Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ellen's Story: Nurse, Witness and Peace campaigner

MAKING A POINT in London, before she went on to make a name in Lebanon.

REMEMBERING the massacre at Sabra and Chatila which shocked us all twenty five years ago,
I mentioned Dr.Swee Chai Ang, who worked in the camps' Gaza hospital, and testified before the Kahan Commission in Israel. Swee, whose Singapore Christian background and beliefs had originally predisposed her to see Israel's side before she went to work in Lebanon, wrote about her experiences in "From Beirut to Jerusalem", published in 1989.

Today I'll introduce another witness, from a different background, who worked as a colleague of Swee's at the hospital.

In 1973, two women stood outside the Israeli embassy in London with placards drawing attention to the bizarre logic of Israel's Law of Return. One of them, Ellen Siegel, carried a sign pointing out that as an American Jew, born in the USA, she could "return" to Israel-Palestine. Her co-demonstrator, Palestinian-born Dr. Ghada Karmi bore a sign saying that as a Palestinian, born in Jerusalem she could not return. It was a telling point, when few people here had given thought to what Zionism entailed. It was also a striking little event, at that time for a Jewish woman, identifying herself as such, to protest outside an Israeli embassy.

Ellen Siegel was an unusual woman. But her background seemed usual enough, indeed more conservative than most. "I was born and raised in a conservative/orthodox Jewish household," she says. Her grandparents escaped pogroms in Eastern Europe by coming to America, where they spoke only Yiddish and strictly observed religious holidays. Ms. Siegel's parents followed suit. She attended Hebrew school twice a week, and went to an orthodox synagogue every Saturday, as well as a religious school every Sunday. "It was only when I went to high school that I learned there were people other than Jewish people," she recalls. After high school, Ms. Siegel went to a Jewish nursing school and then practiced in Jewish hospitals in New York and Washington, D.C.

But one thing Ellen seems to have got from her family and teachers is an understanding of what it means to be persecuted, and a sense that when you see people ill-treated it is your duty to speak out. Growing up at a time of America's civil rights struggles she learned to recognise and react against racism - even when she encountered it from fellow-Jews. During a trip to Europe in 1972 she decided to visit the Middle East and see things for herself. Hearing Israelis sound like Southern racists when they talked about "dirty Arabs" was one thing that upset her. But there was more. In Lebanon, Ellen visited the synagogue in Beirut and befriended people in the local Jewish community. She also met Palestinians, and as she said,. "I had been taught that there was no such thing as Palestinian people and I never knew about a land called Palestine. But then I went through the Borj El-Barajneh refugee camp and it was a real mind blower."

Ellen Siegel decided not just to speak but to act. By taking her nursing skills to work among the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon she would be doing something useful and, as being from a religious background she might put it, atoning for the sins of others. Thus it was that in September 1982, a "nice Jewish girl from Baltimore" (as she humorously described herself) found herself nursing amid the hell of Sabra and Chatila. Here is part of her account:

'Thursday, September 16, the hospital suddenly became very busy and very crowded. About 2,000 inhabitants of the camp rushed into the building seeking refuge. Another 2,000 could not get in; they huddled outside. The refugees were terrified and hysterical. Screaming, they kept repeating "Kataib, Israel, Haddad " and made a motion with their fingers and hand as if to show that someone was slitting their throat.

(Khataib is the Arabic for Phalange, the Christian rightist party, Major Said Haddad commanded the Israeli -backed South Lebanon Army and led forces which joined the Phalangist onslaiught on the refugee camps).

'Inside the hospital, the scene was chaotic. The morgue was overflowing. Wounded were streaming in; some had been shot in the elbows and legs as they tried to run away. I remember a dehydrated premature baby that was brought in; in all the excitement it had not received enough fluid. I do not know what happened to this baby once it was rehydrated. Refugees crouched in every corner. We tended to the wounded. We tried to feed those who had sought refuge. Both heavy and light artillery fire continued all day. I kept listening to BBC news on my tiny transistor radio. The main story was the death in a car crash of Princess Grace of Monaco. The reports said nothing at all about what was happening in the camps. At some point, late in the evening, the second news item did relay the fact that the Israeli army was occupying West Beirut.

'That evening, a few other health-care workers and I climbed to one of the top floors of the hospital; it had been unused since the recent invasion. Because most of the walls had been bombed out, the view was unobstructed. We watched for a time as flares were shot into the air, brightly illuminating different parts of the camp. After each flare, rounds of light artillery fire were heard. I thought people were trying to shoot down the flares. Not a sound was heard from the camps except the noise of the flares being projected and the shots that followed. No screaming, no cries for help, no human sound, nothing. Israeli planes continued to fly overhead as the night went on.

'The next morning, Friday, September 17, suddenly and with great urgency, all of the Palestinian and Lebanese staff left the hospital. The hospital administrator had told them it was no longer a safe area. The only staff members who remained were some twenty doctors, nurses and physical therapists from Great Britain, Norway, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland and two of us from the United States, all volunteers. That afternoon, in great haste, the patients who could walk left. The refugees inside and outside the building also fled. They feared it was no longer a safe place. The refugees told us that the militias were making their way towards the hospital. The only patients who remained were those who could not move easily and those in critical condition -- altogether about 50 people.

'The sounds of high explosives, mortars and artillery fire, both light and heavy, continued almost non-stop, and they were getting closer. Smoke began pouring in through the windows. Doors and windows were shaking. We evacuated all our remaining patients to the lower floors. We taped up windows so that the glass would not shatter. The electricity kept going off; we were pumping oxygen by hand. The doctors operated by flashlight.

'Sometime Friday morning, in the midst of this bombardment, a film crew from Visnews came. They did some filming, then left. Late in the afternoon, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross appeared; they evacuated a half-dozen critically injured children, whom they placed in other hospitals around the city. They also left us oxygen, blood and other vital and much-needed supplies. Finally, the ambassador of Norway came by. Each of these visitors was given a list of names of all the foreign volunteers.

'That evening, as I was working in the Intensive Care Unit, two unfamiliar young men approached me. They looked different from the local population; well groomed and freshly shaven, with neatly ironed shirts and well-tailored trousers. One of them asked me, "Are the Kataib coming tomorrow morning to slit the throats of Palestinian children?" He asked me this twice. His eyelids appeared to be drooping. He wanted to know who was in the hospital. I answered, "All foreigners." I later learned that there were about 20 of these young men wandering around the hospital smoking hashish. To this day, I have no idea who these men were.

'By that evening, the heavy artillery had ceased. Only the sound of light artillery and gunshots could be heard. Sundown marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year of 5743. That night I managed to get a few hours' sleep. Very early on Saturday morning, September 18, I was awakened by one of the other nurses. On an ordinary morning, we awoke to the tinkling of the bell of the vendor selling Arab coffee from his colorful cart. This morning there was an eerie silence; even the familiar crowing of the roosters had ceased. My colleague said, "Get downstairs right away. The Lebanese Army wants all the health workers to assemble at the entrance." One of the soldiers had instructed her to tell others "not to be afraid," as they were the Lebanese Army.

'I looked out of a space that had once held a glass pane, blown out long ago by the force of a high explosive. In front of the hospital stood about a dozen men in uniform, wearing helmets and holding rifles. Others were herding away people who lived close by the hospital. I quickly put on my lab coat over the green hospital uniform that I had slept in, grabbed my passport, and made my way down eight flights of steps. In the bright morning sun the international health workers who had come to help stood together at the front door of our medical facility. The men and women waiting for us were clean, their uniforms starched and well-fitting -- but they bore the insignia not of the Lebanese Army, but of the Phalange. In contrast to them, we were a haggard and exhausted group; many of us had blood, pus and other human waste on our uniforms and lab coats. The militiamen spoke with each other in Arabic and French and to us in English. They told us they were taking us away for awhile, but that we would be coming back. A few of the doctors successfully negotiated with them to allow one doctor and one nurse to remain in the ICU.

'Our captors led us down the road in front of the hospital and on to Rue Sabra, the camp's main street. As we were marched along, I heard gunshots being fired on the right, then the left, then the right. After each one, I instinctively ducked. Someone told me, "Keep walking." The militiamen themselves did not react at all; they completely ignored the sound. It was as if they had not heard it.

'Some of the camp residents, including some of the cooks and cleaners who worked at Gaza, followed us. The militia stopped them. Along the way, a Palestinian had joined us; fearful, he begged for one of us to give him a lab coat. Someone did. He looked Arab, though, and was quickly confronted by a militiaman asking for his ID card. The Phalangist slapped his face with the card and made him take off the lab coat. I turned around and saw him on his knees begging. As before, someone told me, "Keep walking." The next thing I heard was a shot. I did not look back.

'As we continued marching down Rue Sabra, we saw dead bodies lying along the sides of the street; some were old men, shot point-blank in the temple. As we moved on, we approached a large group of camp residents, mainly women and children, huddled together, with men in uniform guarding them. They were very scared. We were worried about them, and they were frightened for us, seeing us led past them at rifle point. A few of them gave us the "V" sign. It seemed that with their eyes and their lips they wanted to reassure us and thank us for coming to help them. One young woman, fearing she would not survive, stepped out of the crowd and handed her infant to one of the female doctors. Dr. Swee Ang was able to walk a few feet with the baby before a Phalangist stopped her. He took the baby away from her and handed it back to the mother. For a few seconds, I thought about the Holocaust, about mothers being sent off to concentration camps. I had read much about Jewish women in Germany and Poland handing over their babies to others in order to save them from extermination.

'By now we were halfway down Rue Sabra into Shatila; the camps sit beside one another, with no visible line dividing them. The number of militiamen increased greatly; they were everywhere. These looked different from the ones who had escorted us out of the hospital. They were sloppy and unkempt; their uniforms were dirty and rumpled, without any identifying insignia. They seemed exhausted, edgy and ill-tempered. Throughout this ordeal, most of the uniformed men were in constant communication with someone. There were many walkie-talkies in use.

'Our group began to tighten up. It was dawning on us that we might not make it out of these camps alive. A few of us were crying softly. As we reached the end of the camps, our captors began harassing us. They yelled, "You are dirty people, you are not Christians -- Christians don't treat terrorists who kill Christians." The ranting continued, "You are communists, socialists, Baader-Meinhof." They were closing in and encircling us. They collected our passports, ordered us to keep walking. The crackling sound of their walkie-talkies became a familiar noise.

'As we reached the end of the camp, the landscape had changed dramatically. Where homes had stood were piles of rubble. A yellow bulldozer was moving earth back and forth in an area that had been dug up and greatly enlarged. The bulldozer was scooping up dirt, moving it, then dumping it back out. Back and forth. This spot was very busy, with lots of men in uniform. We had to stop many times in order to let the bulldozer go past and do its job. I noticed it had a large Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, stenciled on its side.

'When we turned the corner of Rue Sabra, our captors steered us out of the camps towards the Kuwaiti embassy. They asked those wearing white lab coats to remove them. They lined us up in a row in front of a bullet-ridden wall. Facing us were about 40 men in uniform: a firing squad. Their rifles were ready and aimed in our direction. Behind them was a pick-up truck carrying more militiamen and what looked like a piece of anti-aircraft equipment. After a short time, the men in the firing squad lowered their rifles and marched back into the camps.

'It is my understanding that someone from the IDF had been able to stop this imminent execution of foreigners. Members of the IDF stationed at the Israeli forward command post became aware of what was happening. An Israeli official had run to the spot and ordered the militia not to carry this out; he then left. Militiamen marched us past the embassy of Kuwait. Here another Israeli official appeared, spoke with one of the physicians, then left. The militia remained in control of us. They took us to the courtyard of a unused U.N. building for "interrogation."

'The courtyard was littered with Israeli army rations, empty food cans, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot from September 17 and a few discarded parts of IDF uniforms. The Phalangists called us up one by one for questioning. They asked me what nationality I was, why I had come to Lebanon, who sent me. One of them told the other American not to be afraid, "as you are an American," and bade him "welcome."

'Around 9:30 or 10 a.m., our "interrogation" suddenly stopped. Someone handed our passports back to us. The Phalangists led us across the street to a five-storey building overlooking the camps. The IDF had occupied the building and was using it as its forward command post. I noticed Israeli soldiers on the roof looking through binoculars. A jeep filled with Phalange militiamen was parked at the entrance to the command post. The occupants made it known that they wanted to take a pretty Norwegian nurse away with them. They seemed quite insistent. One of our doctors asked someone from the IDF to intercede. He did, and the jeep drove off without the nurse.

'Within minutes of our arrival, a crew from Israeli Television appeared. Bottled water, fresh fruit and bread were brought to us; the crew filmed us as we ate and drank. Our presence was of little interest to the Israelis. I was not aware that any of them asked what had happened to us.

'A number of Israeli soldiers wearing yarmulkas (skullcaps) and tallesim (Jewish prayer shawls) stood together, reading from their prayer books the morning service for Rosh Hashanah. A young, rather shy-looking soldier approached a few of us. He offered us a piece of honey cake, which had been neatly wrapped. Ever since I can remember, my mother would serve honey cake on this day. It is a Jewish tradition which ensures a "sweet year" ahead. I imagined this young man's mother carefully preparing this cake for her son so that he could commemorate this day according to custom.

'This day had great meaning both for me and for the members of the Israeli Defense Force. All of us were spending this High Holiday around the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. It did not matter if you were the minister of defense, Ariel Sharon, or the division commander, Brigadier General Amos Yaron, or the unidentified soldier who offered me honey cake. This day marks the start of a ten-day period of introspection and repentance in the Jewish year. The Book of Life is opened; we are to right any wrongs we may have committed and set our lives in order. At the end of this period our fate for the next year will be sealed.

After giving evidence to the Kahan commission, Ellen returned to the United States, but not to take it easy. Working part-time as a nurse, she devoted the rest of her time to campaigning, notably in Washington Area Jews for Israel-Palestinian Peace, as she told Rex B. Wingerter
"It is a group of Jews of all political persuasions who want a real peace in the Middle East," says Ms. Siegel. Its members support mutual recognition and negotiation between Israel and the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, including the PLO, as well as the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. They are seeking to make themselves an alternative voice to the Jewish establishment in Greater Washington.

When I saw Ellen at international conferences some years ago, she did not have time to talk about herself and what she had done, being more concerned with what needed to be done next. But she wrote to Sabra and Chatila survivors supporting their efforts to bring Ariel Sharon to justice, and offering to appear as a witness.

Making the right choice can be costly, even away from the shooting.
'Recently, she bumped into her "very dearest, best friend" from grammar school days: "When I went to say hello, she said 'I don't think what you did was so great' and then walked away. That hurt." Yet, continues Ms. Siegel, "I decided a long time ago that it didn't matter if I lost every friend I had because what I was doing was right and if I cared about my people I would have to keep on doing these things."

Never mind Ellen. You may have lost some old friends back home, but you gained new friends and admirers allover the world.

You can hear Ellen Siegel being interviewed a few years ago on the US Democracy Now radio at:

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