Conflict uproots refugees a 2nd time

Men jailed for days, as family members are moved elsewhere

April 11, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RUMANA, West Bank - Detained by the Israeli army, interrogated, stripped to his underwear, then released at a military outpost in the middle of the night, Khalid Nijam walked to this dusty village yesterday in search of his family.

He and his family - wife, mother, sister and two young children - lived in the Jenin refugee camp, the densely populated city-within-a-city that was virtually emptied and destroyed this week by battles between the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen.

Nijam, 36, pushed through a crowd of anxious men ---- dirty, hungry, wearing borrowed clothes - the better to scan a list of names tacked to the walls of the village mosque. All of these men were newly released prisoners, none of them charged with a crime.

On the list were the names of women and children from the refugee camp. Families had been divided; husbands here feared the worst had happened to their wives and children; mothers and wives, wherever they might be, probably feared the worst for their sons and husbands.

The army had scattered some of the women among West Bank villages. The list of 500 names in Rumana, pieced together by volunteers relying on cell phones, provided comfort to some of the men, many of them now homeless.

But the names of Nijam's relatives were not on the list. Alarmed, he shoved other men away to reread the lists, hoping he had missed something.

"Where is my family right now?" he said, falling against the wall and shaking his head. "The last time I saw them, they were in the camp. I hope they got out. I hear the army is destroying all the homes."

He would have to continue his search.

The Israeli army said yesterday that the fighting in Jenin was nearly over, its soldiers conducting cleanup operations after the surrender of 200 gunmen. In eight days of fighting, at least 120 Palestinians and 22 Israelis were killed, though Palestinians say the number of deaths among the residents is much higher.

Army officials said last night that they had cleared the way for Palestinian ambulance crews to retrieve the dead but that the medics had refused, apparently to show the scene later to reporters. A Palestinian Red Crescent spokesman said the army was denying them entry to the camp.

Reporters have been barred from Jenin, and there has been no independent verification of who has died and how.

Soldiers emerging from Jenin yesterday afternoon described the fighting as intense. The soldiers sprawled on the ground at a checkpoint amid tanks and armored personnel carriers, their uniforms muddied and bullet cartridges still locked in their M-16 rifles. They talked of home, family and war.

"It was awful," said Lt. Yossi Guy, 23, who finished his army service 18 months ago only to be called up to fight in Jenin. "You couldn't fight. You want to shoot the terrorists, but there were civilians everywhere."

He lives in the coastal city of Netanya, his apartment two blocks from the hotel where, two weeks ago, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 27 Israelis. Guy said he cut short a vacation in South America to join his unit.

"I'm protecting my house," he said, his rifle resting against a trash bin. "We had to do this. We don't like to do it, but we had to fight to bring quiet. This is for my father, my mother and my brothers."

For the residents of the refugee camp, this is a time of terrible uncertainty. They are refugees a second time over - refugees from the refugee camp - many of their homes probably destroyed. The men are in search of their families, and in search of shelter.

Left with donated clothes and sleeping on thin mattresses in the mosque, the men of Jenin simply sat and waited, and talked of their harrowing days in custody.

Some men, accusing Israeli soldiers of abuse, showed off what they said were burn marks caused by cigarettes. Men complained about the lack of food, the humiliating lack of toilets and the efforts apparently made to crush their spirit.

Muhamad Amori, 40, lived in the refugee camp with his wife and three children, whom he supported by selling vegetables from a donkey cart. On Friday, he said, soldiers announced their arrival by ripping the door of his house from its hinges. Twenty soldiers piled inside, climbing over the body of a man lying in the street.

Amori said that over the next three hours they searched every cabinet and storage bin. The soldiers, he said, were particularly interested in why he had posters of two young men killed in the camp last year.

When his sister-in-law, Fathiya Amori, 28, grabbed some small plastic bags, a soldier pointed his gun at her, Amori said. "I told them that we're not involved in anything. They didn't believe me."

The soldiers left, only to return the next night. They forced the women and children into a neighbor's house, handcuffed Amori and his brother, taking the men to another house. There, he said, he was blindfolded and ordered to lie face down among 70 other males, between 14 and 65 years old.

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