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Bethlehem under curfew

15-04-2002 by Jessica Barry

The atmosphere of a beautiful city where it has become hard to wonder and pray, by Jessica Barry, 15 April 2002

As we drove down Bethlehem's narrow streets and across an open square, we could see the town's old Lutheran church ahead of us. Sunlight played on its yellow, stone walls and gunfire echoed nearby. We were making for Al-Fawaghreh, a residential part of the town next to Manger square, where stands the lovely Nativity church. 

The atmosphere was electric, not only because of the gunfire, but also because word had got out that the International Committee of the Red Cross was bringing food to people who had been living under a strict curfew since the start of the Israeli incursions onto the West Bank six days earlier. When we finally reached the place where the distribution was to be made near a small mosque, front doors opened and we were immediately besieged by a desperate, hungry crowd.

Amid piles of uncollected rubbish, crushed and battered cars, and with glass scrunching under our feet, we handed out parcels of rice, sugar, tinned food, oil and other non-perishable goods to 200 families. The supplies had been donated by local organizations, who also asked the Red Cross to deliver the food to places under curfew in Bethlehem, where no one else could go. 

People thanked us for coming, but begged us for more supplies. And indeed we had brought precious little. But we tried to reassure anxious mothers and stooping old men that there were indeed more supplies on the way, and that we would deliver them as soon as humanely possible.

But it was not only food that people were craving. Mothers pleaded for milk for their babies, others asked for medicines and for us to take sick people to hospital; one family wanted help to remove a dead body from a house where it had lain untended for four days. And, above all, people just wanted to talk about their situation, and about their anxiety for the well-being of friends and family living elsewhere on the West Bank.

After a while, people melted back into their houses clutching the bulky food parcels to their chests. " There are five people in my family " , said one middle-aged women, with a tender smile. " These things will last us for seven days, if we take care. "

Later, as we drove back down the now-deserted, narrow streets, all was silent. Shutters were drawn, shop-fronts battened down, and every front door closed. Not even a cat was slinking through the rubblish. It was as if the seething, pushing, hungry crowd of a few moments earlier, had ceased to exist.

And how long will it be, I wondered, as we inched our way around the wrecked cars, and into the sunlit warmth of the square, before people will be able, once again, to move in safety through these ancient streets, and pilgrims return to this lovely spot, to wonder and pray?

   

 Bethlehem. ICRC staff distributing food collected by a local charity to people living under curfew who had been without food supplies for six days.  

 06/04/2002, Copyright CICR /BARRY, Jessica - IL-N-00070-03A