“The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave… Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
–Jean Donovan, US lay missionary in El Salvador, raped and murdered by US-backed Salvadoran troops, 2 December 1980
“I’m having a hard time right now. Just feel sick to my stomach from being doted on very sweetly, by people who are facing doom. I know that from the United States it all sounds like hyperbole. A lot of the time the kindness of the people here, coupled with the willful destruction of their lives, makes it seem unreal to me. I can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry. It hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be.”
–Rachel Corrie, US college student and activist in Rafah, Gaza, bulldozed to death by US-backed Israeli Army, 16 March 2003
In the fall of 2003, I decided to take a sabbatical. Since I always encourage my Social Justice students to leave their comfort zone, I planned on doing the same: I worked with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For six weeks, I lived and worked in Rafah, Gaza, which had been the scene of many killings of Palestinian civilians and the demolition of hundreds of homes by the Israeli Army. While I was in Rafah, I thought many times of one of my predecessors there, an American college student by the name of Rachel Corrie.
On 16 March 2003 Rachel was killed by an Israeli soldier who bulldozed her as she tried to prevent a physician’s home from being demolished. The Palestinians considered her a shaheedah, a martyr, one who had died in the struggle against the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. At our ISM office, we saw photographs and posters of Rachel Corrie in the full bloom of youth, with an exuberant smile, a bright future of promise in her eyes. When we met Palestinians on the street who wanted to know who we foreigners were, we would say, “ISM,” and they said back with effusive respect, “Yes, yes, Rachel Corrie, Rachel Corrie!”
One room of the ISM office in Rafah has a wall collage of shaheed posters, remembrances of those ordinary Palestinians (and a few internationals) who’ve been killed since the second intifada began in September 2000. These posters include young girls, teen-age boys, bookish-looking bespectacled young men, as well as confident resistance fighters posing with weapons that were unable to protect them from Israeli Apache helicopters or tanks. How many walls would be filled by all the martyr posters of this intifada? I could not imagine. And for each face there, I supposed that there were 10, or 30, or 60 family members and friends still reeling from the loss.
Early in my time in Rafah, our ISM team wanted to visit where Rachel Corrie was killed. Two white Mercedes taxis drove our group to the area where the doctor’s home still stood (it has since been demolished). When we got out and drew near to the site, our local Palestinian coordinator noticed an approaching Israeli jeep and a tank. He did not think it safe for us to stay and so he hurried us back in the taxis and said, “We will come another day.”
So instead we went to the nearby Al-Salaam neighborhood so we could inspect the damage caused by the recent Israeli Operation Root Canal. We got out our cameras and took video and digital photos of the massive home destruction. We also had a brief exchange with the family whose homes were blown up; they erected tents on their property and that’s where they were trying to live. One ISM volunteer, Kristi, age 26, and best friends with Rachel Corrie, began to weep at the misery before her eyes, the misery that also moved Rachel Corrie, day after day.
A few days later we made another attempt to see Dr. Sameer’s home. Many of our team were taking photos and video footage, but I didn’t have the heart to reach in my backpack to pull out my camera to document more devastation. Then we saw an Israeli tank in the distance coming toward us (they patrolled that area every 15 minutes, I was told). Our Palestinian guide insisted that we duck and run but some of us were not so quick in following his instructions. Live ammo came whizzing our way, ricocheting off the wall we had just passed.
In an email to her mother while she was in Rafah, Rachel wrote, “When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct-action resister. They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to them – and may ultimately get them – on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity – laughter, generosity, family-time – against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death.… I should at least mention that I am also discovering a degree of strength and of basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances – which I also haven’t seen before. I think the word is dignity. I wish you could meet these people. Maybe, hopefully, someday you will.”
Not surprisingly, some people have demonized Jean Donovan and Rachel Corrie: Jean was a “Communist” and Rachel was a “terrorist,” with the imputation that they “got” what they deserved.
Yet, all over the world others have been inspired by their commitment to justice. They are witnesses not only to the horrors of injustice, so smoothly explained away by U.S. leaders; they are also witnesses to our capacities for accompaniment, risk taking, and solidarity.
As a teacher, I am grateful to so many former students whose commitment also challenges and inspires me. Some of them have chosen to work overseas, and have become able to recognize in the people with whom they shared their days and nights what Rachel simply called “dignity.” I am thinking of such people as Mary (Mozambique), Wendy (Cameroon), Marybeth (Uganda), Magan (Palestine), Bridget (Chile), Danielle (El Salvador), Laura (Bolivia), James (Nicaragua), Randa (Mali), Ginny (Mexico), Laura (El Salvador), Becca (Haiti), Colette (El Salvador), Elizabeth (Colombia), Anna (Poland), Kristen (Belize), Zeina (Palestine), Layla (Afghanistan), Josh (Bolivia), Matt (Mozambique), Christine (Mexico), Lauren (Uganda), Jen (Guatemala), Megan (Colombia), and Lala (Indonesia).
“I look forward to seeing more and more people willing to resist the direction the world is moving in, a direction where our personal experiences are irrelevant, that we are defective, that our communities are not important, that we are powerless, that our future is determined, and that the highest level of humanity is expressed through what we choose to buy at the mall.”
–Rachel Corrie, email from Gaza