The Day Baha Took The Bullet - Nablus
Fourteen year old Baha was a committed friend and guide to international peace activists on the West Bank. And then one Israeli bullet ended his life. In her third dispatch to SQUALL, Ewa Jasiewicz describes the day she felt a bullet whizz by and end the life of her new found teenage colleague.
22nd September 2002
The blocking of the roads to Ramallah and the redefinition of Nablus as a 'Closed Military Zone' renders us pretty much trapped in Nablus. The light-aircraft din of a tank and Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) vrooming past sees myself, Hanneen (stunning and feisty Palestinian/German girl here visiting family and doing volunteer work), Al (pragmatic, cool-headed Welshman from the UK anarcho scene) and Carol (no-shit taking or talking American woman with Polish Gypsy blood), get up and make our way into the Old City to see what's happening. We were accompanied by Baha. Baha is an energetic, vibrant local kid, 14 years-old, with twinkly green eyes. He's wearing his usual green and black stripey cotton polo t-shirt, tucked into his jeans; one of those insightful kids that can smell bullshit from a mile.
Baha's always all 'mush mushkele' ('No Problems'), and is as capable as an adult, looking after international activists staying in the old city by doubling up as guide and mediator between hostile kids and us. He takes time out to explain who we are and why we're in their town when our governments are funding the occupation. He's always accompanying activists on their wanders round the city. Lisa, an ISM activist from up north first met him six weeks ago when she was being sexually harassed by a youth on the darkened stairway of the internet cafe building. She'd been really really scared. Baha drove the offending creep away. She'd called him her 'guardian angel' ever since. We made friends the first time I came to do some checkpoint monitoring opposite the Mukhata. The shebab (yoof) were doing the usual - luzzing stones at the soldiers, waving the odd raggedy Palestinian flag, stomping on a torn Israeli flag. The soldiers were shooting back teargas, live ammo, growling up the tank. I ran down to join the kids.
He was there with the best of them, rock after rock - thunk, hurl, thunk - most of the stones just cracked on the road, nowhere near the tank, uphill as it was, but its the frustration release and attack that counts. One kid handed me a rock, and said 'go on go on!'. I couldn't resist, picked up a big one and hurled. It went nowhere near, the soldiers wouldn't even have seen it, their vision was obscured by a clump of trees. Instant kudos with the kids. They leapt about happily and gave me their open palms to slap. Especially Baha. He was really surprised but really happy. After that he was always calling my name and waving with a great big grin 'Aeva! Aeva! Haow arr you!?' So we go out on the tank-hunt. Baha in tow. It's the usual. The APC and tank out on curfew patrol. We stay back at a street corner on our way into the old city, next to the wrecked bus (engine scalped, windows smashed). The old city is a warren of sandy big-rocked houses, archways, and piles of rubble (bulldozed ex-homes, factories, workshops) some from last month, some left over from the April incursion. The April attack saw 25,000 soldiers, approx. 400 tanks, an unknown quantity of APC's and multiple apache rocket-fire hit the city and surrounding camps. The 4th strongest army on the planet doesn't fuck about when it goes in for the kill. Eighty seven Nablus residents were slaughtered within four days. Over 200 people were used as human shields.
Back to the present...The APC soldier gets on his phone. We think he might be calling the military plod. Nablus was declared a closed military zone about an hour ago. We could be nicked and dumped in Tel Aviv or deported. Whatever. We stay put. Kids pelt the APC with stones. A couple of stones chucked over from behind the safety of a wall, clop the soldier on the top. He responds with a round of live ammo. Bullets ping off the wrecked bus. No casualties. The kids move off down the street leading into the old city, stones in hands. We follow. The tank and APC rumble along up on a higher road, the streets below still visible to them. The tank stops at the top of the street up ahead which leads down to the old city. Kids throw and throw, from round the corner. The tank is about 80 metres up. The stones barely make it. Shots ring out.
No-one's hit. A family wants to cross the road, right in front of the tank's line of fire. They're in a hurry and looking fraught, mother, father, and four kids. All thinks it's way to risky with all the stone-throwing kids about. But Baha helps them across. We rush up to be in front of him and them at once. Baha's brave, just goes straight across, head-on, by their sides, defiant. Nothing happens.
Baha then shows us up a dusty flight of slab steps. He knows the city like the back of his hand. In the aftermath of the April incursion he was one of the most plucky volunteers, clearing rubble, running around, helping the sick. He had wished he could have had been in Jenin too, his mother will tell us, later. We make our way down the street to where we expect the APC and tank to be. It's empty. A few kids are moseying about, the odd stick or stone in their hands. But it seems like they've rumbled off. Just curfew enforcement we think. No big deal. Later we'll find out that its illegal for the Israel Army to use anything stronger than teargas to enforce curfew. Definitely not live ammo. They do what they want anyway though. The entire occupation is illegal under the Oslo Accords, the Geneva Convention, multiple United Nations' directives etc etc etc.
We sit on the Kerb for a bit. Where to next? Internet cafe? Checkpoint watch? The tank and APC are outside. We decide to just check out what they're doing and after that Haneen's going back to her aunt's in Balata. As we make our way down the road we hear the sound of the two vehicles whurring towards us. We get to the side of the road. I'm in front, Carol a bit behind, Haneen behind a bit and Al and Baha at the back. The tank veers into view and then turns down a side street, 120 metres or so away. The APC looks like its going to turn but shudders to a halt. It's blazing hot. The sun's burning down. The street is clear at this point. Nothing is being thrown. The APC's too far away, the road is long, no hiding places, bad vantage point to throw from. Kids loiter to the sides, not far from the burned out bus, out of sight. I see the soldier in the APC take aim. I think it's with his M16 but it could be the mounted gun.
I'm not afraid. Tanks and APC's always look like they're aiming at you here. Guns are constantly being pointed at Palestinians in the territories - at their backs, in their faces, up at their windows, from the middle of the street, from the mountains. A shot rings out, whizzes straight past me. I feel the air rush and duck down instinctively.
'FUCK that was so close', I say, turning round. Al is looking about, 'okay, is everyone alright' he says, 'is...Oh my God, Oh-oh My God'.
Baha is lying on his back in the porchway of a closed shop. Blood is blooming from the right side of his chest. His eyes are bulged back in shock. Al is immediately beside him holding his shoulder, Haneen is by his other side, holding his hand. A Palestinian man is instantly above him, administering CPR, pumping his chest with short sharp thrusts of his crossed hands. 'It's his arm', says Al, 'No it's not it's his chest', says Haneen. The Palestinian man quickly 'corrects' her, 'no no, it's not, it's not'. He knows Baha can still hear him. Blood is welling up in Baha's mouth, flowing freely, it streams fast from his nose, his ear. 'Turn his head, turn his head, he's going to choke' I yell. It's too late though. We all know. I'm on the phone, calling an ambulance, along with several other local people who have all come out.
There's a crowd around Baha. I talk desperately, in English and way too fast to the operator, he can't understand me, I have to hand the phone to someone else. Everything just seems to slide. Within about a minute an ambulance is on the scene. Medics lift Baha up swiftly and take him away. A thick pool of blood is left behind. I never knew blood was so thick. Haneen's hand and sandals are covered in Baha's blood.
The examining doctor at El Ethad Hospital in Nablus said the following about Baha's killing: "...shot under the axila passed through the left lung to right lung and heart. There was an accumulation of blood in thorax cavity. Died of Haemo-Thorax. X-Ray showed multiple fragments in chest. Main injuries in left lung and the heart." He said that the location of the shot in the upper torso and massive internal damage caused by the "dum-dum" bullet was consistent with an intentional kill.
Dum-dum's explode and fragment on impact, a bit like landmines, causing maximum multiple injuries.
The Israeli army initially stated that Baha was carrying a bomb at the time of his assassination. This is not true. It does however prove that the shot was fired to kill, not to stun or frighten but to kill. The statement then changed to accuse Baha of carrying a molotov cocktail.
This was supposed to have exploded in his hand. Setting him on fire and killing him. 'It was his fault'. This is what the IDF said about the boy they shot in the head in Balata the night before. Seventeen-years-old. He died when the ambulance carrying him was refused entry through a checkpoint to the hospital. A double killing. They said he killed himself, shot himself. This a common statement released after the Army murders people here. All armies and police do it. Blame and demonise the victim.
328 children have been murdered by the Israeli army or armed settlers since September 2000.
The next day I went to Israel, to the pristine air-conditioned studios of Canal 2 in Jerusalem. They put make-up on my face, sat me down infront of a sleek-haired news presenter and I told the story. Don't know how they translated me but there appeared to be sympathies. 'I don't know what goes through their heads', the presenter had said afterwards. Did two radio interviews. Stoney faces. Brusque technique.
'Very convincing' said the Radio 4 interviewer. Heard it went well.
Told and retold the story, told and retold the story. To United Press, The Guardian, The Scotsman, The Telegraph, B'Tselem, the Palestine Monitor, my sister, friends, countless friends, the Bushkar Family, it never got easier.
Yesterday we went to see Baha's mother and father. It was somewhere in the old city. We went into a big carpeted, ornate looking room, plusher than the grieving room I walked into in Tubas, when the IDF rocket-attacked and killed five children. Baha's father was a trim looking man, white crocheted round cap on his head. His eyes were wide, too wide. 'Ham Du Allah (said Hamdulullah) Ham Du Allah' he said, smiling when he greeted us. He shook my hand warmly, up and down, up and down, all the while 'Ham Du Allah'. It means Praise be to God, Thanks be to God. Baha was with his God, he was in heaven. He kept saying it, even when we sat down. Dates were passed down. We all, the three of us who were there with Baha when we died (Haneen we couldn't get hold of but went later, just stared straight ahead. He spoke, translated through Hussein, a close close friend of Baha, of how much Baha loved to help the International volunteers and how happy he was, how much he loved Lisa.
We then went to where his mother was. She was sat in a room full of other female relatives. She was wearing black, a long black dress and Hejab. Her face welcomed us. The room was full. The first question she asked us was hard for her, full of doubt but quietly, almost urgently asked, 'Was Baha carrying anything? Was he? Did he really have this bomb or something?'. She was confused. No. We explained. She nodded, firm mouthed but her eyes still full of pain. Al began to explain what actually happened. Right from the beginning. When he got to the part about Baha helping the family across the road in front of the tank, she covered her face with her hands and let out a long low moan, which turned into a sob and more sobs and tears. 'Habibti, Habibti' she kept saying, crying, 'My love, my love'. She cried and cried, cried harder when Al told her how we all came to know Baha, when he met Lisa on the stairs of the internet cafe.
An older relative began to chastise her. 'Stop, enough, stop your crying, he is with God, he is in a better place, he is with God, he is safe, take heart, enough'.
When we leave, she shakes our hands, absent. His father shakes our hands. He's still got that same wide-eyed energy, the kind that comes from shock and grief. The riding of the shockwave that is sudden, torn away from you in death, and which you crash through at some point, privately. 'HamDulAllah, HamDullallah'.