In the first month of my EA service I’ve gotten to know Mohammed Nawaj’ah. He is easy to like. A straightforward man, he says what he thinks. He has a sense of humor. He dotes on his 30 grandchildren, of whom he is very proud, and he is unfailingly hospitable.
Today we visited him in his tent in Susiya. Many of the family live in tents with some of his sons and many of his grandchildren, caring for the sheep. His wife and other family members live in nearby Yatta; they go back and forth. But Mohammed himself chooses to live on the village land most of the time because he knows that it will be taken from him quickly by the Israelis if the family doesn’t maintain a constant presence in Susiya, despite court rulings that give him the right to live on his lands here. Even with the villagers there, the community has suffered a number of incidents of heinous violence. Two of its cisterns have been destroyed; in one case a crushed car was put inside, permanently fouling the water. A tent was torched by night, causing terror and sending one man to the hospital.
The family didn’t always live where they do now. Initially they were living on a different site nearby, in cave dwellings. Mohammed and his wife began their family in the cave homes. But 25 years ago, in 1986, Israelis forced them out of the caves and took over the site, which also contained ruins from the Roman, Hellenistic and Byzantine period, creating an archaeological park where the homes of Susiya had been. Since that time, the villagers have been uprooted and scattered on a number of occasions by actions of the Israeli government.
Last year, Mohammed and his adult son Nasser bought tickets to go into the archaeological park. A film crew went with them as they watched a tourist video recalling ancient times in this place. As I watched the film, I saw them touring the site and then looking around the ruins. They found their old home. “It’s so cold here…” said Mohammed as he entered through the door of his old home and went down. “There’s nothing left.” When asked how he felt here, in this place where he and his family had lived, he said, “How do I feel? Hopeless, that’s all. When you leave your home, what is left?…I lost hope in everything, even in peace.”
As Mohammed came up from the cave site, the army came, three soldiers with an armored jeep. They got out of the jeep and insisted that Mohammed leave the park. Mohammed and Nassir protested. Why couldn’t they be here? They had bought tickets, like anyone else. Nevertheless, the army drove them away.
The 15-minute film that was made that day was shown at a German short film festival, and Mohammed Nawa’ja and Nasser went to the showing. The film is a work of art. It tells in 15 poignant minutes the story of dispossession and loss which is the common bitter heritage of Palestinian people. It is not a fiction film that one can just walk away from and go on with one’s life. It is a story happening to people I know. It is real.