On Stage with the Circus Squad
There is a place with little-disturbed views of rolling hills, blueish and green and brown and a mixture of grey. It carries a beautiful name that translates as “safe” – or Salem in Arabic. Salem’s neighbouring village is called Rummana – Pomegranate – perhaps to add a little bit of red to this idyllic setting of raw natural beauty.
And then there is this other Salem, where people are herded through numerous turnstiles in a checkpoint-like metal corridor. It’s a stone’s throw-away from the original Salem, and it is not a nice place. It is a military court where people’s lives are being decided by a rotten system which plays the role of the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and the witness, all by itself and all at the same time; a fortress of pain and oppression, a colonial project whose crimes are well-documented but little acted against.
With its ugly appearance that passes for architecture, the military court building looks anything but a court of justice. And it isn’t. Legal hearings that are taking place behind those squeaky doors are neither legal nor hearings, since no-one is heard. Themis has been informed she is not welcome. This is where families spend a whole day to find out about their loved one’s fate for the next few months, or years. This is a prison inside a prison.
Every sound of a soldier approaching and the metal door opening draws anxiously waiting eyes and ears: Is it my son now? My husband? My brother?
…The waiting resumes.
Inside the cage, we are locked up and deprived of any contact with the outside world. We have no phones, no cameras, no newspapers, no books, no music players – only our thoughts and the injustice around us. No documents to prove demanding authorities who we are: our ID cards and passports are being held by heavily armed youngsters with khaki uniforms and little if any understanding that they are accomplices in a criminal colonial project.
It’s not like there isn’t a list of people kept prisoners and their scheduled time of appearing in front of a military ‘judge’ at the ‘court’ ‘hearing’: it exists, but is only made available to the selected few, i.e. occupation soldiers on duty any given day. Neither the imprisoned nor their lawyers or families are given the exact time. It would be easy to put that list up on the wall; or share it with lawyers in advance; or phone up prisoners’ families in advance – it would be easy but it would also be right, which for the occupation is not right. That is why families travel long distances, take days off work, spend money on car fuel, take nerve-calming medicine – only to be rushed into an open-air cage to wait for long hours until their loved one’s name is mispronounced by an occupation soldier.
The whole circus is designed not to work.
Another name is shouted. No-one replies. Could they not make it? Was it due to work, time, or money? Did they even know they were supposed to be here?
Little birds – are they sparrows? – are feasting on leftover bread and waffle crumbs. One lucky one picks up a piece bigger than its beak and refuses to share it with others. They don’t fight it off – whatever sparrow mate, yallah go ahead. These birds are not under a military occupation and they are not incarcerated simply for being birds. But the people are.
Two young women stare at the walls of the waiting-room shed in which people are sometimes locked up, sunshine or rain. It is not locked today but there is not much more fun outside. These women are here to catch a 5-minute glimpse of their 57-year-old mother getting her detention prolonged once again. Her crime is having her son, a former prisoner himself, send her some hard-earned money. The occupation said it was terrorist money; it never proved it but in the military court system it doesn’t have to.
In the afternoon, families start to snooze off. It is hot and boring. There is nothing to do but drown in one’s sadness and anger – or that of others – and wait, wait, wait. Praying for the best, but knowing all too well that god doesn’t answer all the prayers.
“OK no worries, it’s still early, I have all the time in the world,” someone bitterly jokes after hearing that their loved one is to appear in front of a ‘judge’ some time later today, if at all. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. We’ve been here since nine in the morning.
Welcome to Salem, where the wrong is the norm and the right is dying an agonizing death. Welcome to the safe place among blossoming pomegranate trees.
Images: Pomegranate by Ferran Turmo Gort under a Creative Commons licence.