Abu Ghnaim Diary
Wednesday 26 March 1997
"Birzeit students join in", part 3
Photo: University photographer Yasser Darweesh, eating an onion

Into the frying pan

I spend some time photographing the events on top of the hill, mostly verbal exchanges between students and soldiers. After more of the same carries on for another 15 minutes and a few defective slingshots dangerously spin stones in completely the wrong direction, I decide to leave this spot.

Hanan and I head back down the mountain towards the largest group of observers, into a frying pan that has heated up somewhat, although we have arrived at a place far away from the center of the action. I meet Kareem, a friend of Kifah's. His eyes are running from the teargas. We are laughing at our streaming faces. I meet up with the university photographer Yasser (pictured left), who is eating an onion to try to overcome its effects. It was going to be a long day if teargas is going to continue to be used at this rate.

All our friends see us and make a bee-line in our direction. We exchange news from our different perspectives and theorise on the different ways it could go. Eventually, we have to break it up, as a teargas cannister has been thrown inadvertantly in our direction by a demonstrator trying to rid the central area of the choking gas.

Photo: Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill (right), an international student at Birzeit, has come down today for the experience. He has begun an on-line journal since arriving here and is taking the opportunity to 'see it live after only having seen it on TV'. I'm enjoying watching him getting teargassed, as this reduces the likelihood that he will complain about my smoking the next time he comes round to my house.

We find out when the photos are processed that, while I was on the mountain taking pictures of the shebab throwing back the teargas, I inadvertantly took one of him. I head off to the front line, via the damp back passages behind the buildings lining the street.

Photo: Demonstrators ducking as metal projectiles are fired at them

It's crazy out there on the street (pictured left), with volleys of rubber and plastic-coated metal bullets flying past the gaps between the buildings every few minutes towards everyone standing exposed in the streets. They'll be turning and ducking. Although fast and deadly, if you're about 100 yards away when they are fired there is time to do this - if you're quick.

The passage I'm navigating seems to be full of CNN journalists moving in the same direction. An American sound man is holding his hand up to his face and crying from the teargas, which is trapped by this windless crevice. "Hell, who would have thought we would be standing here one day sniffing onions?!" he says to me, shaking his head, "We're really getting screwed."

Back on the street, each time a new teargas canister lands, there is a scramble to grab it and throw it back at the soldiers. Many of these succeed, the smiles on the faces of the soldiers dying as the trail of smoke heads unmistakably back in their direction.

Photo: Portabin refuge

An American working out here, standing in the camp journalists on the soldiers' side, later told me that on one occasion when this happened he couldn't stop exclaiming out loud, "Yeah!" I can only imagine what the soldiers thought if they had assumed the guy was a journalist.

I finally get out of the narrow back passages and down an alley to the frontline. There are shabab crouched behind a portabin a short ditance away from the soldiers, bobbing up every now and then to throw stones and ducking before the rubber bullets come.

Other shabab in our alley are acting as their armoury, breaking stones and throwing them out to the isolated defenders of the portabin. The light is beautiful here, and I catch myself getting a little too artistic with the cameras as a result, instead of concentrating on the danger around.

I take a photo (below) of the face of the masked stone-thrower (pictured right), that everyone later picks as their favourite. Having two cameras is definitely recommended, as it leaves you free to concentrate on making sure no one is pointing anything dangerous at you by eliminating the transition between a telephoto and a normal lens.

Photo: Stone thrower

Photo: Confrontation from the perspective of the stone thrower

Venturing out

I venture out to the edge of the wall, noticing the guys a few feet away are only 10 meters from the soldiers, the portabin ascending in my mind to new heights of usefulness unimagined by its manufacturers. The situation (pictured left) is very dangerous for the stone thrower. The highlighted soldier is pointing a rifle at him. One miscalculation in his timing and the kid will be dead.

For situations like this, the best option would be to get some sort of robot-mounted camera to get about ten feet behind the demonstrator and include the soldier in the frame. The shot that would result would say more than one hundred hours of CNN. It's almost worth going to the effort. Maybe the engineering labs at the university could help out with this project. It's got to be better than strolling out into the line of fire.

Photo: Yasser, Hanan, and Nigel at 'base camp'

I return to 'base camp' as the teargas gets stronger, a pile of gravel outside a building site where Yasser and Hanan are sitting. Another exchange of news and discussion of the tactics of both sides follows. Michael arrives and takes a couple of photos of Yasser, Hanan and me (right).

Kifah, who I didn't see earlier, suddenly arrives out of a cloud of teargas into our pile of now-sliding stones (pictured below), having leapt from the other side. He's been watching from up closer. He's panting and smiling.

Photo: Kifah running back Photo: Kifah's arrival, by Michael O'Neill

After shaking hands, we exchange insults and swap details of what we have seen. Around us, out in the open, everyone periodically continues to duck as the rubber bullets fly. After a while, when the gas has dissipated, I go back up front. I see a journalist looking like an elephant, in a very strange teargas mask. Gas is everywhere. People are running, supporting friends overcome by gas to other waiting friends and ambulances.

Photo: Gas, gas, gas!

Photo: Teargas victims


It's no use, it's just too strong and seems different somehow. Deciding against a slow death by gas in the back alleys of the buildings, I run into the street. Perhaps not a good idea, as I see that ahead of me there is a 30-foot white teargas cloud to run through, but it's way too late to change my mind. I've already exposed myself to a higher level of gas by coming this far and going back to the building would finish me off. The idea is to get it over with as quickly as possible.

I'm in the cloud a second later and I can hardly see. This gas is definitely a different type than they were using earlier. Esposure to it is making me weaker and weaker. There have been many people overcome by the gas today (right) and I don't want to be one of them. There's also no one around to help me if I fall. If I stop or get stuck here I will suffocate.

One of my eyes can't open because of the pain and I feel like throwing up. I am dodging the few others still running through the cloud and I'm leaping over piles of building materials. My reality couldn't be any worse right now.

It can. The Israelis start shooting. I am a little too near the line of fire but nothing can stop this headlong flight from the gas, so I try to minimise the danger by running nearer the buildings without breaking my stride. Running with your back facing people who are shooting in your direction is a feeling I would not wish on anyone. The problem is that there is no other option.

Photo: Teargas victim

Eventually I get out of the cloud but I still can't stop, as the effect of the gas extends far beyond what is visible. After another 20 meters, I collapse onto a rock, trying not to vomit.

Someone gives me an onion and someone else asks if I want an ambulance. I thank him but say I am okay as I munch the onion. He insists, as I obviously look pretty bad. I insist I'll be okay. It takes about five minutes before I am sure that I really don't need an ambulance. Eventually I realise that I am not about to die.

Other people are being dragged off, like in Michael's picture (left). Kifah and the others join us. After standing around for a while, we decide to head off home. I'm sick of reading about these clashes in the newspapers as two dimensional events. With the two cameras today, and from what I remember about the photos I took, I am confident that I have enough images to tell the story I want to.

Someone who was at the hospital tells us that eighty people were treated for teargas inhalation and rubber/plastic-coated metal bullet injuries. Most people have bad headaches later. There was a second gas, someone tells us, which made in Germany, although I don't have any details or any confirmation beyond that, apart from the fact that four days later, one effect - reoccurring nausea - is still with me.

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