Jenin survivors mine ruins for traces of former lives

Camp: Palestinians use bare hands and makeshift implements to unearth belongings, homes and remains of loved ones.

April 21, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank -- Jamal Hamdan dug in search of his uncle's Jordanian passport. Eyman Bilan dug for the clothes belonging to her six children. Mahmoud Abu Fayed searched for the body of his paralyzed son, who was unable to escape when Israeli soldiers leveled the family's house.

Dozens of Palestinians who escaped the battles here during the past two weeks mined high mounds of hard-packed rubble with bare hands, makeshift pickaxes and broken shovels this weekend, trying to unearth their possessions, houses and families.

The survivors found the refugee camp rendered into a wasteland, its center pulverized. Each searcher claimed the spot where he thought his house once stood and began the task of unearthing remains believed buried under tons of rubble.

"They destroyed my house in front of my eyes," said Hamdan, 39. He told of soldiers forcing him from his bedroom, handcuffing him and stripping him nearly naked in the street as a bulldozer plowed over the building in which he had been born.

He returned at the end of last week, his face covered by a white surgical mask to protect against the choking dust, to dig with his calloused hands. He needed the passport so his visiting uncle can return home to Jordan. After five hours, he said with a sigh, "I didn't find anything."

Fayed was desperately searching for something more precious: his 32-year-old son, Muhammad. Soldiers had blasted Fayed's front door off its hinges and barged inside, forced the women and children to flee and detained the men.

The soldiers, Fayed said, refused to let anyone carry out his disabled son, paralyzed since birth, who lay huddled in a bed in a corner room.

"I screamed at the soldier in the bulldozer, `Please, there is still someone inside the house,' " said Fayed, 70, as he tearfully watched a backhoe dig for the remains. "The driver didn't respond. He just continued to destroy the house."

After touring the refugee camp yesterday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns urged Israel to give relief agencies greater access, to help the residents obtain food and shelter.

"What I saw is a terrible human tragedy," Burns said in a statement. "What happened in Jenin camp has caused enormous suffering for thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians."

Just how many Palestinians were killed in the camp, a tangle of alleyways and concrete homes, remains in dispute. Palestinian officials say hundreds died, including many civilians, their corpses rotting under the rubble. Israeli army commanders say no more than a few dozen people were killed, most of them gunmen shot during days of fierce fighting that also claimed the lives of 23 soldiers.

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council voted in favor of sending investigators to determine what happened in the camp, and Israel agreed to admit them.

Jenin was the scene of the most intense fighting during Israel's three-week offensive in the West Bank, and it was where the army employed bulldozers. When Israeli troops became bogged down in the camp's center, the army destroyed it.

Army commanders have defended their actions, maintaining that they gave ample warning for people to flee before armored bulldozers demolished buildings.

Doctors at Jenin Government Hospital said they had recovered 43 bodies as of yesterday, including those of four women and two children. About 15 had been buried in temporary graves in the hospital's garden. Relatives have exhumed the corpses and reburied them in the camp cemetery.

In interviews, people told of indiscriminate killings, but it has been impossible to independently verify the accounts. United Nations field workers said they will interview survivors and compare their names with lists of the 14,050 registered inhabitants of the camp, to establish how many people are missing or confirmed dead.

Buildings, their sides sheared off and first floors gouged, were teetering at the end of last week.

Several bombs left by Palestinian fighters blew up, injuring people digging in the dirt. Yesterday, two people, including an Israeli doctor, were injured when they stepped on explosives, which detonated, and one young man was pulled alive from the rubble. On Friday, residents marched back and forth to the cemetery, passing others still searching for bodies.

The crushed corpse of a 35-year-old man was recovered from under a home, the body wrapped in a white sheet and carried out on a stretcher -- identified by the silver wedding band on which his wife's name had been engraved.

The work was tedious and slow. Two backhoes from the Palestinian Authority helped with the excavation, but they fell short of what was needed. One of the backhoes plowed debris from one street to another; the other helped dig for Mahmoud Abu Fayed's son.

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