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"Tell the World" Amid the Ruins of Jenin, The Grisly Evidence of a War Crime
16 April 2002
A monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for a fortnight has finally been exposed. Its troops have caused devastation in the center of the Jenin refugee camp, reached yesterday by The lndependent, where thousands of people are still living amid the ruins.
A residential area roughly 160,000 square yards about a third of a mile wide has been reduced to dust. Rubble has been shoveled by bulldozers into 30ft piles. The sweet and ghastly reek of rotting human bodies is everywhere, evidence that it is a human tomb. The people, who spent days hiding in basements crowded into single rooms as the rockets pounded in, say there are hundreds of corpses, entombed beneath the dust, under a field of debris, criss-crossed with tank and bulldozer treadmarks.
In one nearby half-wrecked building, gutted by fire, lies the fly-blown corpse of a man covered by a tartan rug. In another we found the remains of 23-year-old Ashraf Abu Hejar beneath the ruins of a fire-blackened room that collapsed on him after being hit by a rocket. His head is shrunken and blackened. In a third, five long-dead men lay under blankets.
A quiet, sad-looking young man called Kamal Anis led us across the wasteland, littered now with detritus of what were once households, foam rubber, torn clothes, shoes, tin cans, children's toys. He suddenly stopped. This was a mass grave, he said, pointing.
We stared at a mound of debris. Here, he said, he saw the Israeli soldiers pile 30 bodies beneath a half-wrecked house. When the pile was complete, they bulldozed the building, bringing its ruins down on the corpses. Then they flattened the area with a tank. We could not see the bodies. But we could smell them.
A few days ago, we might not have believed Kamal Anis. But the descriptions given by the many other refugees who escaped from Jenin camp were understated, not, as many feared and Israel encouraged us to believe, exaggerations. Their stories had not prepared me for what I saw yesterday. I believe them now.
Until two weeks ago, there were several hundred tightly-packed homes in this neighborhood called Hanat al-Hawashim. They no longer exist.
Around the central ruins, there are many hundreds of half-wrecked homes. Much of the camp once home to 15,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war is falling down. Every wall is speckled and torn with bullet holes and shrapnel, testimony of the awesome, random firepower of Cobra and Apache helicopters that hovered over the camp.
Building after building has been torn apart, their contents of cheap fake furnishings, mattresses, white plastic chairs spewed out into the road. Every other building bears the giant, charred, impact mark of a helicopter missile. Last night there were still many families and weeping children still living amid the ruins, cut off from the humanitarian aid. Ominously, we found no wounded, although there was a report of a man being rescued from beneath ruins only an hour before we arrived.
Those who did not flee the camp, or not detained by the army, have spent the bombardment in basements, enduring day after day of terror. Some were forced into rooms by the soldiers, who smashed their way into houses through the walls. The UN says half of the camp's 15,000 residents were under 18. As the evening hush fell over these killing fields, we could suddenly hear the children chattering. The mosques, once so noisy at prayer time, were silent.
Israel was still trying to conceal these scenes yesterday. It had refused entry to Red Cross ambulances for nearly a week, in violation of the Geneva Convention. Yesterday it continued to try to keep us out.
Jenin, in the northern end of the occupied West Bank, remained "a closed military zone", was ringed Merkava tanks, army Jeep patrols, and armored personnel carriers. Reporters caught trying to get in were escorted out. A day earlier the Israeli armed forces took in a few selected journalists to see sanitized parts of the camp. We simply walked across the fields, flitted through an olive orchard overlooked by two Israeli tanks, and into the camp itself.
We were led in by hands gesturing at windows. Hidden, whispering people directed us through narrow alleys they thought were clear. When there were soldiers about, a finger would raise in warning, or a hand waved us back. We were welcomed by people desperate to tell what had occurred. They spoke of executions, and bulldozers wrecking homes with people inside. "This is mass murder committed by Ariel Sharon," Jamel Saleh, 43, said. "We feel more hate for Israel now than ever. Look at this boy." He placed his hand on the tousled head of a little boy, Mohammed, the eight-year-old son of a friend. "He saw all this evil. He will remember it all." So will everyone else who saw the horror of Jenin refugee camp. Palestinians who entered the camp yesterday were almost speechless.
Rajib Ahmed, from the Palestinian Energy Authority, came to try to repair the power lines. He was trembling with fury and shock. "This is mass murder. I have come here to help by I have found nothing but devastation. Just look for yourself." All had the same message: tell the world.
Phil Reeves, Jenin