Palestinians search for bodies at camp

Thousands re-enter Jenin after apparent Israeli exit

April 18, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank - Thousands of Palestinians poured back into this demolished refugee camp yesterday afternoon when Israeli forces briefly seemed to have withdrawn. Under a blazing sun, they began clawing at mounds of rubble with backhoes, shovels and their bare hands. Some searched for people they thought might be buried alive beneath buildings flattened by Israeli bulldozers. Others simply hoped to bring dignity to the dead.

Among them was Muhammad Abu Khurj, 75, who had returned to look for the remains of his sister, who had been killed in their house April 5 in an Israeli missile attack. He had been ordered to leave the camp two days later by Israeli troops. Now he walked into his bullet-pocked home and forced his aged legs up four flights of stairs. Entering a room on the top floor, he looked panicked.

"They moved her! They moved her!" he said. "Do you see her blood?" he said, frantically pointing at the bloodstain. "This is her blood!"

Then he spotted something in the corner and lifted a piece of carpet covering it. Underneath was the body of a woman. Her curly gray hair teemed with maggots. Khurj left the room in silence. As he searched for someone to help him with the body, he seethed. "Sharon will regret this," he said, referring to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel. "Sharon will regret this."

Yesterday's digging did little to clear up the dispute over how many fighters and civilians lie entombed in Jenin. About 6:45 p.m., Israeli armored vehicles re-entered the area, firing machine guns in the air and sending people running for cover. The bodies of five fighters were found by Palestinians yesterday, as well as body parts of civilians.

Frustration among Palestinians is soaring over the slow pace of international and Israeli efforts to recover bodies in the camp.

Yesterday morning, two Palestinian men covered their mouths as they dug out body parts from the rubble of a house bulldozed by the Israelis. They hoisted them in the air to make their point that people had been in the buildings.

Just after 1 p.m. yesterday, a Palestinian ambulance driver working with the Red Cross emerged from a building carrying an elderly woman on his back. The woman, Afifeh Suleyman Daoud, lived alone only 20 yards from a series of houses that had been bulldozed. She said she had been in her house for the past 15 days and had survived on food and water from neighbors.

Palestinians fleeing the camp have said that a paralyzed young man and a handful of families hiding in their houses were buried alive by Israeli bulldozers. Israeli officials say they issued clear and repeated warnings over megaphones to residents to leave the camp, particularly in areas where houses were bulldozed. But Daoud, who is blind and hearing-impaired, said she had never heard any Israeli orders to leave the camp, or the bulldozers flattening houses nearby.

Frightened and disoriented, her blank eyes stared at the ambulance's ceiling yesterday afternoon as she muttered a single phrase. "Take me back to my house," she said. "Take me back to my house."

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