(The following article was first published in Mondowiess)
We were visiting poet Dareen Tatour in her house arrest in Reineh on April 17th, which is known here as “The Palestinian Prisoner’s Day”. Two and a half years after she was arrested for publishing a poem, Tatour is still under house arrest, waiting the verdict in her trial that is now set to be announced on May 3rd.
In these days Palestinians are protesting 70 years of ongoing Nakba. For Palestinians inside the “green line”, those that succeeded to stay on their land or near it after the 1948 ethnic cleansing, “The March of Return”, held at the same day that Israel celebrates its establishment, became over the last two decades the central yearly gathering to express their national identity and their aspirations for freedom and equality. This year we also witness a new initiative for mass non-violent struggle in the besieged Gaza Strip under the title of “the great march of return”. On every Friday since Land Day (March 30th), tens of thousands of Palestinians march toward the prison-walls that Israel had built all around them. Israeli army snipers shoot at them in cold blood, killing dozens and wounding thousands. Through these marches the Right of Return regained its natural place at the center of the Palestinian liberation struggle.
To see how Tatour’s story fits within the context of these contemporary events, I decided to interview her about her personal experiences with the Nakba and the struggle for “Al-‘Awda” – the return.
Dareen’s Granma and the Nakba in Safsaf
Are you a refugee yourself? I asked her. “No”, she said, “the Tatour family lived in Reineh long before the Zionists came to Palestine.”
So how did you become aware to the ethnic cleansing of 1948? I continued to ask. “Well, it all started with my grandmother.” She said. “She told me how they were expelled from Safsaf”.
Safsaf was a Palestinian village northwest of Safed. On October 29, 1948, it was occupied by the Israeli army. After the villagers surrendered, the soldiers performed a massacre, shooting more than fifty bound villagers and throwing their bodies into a pit. Young women were raped and killed, including a 14 years old girl. The story of the massacre in Safsaf is recognized not only by Palestinian historians but also by Israeli sources. The Israeli army held an internal investigation but its results are still a state secret.
Dareen’s grandmother was 16 years old at the time of the occupation and was already married to a man from Al-Jesh, a nearby village. At the day of the occupation she was in Safsaf and witnessed the horrors of the massacre. She told Dareen how, before the mass shooting, when the soldiers were instructing people to gather in the middle of the village, she saw how they found two young women and a young men hiding in a cave. They shoot the three of them dead before her terrified eyes.
Most of the people of Safsaf, including the grandmother’s brothers and sisters, ended up as refugees in Lebanon and Syria, thrown into an ordeal of statelessness and suffering to which, after 70 years, there is still no end in sight. The grandmother joined her husband in Al-Jesh and stayed there, where Tatour’s mother was later born. Most of the people from Al-Jesh, after hearing about the massacre in Safsaf, also fled, so more relatives, also from the grandfather’s family, became refugees. Some of them, as a result of Israeli and/or Arab massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps, later found refuge in different European countries, but most of them are still in Syria and Lebanon.
Tatour never met her grandfather, who died when her mother was still a girl. But she is proud of what she heard about him from her grandmother. He was a revolutionary and took part in the organization of the great Palestinian general strike against the British occupation and against the Zionist colonization of Palestine, back in 1936. Later he took part in the revolution that lasted from 1936 till 1939, until it was bloodily repressed by the British army.
She felt very close to her grandmother, who was telling her about life in the lost paradise in Safsaf, as well as about the Nakba and the fate of the refugees. From here came her urge to write down the stories, to photograph whatever was left from people, memories and homes, and to devote her life to the Palestinian struggle for restoring lost rights.
Photographing, Oral History and Activism
Just as she finished high school, Tatour started documenting Palestinian life before the Nakba, interviewing old people, filming on video and writing down stories. She started by interviewing her own grandmother, but soon widened her effort and started looking for displaced people from any of the more than 500 villages and towns that were destroyed by Israel in 1948. She would accompany them to their destroyed villages, or go there herself to take pictures.
She published some of her documentary evidence in the “Palestine Remembered” site, as well as her own Youtube channel, Facebook, a blog and a dedicated site she established for this purpose, “ynbu3.com” (yanbu’a in Arabic means “water spring”). During her detention and later house arrest, prevented from any access to the internet, she lost contact with the service providers of the ynbu3 site and now the site is not accessible. She is afraid that the precious materials in it might have been lost, as well as many documentary evidence that she kept on her computer that was confiscated by the police.
In 1995, a few years before Tatour began her documentation effort, representatives from groups of displaced Palestinians from different towns and villages united to form “the national committee for the defense of the rights of the internally displaced Palestinians in Israel”. In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of the Nakba, they started the new tradition of “The Annual March of Return”. In the year 2000 the national committee established itself as an officially registered association.
The activist of the internally displaced association discovered Tatour’s documentary efforts in Palestine Remembered and invited her to take part in a “guides’ course” that they held in order to expand their activities. Tatour joined the association and found another platform for her effort to perpetuate Palestinian memories. She combined the guidance of groups of visitors to the destroyed villages with documentary work – bringing old refugees to tell their memories to the visitors – and taking videos with their stories.
As the March of Return events evolved to draw tens of thousands participants, they now also include tents with special exhibitions. In the last marches before her arrest Tatour maintained her own tent, with an exhibition of more than 500 photos from the destroyed villages and towns, under the title “tell me about my village”.
She gave new dimension to the struggle to save the memories by using the Ynbu3 site to build connections between the internally displaced and refugees beyond the borders. Each side gave what the other missed. The people that stayed in Palestine could visit the sites of destroyed villages and send pictures. Refugees were contacting the site to request from local activists to find what remained of their houses or to send photos of the locations of endeared memories. The people in the refugee camps conveyed a treasure of precious memories and Tatour interviewed them by Skype and wrote their stories. She also helped to coordinate visits of refugees that now hold European passports to their destroyed villages. She produced three films about such “return visits” to the villages of Al-Damun, Al-Birweh and Tirat Haifa.
Wounded in Saffuriyya
While I was looking in Tatour Facebook page, which she is not allowed to do but everybody else can, I found her image lying in a hospital bed, visited by Knesset Member Jamal Zakhalka. She told me how she was wounded during the 2008 March of Return.
It was the 60th anniversary of the Nakba. On that year there was a surge of right-extremists’ and settlers’ incitement against the March of Return, which was held on the lands of the destroyed town of Saffuriyya, northwest of Nazareth. There was a very big Palestinian presence, with many families bringing kids of all ages to take part in the educational event. As the marchers were returning from the site of the gathering toward the parking, the police allowed a group of settlers to come close and throw stones at them. As some Palestinian youth tried to confront the settlers, a big police force, including special mass-oppression (“anti-riot”) units, some of them mounted on mighty horses, attacked the whole Palestinian public with tear gas, shock grenades and batons. The police weapons caused a wild fire in the dry vegetation, which put the participants in extra danger.
There was havoc. Many people that didn’t expect such violence were confused and tried run away in all directions. Children were crying and many people lost contact with their relatives or friends. Tatour, armed with her professional camera, tried to stay calm and document the events. She still remembers the scenes of policemen beating whoever they could catch, sometimes stumping with their boots on their victims. She also vividly describes how people were wounded when the mounted police rode their horses into the crowd.
Suddenly she saw three children that lost contact with their parents and were stuck between two lines of the police, not knowing where to hide. She stopped filming and went there to help them. She succeeded to guide the children out of danger, but was caught herself between the police lines, and became direct target for their fury. Officially gas canisters and shock grenades should be shot in the air, but she remembers how the policemen were shooting them directly at her from close range.
She especially remembers one direct hit at her leg, and another shock grenade that hit her chest. She felt the burning heat of the iron and the force of the blow left her unable to breath. She fell on the ground. She remembers herself calling for help before she fainted and was evacuated by an ambulance to a hospital in Nazareth. She was hospitalized for one day before her situation stabilized.
Exactly 10 years later, on Friday, April 20, some twenty thousand Palestinians attended the 21st March of Return on the site of the destroyed village of Atlit, just south of Haifa. It was the third march in a row that Tatour missed due to her house arrest. Some Israeli politicians and Facebook racist activists demanded to abolish the march and threatened havoc if it will take place. They didn’t show up. I just hoped that on the next year Tatour will be marching with us again.