Twilight Zone / No body, no grave, no tombstone
For 40 years, residents of the Jenin refugee camp have been waiting for seven of their sons, who went off with the Jordanians to fight in the Six-Day War and never returned. Sami Zaweideh was one of them.
Jackson weeps quietly. The tears stream down his face. He never got to know his older brother, but he can't keep from crying whenever people talk about Sami. Sami was drafted into the Jordanian army a few days before the start of the Six-Day War and since then, it's as if the earth just swallowed him up. Someone saw him training at a base near Jericho, and there were rumors that he was in an Israeli prison or fell in the battle for Jerusalem. Some people even claim that he switched identities and now works for the Mossad espionage agency, or that he became a "guinea pig" for the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Rumor followed rumor over the years, and all were found to be baseless.
Four decades later, the hopes of seeing Sami alive again have almost been dashed completely. His elderly father sits in his tiny grocery store in the Jenin refugee camp, clutching his picture. His elderly mother has lost her mind after staring endlessly at the picture of her missing son. Meanwhile, her younger son cries and cries, even though years have passed and he didn't even know his brother. They've searched everywhere for him - in Israel, in Jordan, via the Red Cross - but hope that Sami will show up is dying.
Sami was born in 1948, a child of refugees. When he was 19, Jordanian soldiers came and drafted him into their army; he would be 59 today. "Sami must have fallen in battle, may God have mercy on him," murmurs his father, and Jackson nods as the tears well up once more.
Six others from Jenin went out to that war and never returned, not even in a coffin - enemy casualties from the Six-Day War whose burial place is still unknown.
A dark-skinned young man, looking like a 1960s American movie star, with curly hair and wearing a white shirt, tie and jacket - this is the last picture of Sami. A huge picture in an antique wooden frame. "Jackson" is what everyone calls Ibrahim Zaweideh, Sami's younger brother, after singer Michael Jackson, whom he used to imitate when he was a kid, wearing dark sunglasses and dancing to songs by The Jackson Five. "The real Michael Jackson is not real," he says today about his childhood hero, who has changed so drastically since then.
Jackson is now 37 and the leader of a well-known debka group in the West Bank - the Marj ibn Amr (the Jezreel Valley) troupe. It's like the Givatron of the territories, but instead of a vocal ensemble, this is a dance troupe that performs at weddings and other events, just a few kilometers away from Kibbutz Geva.
In 1948, the family split up. The father fled to Gaza and the mother went to Jenin from their village, Wadi Hanin, near Ramle. Sami was born before that in his mother's native village of Sufsafa, between Binyamina and Karkur. The family endured eight years of forced separation before they reunited, when the father, Hussein Zaweideh, managed to sneak from Gaza into Jenin, to rejoin his wife and meet his son Sami, who until then had grown up without a father.
Old-timers in Jenin remember Sami as a youth. He looked a lot like another of his brothers, Hassan, who still lives in the camp. Jackson was born about 12 years after Sami disappeared, but he lives his brother's memory every day.
During the first few years the family still searched for him. They initially thought he was in an Israeli prison, possibly the one in Atlit. Israeli relatives, residents of Kafr Kara, helped the family search. Jackson says the military governor of Jenin told him that Sami was being held in Atlit, and that he gave them a document directing them to the prison. They traveled to Atlit and were told that Sami wasn't there. Then they went back to the governor and he told them he'd been mistaken, and tore up the paper he himself had written.
After the war, the family also traveled to Jordan and spent many months trying to pick up any trace of the lost son. The authorities had no information whatsoever on soldier Sami. An uncle of Jackson's wife, who was also drafted into the Jordanian army in 1967, said he saw Sami at a training base near Jericho, a few days before the war began. This was the last time anyone saw him alive. The uncle said they were training how to shoot. During the war, the uncle was able to get to Beit Sahur, after fleeing the battlefield. He lived in Jordan for 25 years, then spent a few years in Jenin before returning again to Jordan, where he still lives now.
A few years ago, the family's hopes were rekindled. An inmate who was released from Israeli prison told another family in the camp with a missing soldier-son, Wahid Abu-Atiya, that their son was alive and well in prison and that he had seen him with his own eyes. The released prisoner then vanished - apparently he went to Jordan - but his tale aroused hope in Sami's family as well.
"I ran from the edge of the camp to our house in a minute and a half," says Jackson, recalling the day he heard that Wahid had been seen alive. "We felt happy. I thought that my brother was still alive. Because this man said that he saw Wahid, we thought that if Wahid is alive, then Sami is alive, too." Nothing came out of that, either. Wahid Abu-Atiya is still missing.
But persistent rumors gave the family no respite. Jackson: "Some say that he was put in secret places - maybe under the ground in Dimona, like a rat in a laboratory. Some say he was recruited by the Mossad, and some say he was brainwashed and sent somewhere. There are lots of rumors."
But the younger brother is still hopeful: "My father, and my mother, who is almost 80, say: 'May God have mercy on his soul.' What are you going to say? We, the brothers, still talk about him. Sometimes I meet friends Sami's age, who tell me that they were with him when they were kids and went to school together and played together."
At home, all that's left of Sami are three pictures. And one of his brother's sons is named after him.
For most of his adult life, Jackson was employed at jobs in Israel. He worked for seven years at the produce market in Hadera, then in Karkur and afterward in Haifa, for movers and at renovation projects, "until this intifada," he explains. "Since then we've been stuck here." All his attempts to obtain a permit to work in Israel have been fruitless, and he was turned down for "security reasons," though he has never been arrested. "Not long ago I requested an exit permit for one day - to go to a relative's wedding in Baka al-Gharbiyeh. They told me: You're not allowed to be in Israel even for one hour. We went around, via Jerusalem, and after eight hours we got to Baka." He also used that opportunity to visit relatives in Kafr Kara.
He says that now "the most important thing to me is that I have the debka troupe in which my brother plays the flute." Their most recent performance was about two weeks ago, at a wedding.
We walk up an alley in the camp. The walls of the houses that were fixed up after being damaged during Operation Defensive Shield are already pocked with recent bullet holes. We head for the family grocery store.
Outside the tiny shop sits the elderly Hussein Zaweideh, staring out at the street. He is surprised to see visitors from Israel who have come to inquire about his missing son. He leans on his cane and puffs on a cigarette that he takes out of an ornate silver case. At first he thought we were asking him about what happened in 1948, but then he realized he was confusing two wars. Dishwashing liquid, pasta and detergent sit on the half-empty shelves.
A week before the war, people came to take Sami away, he explains. "They didn't have time to train the children. The mukhtar came, together with two Jordanian soldiers, and they walked around the camp looking for young men." Hussein stops to tell his son to fetch Sami's picture; once again, Jackson can't hold back the tears. "The mukhtar took him and the Israelis killed him," says the father.
A chubby boy peeks into the store - Sami, Hussein's 14-year-old grandson, named for his missing uncle. Sami and Jackson's sister, Basma, enter the store. At 50, she remembers her brother well.
"Sami was the big hope of the family, the eldest son," she says, recalling that her mother, who was pregnant at the time, tried her best to prevent Sami from being taken away. Parents in the camp used to hide their children in fear of the Jordanian army. But the two soldiers who came with the mukhtar acted cleverly and the mother fell into the trap they set for her: They told her Sami was suspected of stealing something.
"My son didn't steal," she told them.
"Just let us ask him a few questions," the soldiers said - and then, when Sami came out of his hiding place, they took him by force. That same day his mother was admitted to the hospital to give birth, by Caesarean section, to her daughter Hitam, now 40.
When the rumors spread that the Israel Defense Forces was approaching during the war, the women and children of the camp fled into the surrounding hills. Again the Zaweideh family was scattered all over, this time in four parts. Each fled in a different direction. The mother fled with her newborn daughter toward Wadi Far'a near Nablus. On the way they saw dead bodies lying by the roadside, but none were Sami. Eventually, they all met up again in Jordan, and they searched there for the lost son. Six months later, they returned to the camp, at their wits' end. Someone told them that Sami had been killed in the battle at Jabal Mukaber near Jerusalem. But they have no body, no grave, no tombstone.
"No one forgets the land and no one forgets the sons and brothers," says Basma. "Would you forget your son? Would you forget your father? Would you forget your brother? My mother has never really slept since. Up until the first intifada, she still had hope, but after that we already started thinking about the new casualties. And then came the second intifada and we started thinking about its new casualties."
Jackson's fleeting smile is then once again replaced by tears that slowly drip down his cheeks, covering them completely.