April 19, 2002

Inside Arafat’s Compound, I Worry, Wait, and Hold My Post

EDITOR’S NOTE: From his post on the second floor of Yasser Arafat’s beseiged compound, a young member of the presidential guard has time to recount how he got there. Hamed gave his story to Ian Urbina, who reached him by telephone from Washington, D.C.

By Ali Hamed

RAMALLAH, West Bank—My name is Ali. I’m 23. I’ve been in President Arafat’s compound for two weeks. I entered when the tanks arrived.

I came here because I am with the Force 17, which is the presidential guard. My post is in a window on the second floor. From here you can see two tanks. There were lots of smashed cars before but they cleared them away when Mr. Powell visited. There are snipers on every roof across from our building. Some are in the windows. Twice they have put the laser sites from their rifles on me, but they did not shoot. Once I threw up because I got so nervous.

When I was a teenager, my hope was to be a civilian pilot. The pay is better than military pilots, and I wanted to carry passengers, not missiles. Instead, I carry a Kalashnikov, and we don’t even have an airport anymore. At night the Israelis move the tanks and turn their guns to make us scared. They throw sound grenades into the building. Soldiers here talk a lot less now because everyone is so tired. I sleep in the hall on the floor and they tell us never to take our shoes off. The first real sleep I got was during Mr. Powell’s visit. These were the only three hours that we knew the Israelis wouldn’t invade.

All I want to do now is go home. I don’t know how long we will stay since Sharon says he will not leave Ramallah.

I’m not sure if my home is even still there. No one knows who is dead from my village. I am from Sanol, which is next to the Jenin refugee camp, where so many have been killed. It makes me sick to my stomach when I see pictures on CNN and Al-jazeera of what happened. I have not spoken with my mother in 15 days, and she is alone. Someone saw my dog, Najwa, shot dead by the road near my house. It can’t be true since my mother never let her out of the yard. Najwa used to howl so much that we named her after the Lebanese singer Najwa Karam.

My mother is all I have, and nothing hurts as much as not knowing whether she is dead or alive or lying under rubble. I don’t like to talk about it here, because others have children in Nablus and Jenin and they are feeling worse.

We eat once and sometimes twice a day. There are people who prepare the food and bring a plate, usually with orange slices and hummus. We also get one pita and one can of tuna or sardines to split between two people. Everyone is always thirsty.

My uncle is in the military. He helped me join the Force 17 when I was 21. I needed a job and there was no work in the West Bank. I had sold vegetables at a stand for a while, but I stopped because the owner never paid us. The training camp for the Force 17 was four months in Jericho. I thought it was going to be tough, but mostly it was boring.

I used to work in Israel at a car wash. I liked it there. Many people were very nice, even after they knew I was Palestinian. I dated lots of Israeli girls because I speak Hebrew fluently. In the end I lost them all because they figured out where I’m from.

In Tel Aviv, I did not have a work permit so they arrested me and sent me to Damon, which is a prison in southern Israel. I didn’t believe that they would really put me in jail for not having papers. I know others who the police have let go, so I thought they were just trying to scare me.

For nine and a half months, I was in a room that is smaller than my mother’s closet. Pipes from the bathrooms ran next to my cell and when they leaked, it got in my mattress. I will never forget that smell. Once when I was mad I kicked the door. Three guards came and took me down the hall to a room. They kept hitting me until another guard told them to stop. If you didn’t get out of your bed fast enough when the guards called you, they did the same.

Mr. Powell told the Israelis to turn the water back on at the compound. But there is still not enough for the toilets to work. No one has washed for days. The smell here is starting to remind me of my prison cell in Damon.

Urbina (ian.merip@verizon.net) is an associate editor of the quarterly Middle East Report.

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