Closure at Saida

January 29, 2005

By Donna in Saida

It's now day five of the military invasion of Saida village, and the frustration, impatience and desperation of the local people are palpable. The sense of powerlessness, which sits within everyone, is heartbreaking.

The 3,500 residents of this West Bank town were collectively kidnapped at 7am on Tuesday morning when an army of tanks and armoured military jeeps took over the town. Loudspeakers were used to broadcast the command: no one leaves their home or lethal force would be used. It was as simple as that. Strategically placed snipers on rooftops enforced the rule with great success.

Photo: Aaron [ISM]

So for the next four days the families had to survive on whatever they had in the house. No man could go to work. No woman could go to the shops; indeed no one could open a shop! No one could go to check on relatives. No one could go to a doctor. No grazier could feed their livestock. No farmer could tend the crops. No visitor to the town could leave. To look out your window was to risk your life. Imagine.

On day four the hunger set in. Many cupboards were bare and people needed food. This military operation was becoming a humanitarian disaster. As we moved about the town asking for people's needs, they asked for the most basic: "please, can you make the soldiers leave so we are free to leave our home safely?"

Feeling helpless, we phoned anyone we could think of that could help end the siege or who had connections with anyone who could help. The lobbying that had begun on day one resumed in earnest. Israeli human rights groups applied pressure to military commanders and members of the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. It seemed with all the national and international focus on the action in the Gaza Strip, Saida, under siege and starving, had been forgotten.

Finally, late yesterday afternoon there was a small breakthrough. The town was still under military occupation and cut off by roadblocks from the outside world, but the home curfew was temporarily lifted. When the announcement was made, people gingerly started to step outside and then began to stream out of their doorways. The streets were full of relieved, smiling people, greeting each other with big hugs and handshakes with a cry of Il-Hamdilallah (thanks to God!). It felt like New Years Eve.

The shops became crowded and farmers rushed to their starving animals to assess the damage. But the army made it clear they were still in control of Saida. The temporary reprieve was on shaky ground. Armoured jeeps still patrolled the town, blocked off streets and several houses were still occupied by soldiers. Some soldiers told us that the curfew would be lifted for 24-hours, but could be imposed again at any time if there was any `trouble'.

The greatest frustration; there was still no freedom to leave the village. Queues of people formed at the checkpoint who had been trapped in the village and needed to leave. They were refused.

21-year-old Nasser was one of the most desperate; he had to get to Nablus for his final exams at University which start today. Now he would miss out and perhaps jeopardise his upcoming graduation. There's also a group of final-year school students eager to make it for the first day of classes at the senior high school in the neighbouring village of Alhar. They can't get out, nor can the teachers at Saida Primary School get in, so the school was deserted.

And then there's Ahmed. He drives the school bus for the nearby town of Tulkarem. The school term resumes today, but he won't be there to do the rounds for the first day back after holidays. Many others need to go outside the village for work or business. They are now losing wages, opportunities and perhaps their jobs. They'll be stuck in the confines of Saida, now a military zone, essentially a prison, feeling nervous, uncertain and isolated.


PS: It's now Saturday night, the curfew has been reinforced. The uncertainty continues.

Next Saida: the siege over . . .