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The poster girl

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THE MOTHER OF A SUICIDE BOMBER? Susi sat across the table from me this week and told me of a remarkable encounter she had had recently in a Palestinian refugee camp. Originally from the Black Forest in southern Germany, Susi, a free-lance photographer, was part of a small international team recording the hopes and fears of Middle Easterners in word and image.

One day last September, Susi and her friends visited the university campus in Ramallah. A young Palestinian began talking to her about life under oppression, and his anxieties and aspirations for the future. When after half an hour, he excused himself, saying he needed to go, Susi asked where he was going. To visit a refugee camp, was the reply. Could Susi and her friends come too? she asked. Why not? he indicated. So they all crammed into a battered old taxi and headed off to the camp.

Susi had expected to encounter a tent settlement, but instead through the dusty windscreen she soon saw they were entering a sprawling mass of poorly constructed hovels of concrete, mudbricks and timber salvaged from who-knows-where. She realised they had arrived at the al-Amari refugee camp. Set up in 1948 after the first Arab-Israel war, this camp had seen generations of displaced Palestinians born, raised and recruited for the struggle against the ‘Zionist occupier’.

Huge posters hung everywhere with photos of young men and women with headbands, set against the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock. Arabic lettering carried messages Susi couldn’t understand. Their young host explained that these posters honoured the suicide bombers from this camp.

Suicide bombers?! from this camp? her own age, and even younger, ordinary flesh-and-blood young people, like the young man standing in front of her? Suddenly Susi was very sobered to realise how close she had come to the heart of the whole conflict.

“You seem to be interested in this issue,” he remarked to Susi, noting the impact of his answer on his guests.
“Yes. Yes I am,” she replied.
“Do you want to meet one of the suicide families?”
“Of course. Why not?” Susi responded, wondering where this might all lead.

A few minutes later, Susi and her friends entered the remains of a partly-demolished house. The Israelis bulldoze the houses of any family involved in suicide bombings, their guide explained as they entered a living room. One side of the space was filled with a larger-than-life poster, showing a young woman’s face adorned with a black-and-white headband, the same Dome-of-the-Rock background as with the other posters.

This young woman was Wafa Idris, the team learned, the first female suicide bomber to sacrifice her life for the Palestinian cause. Around the wall hung other photos of the same girl, including of her graduation and her wedding.

Wafa had responded to the call made public by Yasser Arafat on Sunday, January 27, 2002, when he had gathered a thousand young women into his compound in Ramallah. There he had initiated a new phase of the battle to reclaim Jerusalem. Amidst much applause and cheering, he had declared women to be equal with men in the Intifada. “You are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks!” he had told the women, Arafat had then started chanting a phrase picked up by the crowd who punched their fists in the air: “Shahida all the way to Jerusalem… ! Shahida, Shahida,… until Jerusalem!” Arafat had just coined a feminine version of the masculine word for martyr, Shahide, a version which had never existed until that moment.

That same afternoon, 26-year-old Wafa became the first shahida in Arafat’s new army of roses. Wafa blew herself up in west Jerusalem, with ten kilogrammes of explosives strapped with nails. She killed an Israeli man and left over a hundred others wounded, three seriously, including a 12-year-old American and an east Jerusalem Arab.

Susi and her friends stood taking in the photos and the poster, and realising that they were standing in the home of this Palestinian martyr-heroine. An older woman sat quietly in the corner. She looked about 75 years old, Susi told me, but later she learned she was only 57.

The young student introduced her as Wafa’s mother, Mabrook. “Ask her anything you want to,” he said.

An awkward silence ensued. What do you say to a woman who had lost her daughter in such a gruesome way? Susi felt overwhelmed and couldn’t say anything. Someone then asked Wafa’s mother if she had known anything about her daughter’s intention beforehand. No, said Mabrook Idris, she had just said goodbye and left.

And if she had known, would she have tried to stop it? “I would never have allowed it,” replied the mother sorrowfully. Yet, she added, her daughter was a heroine, and had given her life for her country. Wafa was a martyr and she was proud of her.

Official reports at the time of the suicide described “an atmosphere of joy”, a “wedding with eternity”. Leaders of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, the military arm of Arafat’s Fatah movement, appeared in the camp with candy and ready-made posters of Wafa’s heroic image. Wafa’s mother had distributed the sweets to the neighbourhood children to celebrate her daughter’s death. All across the Arabic world, the new heroine was eulogised in the media. Saddam Hussein ordered a memorial to be erected in Baghdad in her honour. Egyptian television viewed her life as an ‘Oscar-winning film’ about a ‘beautiful, pure Palestinian woman, full of faith and willpower’. An Egyptian paper said Wafa’s ‘dreamy eyes and the mysterious smile on her lips competes with the famous smile some artist (sic) drew on the lips of Mona Lisa.’

But here now, in her half-demolished house, this woman showed little joy, little comfort for the sacrifice her daughter had made.

The conversation continued for another half hour or so before the student announced it was time to go. Susi thought, “But I can’t leave without depositing something of God with this woman.” But what? She recalled past experiences with Muslims who were open for prayer, so she asked the student to ask Mabrook if she could pray for her. The student seemed confused and embarrassed and didn’t want to translate.

Susi admitted she was a little scared, but thought to herself that no-one could stop her praying for the woman. So she sat down next to Wafa’s mother, put her arm around her, and began to pray in tongues for a couple of minutes. Then the woman began to weep and sob. Her facade of bravery cracked. She wrapped her arm around Susi, and held her tightly.

The student by now was very uncomfortable, saying, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

Susi looked Mabrook in the eyes, and said, “You must feel this pain every day.” “Not only in the daytime, but also at night,” replied the mother through the reluctant translator, still holding on tightly to Susi and sobbing deeply. One by one, the whole group hugged Wafa’s mother and bade her a tearful farewell. Another taxi delivered them to the final checkpoint before entering Jerusalem, emotionally drained.

Susi told me how restless she was that night. Questions flooded her mind when she awoke the next day. “God, what was that all about? Why would you allow us to go to such a place, to meet such a woman, and for us not to be able to say what we really wanted to say?”

Suddenly she had been overwhelmed by a strong impression that, for the first time, this woman had slept through the night without crying. “Do you know what it means to be salt and light?” she felt God saying to her. “Who did this mother see when she looked at you all? Who did she really experience was visiting her house that day?”

Since this visit, Susi has searched for an answer to the question, what would drive someone like Wafa to commit such a heinous act? Wafa was good-looking, young, educated, and a paramedic volunteer with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Wafa’s older brother Khalil told reporters soon after her death that her sis
ter had seen terrible things
while working for the ambulance service: body parts, children being shot and pregnant women losing their babies at Israeli checkpoints. Her family had said she had been hit three times by Israeli rubber-coated bullets. She had done it for her family’s honour, claimed her brother, who himself had spent eight years in an Israeli prison.

But Susi has since discovered how more women like Wafa are being manipulated into such murderous acts by Arafat’s followers. Some of this is chronicled in a book by Barbara Victor, Army of Roses (Robinson, 2004).

In Wafa’s case, she had been married, but could not get pregnant after seven years. When she finally had had a still-born baby, her husband divorced her on the excuse that she was not strong enough to produce a healthy heir. Her father died, her brother was in an Israeli prison, and she had brought disgrace upon her family through the divorce. After her husband re-married and had two children, Wafa begged him again to take her back as a second wife, but was rejected again. Now she had to live with the double disgrace of being barren and divorced.

Then in the months prior to that fateful day on Jaffa Road, she was approached by the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade and told she could restore the honour of her family by becoming the first female suicide bomber.

And so opened a new, dark phase of history for Palestinian women…. and for our world.

Thank God the situation in Europe is nowhere near as bad as in the Middle East. But the radicalisation of the likes of Mohammed B. we talked about last week remains an ominous warning of where this road could lead, left unchecked.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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