Prisoner of War in Your Own Home

Imagine a gang of armed and angry soldiers kicking your door down, taking over your home and turning it into their HQ. Imagine being confined to one room knowing if you leave without permission you'll be shot. Some people need not imagine.
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Private, the new film by Italian director Saverio Costanzo paints a picture that we, languishing in the relative safety of the West, could never imagine, never empathise with or even believe. But for some it is a daily reality. One such family are the Bashirs.

“I am a prisoner in my own house” says the 54 year old Palestinian Khalil Bashir headmaster of the Rudolf Walther School, Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, via Israel. “I am not allowed to go around the house or leave. I am only allowed to walk one way on one path and go to teach in my school and to come back and. I am not allowed guests - even my sister. When my mother died last November they refused to let her body to be prepared for burial at my home and only after a lot of negotiations and the interference of my German friends they eventually allowed it.”

Amnesty International has taken up the Bashir’s cause and set up a telephone interview between yours truly and the beleaguered teacher. After a several failed attempts, I discover that the phone, like pretty much everything else in the Bashir house, is shut down after dark but eventually the phone is answered by the shockingly ebullient Mr. Bashir on a relatively quiet Sunday afternoon.“They are here now. If we are lucky you will hear the roar of their tank,” whispers Bashir. “They listen now to what we are speaking. Just four months ago I could not have spoken to you on the telephone like this but I am accustomed to this - if there is no shooting or soldiers or restrictions we would feel very odd.”

The first phase of Bashir’s torment came in May 1992, after former Israeli chief of staff and Minister for Defense Yitzhak Rabin had in response to the 1987 ‘intafada’, called for his people to smash the uprising with “force, power and blows,” and to “break the hands and legs” of the protestors.” And violence begat violence until it reached Bashir’s very door step. The leader of K’far Darom (one of the many Israeli settlements considered by many to be a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention) was killed by Palestinians and so Israeli settlers attacked the Bashirs’ property, misappropriated the Bashirs’ ancestral land that lay between their house and the settlement in the middle of which they then built an Israeli Defense Force watch tower and base.

“In 1992 they destroyed my property and my house,” remembers Bashir in his strongly accented yet perfectly enunciated English. “They burned all our olive, lemon and date, groves all the trees. They destroyed all my green houses and all of the houses around so that they can see for very far. Now there is no separation between my house and the military base.”

"If we are lucky you will hear the roar of their tank. I am accustomed to this - if there is no shooting or soldiers or restrictions we would feel very odd."

On 27 May 1992, Bashir lodged a complaint before the Israeli court. The case dragged on for seven years: Bashir did not get his land back or receive any compensation but was in fact rewarded with even greater retaliation. After the second and much bloodier al-Aqsa Intafada erupted in September 2000 the Israelis stepped into high gear. “After three months of continuous shooting, on the 28th. December 2000 two missiles fell on my house.” Recalls Bashir, “Then the army came. They broke in, held guns to our heads and took over my house to use it as a look out station and they have been here ever since.” Since that date the Bashir family have been confined to the ground floor, while the top two floors have been turned into an army base. “Apart from that I live in a romantic atmosphere” adds Bashir laughing softly.

With tanks in their garden and soldiers on their roof the Bashir family are in constant danger and even though the Israeli army has taken full control, soldiers have frequently opened fire on the house. “The first time we tried to leave the house they shot all around our feet,” chuckles Bashir. “They shut us in one room and we cannot leave until they say. Sometimes it is from 7 at night until 10 the next morning.”

The soldiers and the family share the same kitchen and bathroom facilities, the latter denied to the Bashirs while shut in their front room prison.“On one occasion my 10 year old daughter needed to go to the bathroom,” sighs Bashir. “So we banged on the door and the soldier opened it and we asked him is she could go but he refused and as he stood there she wet herself It was very embarrassing for her but at least she wasn’t shot for going to the bathroom.”

In recent years three members of the Bashir family have been injured by Israeli army fire. “Oh yes,” declares Bashir almost nonchalantly, “I was shot in the neck as I was studying one night and my youngest son Yousef , who is just 15 ,was shot in the spinal cord by the Israeli soldiers on the 18th Feb last year. The UN had been here having got permission from the army   and as they were leaving I went to see them off as usual and my son followed,” adds the teacher. “The moment they drove off, the soldiers shot my son in the back  from just 40 metres away  under the noses of the UN. Luckily the UN took him to a hospital otherwise he’d be dead. There was no crossfire that day so they cannot blame that. There was no aggression towards them. He spent 4 months in hospital is partially paralysed and still suffers greatly from the bullets still in his body.”

Apart from being deprived of the most basic facilities and then shot at, the Bashir family  have persevered to overcome their obvious problems.“ I had lots of difficulty with my children,” admits Bashir, They were young and would be very angry as they are deprived of the most simple and natural needs. They cannot play like other children in the grass. They play in the one room, they cannot leave. They ask me why do the soldiers do this to us and I have to justify saying that it is because of their security and war is war and so on and so on.”  Testament to Bashir’s dedication to the mental well being of his children is the facts three of his brood are in University in Germany two studying medicine and one engineering.

“I am proud to say that in spite of everything that has happened to me,” emphasizes Bashir, “I have brought up my children to respect the other side and every morning they chant for peace – you can imagine the risk we take - but I try to teach them to understand the soldiers and not hate them I ask them not to let out wounded memories affect our judgement. Last winter while we were imprisoned a soldier was sitting in our room and it was very cold so he took a blanket from my child and covered himself. But I was not angry, on the contrary I thought it was a sign that he too was a human. He could be cold like us. I exploited this episode and explained it to my children and they understood. Then they looked at him like a human being and not a monster.”

"After three months of continuous shooting two missiles fell on my house. Then the army came, broke in, held guns to our heads and took over my house to use it as a look out station. They have been here ever since."

Such baffling empathy towards ones enemy might be hard to swallow for those reared on a diet of reaction and antipathy, but for Bashir, it is how he survives.

“First of all one has to be man enough to cope with this situation and still keep his goodwill with the other side” says Bashir, “Because I do not feel any sense of hatred towards the other side, have already forgiven every thing and because of my deep belief in peace I have managed to stay in my house and remain sane. Sometimes I read disagreement in the eyes of the soldiers. They are just behaving professionally. And this gives me encouragement because I feel that humanity is victorious. They just carry out orders. It is the politicians that block the mutual understanding between our two people I hope for the day when this mountain of ice that is our disagreement will melt.”

In May 2006 Ariel Sharon has delayed the beginning of Israel’s evacuation of 21 settlements across the Gaza strip causing observers to doubt Israel’s commitment to the process. But until they leave for good, Bashir and his family will continue to suffer.

“The only way I will leave this house is if I die,” asserts Bashir who during his captivity has completed a masters degree on Victorian attitudes to women. “When you think that a man is always ready to sacrifice himself for his loved one well my loved one is my house. This land has been in my family for hundreds of year. It is my childhood. It is my memories. It is my family. The love of my house runs in my veins I cannot leave because history is watching and I am not prepared to make the same mistake my people made in May 1948 when they evacuated their homeland. This is a lesson to everybody - you must never give up your house or your country otherwise you will lose your dignity and your life.”

For Khalil Bashir his life has been the conflict. Born in 1951 - just 4 years after the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine he saw the hostilities of 1956 as a child, the six day war of 1967 as a teenager and has survived the conflict of 1973 and two intafada’s as a father “But the most on going war is now in my house” states the teacher.“It is like a metaphor for our people. The Palestinian gave up more than two thirds of Palestine and now, like my house, it is the playground of our cousins the Israeli’s. The Israelis have to go back to where they were before 1967, let the Palestinians establish their own independent state with East Jerusalem as the capital and understand if you crush your enemy this is not peace as everyone must be happy. This land of ours must be shared and divided but we must change our way of thinking I think we must all compromise.”

Having spoken to Khalil for well over an hour I hear the roar of a tank drowning out our conversation but, before we end, he asks me a favour. “Please. Please, convey the following to my neighbours the Israelis” he shouts, “Please enough hatred. Enough war. Let us look optimistically to the future and give our children the chance to live in peace.”

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