The Bitter Olive Harvest That Cost Five Little Palestinian Girls Their Lives

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Three women sitting on a rug, covered with blankets. They are mourning their five dead daughters. One of the mothers, who has just now lost a daughter, also lost a son and a daughter a year ago. It would seem that not only the people who have come to comfort them, but also the women themselves, fail to grasp the dimensions of this tragedy.

Three young mothers − Najat, Nasreen and Naama Fatafta, who are all related − are surrounded by all the women in the family, who are mourning, comforting and chanting dirges in the living room of the home of the three mothers’ grandparents. The house has been decorated in festive colors to celebrate the fact that, earlier in the week , the grandparents returned after fulfilling the Muslim commandment of the hajj: making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The five children who died are Raama, 3; Nadeen, 4 years and 8 months; her sister, Nurseen, 1 year and 10 months; Toka, 4; and her sister, Sara, 2. All of them were members of the extended Fatafta family. They were all cousins and their parents live in close proximity to one another in new stone houses surrounding a tiny olive grove, whose fruit the parents set out to harvest.

What did Raama, Nadeen, Nurseen, Toka and tiny Sara undergo during the hour and a half that they were trapped inside the Hyundai that belonged to one of their fathers, Ziyad, last Thursday? Did they scream for help? Were their voices not heard in the backyard, which is only a few dozen meters away, where their parents were harvesting olives? Did they die one after another, or at the same time? Did they struggle to open the front doors of the vehicle ‏(their parents claim that the doors were not locked‏) − because the back ones cannot be opened from the inside? Did the Hyundai’s dark, opaque windows prevent the children’s parents from seeing what was going on inside and rescuing them in the nick of time?

The Hyundai has been removed for inspection by the Palestinian Police. The little girls have been buried in a single grave. We met their three bereaved mothers this past week in the house of mourning, and the three bereaved fathers beside the fresh graves of their daughters in the town’s cemetery, near the mosque. They were praying for the souls of their dead children.

The small Palestinian town of Tarqumiya, population 20,000, is in the southern part of the West Bank, not far from the city of Hebron. Sitting in his office, Tarqumiya’s mayor, Sami Fatafta, complains about the lack of emergency services in his village, although probably nothing could have saved the little girls − who were all also related to him. Their tragedy occurred on the town’s western outskirts, where some new stone houses have recently been built and others are still in the process of being constructed.

This is the part of town where Najat and Ahmed, the parents of one of the dead girls, Raama, live. Out in front stood the Hyundai; in the backyard, the parents had been picking olives. A year ago, two of their children, a daughter and a son, who were only toddlers, fell into a well and died. The bereaved mother, Najat, did not tell us about these two children. It was only after we left their home that we learned − from Najat and Ahmed’s relatives − about that additional tragedy.

Last Thursday, the extended family had decided to harvest the olives from the trees in the small family courtyard. The work was supposed to be done in one day; after all, there were only a few trees. Three families, with eight small children, and a blanket spread out under the trees for picking the fruit.

Around noon, the parents noticed that five of the children were missing. At first, no one got very upset. Perhaps the children had gone inside the house, or maybe they were playing in the front yard − or maybe they had gone to the home of their grandparents. The parents began to look for them.

Suddenly, one of the neighbors said he had seen a little girl sleeping in the parked car out front. Nasreen asked him what she was wearing, and when she heard she was dressed in blue, Naama immediately knew he was talking about her daughter, Toka. Her husband, Ziyad, raced to his car, jumping over the stone wall around their house, behind which the vehicle was parked. They both knew the car had been standing in the sun and that it was burning hot inside.

But it was already too late.

Toka was sitting in one of the front seats, and Raama was sitting in the back; the other three little girls were lying on the floor between the front and back seats. The eyes of all five children were wide open; their skin was white and their lips were blue. The mothers said they instantly knew that at least four of the girls were dead. Only Nadeen was still breathing.

Raama’s mother pulled her little daughter out of the car and tried to resuscitate her. Ziyad got into the car and drove to the local clinic, with the four little dead bodies; he also took the Nadeen. The medic at the clinic summoned an ambulance from Hebron, which arrived after a quarter of an hour. The four dead girls and the dying toddler were all taken to Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron, where four of the girls were pronounced dead. Nadeen fought for her life for another 24 hours, and then died.

The parents of the five say their daughters were trapped in the car for no more than an hour and a half.

Najat, who lost Raama, has been left with a son and a daughter; Nasreen, who lost Nurseen and Nadeen, has three other daughters and a son; and Naama, who lost Toka and Sara, has another daughter and a son.

Not a tear was shed in the house of grieving families when we visited, at the height of the traditional four-day Muslim period of mourning this week.

Four of the girls were buried in a single grave, and the next day, Nadeen was also buried there. Five date palm fronds have been inserted in the earth above the fresh grave; they are the only thing that marks it. A cypress tree provides shade at the site.

As noted, this week we met the three bereaved fathers, beside the grave, silently praying. In the home’s courtyard, the olive trees stand, nearly all of them stripped of their harvested fruit. Only one tree still bears its olives. They had not yet been picked when the terrible tragedy came to light.

The three mothers in mourning in Tarqumiya. Credit: Daneil Bar-On

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