs toward them crying. "Take off your helmet," Jessica
tells the soldiers. "Shake hands with him, show him you're a human being. Help
him to be not so afraid." The owlish soldier takes off his helmet, holds out his
hand. Ahmed's sobs subside. The soldiers file out to search the upstairs. Samar
and Ahmed follow them. Samar holds the little boy up to the owlish soldier's face,
tells him to give the soldier a kiss. She doesn't want Ahmed to be afraid, to
hate. The little boy kisses the soldier, and the soldier kisses him back, and
hands him a small Palestinian flag.
This is the moment to end this
story, on a high note of hope, to let it be a story of how simple human warmth,
a child's kiss, can for a moment overcome oppression and hate. But it is a characteristic
of the relentless quality of this occupation that the story doesn't end here.
The soldiers order us all into one room. They close
the door, and begin to search the house. We can hear banging and crashing and
loud thuds against the walls. I am trying to think of something to sing, to do
to distract us, to keep the spirits of the children up. I cannot think of anything
that makes sense. My voice won't work. But Neta teaches us a silly children's
song in Arabic. To me, it sounds like:
"Babouli raizh, raizh, babouli jai, Babouli ham
melo sucar o shai,"
"The train comes, the train goes, the train is
full of sugar and tea." The children are delighted, and begin to sing. Hanin and
I drum on the tables. The soldiers are throwing things around in the other room
and the children are singing and Ahmed begins to dance. We put him up on the table
and he smiles and swings his hips and makes us all laugh.
When the soldiers finally leave, we emerge to examine the damage. Every single
object has been pulled off the walls, out of the closets, thrown in huge piles
on the floor. The couches have been overturned and their bottoms ripped off. The
wood paneling is full of holes knocked into every curve and corner. Bags of grain
have been emptied into the sink. Broken glass and china covers the floor.
We begin to clean up. Melissa sweeps: Jessica tries
to corral the barefoot children until we can get the glass off the floor. I help
Hanin clear a path in the bedroom, folding the clothes of her absent husband,
hanging up her own things, finding the secret sexy underwear the soldiers have
obviously examined. By the time it is done, I know every intimate object of her
We are a houseful of women: we know how to clean
and restore order. When the house is back together, Hanin and Samar and the sister
cook. The grandmother is having a high blood pressure attack: we lay her down
on the couch, I bring her a pillow. She rests. I sit down, utterly exhausted,
as Hanin and the women serve us up a meal. A few china birds are back on the ledge.
The artificial flowers have reappeared. Some of the loose boards of the paneling
have been pushed back. Somehow once again the house feels like a sanctuary.
"You are amazing," I tell Hanin. "I am completely
exhausted: you're six months pregnant, it's your house that has just been trashed,
and you're able to stand there cooking for all of us."
Hanin shrugs. "For us, this is normal," she says.
And this is where I would like to end this story, celebrating the resilience of
these women, full of faith in their power to renew their lives again and again.
But the story doesn't end here.
The third night. Melissa and Jessica go back to stay with our family. I am staying
with another family who has asked for support. The soldiers have searched their
house three times, and have promised that they will continue to come back every
night. We are sleeping in our clothes, boots ready. We get a call.
The soldiers have come back to Hanin's house. Again,
they lock everyone in one room. Again, they search. This time, the soldier who
kissed the baby is not with them. They have some secret intelligence report that
tells them there is something to find, although they have not found it. They rip
the paneling off the walls. They knock holes in the tiles and the concrete beneath.
They smash and destroy, and when they are done, they piss on the mess they have
Nothing has been found, but something is lost. The
sanctuary is destroyed, the house turned into a wrecking yard. No one kisses these
soldiers: no one sings.
When Hanin emerges and sees what they have done,
she goes into shock. She is resilient and strong, but this assault has gone beyond
'normal', and she breaks. She is hyperventilating, her pulse is racing and thready.
She could lose the baby, or even die.
Jessica, who is trained as a Street Medic for actions,
informs the soldiers that Hanin needs immediate medical care. The soldiers are
reluctant, "We'll be done soon," they say. But one is a paramedic, and Melissa
and Jessica are able to make him see the seriousness of the situation. They allow
the two of them to violate curfew, to run through the dark streets to the clinic,
come back with two nurses who somehow get Hanin and the family into an ambulance
and taken to the hospital.
This story could be worse. Because Jessica and Melissa were there, Hanin and the
baby survive. That is, after all, why we've come: to make things not quite as
bad as they would be otherwise.
But there is no happy ending to this story, no cheerful
resolution. When the soldiers pull out, I go back to say goodbye to Hanin, who
has come back from the hospital. She is looking dull, depressed: something is
broken. I don't know if it can be repaired, if she will ever be the same. Her
resilience is gone; her eyes have lost their light. She writes her name and phone
number for me, writes "Hnin love you." I don't know how the story will ultimately
end for her. I still see in the cards destruction, sleepless nights of anguish,
This is not a story of some grand atrocity. It is a story about 'normal', about
what it's like to under an everyday, relentless assault on any sense of safety
"What was that song about the train?" I ask Neta after the soldiers are gone.
"Didn't you hear?" she asks me. "The soldiers came
and got the old woman, at one o'clock in the morning, and made her sing the song.
I don't think I'll ever be able to sing it again."
"What source can you believe in order to create peace there?" a friend writes.
I have no answer. Every song is tainted; every story goes on too long and turns
nasty. A boy whose baby dreams are disturbed by gunfire kisses a soldier. A soldier
kisses a boy, and then destroys his home. Or maybe he simply stands by as others
do the destruction, in silence, that same silence too many of us have kept for
too long. And if there are forces that can nurture peace they must first create
an uproar, a vast breaking of silence, a refusal to stand by as the boot stomps
Copyright (c) 2002 by Starhawk.
All rights reserved. This copyright protects Starhawk's right to future publication
of her work. Nonprofit, activist, and educational groups may circulate this
essay (forward it, reprint it, translate it, post it, or reproduce it) for nonprofit
uses. Please do not change any part of it without permission. Readers are invited
to visit the web site: www.starhawk.org.
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