Holy Hell In Jerusalem
By Irris Makler, Stephen CrittendenSeptember 28, 2012
From her home in Jerusalem journalist Irris Makler would hear an unmistakable BOOM — the huge crack of sound that meant it was time to grab her reporting gear and head out towards the carnage.
As I waited for my boxes to arrive from Russia, I discovered that my new apartment was in a great location. The Old City was a kilometre from my front door, and I could gaze out on its imposing stone walls, changing from pale cream to butterscotch and back again as the sun moved across the sky. For nineteen years, from 1948 until 1967, when Jerusalem had been a divided city controlled by Jordan on one side and Israel on the other, my apartment had sat just overlooking no man's land in the valley below. Soldiers from both sides shot across at random.
After the 1967 War, this area suddenly became the new centre of town and prime real estate. Like the derelict land in the centre of Berlin after the Wall there fell, it also became extremely valuable.
Irris Makler: Not a News Nun
The houses were refurbished and the sandstone paths were mended.
Gardens were planted and the streets closed to traffic, turning it into a village in the centre of town.
Before I'd arrived, I'd harboured a secret hope that Jerusalem might work some of its magic on me. Being an atheist didn't stop me from wondering — inconsistently — if I might perhaps see an angel folding its wings and floating above the Old City walls, or even guiding me around the ancient stone streets. Without me having to go mad, of course. I reasoned that surely if angels were going to appear anywhere in your reporting career, it would be here. But despite my optimistic street address, in reality Jerusalem was moody and divided.
Innocents were dead everywhere. It was my job to head straight to the scenes of carnage.
I went from one suicide bombing to another. They occurred throughout Israel, but were most common here in Jerusalem. During that first autumn, I didn't even have to drive to the story. Five bombings in a row were within walking distance of my home. I would hear the unmistakable BOOM — a huge crack of sound — grab my recording gear and race out the door before the news beeper began sending out alerts.
At each roadside, I'd pass the gawkers, show my press card and join the swarm of journalists, police and rescue services at the charred skeleton of a bus, or the smoking ruins of a bus stop or cafe. The air was heavy with the stench of cordite and burnt flesh. The main targets of the bus attacks were working-class Israelis who couldn't afford any other means of transport. Ironically, the other people forced to catch buses, despite the danger, were the city's Arab population and they were also victims.
We crunched over broken glass and blood — am I really walking in someone's blood? There were body parts everywhere, a dismembered hand on the path, a head, usually the bomber's, in a tree. Medics were treating the wounded and body bags would be piled up nearby. Sirens wailed urgently, while police and doctors barked into phones and beepers. The people lucky enough to be alive would be crying, scrabbling for their mobile phones if they could, lying moaning if they couldn't. We talked to people who hadn't made it onto the bus because it was too crowded, or had simply been late to lunch at a restaurant. They had been saved, while the punctual friends they were due to meet were not so lucky.
'What would have happened if I'd been on time? I would be dead now too. It's incomprehensible,' cried an Israeli woman in her fifties. She had survived a suicide attack at Maxim's, a popular Haifa restaurant which served Arabic food, and was jointly owned by Arabs and Jews. She sat in the street, rocking back and forth, her clothes blackened and torn, her beautiful face crumpled. Her friends' bodies were somewhere behind her, in the ruins of the restaurant. Her life, which had been spared, would never be the same.
'What would have happened if the bus hadn't been full? I had my foot on the step …' A woman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, stood in front of me on a main street in Jerusalem, in shock. 'I was on my way to the doctor,' she said, explaining herself like a small child. She lifted her foot, re-enacting climbing onto the bus, and then collapsed to the ground in a dead faint. I didn't even have a chance to get her name.
It was a series of 'what if's', as people puzzled over their miraculous survival, ascribing it to inexplicable good fortune, or God's grace, depending on their world view. These stories made me even more fatalistic, suggesting that our fortunes were 'written', for good or ill, and that we couldn't avoid them, no matter how hard we tried. If there was a purpose to this suffering, I couldn't see it.
In a Palestinian town after an Israeli military raid, the smell was the same: cordite, blood and panic, a sour stench all its own. There was chaos as people ran screaming, carrying the dead and injured in their arms. In Gaza, death often came from the air, part of a policy of 'targeted killings' carried out by the Israeli military. Only, the pilots didn't always hit their targets.
At the scene of a missile strike on a car near Gaza City, I saw a black depression in the road and two burnt-out vehicles. The targets were the Palestinian militants driving in the first car. The passengers in the taxi van behind it were 'collateral damage'. That chilling American phrase was often in use here too, to shield politicians and spokesmen from having to refer directly to the innocent victims of a military operation.
A young woman crawled out of the wreckage and was standing stunned on the road. She appeared forlorn and isolated in the middle of the crowd, cut off from them by a force field of distress and grief.
She had been travelling with her mother and sisters, on their way into Gaza City to do some shopping. They were discussing what they would buy when the missile struck.
Her mother shielded her from the blast with her body, protecting her to the end. But she couldn't protect all her daughters, and she couldn't protect herself. Now this young woman was the only female from her family left alive. She kept moving her hands in front of her in a helpless repetitive motion, a precursor to shock setting in. When her father arrived, she fainted in his arms.
In northern Gaza, which was a rural area, many Palestinian farmers were also the unintended targets of Israeli missiles. One farmer was ploughing his field when an Israeli missile struck. His farm supplied fruit and flowers — carnations, cherry tomatoes, strawberries and watermelons — to an Israeli export company. In the morning the produce was in Gaza, two hours later it was in Tel Aviv, and in the afternoon in London or Paris.
On the day of the air strike, the farmer's crop was ready for harvest and he was on the phone, reminding his cousin that they still had to pay the final instalment for a two-year agricultural training course.
The course was run by a Jerusalem peace-building group, founded by a Palestinian and an Israeli. Its aim was to ensure that Palestinian farming methods met stringent new European standards, so that produce from Gaza would be accepted for sale in the EU. The farmer said goodbye to his cousin, shut his mobile phone, turned back to his work and was vaporised by an incoming missile. Another mistaken target, another innocent casualty. When I went to the farm three days later, his blood still stained the earth in the watermelon field. His son told me sadly that if he took over his father's farm, he would have to start all over again with the training course before he could export their fruit and vegetables to the EU. That knowledge had died with his father too.
The futility of such deaths made it hard not to despair.
Funerals. I had never attended so many funerals. I came to know the order of service for both Muslim and Jewish burials. The sound of a mother weeping was the same everywhere. It is not a sound you ever forget.
'Take me, God! Why didn't you take me?'
The emotionally draining work often seemed intensified by the heat. I really understand the connection between sweat and tears now. After a long hot day, I'd eat late, alone. Or I'd try to catch Orla [Irish journalist Orla Guerin], if we both finished in time. One Saturday night, we planned to have dinner and watch an episode of the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, which she'd brought over from London. We watched all six episodes back to back, two tough reporters swooning over Jane Austen, unable to resist the tug of that happy-ever-after ending.
This is an edited extract from Hope Street, Jerusalem by Irris Makler, published by Harper Collins Australia, RRP $29.99.
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