A week ago, at the small guest house where friends and I stayed while visiting Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV) in Bamiyan, eight of us huddled around one cell phone to participate in a conference call organized by Fellowship of Reconciliation members in the United States. The call was part of an ongoing effort to foster a connection between the AYPV and volunteers at the Rachel Corrie Center in Gaza. The Gazan center was started by Cindy and Craig Corrie, whose daughter, Rachel, tried to stop an Israeli bulldozer driver from destroying the home of a Gazan family that had befriended her. The bulldozer driver crushed her to death.
I asked the call planners to notify a close friend of mine who volunteers at the Center, hoping he might be included in the call. My friend – I’ll call him Firas – had extended courageous hospitality to Audrey Stewart and me when we crossed into Gaza during the last four days of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, an assault that was waged against Gazans for 22 days beginning in December 2009.
Firas, whose home has been bombed four times in the past several years, has tried hard to cope with living in a land under siege. He has survived periodic bombings and the tragic loss of close friends. When we were with him in Gaza, he took us to visit patients who had been wounded by tank-fired white phosphorous weapons. We sat with villagers in ransacked homes whose family members had been burnt to death. On our last day with him in Gaza, Firas described having been with Rachel Corrie on the day she died. Filled with anguish by the memory, he put his head in his hands and cried.
When the Fellowship of Reconciliation coordinators placed the call to Gaza, Firas answered the phone.
The AYPV was represented that day by their youngest members – Zekerullah, 15; Ali, 14; and Gulamai, 11. The others were busy harvesting potato crops, tending small shops or going to classes.
These young boys understood the importance of making connections with people who share similar circumstances because they live in war zones. They were remarkably patient with the technical difficulties of an international Skype call between developing countries.
It wasn’t easy to hear the speakers at all. What’s more, every comment required translation and participants were frequently asked to repeat what they’d just said. The call was cut and then restarted several times. But nothing broke the serious concentration as the boys worked to establish a dialogue with Firas.
Firas began by describing his situation in Gaza. Abdulai responded by noting that the situation in Bamiyan is better than in Gaza. “It’s a little more secure than other provinces,” Abdulai reported. “Kandahar would be similar to Gaza.”
Firas told the boys that he and his family sometimes slept with their boots on for fear that they might have to escape a bombardment in the middle of the night. “We wonder,” he added, “if we lose our house, where will we go? Still, we must ask, what about the others? People in Gaza who were forced to move into schools and mosques after bombings are looking for apartments, but they have no funds to rebuild. Thanks to God, we have repaired our house.”
“Firas,” said Ali, “if bombings start again near your house, please go someplace else!”
“Yes,” said Ghulamai. “Come to Afghanistan!”
Firas explained that he has no permission to leave Gaza and that he often feels trapped.
Abdulai then asked for the phone. “I understand,” he said. “My family ran from the Taliban. My father was captured and killed by the Taliban.”
This seemed to touch something in Firas, prompting him to revisit another memory. “Okay, guys,” he said, “I will tell you more of my story.” During a bombing, he and his friends decided it was time to leave their homes, but one of Firas’s closest friends, someone he had grown up with, realized he had left behind something he needed and decided to run back and retrieve it. A bomb exploded. They were all running to rescue survivors and get people to the hospitals. Firas’s friend had disappeared. “Didn’t you see him?” his loved ones later asked Firas. “Wasn’t he with you?!”
Firas could only reply that they couldn’t find him. To this day, nobody has any information about him.
“Many people face this kind of uncertainty,” said Firas.
Zekerullah then recalled a terrible time in his young life when people being attacked in his village tried to hide in drainage ditches or in potato storage bins.
Ghulamai told Firas that he has an uncle who disappeared and was never found. The uncle went missing ten years ago, after a bombing. “Did the uncle live, or was he put in prison?” Ghulamai asked, repeating the question his loved ones still ask. “To this day,” he said, “my family and I feel the pain.”
Zekerullah spoke up about the day his uncle was shot – his body was filled with bullets. “It was a terrible situation like what you have just described.”
Then Ali nodded his head, indicating he wanted to take the phone. “Please remain strong and brave,” he said. “We will endure this together, with you. If it’s beyond enduring, please call us. Life will pass, but if it’s beyond enduring,” he repeated, “you must call us.”
“Yes,” said Ghulamai. “We share your pain. You are not alone. Please don’t give up.”
“Please take care of yourself,” said Zekerullah, closing the call.
Two day later, Cindy and Craig Corrie were in an Israeli court for a hearing related to the death of their daughter. Rachel was killed in March, 2003. An internal Israeli military investigation concluded that no charges should be brought and the case was closed. Earlier this year, the Corrie family filed a civil suit charging the state of Israel with responsibility for Rachel’s death. It’s expected that the case will be concluded sometime later this year.
The October 20, 2010 hearing entailed four hours of testimony from the former soldier who drove the bulldozer that knocked Rachel down and then killed her.
Following the hearing, Cindy Corrie said she was relieved to get this difficult day behind her. She had brought her daughter’s writings with her into the courtroom. “I wanted to keep Rachel’s humility and compassion for everyone in my heart today,” she said, “but it was very hard as I did not hear one word of remorse from this witness today. That saddens me.”
It’s agonizing to slow down, stop and experience the shared pain of war. The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers have spoken several times with Rachel Corrie’s parents. They believe it’s crucial to express what is called, in their Dari language, “hamdard,” meaning “shared pain.”
They understand Firas’s isolation, but in spite of living in remote places under circumstances that are poorly understood, if at all, by those who live in their land as occupiers, they still feel the deepest confidence in the values of empathy and compassion. To those who are caught in war’s cruel clutch, they extend a simple truth: you’re not alone.