Photos by: Hosam Salem
In 1948, the people of Palestine were terrorised when Zionist gangs began what can only be called an ethnic cleansing. Thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled their homes to get their families to safety, becoming refugees for the next 70 years.
This was the Nakba, the Catastrophe.
Almost a century later, the Nakba still impacts hundreds of thousands of scattered lives around the world. Al Jazeera has pulled together some of these stories and woven them into one character, “Noor X”. Noor is fictional, but Noor’s stories are painfully real.
The Palestinians lived happily on their land, farming and living a quiet village life. Their land was who they were.
“We were safe and happy on our farms. Our homes were beautiful and our lands green, we harvested apples, apricots, peaches, olives, vegetables. Those were the most wonderful days.”
The beauty of their surroundings became part of the culture of Noor X’s people, and the embroidery, knitting, songs, poetry, and art of the Palestinians flourished.
“Whenever there was a wedding, they’d ask me to come and draw henna patterns on the bride’s hands and feet. I would also sing for the guests with my cousins. They always said a wedding without me had no flavour.”
It wasn’t all fun and games; education was also very important.
“My father cared about our education and insisted on sending us to school. I went to school till grade seven.”
In the years leading up to the Nakba, Palestinians resisted British attempts to increase Jewish immigration and land transfers from Arabs to Jews.
“There is this pervasive fiction that the Nakba refugees were naive, but that is completely false. They were aware of the plots against them.”
After Britain decided to withdraw from Palestine, the confrontation between Palestinians and Zionists became fiercer, and the balance of power tipped to favour the Zionists.
“The heavy shelling, the terror, and the absence of an organised Arab army [to defend us] is the main reason for our plight.”
To create the state of Israel, Zionist forces attacked Palestine, destroying around 530 villages.
Some 15,000 Palestinians were killed, and more than 750,000 forced from their homes, either directly or fleeing in fear for their families’ safety.
“The people in our village were terrified, and they urged us to leave. My mother was frightened by the news of the massacres of Deir Yassin and Jafa, so she decided to flee with her children.
"The village was attacked, shelled with artillery and heavy machine guns. 85 martyrs were killed in that massacre.”
Thus was the Zionist movement’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine. In more than 70 mass atrocities, hundreds of Palestinians were killed.
“My uncle and his son were killed by the Zionist gangs. My mother-in-law was injured in her leg, and when my grandfather rushed to save her, they killed her, on her land.
“My son was only one week old when we left our homes in 1948, I put him in a basket on my head, and took very little else, two blankets and some clothes.”
Most of the refugees took very few possessions when they left, thinking they would be able to return in a few days once the fighting was over. They left on foot, walking for days before reaching the nearest shelters.
“In Dayr Sunayd, my brother told me to rest and feed my son. When I was done, I couldn’t find them in the crowds. I walked alone to Gaza, and it took two days to be reunited with my family.”
“In Gaza, we spent the hardest nights in our lives at the time. We slept on the sand under the sky. We had nothing to eat after an exhausting day of walking in the cold. In the morning, my mother decided to go back to fetch food, blankets and supplies.”
Noor X’s mother never came back.
Many refugees optimistically decided to go back home to get more food and supplies. Most never made it back, either they were killed or trapped by the fighting.
“We spent a year sleeping on the sand under the open sky and trees. We had arrived in Dayr al-Balah in Gaza in a deplorable condition. Finally, the UN provided us with tents.”
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), was created in December 1949, more than a year after the Nakba, to provide jobs and direct relief for Palestinian refugees.
"The situation was very difficult in the tents, about 10 families in one tent, separated only by cloth.
“There was only one bathroom for six or seven families. We were queuing at the UN points to receive food and water. Like other families, we lived in extreme poverty. We relied on UNRWA's relief supplies to live, and in the schools, we relied on UNRWA’s stationery.”
Some camps had UNRWA schools, where Palestinian refugees could go to continue their education. This meant Noor X could pursue an education.
“In the camp, I completed high school. I was smart; I still speak four languages: English, French, Hebrew and Arabic.”
Noor X broke down recalling those days in the camps. Despite support from local communities and the UNRWA, many Palestinians lived in dire poverty.
Tents were eventually replaced with bricks as conditions in the camps slowly got better, and people resumed their search for loved ones they had lost in the Nakba.
Noor X’s parents had stayed behind, the search for them began.
“There was a radio program on “Israel Radio” where Palestinians could send greetings and messages to their families, whether they were refugees in the camps or inside the 1948 territories, hoping it would reach them.”
Noor X learned from the radio messages where the other townspeople had been displaced to by the Zionist gangs. But, no news from Noor X’s father who stayed behind, or Noor X’s mother and brother who went back.
“I used to wait for this programme eagerly every day. It was my only way to find out about my family, so when I got married, I sold a piece of my gold to buy a radio.”
Many refugees clung tenaciously to the hope that they would be returning to their homes soon, very soon.
“My father-in-law refused the idea of paying annual rent for our home. He paid on a monthly basis, hoping he would return to his home the following month. He paid his rent on a monthly basis for 30 years.”
Noor X was living with in-laws, hoping to return home, when the 1967 war broke out, bringing hope to Palestinians.
“The 1967 war revived our hopes. I remember the elders at the time telling each other: ‘Prepare yourselves to return to your land; the return is near’. But, their hopes faded away after the defeat of the Arab armies. Everyone was crying; sadness pervaded the refugee camps.
“During the war, we stayed in the woods. We had nothing to eat; we were eating the grass by the time we could return to our camps. But we didn’t flee, where would we go? There was only sea ahead of us.”
By the time the 1967 war ended, Israel had occupied the rest of historical Palestine, including the Gaza strip and the West Bank, where many refugees were living. They were destined for another encounter with the same forces that expelled them from their homes in 1948.
“In 1967, Israelis eased people’s movement out of the occupied territories. They wanted to empty them of Palestinians.”
This was an opportunity for many scattered families to find out what happened to their loved ones after 1948. 19 years after Noor X was separated from family, an update arrived. They were coming to visit the refugee camp.
“I didn’t recognise my father; he looked so old with his white hair! But what shocked me most was the moment I saw my mother in a wheelchair. She was paralysed.”
Noor paused for a few moments and looked off, trying to blink tears away...
“We all cried a lot that day. I was very happy to see them, but sad at the same time to see my mother’s condition. She had always been a strong, active woman.
“I asked my brother why they didn’t send a message on the radio. He said they couldn’t accept the idea of speaking on Israeli radio.”
The refugees of Palestine were now living under illegal occupation; it seemed like they would never go back home and had to take what small comfort the situation offered.
“After that visit, I was able to visit my family with my children. I attended my brother’s wedding, then the funerals of my father and mother.”
Frustrated by the seeming futility and worsening conditions in the camps, many Palestinians left to neighbouring countries, seeking better lives.
“My family was deeply saddened by the defeat; my older brothers left to Kuwait that year. Many left because they had lost hope of ever returning to their towns.”
But not all the Palestinians left, many directed their energy to resisting the occupation.
"The 1967 defeat was the main reason I joined the resistance; I felt so much shame.
"In 1970, I was sentenced to 10 years in prison for clashing with Israeli forces. I spent my time in prison reading philosophy and economics and studying.
"When I got out, it was the first Intifada, and I joined it, leading marches and joining unions.”
After Israel occupied the Gaza strip and the West Bank, many refugees went back to their towns to visit their lands and homes they left behind.
“In the 1980s, I was working in Israel, in the city I was expelled from. The restrictions on movement at the time were light, so I decided to take my family on a trip back to their homeland for the first time.
“When I told the elders that I would take them to their lands, they were almost jumping with joy. They couldn’t sleep that night. Finally, they would see their homeland!
“I’ll never forget the moment they arrived. They were weeping bitterly, rushing to their land. I saw an elderly woman kissing a tree that her murdered father had planted. Others were running to the village cemetery, embracing the graves. We saw the well, vineyards and pomegranate orchards. I heard them say ‘this is the tree I planted. This is where we used to plant them.’
“I was so happy for them but very sad at the same time.
“If I had the chance to go back, I would get up and go now, immediately.”
As time went on and Noor X’s children got older, it became essential to hand down the keys, memories and dreams of Palestine so the younger generations could guard them.
“I always tell my children and grandchildren about the heyday of our original lands. The homeland is precious.
“Every year, in May, I take my grandchildren to the border so they can see their land and take photos. I tell them often about our land and their right of return. They always ask me: ‘When will you take us again near our land?’”
Noor X has 30 grandchildren, many living scattered in different countries, each according to where their parents were able to find work and shelter. Their diaspora has increased their eagerness to connect with each other.
“I have [family] that I have never met. Some were able to visit from time to time but not after the second Intifada. I only see their photos on social media and talk to them via Skype.
“A year ago, I participated in a conference in Jerusalem; the first thing I did was look for family there. I found some relatives, and they were very happy to meet me.
“As third generation diaspora, we have this longing to know our roots. Meeting family in Jerusalem felt like going home.
“What we inherited from our stolen land are the sad stories our ancestors tell us, but regardless of how sad they are, we have faith in our right of return.”
The Palestinian diaspora, now in its third or fourth generation, still yearns and strives to go home.
"I am a refugee. I have the right to return. That right doesn’t expire and is legally and internationally guaranteed. I participate in protests to send a message to the world that we are not just numbers, we are people. The world needs to stop looking at us as people who need aid and help; we have a real dignified existence.
"Our displacement is temporary, refugees lived near the borders at first before moving into tents and eventually to camps. Today we’re reversing that, we will go back the borders and gradually return to our lands.
“I’d rather remain ‘a refugee’ and fight to return than be resettled. That’s like someone stealing your inheritance. I would rather fight than lose that inheritance.”
For the Palestinians who were interviewed for this story, the Nakba isn’t an event that happened a long time ago.
The Nakba is a reality that continues to shape their daily struggles, hopes, and dreams. They, and many Palestinian refugees like them, live and die to achieve one thing: return.