In The Line Of Fire. April 19, 2003.
It was a beautiful morning, my first day in Palestine’s largest city, Nablus. I thought I would explore the old city market, with its magical charm of vaulted passageways, domed roofs, arched entrances. I took my camera along of course – planning to photograph the historical architecture, the men sitting out by the side of the street with their nargilehs.
I had fallen asleep the previous night to the constant sound of shooting, to the blare of light bombs falling slowly from the sky. Everyone on the streets in the old market was talking about the events of last night: where the shooting came from, who was taken, who was injured, how the F16s also started flying overhead at around midnight...
I could hear gun shots in the not so far distance. A couple of people stopped me, thinking that my photographing old buildings and “normal life” was a waste of time, that I should instead go and photograph the soldiers in their tanks, holding up a girl’s school nearby. I didn’t listen, I have grown sick and tired of portraying only the violence and bloodshed in this country. There is so much more to Palestine than stone-throwing children, Israeli military incursions, checkpoints and roadblocks. Why couldn’t people leave me alone for once and allow me to show the world the normalcy and beauty all around me – those vaulted passageways, the push carts filled with all kinds of fresh herbs, the old men in their kuffiyehs, Western style suits and walking canes who constantly invite you for a cup of tea, the variety of faces from the olive-skinned, brown-eyed beauties to the fair haired, blue-eyed ones? The screams of the merchants, the smells of the spices, the play of light and shadows. No, I kept running into people telling me to go photograph the soldiers.
I walked towards the direction of the shooting. Only a two minute stroll from the center of the old town. I knew I had arrived when I saw a horde of children and young men, a burning tire, a slew of rocks all over the street, and intensified sounds of shooting. I have started to recognize the difference between weapon sounds – this was a tank’s machine gun, not an M16s or a locally-used Kalishnakov. The scene was quite absurd (as are most things here), a number of ambulances were parked, waiting. Boys were breaking large rocks into smaller pieces, others were running up towards the street where the tanks were parked. I was standing with the crowd, two streets down parallel from the tank, I could see its shots firing down the perpendicular street. The sounds of the shots were deafening, as were the screeches and sirens of the new ambulances arriving. One kid screamed at me “his brains are all over the ground.” I have learned not to fall victim to exaggeration here, I had doubted that the girl school’s was in danger, and I equally was doubting that someone had just gotten shot and his brains were spilled. An ambulance screeched down the hill, carrying someone away. Indeed, it was a cameraman who had been shot in the eye, whose brains did spill out on the ground.
The firing continued intermittently for over two hours. Every once in a while I could feel the ground shake, but I just stared (and photographed) in awe the children running up and down the street to get an aim at the tank with their rocks small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of their hand. Some would scream at me “go up there and film.” I thought them insane, I would reply “a journalist just got shot. You want me to go up there with my camera and get shot too? I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be a martyr.” They would frequently reply with a blank stare, as if it hadn’t occurred to them that some people don’t feel like standing in the line of fire just to get a good snapshot of "tank versus kid".
I stayed around the area for a little bit, not sure how much time had passed, as I was busy moving from one side of the street to the other, stuck in the middle since shots were coming down both sides. I didn’t feel fear, which surprised me. My heart skipped some beats perhaps. I was busier responding to the children who wanted or didn’t want to be photographed. At one point a loud boom shook us all, one of the ambulances shot up the street and a crowd of kids followed running on foot. It was a false alarm, no one had been shot, but just grazed by a bullet. Another loud boom and they all came running down the street.
In the events of the morning, much of normal life had been altered. And this was a small exchange of violence by the usual terms of Nablus – a city that has been traumatized by a lot of violence, death, curfews, tanks and soldiers in the past years. An electrical switching station had been bombed and burnt, stopping electricity to half the city. A few old buildings had suffered more bullet scars. A girl’s school was under siege. The first set of high school final exams had been cancelled. A number of children had been prevented from going to school. An out of town salesman was forbidden from picking up his tax refund. A journalist had been killed.
By 11:30 everything was calm again. I spent the rest of the day walking around. I had gone up the hill to see the city from above; on my way back down I heard many ambulances. My friends and I thought that the military must have entered the town again and someone had gotten hurt or killed – the military enters Nablus numerous times daily, so it was not a stupid guess. I walked down the streets where the tanks were parked, their grooved marks still fresh on the street, a few squashed cars being picked apart by kids for parts to sell, broken glass and pieces of sidewalk littering the street, a few men sweeping the ground, cleaning up the blood, the rocks, the bullets and broken pieces of sidewalk. By the time I reached the center of the city, I realized that the ambulance sounds were for the funeral procession for the journalist. A line of ambulances, already decorated with the martyred journalist’s poster, a crowd of people and flags were making their way from the mosque, through the city, towards the cemetery. I followed and photographed. It hadn’t even been six hours since he had been shot. Carried above shoulders, his body was wrapped in a Palestinian flag, over which rest his bright neon yellow, bullet-proof press jacket. His head was wrapped, but I could see clearly that he had been shot in his right eye. People were chanting, screaming, stopping in the town center for a round of speeches and prayers. A crowd of journalists climbed on top of a press car to photograph the dead body from above. The walk took long, but at a fast pace. Something that needs to be felt with all of one’s senses – the loudness of the chanting, the flags hitting you in the face preventing you from seeing, people walking all around you, over your shoes, pushing each other to get a closer glimpse of the body, the stinky armpits of the men holding up the flags, those who want to chat with you (wanting to know: will AP give any money to his family for his death?). The walk continued through the old market, underneath the passageways, passing all the stores with their owners standing outside to pay their respects. It was not a huge crowd, perhaps two-thousand people. There had been a much bigger march only two days ago when a political figured had been killed. We reached the cemetery, the crowd began to disperse, only those close to him went in for the final burial.
He was dead. This morning he had been standing close by the tanks, filming the scenes of children throwing rocks, hiding from the "retaliatory" shootings. A fellow camera man had filmed the entire scene. A soldier, standing nearby one of the tanks, crouched, took aim and shot him in the eye. He fell immediately, bloodying the whole street. They carried him away – shots still ringing in the air – to a nearby house. The ambulance came and took him away. He was a local man, a cameraman for TV Nablus and AP. His income from AP was not enough to support his family – his wife and six kids. He had been hired a while ago, when all of the foreign press agencies began to hire locals. They are cheaper to hire, they cost less money, and if their lives are lost, the insurance policy doesn’t amount to a month’s salary for a foreigner. They are also fearless, compared to their European and American counterparts. They will stand facing a tank, they will survive months of tight curfews, bullet wounds and humiliation at checkpoints. If one dies, others are there desperate for some income, to fill his shoes. He’s now considered a martyr, a hero, among the local population. Another human being of thousands that has lost his life in this uprising, another journalist among a few others that was deemed dangerous – an eyewitness caught in the line of fire.
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