by Najat Hirbawi
Today, Deir Yassin is called Giv’at Shaul, the Hebrew name of the Israeli neighborhood that was built on the ruins of the Palestinian village near Jerusalem. On April 9, 1948, this village was attacked and captured by the Zionist Irgun, Lehi and Stern organizations, who killed many people, including old persons, women and children (the actual number of those massacred is under discussion among historians). The Deir Yassin massacre is significant, not only for its cruelty, but also because it is cited as having sparked the panic that led hundreds and thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes in Palestine, fearing similar massacres at the hands of the Jews.
Memories of a Summer
Many stories have been told about the Deir Yassin massacre. I believe that no one knows what really happened that day. My maternal grandmother, who was then about 15 years old, was one of the lucky survivors. Although she rarely speaks about her experience, she could never forget what happened. I know she had to leave her husband and several of her close relatives, after they had been killed by the Jewish forces, without as much as a last glance or a last good-bye. It is hard to stir the memories of such a past, but I decided to ask my grandmother to recount her experience. This was her account:
We were neighbors with the Jews. We used to sell them our produce and they used to come to our village to buy stone, for our village was famous for its building stones. The name of the village in Arabic consists of two parts: “deir” which means monastery, after a monastery built there by a monk, and “Yassin,” after Sheikh Yassin who built a mosque in the village. The village proper was thus located between these two edifices. It is situated on a high stony ridge, surrounded by olive and pine trees. There were old houses in the center of the village and beautiful new houses towards the periphery. The people were farmers and used to plant grains, olives, fruit trees and vines. The women would go daily to sell the crops to the Jews in Mahane Yehudah and Montefiori and to buy chicken and meat from them. During those days, horses and camels were the only means of transportation.
When I got married, I lived in my father-in-law’s house, where I gave birth to my only two daughters, Zeinab and Miyassar. That fateful Thursday, my husband, Ali, decided to mount the night watch in the village in place of his brother. He put on his jacket, carried his gun and took 1½-year-old Zeinab with him. He dropped her at my parents’ house. I never saw my husband after that day.
No Time to Think
At 3.00 a.m., we heard a lot of shooting and shelling. I hid my 6-month-old daughter Miyassar inside my dress and I ran down the stairs. Bullets whizzed past my head. Somebody shouted for me to get down. I crawled to the front door. Dust filled the area. It was difficult to see. People were rushing everywhere. Some were calling aloud the names of those who were hit or killed. Bodies were strewn all over the place. There was the blood-covered body of my father-in-law. A few meters away lay my aunt with her two babies killed at their own front door. One baby was in her lap, the other next to her. I kept on running. Soldiers were rounding up one whole family — the Zahran family. They lined them up and shot them in cold blood.
The shooting was concentrated in the center of the village. I ran towards my aunt’s house at the edge of the village. On the way, I saw soldiers going from house to house ordering the occupants out and shooting them. In this mess, I forgot all about my parents’ house and my second daughter. All I thought of was to flee the shooting and the fire. At my aunt’s house were six women who had also sought refuge there. Although the house was at the edge of the village, it shook with every explosion. In the evening, we heard loud noises outside. One woman went out to check. She saw the soldiers had already reached our area and were entering the houses, shooting and looting. We decided to leave. All we took with us were our children and we kept on running in the direction of Ein Karem. There was no time to think of food or drink or, indeed, lost children or parents.
We continued running until we reached the village of al-Walaja. We reached some man’s house. We were all in shock. He brought milk for my baby girl. I had given up on my other daughter and my parents. We stayed at the man’s house for two days. There we heard that the Jews had taken all the captured from Deir Yassin to al-Musrara Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. We decided to go to Silwan, near the Old City. There I found my parents, my daughter and one of my brothers. The rest of my family had been killed in the attack.
Preserving the Memory
In Silwan, we were received by one of the families of the village. We spent a fortnight at their house, after which my father took us — my mother, brother, my two daughters and myself — to Abu Dis, near Jerusalem. We had no money. We walked all the way. We settled in Abu Dis for what we thought would be a short period. But the years have passed and nothing has happened. Here I am still in Abu Dis. I never went back to Deir Yassin since the day I left the village, running and scared. I do not want to remember the blood; I do not want to remember the ruins. I want to keep the memory of my village as I left it, green and peaceful.