‘The Games People Play’, the children of Susiya

One village. One extended family, and a community of stunningly beautiful children.




cracking nuts

cracking nuts

They are reserved but sophistated in a way that shows they have been exposed to the world. Nasser Nawaalja, the spokesperson for the village has been networking to save his village of Susiya, in the South Hebron Hills. As we (EAPPI) provide protective presence, we watch delegations from around the world make their way to this small  farming village. Susiya has come to represent the fate of many small traditional villages in Palestine as they are under threat of demolition by the Israeli government.


cool dude!

cool dude!

The children live with this reality every day. Tomorrow, or the next day, the Israeli bulldozers could demolish their homes, as they have done in the past.  The UN believes, without International intervention, it  will happen again.


Serious girl stuff

The Israeli settlers, who live in an illegal settlement, are just 10 minutes away.  They periodically kill sheep, damage olive trees, destroy bee hives, throw rocks at the residents and for all this are protected by the Israeli army.

IMG_0464                           IMG_0480

Under this opressive situation the children go about their daily lives, much as any child does. We arrive just as school finishes for the summer. Remember. that joy of freedom? Up and out first thing in the morning, meeting  up with friends,  in and out of each others homes, and organizing our days without much intervention from adults.


you must go home!

you must go home!

Playing school, marbles, games like little sally saucer, statue, filling water balloons and well… watch out!.


We see them play, fight, kick the dogs, strangle the cat, bully/protect each other, tenderly take care of the little ones, push, pull, laugh, cry but seldom seek intervention from adults.

A tender moment for me is playing ‘Rock a Bye Baby’. All of them want a turn being rocked, even the older ones who have trouble fitting on my lap!

Then I teach them to jive to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and they respond by teaching me a similar dance to  an Arabic song!

picking plums in  Susiya

picking plums in Susiya

Every child needs the security of a stable home and surroundings to grow into the adult they have the potential of becoming.

The children of Susiya and many other villages in Palestine need to be resilient. Until this conflict is ended, they will live their lives with the very real fear that disaster is just around the corner.

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Welcome to Susiya

Abruptly, it is time to go. I grab my
backpack and climb into Abed’s taxi. It is sunset and we
are a little rushed because it is Ramadan and Abed, our
driver, has taken neither food nor drink since day break.
The breaking of the fast will be soon and he wants to get
home with his family for this special meal.


We embark along a very bumpy road, with the  noticeable exception of the short section of highway that leads to the nearby Israeli settlement. We are on our way to Susiya, a village under immediate threat of demolition by the Israeli authorities. We (EAPPI) are here to provide protective presence to the villagers as they wait for their court case to be heard on August 3. It is feared that the Israeli authorities will attempt the demolition before then.


Just as the sun melts into the stony hills, we gingerly inch our way into
The Village. The villagers are preparing to
take their first sustenance since beginning their Ramadan
fast at dawn. We stop in front of Nassar’s house. I decide to join the women in the
kitchen as we accept the invitation into their home. As they
finish food preparations they do not make eye contact with
me. I stand awkwardly, watching, waiting to be noticed and
then somewhat reluctantly rejoin the men.
As I settle unto the floor mat the
only ones who seem to notice me are the children. The
oldest, 8, is charmingly polite and has indicated that I am to sit
beside him. The food is placed on a tablecloth in front of
us and I am obviously his responsibility. He passes me
bread, made earlier in the outdoor taboon oven, and
indicates that I should take some chicken. The meal is enhanced by carrot stew, soup and a
tomato okra dip and rice. In the timeless tradition of
sharing a meal in the Middle East, we eat without
plates or utensils. It is a bit of a challenge for me and
although I make a little more of a mess than the others, no
one seems to mind.

eftar after ramadan  photo lmhelgesen

After the meal I manage to make
myself visible by helping to bring the dishes from the floor
to the kitchen, a challenge for my mature hips and knees! My
new little friend snuggles into me as he watches TV.

Patricia and a boy in the tent  photo lmhelgesen

A satisfied quietness envelopes us and there is no compulsion
to fill the silence. We exchange a few questions about
our mission and the village. Everyone seems tired,
content just to be in each others company as people drop in and out without fuss.

It is then time for us to go. As we stumble among in the darkness I wish to myself we had taken thetime to situate ourselves into our sleeping quarters earlier. We will
sleep in the clinic, a room with concrete walls and a canvas
roof. The wind is high and the canvas snaps. Dust is thick,
a fine carpet softening the hard concrete floor. A single
light bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminates the space that is now our home for
the next six weeks. Mats on the floor with makeshift
sleeping bags complete our preparations. When I visit the
hamam (toilet) some distance away, I wonder how I will manage if I
have to get up in throughout the night!

My teammate, Leif, makes a reference to the water I drank, and all of a sudden the terrible
realization of what i have done seeps into me. Under no
circumstance were we to drink the water. Even unpeeled fruit
and uncooked vegetables are suspect. Something
has happened to the water in Susyia and
newcomers who have consumed it have gotten sick.
Dread that I may have so carelessly jeopardized the first part of my
assignment oozes through me.

As we trudge back, Nasser calls out to us and we join him
outside his home for a chat and a sweet dessert. He offers a
few pointers. …watch out for snakes and scorpions. Put
away the headlamps and close our eyes tightly for a minute.
Then open them and see how we can see our way by moonlight.
He brings us to the plum orchard and we taste the ripening
plums…so sweet. He tells us, ‘ the Koran allows for the
eating of fruit off the tree when one is passing through
during Ramadan. You must not gather for the family or to
prepare a meal, but just pick it from the tree as you are
passing through!’ The moon illuminates the path back to our
temporary refuge.

Arabic music blares just outside our window and like mice to the
pied piper we are drawn out. The Susyia night club is in
full swing. Two teen aged girls, 3 pre teen boys, and
two little girls welcome us. We clap and sway to the latest
Arab hits, are patiently taught a traditional dance,
play hand clapping games, and practice Arabic! Lots and lots
of laughter! The young boys dance – the girls not so much.
Ohla, one of the mothers joins us for a while before she
takes her little ones home to bed. Quite tired now, we


In an ink blue sky, the crescent moon stretches up to a Venus so
bright, it brings to mind the story of the star on the night
Jesus was born …..also in an occupied land!
The soft bleating of sheep, distant barking of dogs
and the murmurings of families settling down for the night
completes our first night in Susiya.

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B’tsalem – Israeli Human Rights Organization

‘Unpolite visit by IDF after midnight to our house in Attil to arrest my nephew.’ Those chilling words were transmitted via Facebook. My friend and colleague, Sadi, knows only too well what these words would mean to his friends. Sadi works for B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that investigates violations of Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

B’TSELEM – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories was established in 1989 by a group of prominent academics, attorneys, journalists, and Knesset members. It endeavors to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help create a human rights culture in Israel.

B’Tselem in Hebrew literally means “in the image of,” and is also used as a synonym for human dignity. The word is taken from Genesis 1:27 “And God created humans in his image. In the image of God did He create him.” It is in this spirit that the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.”

As an Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem acts primarily to change Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories and ensure that its government, which rules the Occupied Territories, protects the human rights of residents there and complies with its obligations under international law.

I had often accompanied Sadi as he interviewed victims of abuse for B’etsalem. He would conduct the interview in Arabic and then translate for me; our respective reports would be forwarded to our organizations. Sadi would have no illusions as to the implications of such a detention!

I have been instantly transported back to my last interview in Azzun in the West Bank of Palestine.

The father of a 16-year-old boy who had been taken from his home by the army the previous night, was more agitated than any other father I had interviewed. Three days before, the maternal grandfather had died and the family had been mourning in his village. Their son had wanted to stay there that night but his mother had insisted he come home because he had school the next day. They arrived home around 11:00pm, prepared a meal, and finally fell, exhausted, into bed around one.

Shouting through a loudspeaker and stones thrown at the door startled them awake; soldiers had arrived. This is the ‘modus operandi’ of the Israeli Army; soldiers plan their incursions for the middle of the night, often terrorize the family, often violently search the house, sometimes…. perhaps depending on the professionalism of the Unit…. steal money, cigarettes, etc. and often, detain one or more of the sons.

This boy – a small, quiet boy according to his father – had also been arrested nine months before, when he was 15. He was placed in a solitary cell and left there for two days and then, without comment, released. He was traumatized by this experience. He started bed wetting and seldom left the house. He was under a doctor’s care for his stress.

His father was like a ‘cat on a hot tin roof’, unable to settle. We took his information but were reluctant to leave. He seemed to need our presence and so we stayed until others arrived to sit with him as he waited.

Our translator that day, Abed, when asked what would be the probable outcome of this detention, said that the boy would probably be released the next day because he was not well and of no use to the army. There have been approximately 150 boys and young men rounded up in this fashion during this two month period. The general feeling was that the army was looking for collaborators; leading to another issue when the boys are released….no one knows which of them was ‘persuaded’ to be an informer.

I was on another assignment when our team was called back two days later. The boy had been released but the news was bad. He had been bound by his wrists while in detention, raised off the ground and kicked and beaten by the soldiers. He was in no condition to talk to anyone.

I had previously been in touch with Sundrus, the outreach worker for ‘Doctors Without Borders’. They, because of the extreme need in Azzun, had set up an office there for the treatment of boys suffering from the traumatic effects of detention by the Israeli Army. This information was relayed to the family.

This boy would have to appear in court in a few months to answer to whatever charges he had admitted to under interrogation.

This case is not unusual for an investigator for B’etsalem. Here, on the other side of the world, I also sit and wait for the outcome. I hope his nephew fares better than many other Palestinian children caught up in the brutality of living in an occupied land.

B’Tselem has published scores of reports, some comprehensive in scope, covering most kinds of human rights violations that have occurred in the Occupied Territories. The reports have dealt, for example, with torture, fatal shootings by security forces, restriction on movement, expropriation of land and discrimination in planning and building in East Jerusalem, administrative detention, and settler violence.

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Tree planting and Rugby in the Jordan Valley-To Exist is to Resist

The  demolishing  of homes, animal shelters and  water tanks in the Jordan Valley over the past two months has resulted in heart-break for many families for whom life was already incredibly hard.  In the unforgiving environment of 40 degree heat and little water, families have managed to thrive, herding sheep and goats, and growing the crops they need to survive.

EAs have interviewed many families who have suffered ongoing injustice, and the reports are forwarded to agencies which oversee this violence perpetrated by the Israeli Army and work to protect the rights of the farmers involved.

Jordan Valley Solidarity planned a tree planting demonstration, to show solidarity with the farmers who have been so cruelly abused.  We at EAPPI were invited to join them.

Ground preparation for planting olive tree

Newly planted Olive Tree - Act of Non violent resistance
 Crude picks and shovels blistered our hands as we dug through the rocky soil. Very hard work, we were able to see, first hand, the effort that must be put in, to encourage this harsh land to produce crops. Side by side, along with the Palestinian farmers, we supported this act of resistance. The planting of this tree states that this is their land and they are determined to stay.

There were also  moments of joy.  EAs, Ben (Switzerland), Anna (England) and Mikko (Sweden) ,along with volunteers Charlene (Canada) and Jeremy(Switzerland), played rugby with the children during a break from the tree planting. 

Rugby in the Jordan Valley

EA's Mikko and Anna along with Jeremy and Charlene play rugby with children in the Jordan Valley

Rugby in the Jordan Valley

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Demolishing Lives in the Jordan Valley

It was 6:00 am. A text message came from UNOCHA (United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). ‘The  Israeli Army is demolishing homes  now at Hadadiya’ Can you come!


This was the place of my first visit to the Jordan Valley just a month ago. We had met with Abu Saker  under the shelter of a tent as he spoke to us about the problems of the Jordan Valley and the ever-present fear of the demolishing  of his home by the Israeli Army. Because of this, he would erect only this basic structure.

Abu Saker, Samud.  with daughter. Jordan Valley. May 2011. Photo, Hilary Minch, EAPPI

 Abu Saker is a very active member  of Jordan Valley Solidarity, a group, devoted to protecting  the land of the Palestinians  and Bedouins  in the Jordan Valley against the onslaught of Israeli efforts to relocate them.

 I was especially touched  when the women of our group were invited to join  the women in their quarters…another tent not far  away….where they were making cheese. When the  daughter, in her teens, saw that I was old, she was excited and pulled me into the tent to show her mother. Then they were both excited and I wasn’t sure what it was about me that created such high energy! I sat on a stone and watched them at their work and was given new, fresh cheese to eat. The seating arrangement was extremely trying for my replaced hip and I was glad to change position when it was time to go. I asked, as I was leaving, what the women were trying to say to me. It turned out that they wanted me to stay as company for the mother. I thought it was a unique take on the ‘spirited away by the Arabs’ theme!!!

So…. this was where the bulldozers were busy at work as we got ourselves ready to go. Although we arrived  within the hour, the bulldozers had already finished and left. We almost wept as we surveyed the devastation around us. People who had so little to begin with were left with nothing, not even shelter from  the blistering sun. Sheep were milling about, lambs were nibbling on our buttons. A little girl, probably five years old was offering tea on a tray.We helped the men load a collapsed tent unto a cart as they were preparing to erect  a shelter for the animals…… the first item on the agenda. The women started to make cheese.  Life must immediately go on.

Women making cheese shortly after their homes were demolished by the Israeli Army in the Jordan Valley

Some felt that the Israeli Army hadn’t finished its mornings assignments and was proceeding  to another location.  There was an informed guess as to where that might be and so we divided up. One of us, Hilary, EA from Ireland, stayed to complete her report on Hadadiya, while Liva, EA from Norway and I scouted the area to see if we could spot the bulldozers. Just as we were about to give up, we spotted them making a turn off the main road and our driver Ghasson,  knew exactly where they were headed – Khibert Yahtza. We couldn’t follow because the road, which used to be the road to the community,  was now a closed military road for the Israeli Army only. We had to use a circuitous route through the mountains to get to the tiny village.

We have lots of woods roads in Newfoundland that are quite rough but nothing I had ever been on compared with this. (Perhaps the Rick Mercer segment, where he and Danny Williams, in a monster truck ,made its way through the rough terrain of unspoiled interior Newfoundland, could compare). We wound our way up the mountain,  inching along sheer cliffs, deep ruts  and earth mound obstructions in strategic places. As we idled along, we were struck by some of the most spectacular views in the world.  I wondered about pregnant women who needed emergency care getting to hospital!

After an hour we rounded a corner and  came upon the bulldozers in action. 

IDF destruction of a home in the Jordan Valley

 A military jeep prevented us from going further and we were ordered at gun point not to pass on foot. We did manoeuver our way closer,  frustrating the soldiers because they were taken completely by surprise  and obviously had no plan to deal with us.


We wouldn’t listen! We were witnessing what was supposed to be  a covert action! And ….we had cameras!  However, this cat and mouse game didn’t last long. There really wasn’t much to destroy and it was over in under half an hour.

As they pulled out and I was able to move closer, I found an elderly woman sitting under a tractor cart, weeping. She had just watched everything she owned bulldozed into a heap. Her savings of 10,000 NIS put aside for her son’s weddin next month was buried beneath the rubble. I sat beside her, holding her hand – there was little else I could do.

Woman who had just watched her home demolished by IDF

Woman, home just demolished by IDF, comforted by neighbour

 Phone calls to UNOCHA and the ICRC (International   Committee of the Red Cross) brought action quickly. Reports were given and plans made to bring supplies – a tent and water, basic necessities  in the Jordan Valley where temperatures this time of year already reach the 40’s.  Then the family will  rebuild –  active resistance to the Israeli State’s efforts to relocate them.

It doesn’t make sense to me. People who have eked a living and have made their homes, (much like the people of the north in my country)  in an unforgiving environment for generations,  are being forced out of their small communities , while settlers, who live in illegal colonies next door, are encouraged to move and live there by being given lovely urban houses, as much water as they want, and all the amenities of an urban lifestyle. In fact the State of Israel has just quietly announced that they are going to double the size of the  existing colonies in the Jordan Valley!



It is heartbreaking to witness this injustice and know that so little is being done about it.  Jordan Valley Solidarity is working  to highlight these injustices and help the indigenous people of this land in their efforts to protect their rights and their land.


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An ancient Turkish Bath in the Old City of Nablus, dating from the thirteenth century, has   Sunday afternoons   set aside for women.  Our new lives as Ecumentical Accompaniers with the World Council of Churches, are challenging, and  Church on Sunday, meeting up with the other teams from the North West Bank, is both a joy and comfort.  I  can now identify with the importance of Sundays  in the lives of pioneers who lived in homesteads separated by long distances, where life was hard and  lonely.  Gathering together on a Sunday provided spiritual, social  and emotional support as one forged a new life.

I look forward to these Sunday gatherings where we let our hair down, share our adventures, our trials and soothe each other. After church in one of the four  Christian churches, – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian,  we have lunch at newly discovered restaurants and then….the Turkish Baths.


Nablus  is home to a surviving ancient Bath deep in the Souk in the winding passage ways of the old city. With excitement and some trepidation, we entered the narrow corridor leading to the entrance. A magnificent door opens onto a small foyer which leads into a lounge area., with traditional patterned mattresses lining the walls. Here woman are lying about chatting, drinking tea, eating snacks, receiving facials, henna tattoos  in strategic areas of their bodies, henna hair. Children , under 8 it seems, wander about amusing themselves as their mothers, aunts and grandmothers, have a pleasurable day together. A fountain takes pride of place in the center of the room. Children sometimes paddle in it.


We decided that we would go for the full treatment  which  included the hot rocks, steam room, sauna, skin rubbing, and massage  for approximately $45.00. Towels, olive oil soap, loofah and wooden clogs were standard issue and so we embarked on our adventure.



Nablus Old City – Turkish Bath

We were shown to a large domed room with ancient stone floors bordered by smaller rooms with a stone basin. We  were to sit on a small stone block, fill the basin with water and scrub ourselves with the soap and loofah.

JPG - 39.3 kb

Then the sauna! Ten minutes on ancient benches was enough A cold shower ( saving us from complete collapse) ,then the steam room  ( I have an idea of how lobsters are cooked) and a … cold shower.  The hot stones beckoned and  lying  down and I am captivated by  the colored circular patterned openings in the  ceiling Women were lying, rolling, preening, exercising,  in complete comfort. We were also losing whatever inhibitions we entered with.

Then, skin rubbing! A screened off room was the destination for a steady stream of women. I was told to take off my rather extensive bathing suit. While her back was turned I did as I was told and  was taken aback when she turned to me and quickly turned away. She explained that according to her religion, she could not see all of my body, and so …red faced…for yet another reason,  I pulled my bathing suit back on, covering the offending part. A camel-hair loofah was used to scrub my skin To say I was shocked by what came off is an understatement.

The massage!  Olive oil infused with aromatic herbs was slathered unto  skin thirsty for rejuvenation. The knots and spasms were vigorously kneaded out until I became  a rag doll, muscles released from the tension of the week.   Back to the hot stones  to allow time for the oil  to seep in. I lay there in complete relaxation as all the cares of the world faded into nothingness. The play of light through the glass in the ceiling gave it a dreaminess that I didn’t want to let go.

A shower, change, and new energy in a languid sort of way. We entered the lounge and joined the women. As we were rehydrating with tea, we noticed  the women  being painted with henna.  We looked at each other….Why not!!! We chose beautiful floral patterns that trailed from the tip of our index finger along the hand and up the forearm.

We were among the last to leave…it becomes the men’s turn at 6:00pm…. squeaky clean, relaxed, and restored, both physically and spiritually, ready for the challenges of the week ahead, grateful for the insight into the secret lives of the women of this country


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