How Do You (un)Pick A Side In A Conflict?

Written by Jahnavi Jayanth, writer and curator at Bolti Bandh.
Illustrations by Natanin Rachpradit, creator of Bluish State of Mind, consultant illustrator and designer and Bolti Bandh's in-house illustrator. 
Published on November 10th, 2019.  

This is Part 2 of a 4-part series. Read part 1 before you read this and parts 3 and 4 when you're done reading this one. 

Disclaimer: The insights and claims made in this article regarding conflict are made in reference to the masses of people involved in conflict, and not individual political influencers that were/are accused rightfully for crimes against humanity. No comment has been made about the role individual political influencers have played; with the focus solely and entirely on how masses reacted, if at all these individual political influencers were involved in the narrative.

“They tried to pass off my 16-year-old cousin’s kidnapping and murder as an honour-killing and the international media did a terrible job of covering the story, obviously.”  

East Jerusalem. Early Evening.

Thawra and Hiba are two women I would love to be friends with. They made the same cynical jokes I do, political and politically incorrect. They were gutsy and fierce with such grace and lightness and they balanced on their shoulders, the gravity and panic of fascism that was bleeding into their homes and streets, with simple and self-assured confidence. They used language like me, laughed at the same things as I do and were even around my age. But unlike me, they had grown up in conflict. 

I have seen a strange sight in my dreams growing up, one that I have never quite been able to explain. Sometimes, and this has been happening not infrequently since I was a toddler, I wake up in the dead of the night to an image of my family and me inside a room with tall windows on all four sides. It’s nighttime in my dream too, my family and I are huddled together, almost desperately so because my brother has gone missing. We know he’s been taken away and killed. And they’re coming for my mother and father - who they are, I don’t know. Why they are coming, I don’t understand. But they just are. They always seem to be. Large demonic flames spring outside the windows and burn through the windy night, as we try and escape and never do. And my mother and father burn in the flames. Every time I go through this I think it is real and every time, I wake up in a cold sweat I shake the person next to me to ask them about my family. I scream in my sleep, my ex-roommates, cousins and friends know this. At one point I was deathly afraid of sleeping because I would see this dream again because it had happened so many times. 

That’s all it is, a dream. 

I felt a chill running down my spine when Thawra began speaking, I tried to shake it away but it stayed. Her 16-year-old cousin, Mohammad, was kidnapped by 3 Israeli settlers and beaten, tortured and then burnt alive. All in one day. Their family immediately reported the incident and a few hours later, Mohammad’s charred body was thrown and abandoned in the woods surrounding Jerusalem. It took Thawra and her family three years to battle forces that saw Arabs synonymous with terrorists and get her cousin justice. Until somewhat recently, I thought honour-killings were a very desi thing. To add to that bit of unfortunate learning, it turns out violence, torture and murder against political and religious minorities by the oppressive majority, passed off as honour-killing by the state, is also not just desi.

Mohammad’s murderers were given life-imprisonment-sentences, one a 21-year-imprisonment sentence. However, common knowledge and precedence indicate that they will, in all likelihood, all get out a lot earlier on account of ‘good behaviour’. 

I will never forget the frightening harshness that momentarily appeared and froze for a few fleeting seconds, in Thawra and Hiba’s eyes when they completed each other and said, “years, for them - years. And for us, innocent as we may be, we just get shot…”  before trailing off. 

“You ask me one-state solution or two-state solution, I say fuck you. Just let me live a peaceful, normal life, please. A human life.” 

Bilin, West Bank. Late Morning.

Our eyes stayed squinting throughout the time we sat on tyres and cotton sheets, feet stretched out on dusty gravel. We were under a rubber tarpaulin held up with thin wooden logs. It wasn’t just an especially piercing, harsh sun. There was a rough, jagged quality to the wind (if you could call it that), making it sting my face and leave my throat parched. I felt uncomfortable asking for water because we had just been told water was very, very hard to come by here. Beyond the barbed wires barely protecting our Palestinian host Muhab’s makeshift farm, not very far off hiding a desert horizon was Modi’in Illit. A dystopic stretch of ugly, grey, mostly under-construction cement high-rises. Israeli settlements in the village, that may “soon consume his farmland too”, Muhab stated matter-of-factly. That explained the abhorrent air. 

A non-violent protestor who uses indigenous Palestinian farming practices as resistance, Muhab told us how he transitioned from being angry and impassioned in his resistance, to steely and dismissive. A funny choice of word, ‘dismissive’; I thought. Muhab doesn’t particularly enjoy that he has to continue resistance - and he isn’t hopeful of this heading anywhere useful. He thinks it’s going to get worse. But he continues to do this, because “what do I have to lose?”

I didn’t comprehend how he felt. Suddenly, he let out a frustrated grunt, looked at me and said “my girlfriend who I love very much, and I…”, I could see the wrinkles in his face deepening, almost like they were fresh cuts with the biting dust settling in them. His eyes had a sheen on them, but no tears. “I haven’t seen her in many, many, many years because I want to be in my home, and if I ever leave to see her and manage to get out safely, I can never come back.” 

Muhab claims to be a simple man, with simple asks and a simple analysis of this situation, if I may call it that. He asks you not to mention one or two-state solutions to him, he asks you not to compare the suffering of the Jews or the Palestinians, he asks you to drop political rhetoric, historical analyses and a decision of who suffered more and therefore who deserves to inflict suffering. His body quivers when you ask him anything remotely political or theoretical, and in a shaken voice he asks you, warns you even, to stop. 

To him, he is human. He wants to farm his lands the way his forefathers did without the constant fear of waking to a wrecking ball taking his everything away in a single sweep. He wants to hold on to the water flowing under his grounds, he does not want to go thirsty because it is being directed away to serve the people wielding that very same wrecking ball on his brothers. He wants to live with the people he loves in his home. 

He can’t. And according to him and several others like him, he likely never will. According to many supposedly unlike him, who are also human, he shouldn’t. Not on this land, anyway. 

Muhab does not condemn violent acts of protest, “we are desperate to be treated as human,” he said, with an unsettling calmness. It felt to me for a moment, like he was almost making a declaration. And while he doesn’t actively advocate for them either, he can’t go against his own when they were simply fighting for their right to be seen as human. It’s a fascinating neither-here-nor-there space that a lot of people in that land holy to too many, stand inside. Frustrating as it may be to outsiders trying to intellectualise this conflict inside classroom and boardroom walls or news features; when you love your people, your land, your God and your right to live where your ancestors did and someone seems to keep taking that away from you…

… see, I’m actually describing neither side and both sides, all at once. How could I possibly not?

I don’t want to ask what is more sinister, which crime against humanity is worse and whether suffering is what makes you deserving of human rights? ‘They suffered more greatly, they deserve fundamental human rights now while taking someone else’s rights away?’ Where does that put you and me? So who do you speak for, and who do you speak against? 

It’s natural to feel anger and frustration. It’s natural to pick a side and stick to it. At least to me. I have been able to assess what I hear from people fairly quickly, rearrange what they are saying into an argument and justification and just pick a side and stick to it. And it’s one thing when a side I opposed made me want to listen to them, as happened in Yad Vashem earlier, but it’s another thing when I want to stand for another side too. I can’t really speak up against one side because they were wronged, but they are also doing wrong to someone else and if I don’t speak up for the someone else, is my silence harming them?

And so it begins, you feel like your limbs are being pulled in different directions and all the directions are one-hundred-percent warranted, but you know this is going to end in mayhem. 

This is Part 2 of a 4-part series. Read part 1 before you read this and parts 3 and 4 when you're done reading this one.