|Her final journey
The life and death of student Kamala Sawalha, mother of two, who was shot to death by soldiers at a checkpoint.
This is life in the land of the checkpoints: A student leaves her house every night, leaving her two young children at home, spends the next several hours traveling by taxi and on foot to get to the university in the neighboring town just 15 minutes away, if there were no checkpoints on time in the morning. And this is death in the land of the checkpoints: A hail of bullets fired by soldiers last Saturday at a taxicab full of sleepy passengers, at 3:30 in the morning, killing education student Kamala Sawalha, 21, mother of two, who was on her way to visit her husband, who was also far from home because of the checkpoints.
Asira al-Shamaliya is located north of Nablus, which is the center of life for the town’s residents. For over three years now, it has been difficult, and sometimes impossible, to get from Asira to Nablus. Asira consists of leaning houses, a new asphalt road that is sometimes blocked by large dirt barriers, and sometimes not, when “restrictions are eased.” This is where Kamala Sawalha was born and raised and not far from here, on the highway to the west, she was killed. It happened between Saturday night and Sunday morning, several hours before dawn.
The mourners and those paying condolence calls sit in the village’s living room the mosque. There are the usual bitter coffee and dates, and a long line of men standing along the side. The fresh grief, just a day old, is intense. The memorial poster industry is quick and efficient: Yesterday she was killed, and today Kamala’s image is all over the walls of the town. The widower, Nidal Shuli, a handsome man in a leather jacket that has seen better days, holds back the tears, lips clenched. His red eyes still show the traces of earlier weeping. His two children 18-month-old Rafif and 6-month-old Mohammed, don’t yet understand what has happened. Rafif sits on her father’s lap and Mohammed is held by his grandfather, Mohammed Sawalha.
Kamala wanted very badly to study Otherwise, it would be hard to understand the sacrifice she made for it. To get up before dawn every morning, to leave the babies with their grandmother, to spend hours on the road in the heat and cold, even when pregnant, in order to get to the campus on time; to risk being shot or subjected to endless humiliations around every turn, and then to travel the whole way back in a taxi where possible and on foot where necessary.
This is how she commuted for two years, day in and day out, five days a week; one day it could be two hours in each direction and the next it could be four. Sometimes, she left the house at dawn, only to be delayed and delayed on the way back and sometimes stuck in Nablus and unable to get home at all. A curfew here, a closure there. A second-year student in the education department of An-Najah University. Two more years and she would realize her dream of becoming a teacher. Her father was especially proud of his only daughter. She was the most talented one in the family,” he says, his eyes glistening.
Nidal says that his wife really loved her studies and so he wholeheartedly supported her decision to continue with it, even after she became a mother an attitude that is quite rare. Kamala’s father, Mohammed, 46, is a plasterer and his son-in-law Nidal, 34, is a plumber. They were recently working together on a building in Ramallah. For 16 days, they did not return home because the route became longer and more dangerous and the price went up accordingly, to 100 shekels each way.
Kamala and Nidal married two and a half years ago, in a modest ceremony, just like the wedding that Kamala attended last Saturday night, of her cousin Issam. Her husband was at the building site in Ramallah. In her final telephone call to Nidal, at 8:30 in the evening, she said, “I’ll come to visit you in the morning.” After the wedding, she went home, and called the driver of the taxi who takes passengers to Ramallah and asked to reserve a place.
Nidal had promised that if she came to Ramallah, he would take a loan from his contractor boss and give her the money NIS 3,000 to pay her tuition. Kamala told the driver where she needed to go in Ramallah and that she wanted to try to go from there to Nablus, so she could pay her tuition on time. He told her that he would be leaving with another few passengers at 2:30 A.M. to get to Ramallah before the traffic got too backed up at the checkpoints. At 2:30 A.M., the driver, Amid Abu Sabah, picked up Kamala Sawalha at her home. Seven passengers and the driver left Asira al-Shamaliya in the dark of night, on their way to Ramallah: an education student, clerks for the PA, a patient on his way to a clinic.
Passenger Ibrahim Jar’ara, 43, says that on the way, they saw several IDF jeeps. Kamala Sawalha, the only woman in the taxi, was sitting right behind the driver. Jar’ara was sitting behind her. He says that she didn’t say a word the whole way. Most of the passengers soon fell asleep. Between Jitt and Amtin, on the road that leads down to Qalqilyah, on their roundabout path to Ramallah, an IDF jeep was parked. It was very dark out. Jar’ara says that he suddenly heard shots. He says he was awake and didn’t notice any signal from the soldiers to stop. Nothing. He didn’t hear them call out anything either. He says that the shooting continued even after they stopped. He says that, because of the darkness and the lay of the land there, they didn’t see the jeep until the last minute, from just a few meters away. “Suddenly we were facing the soldiers,” he recounts. The jeep was parked on the left side of the road and its right door was open. Kamala let out a long scream. It was the last sound she would ever make.
Everyone in the taxi ducked down, covering their heads in fear. It was dark and they didn’t see right away what happened to the woman passenger next to them. The passenger sitting next to the driver called out to the soldiers: “We stopped. Stop shooting.” The soldiers yelled at them to get out of the vehicle. One by one, they came out with their hands up. The soldiers asked everyone for identification. Jar’ara says that they yelled to the soldiers that there was a wounded woman in the car and to call an ambulance. The soldiers ordered them to be quiet. Then a soldier went up to the car, examined Kamala, laid her down on the road and tried to take care of her. A military ambulance soon arrived. Kamala was already dead. The soldiers arrested the driver, and ordered the rest of the passengers to leave. The passengers walked off into the dark night.
“The incident took place at a time when a heightened state of alert had been declared in that locale, due to the fact that a suicide bomber was on his way that night to perpetrate a terror attack on the Israeli home front, via this area,” the IDF spokesman stated in response. “At about three in the morning, a Palestinian taxi breached a Border Police checkpoint near the Jitt Junction, on the road leading west from Nablus, in the direction of the Green Line a route that has been used many times by terrorists on their way to an attack. Consequently, an IDF force was summoned to block the taxi’s path further on, in order to stop it for an inspection, on suspicion that a terrorist was inside.
”The soldiers blocked the road with a jeep that was parked across it and signaled to the taxi to stop, using a spotlight, in addition to the hand gestures of the soldiers who were standing near the jeep. Despite the attempts to stop the taxi, which began when the soldiers first spotted it at a distance of 260 meters from the checkpoint, the taxi continued traveling without slowing down. Three soldiers fired six warning shots in the air, but the taxi continued traveling toward the soldiers, despite being only 40 meters away at this point. “The taxi began to swerve to the right side of the road, and continued traveling, despite the warning shots and the spotlight that was still directed at the driver of the taxi. One of the soldiers who was standing next to the jeep fired three bullets in an attempt to stop the taxi, and that was only after it was feared that the taxi driver, who continued to advance, was trying to run over one of the soldiers there and to breach this checkpoint, too. Only at this stage, did the taxi driver stop his vehicle. The IDF regrets the death of this woman, who endangered no one and had no intention of harming anyone. The circumstances of the incident are still under investigation by the IDF.” When asked why the taxi driver has not been released, the IDF spokesman declined to respond.
At 11:30 A.M., they buried Kamala Sawalha in the town cemetery. Now her daughter Rafif clutches an uninflated green balloon in her tiny fingers, and Mohammed reclines in his grandfather’s arms. Rafif has tiny earrings in her little ears, and there is a little redness in her cheeks. A blue and white fake-fur coat and matching cap protect her from the cold. “This is a monstrous, incomprehensible act, the murder of an innocent woman. Look what the Jews are doing to us,” says the children’s father, trying hard not to cry. Rafif puts her head down and falls asleep on his shoulder.
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