We took a rest from the politics with a few days out in the wadis at Deir Estiyeh where we volunteered, helping clean up the wadis of the litter, and took some time to collect our thoughts. After a couple of exhausting days, we sat in the shade of an old ballout tree, surveying the beauty of our work. My eyes closed as I stretched out on the warm rocks listening to the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, gently caressing each and every branch. The breeze brought with it the undulating murmur of Arab men talking in the olive grove and the sweet music of a nearby shepherd’s piccolo. The still peace was punctuated from time to time when the lemon seller’s donkey stamped its feet to stir its master from his rest. Even now, the picture is almost perfect, a daydream of a dying age, until I open my eyes, and as I lifted them up the valley towards the sky they were caught on the imposing and ever-watchful eyesores that are the neighbouring Israeli settlements, strategically positioned on the brow of each side of the valley, and bringing with them the reminder that there cannot truly be peace here in these times and that these rural people are never alone.
The Israelis are currently threatening to uproot an additional 1,200 olive trees in this area, and the settlers often descend into the valley to drop litter and pollute the spring, or simply to antagonise the farmers. A sombering thought in such a beautiful and seemingly tranquil place…
The following day at Al Fara’a Camp provided stark contrasts to the time in the villages. We visited Al Fara’a Prison, which is thankfully now closed down, but was previously renowned throughout the country as a fearsome prison and torture house for Palestinian men and boys. Our guide had himself been incarcerated here as a young boy which allowed him to relay every last graphic detail of his childhood experiences as he walked us through the narrow corridors and claustrophobic rooms. Some of the stories he told were incredibly distressing, no one uttered a word as we listened in horror and disbelief, looking around and trying to imagine the kind of suffering we were hearing. I am not going to share the details, but suffice to say it was possibly one of the saddest and heart wrenching experiences of the trip, but an essential one in order to truly appreciate the depth of the atrocities and the Palestinian people’s suffering. The memories of some of these former inmates and even their captors have been documented here.
The experience was turned on its head immediately after the tour, when we were invited to watch the camp’s scout group perform their dabke show. The group is the only independent scout group (outside of a church or club) as the Israelis hadn’t allowed scouts. It is run by volunteers and now has more than 350 boy scouts. The people here were incredible, despite the cramped conditions of having more than 7,000 people on 225,000 square km of land, they were still so welcoming and kind, with the words we were continually hearing from the people we met being “we just want people to come, discover Palestine and the truth, and help Palestinians to really feel they are Palestinian”. There was sucha strong spirit and defiance in everyone, that the Israelis had occupied everything else but could not reach the Palestinian minds and hearts – “Palestine is in the heart of every Palestinian no matter where they are”. Another highlight of this visit was to be invited to one of the camp inhabitant’s home for a full traditional lunchtime feast. It was probably one of the best meals of the trip, and it was so amazing to meet the entire family (as a woman I was able to go and speak with the wife and daughters in the kitchen) and really appeciate the kind and generous hospitality that was shown to us.