In Jenin, Seven Shattered Dreams
Boyhood Hopes Forged on Theater Stage Dissolve in Reality of Intifada
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 19, 2004; Page A01
JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank -- As Mahmoud Kaneri, 25-year-old stonemason, traced the name across the polished tombstone in the Jenin Martyrs Cemetery, he was transported to another time and another place -- a theater stage where he and his closest childhood friends once stood in shimmering robes and delivered lines imbued with optimism.
The boy whose name spilled across the white limestone beneath his fingertips had played the prince. Kaneri had been a wise man. It was the hopeful year of 1994, just after the Oslo peace accords.
"We were so happy," said Kaneri, a towering man with limpid eyes the color of rich toffee. "We fell in love with acting. We thought we'd continue and become something. The sky was the limit."
They were seven neighborhood boys who bonded on the stage of an experimental theater group that won international recognition for bringing a sliver of peace and hope to an impoverished Palestinian refugee camp.
Of the seven boyhood friends, today only two have eluded death or imprisonment. Each time he creates a tombstone for another friend, Kaneri said, he replays the tortuous journey from childhood ambitions acted out on a stage of dreams to manhood in a secret society of Palestinian suicide attackers and armed fighters.
Their lives and deaths offer an intimate glimpse into the murky network of militancy that has transformed the nature of warfare between Palestinians and Israelis and altered the everyday lives of both peoples. The path each young man chose helps explain the roots of the nearly five-year-old Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and why it remains resilient.
Alaa Sabagh became leader of the Jenin cell of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant group associated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and was assassinated in an Israeli missile attack. Ashraf Haija and Nidal Swatat served as Sabagh's foot soldiers and were killed during an Israeli military incursion.
Yousef Swatat, Nidal's brother, helped gun down four Israelis on a crowded city street, then was shot dead by Israeli police. Daoud Zbeida is being held without charges in an Israeli prison.
Kaneri, the stonemason, designs memorials for his fallen friends. Majdi Kaneri, a distant relative of Mahmoud, is an unemployed construction worker. For the survivors, the consequences are intimate and painful.
"We dreamed of becoming actors," said Majdi Kaneri, 25, who knocked down walls and helped bring the sun into the castle on that hopeful stage a decade ago. "Now, my only feeling is sadness. You look at your friends. You can't find one of them. The agony of this group represents the agony of the whole camp."
Daring to Hope
Fifteen-year-old Yousef Swatat, in a brilliant red blouse and flowing black cape, stood atop a ladder on a darkened stage and clasped an imaginary sun in his outstretched hands.
"If I bring the sun into the palace, I will be king," he shouted to the heavens on a night in 1994 in "The Little Oil Lamp," a Palestinian writer's tale of imagination and cunning overcoming hardship and manmade obstacles.
Sukina Swatat remembers the hope she dared embrace as she watched her son and the other boys onstage: "I thought maybe they'd receive a scholarship and study outside and be prominent citizens."
From the streets of a refugee camp coated with the thick dust of poverty and seething with the frustration of an earlier Palestinian uprising, the boys were chosen for the theater by a brassy, outspoken Israeli Jew, Arna Mer Khamis. She picked them out from hundreds of children she sponsored in an educational program that won the prestigious international Right Livelihood Award, presented annually in Stockholm the day before the Nobel Peace Prize is announced. The 1993 award jury praised Mer Khamis's project "for outstanding vision" as a prototype for changing the destinies of children snared in poverty and war.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company