What Are People Like, When Embroiled In 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 3 of a 4-part series. Read parts 1 and 2 before you read this and part 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’ve demolished our village 12 times. All we really want is to stay where our fathers and forefathers did and lead simple, normal lives. In our home. So we will keep doing just that.”

South Hebron Hills, West Bank. Noon.

The little barefoot four-year-old ran through the hills with such gusto, it looked like she was stronger and swifter than the rolling hills. Her innocent laughter rang through, overpowering the hostile stillness that otherwise hung in the air. Abruptly she halted next to her father who was talking to us and took a peep at us from behind her father while clutching his pants with her tiny hands. Her messy brown-haired head barely came to his knees, and as her piercing light eyes caught mine and she flashed a toothy smile, her hair caught the sun’s rays and turned a shimmering golden. 

Her hair must turn golden a lot of times, I found myself thinking because the roof on her head had been snatched away and destroyed, time and again. Over generous bowls of flavoured rice, flattened bread and fresh vegetables, we were all listening to her father telling us about the Palestinian village-cluster around us, that he and his family for generations had belonged to. The Israeli occupation has made it impossible for them to keep their home, or even rebuild it. Where we were sitting was not their village originally, they had relocated. In fact, it wasn’t even a village, so to speak. There were some barbed-wire fences; not connected in full circle, they just stood in isolated, disparate points as though in weak defiance. There were wooden slabs nailed together to make walls and waved steel that balanced on these as roofs. Other than plastic chairs for us, there were soft, torn and muddied cotton sheets that were draped over a charpoy and makeshift wooden stools. 

They hadn’t started building full-blown villages again, just as yet, because every time they had done so before those villages were almost immediately destroyed. Each time they tried to find a way under Israeli martial-law, to still keep their homes intact, the military committees that oversaw these requests of rebuilding and retention, had mostly Israeli settlers in them, saw to it that the law was manipulated to nevertheless keep the Palestinians homeless and helpless. An Israeli ex-soldier who supports these Palestinians now as a part of their resistance against the occupation said the demolitions were frequent and the night-time break-ins were random and they were kept that way to manipulate the Palestinian psyche in the region.

“We have a family ritual of eating ice cream together every week. It's the little things like these, amidst the bigger picture of losing family and nearly losing your life, that makes us want to continue living, and fight so that we can live. ” 

Hostel Area D, Ramallah. Late Afternoon.

Area D is the most delightfully subversive name of a space I have ever encountered. It is a hippie hostel, like any other, with punny signs that make you chuckle before following the rules of a co-living space and colourful photos of happy visitors with pins to indicate where they come from, on a DIY world map on the wall.  Plush sofa sets and brochures strewed everywhere with must-do-activities (biking was very, very strongly recommended) in the city. What’s strange about this hostel to people like you and me is that these people who run the Hostel cannot get out of their city, without permits that are exceedingly difficult if not impossible to gain. 

In central Ramallah and a 10-minute walk away from the city’s best ice-cream store, this is a space that a couple of young men in the city co-founded to make Ramallah mean more than a place associated with conflict. These entrepreneurs’ problem-statement caught me off-guard, especially after all the previous conversations we had been having. “People post fancy pictures of Tel-Aviv on social media, why not of us, man?” These men are almost as eclectic as their city under the Palestinian Authority’s control where no Israelis are allowed is; buzzing with life and fervour, with tall, gleaming, glass-walled high rises, advertisements with happy faces, crowds pouring in and out of cafes, restaurants and stores, vendors on the street selling everything from plastic wares to chips. And my favourite: little kids that make silly faces at you, fully expecting you to make silly faces back at them.

After being boisterously involved in a surprise birthday party of one of the hostel’s employees for a few minutes, we were ushered into a room for our appointment with Ahmed and his family. 

Ahmed’s story as he narrated it to us, began when he was a young boy who saw many people from his community being mistreated, even killed by the Israeli settlers and military personnel. He joined Hamas when he was 15, took part in the first Intifada and threw stones at Israeli soldiers. He did add, sometimes he didn’t know who it was the stones would fall upon in the frenzied madness, they just had to be thrown. He was arrested and jailed for five years, which he calls his ‘college years’. He met several people, like and unlike him. He engaged in many riveting, sometimes uncomfortable conversations that ultimately had him reflect on his choice of violence and made him seek peace. He still didn’t care for the Israelis, but he wasn’t going to try murdering them. In college, i.e, prison, his inmates and he would write long texts documenting their insights and what they remembered from their education years before. Their jailers obviously couldn’t see these, so they wrote them on extremely thin paper that could be folded into capsules that they would swallow whenever there seemed to be a random check occurring. 

Flashing a sheepish when my colleague asked Ahmed how they would retrieve their work later, he hunched his shoulders and said, “Well you know, it would pass through us. We pick it up, read and write again to the best of our memories.” Soon after Ahmed was released from jail, he became a first aid volunteer who drove around an ambulance and helped injured Palestinians. Once when he was attending to a fellow injured protestor, he was shot in the back of his neck. He stayed in a coma for months and came back alive and not paralysed, beating everyone’s expectations. Today, he is a father and a husband and a non-violent resistor and peace-keeper who has combatants; not terrorists, not murderers but combatants on either side to meet each other and “put down their guns and stones”. 

His wife Hiba, who is from Gaza told us at the very end that she does not like or appreciate what her husband is doing, “making friends with the enemy” that has kept her away from her family for over a decade and a half and killed many of their loved ones. But she will support any faint chance for peace. Their daughter said she sees no other way to see a peaceful life ahead of her, one that both her parents didn’t have. 

Hopeless is not something these families in the South Hebron hills or Ramallah are. To me, it was an unfamiliar and striking sense of hope that they had; nothing grandiose or political about it, nothing about movements or strategies, peace-treaties or rhetoric. They knew they would find a way to live on their land in peace, build lasting houses and schools, offices and hospitals. Relocating outside Palestine was not an option, peace-treaties have never and will not fix “shit”. The narrative of conflict that outsiders like you and me seem to possess is, in their un-minced words, stupid. 

To them, winning is just that: every day, they came together dreaming of what their home could look like tomorrow and every day they would make yet another plan to rebuild their homes and hope it stays intact for longer than the last time. To them, winning is living another day and living without the burning desire to kill someone else to live. Hope is their win. 

Hope is what makes these families continually engage with the Israelis and try making renewed asks of them, every single time. Hope is what makes them see humans in the Israelis, humans that can’t possibly be capable of so much cruelty knowingly. Hope is daughters skipping and gurgling in the small delights of jumping around to catch buzzing insects, sons pleadings their older siblings to get them a fun snack, husbands and wives sitting around with hot cups of tea, discussing sweet nothings. Hope to them is in living while fighting to live.

When we generally happen across conflict on our timelines and morning newspapers; we imagine something dramatic, even cinematic. Shots fired blindly, blood spilling on the streets, eyes being gouged out and mouths being gagged. This happens literally and metaphorically. The systemic undermining of minorities, foul relationships between people unlike each other, media propaganda to blind people from seeing what is happening, forced silences. 

We remember the literal times and seem to let the metaphorical times; the more invisible, gradual and slow brewing conflicts slip by. A communal riot is a full-blown dangerous conflict, our WhatsApp forwards that suggest all Muslims are terrorists or even a house not being granted to a Muslim because they are Muslim, is a conflict in the making. It’s because we deny the metaphorical versions that the literal ones happen over and over again. There’s one eerie and gutting similarity that lingers through both these kinds of conflicts, historically so. People simply watching conflict happen while standing by. 

And there’s one seemingly less gutting and seemingly more endearing similarity; these people in violent conflict are just like us.

Before violent conflict hit people, they were like us. While violent conflict hit people, they were like us and after they emerged from it, their descendants went on to inflicting violent conflict on others. They are still people, just like us. People at different times watched different horrors unfold, silently; were also people just like us.

Can you really tell with certainty, while admitting that it is a possibility that you are living in metaphorical conflict, that you are not one of those people? Or that one day you won’t suddenly realise you were one of them?