There is much in common between Abdul-Hamid, Mohamed and Imad al-Uaini. For one, they are brothers, handsome, sweet, all with an unmatched sense of humor. They are also my cousins. Growing up, I didn’t have the privilege of spending much time with them. True, we were all refugees, but they were raised in Diaspora. The three brothers were raised in Iraq, and I was raised in a refugee-camp in Ghazzah.
On the first day of the Muslim feast, Eid al-Fitr, I returned home, along with my wife and two daughters. We had a great time. Zarefah was thrilled with her new set of crayons and "Dora the Explorer" tent. Iman was more elated by the colorful wrapping paper. On the answering machine, there was a message: "Both of your cousins were killed in the Bureij massacre today. The third is seriously wounded and is in hospital."
I sat in front of my computer in my tiny office in Seattle. An annoying screensaver image circled the dark screen, pointlessly. I gazed at the screen thinking of how narrow the distance can be between life and death, happiness and tears, feasts and massacres.
On the desk was a letter, fresh from the printer. It was adorned with the logo of the "Anti-Defamation League", ADL. The letter was written by Christopher Wolf, the chair of the group’s regional board in Washington DC. It was in response to a recent article I wrote which was published in the Washington Post (‘Condemned to Violence’, December 2).
In my article I argued that pretentious condemnations of violence, of "terrorism", which fail to cure the roots, the injustices imposed on poor nations, shall backfire. I contested that human life should be treasured, whether it be an Israeli or Palestinian, an American or an Iraqi. I urged that we must challenge the empty slogans and condemnations, ask questions of why terrorism is shunned if carried out by the oppressed, yet discounted if carried out by strong and powerful?
But Mr. Wolf wrote the Post saying, "Ramzy Baroud ignores the real roots of terrorism, which are the societies that preach hate and intolerance." He said terrorists "are taught from birth that violence and murder are acceptable means in which to achieve their goals." He went on talking about the generous offers made to the Palestinians. He accused Palestinian mothers and fathers of praising the "murderous actions of their children." He concluded, "terrorism will not go away until the societies that breed terrorists reevaluate what they are teaching their children."
Finally, my call to Ghazzah went through. I managed to reach my relatives. The details were unbearable. Abdul-Hamid, 28, and Mohamed, 24, were Palestinian Authority police officers. They had no explosive belts, nor did they intend to blow themselves up any time soon. They lived in a refugee camp along with their families. They had dreams of prosperous lives that the besieged camp, crowded with refugees and bitter memories, failed to deliver.
On the day of their death, both young men were determined to celebrate the Muslim feast, free of their uniforms, nightshifts and bossy officers. They dressed well. While one liked to impress the neighbors with his sun glasses, which he often wore, even at night, Abdul-Hamid defined fun as cigarettes, sodas and Indian movies. In the camp such simple wishes were not hard to meet.
But the Israeli army denied the refugees’ simple wishes as scores of Israeli tanks invaded Bureij. I was on the phone conveying my Eid greetings when the shelling began. "The Israelis are attacking," I was told by a hurrying relative, who fled along with his family, desperately trying to escape the indiscriminate firing.
A mosque loudspeaker screamed in vain, "people of Bureij, protect your families, save your wounded." The voice faded and some of the wounded, mostly civilians, bled to death on the street.
"The key to ending the massacre was to block the movement of the tanks," I was told by a friend after he attended the funeral of my cousins the next day. "Abdul-Hamid, Imad and Mohamed rushed to their post and ran back with their rifles to face the Israeli tanks. They put up a good fight, allowing hundreds of people to flee, before a tank shell exploded in the midst of them."
Not all body parts of my two cousins were recovered, I was told. But thousands escorted what remained of them anyway to the refugee-camp’s graveyard, filled with poor souls who died fighting for their right to live free, many who were either killed by the army or crushed under the wheels of poverty and fading dreams.
The word "Bureij" is now ingrained in my mind. Not only because the camp was my mother’s first home as a refugee, or because my grandmother’s house in Bureij was my only escape when I wanted to escape to the other side of the Israeli army post. Bureij is special because my cousins died there, holding onto old rifles while defending a falling refugee-camp, wearing brand-new cloths to celebrate a feast that ended with a mass funeral procession.
I finished a long telephone call to my family, and hung up to once again face that letter with the ADL logo, accusing Palestinian parents of teaching murder to their children. For some reason the strong urge I had to respond to Mr. Wolf’s letter faded. Does he need my explanation of why Abdul-Hamid and Mohamed were heroes, not terrorists, that their parents indeed taught them something, the value of courage and sacrifice, not hate and murder?
My two daughters were still taken by the Eid spirit as they rushed toward me demanding a bedtime story. That night, I told them a story of their three brave cousins who loved each other dearly and shared everything they had with the other kids in the neighborhood. "Sharing is important," my four-year-old commented. It was then that I held them tight and allowed myself to cry.
Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian journalist based in Seattle. He is also editor of the website PalestineChronicle.com. This article is republished courtesy of: Islamic Association of Palestine (www.iap.org).