COURAGE UNDER FIRE
For almost a year Caoimhe Butterly has been standing in the way of Israeli tanks and troops in Jenin. Last Friday she was shot by a soldier - but she still won't leave, she tells Katie Barlow
The Guardian, Wednesday November 27, 2002
On Friday, Ian Hook, a British UN volunteer, was shot and killed in Jenin. Caoimhe Butterly, a 23-year-old Irish activist, was also shot, but survived. In October, I spent two weeks filming Caoimhe for a documentary I am making. I had been inspired to meet her by the footage of her blocking Israel Defence Force tanks as they fired over her head, and stories of her standing in the line of fire between soldiers and Palestinian children, as the IDF threatened to "make her a hero".
I arrived in Jenin on September 28. We met at the house of a family with whom she was staying, but had barely exchanged greetings when we heard three gunshots outside. Caoimhe immediately ran out of the front door to see what was going on, and I followed into the darkness. I found myself surrounded by at least 15 young fighters, armed and running with us. We were told that IDF snipers were firing from an occupied home further down the road.
While the fighters took cover, Caoimhe ran straight towards the action. (She cuts a rather conspicuous figure in Jenin; 6ft 1in tall with bright red hair.) A disabled Palestinian boy had been shot off his bicycle by an IDF sniper. Caoimhe ran straight towards him, despite the continuing fire, and covered the gaping wound in his back. Within minutes, the Red Crescent ambulance arrived at the scene, and amid continuing gunfire, the paramedics got the boy into the vehicle. The snipers managed to shoot through the ambulance window, shattering glass all over the boy and nearly killing the local cameraman who was filming a report. At the hospital, we were told that the boy was going to survive but would be paralysed from the waist down. This, said Caoimhe, is everyday life in Jenin.
She was brought up in a culture of liberation theology, which, she says, "deeply inspired" her to spend her life campaigning for human rights. Her father's work as a UN economist moved the family from Ireland to Zimbabwe when Caoimhe was a young child. At a very young age, she says, she developed a deep sense of duty. "I've always felt the need to almost a painful degree of needing to stand up against injustices in whatever contexts they lie." She left school at 18, wanting to travel, and headed to New York, where she spent several months working in soup kitchens for an Irish Catholic workers' movement. She went on to Guatemala and from there to Chiapas in Mexico, where she worked for two years among the separatist Zapatista communities.
She returned to Cork last year and spent 10 days fasting outside the Irish department of foreign affairs in protest at the government's decision to allow US warplanes to refuel at Shannon airport on the way to Afghanistan; she was later arrested while attempting to block the runway. After September 11, she travelled to Iraq to work with an activist group opposed to sanctions. She moved on to Palestine almost a year ago and has remained for most of that time in Jenin.
In April, she received international attention when she smuggled her way into Arafat's Ramallah compound, at that time under siege by IDF soldiers. She went in to give basic medical aid to a Palestinian friend who had been shot in the leg, and had called her for help after the IDF denied him access to the Red Crescent ambulances. She managed to get help to him, but couldn't get herself out again.
"The Israeli army announced officially that any international trying to leave the compound would be immediately deported and arrested, if not shot at," says Caoimhe. "By day three, it became glaringly obvious that I had made a huge mistake. We were just beginning to get the news that the tanks were on their way to Jenin. I spent the next 12 days in there as the stories of Jenin got worse and worse, and I knew I had friends who were bleeding to death."
She escaped by luck, when the IDF forgot to shut a gate surrounding the compound, and ran for her life past tanks and soldiers. She got back to Jenin camp towards the end of the invasion. "It was the smell of rotting human flesh that first hit me. There were still soldiers in the camp, but a lot of people chose to violate the curfew, to bury their dead and to drag in the wounded. One man had been shot at close range, and his body was rolled over by tanks until he was nothing but bones and a sheath of flesh. There was no machinery to dig up the dead, so I helped to dig up the bodies by hand. Very few intact: burnt, broken body parts, a little girl's plait and the foot of a baby. In clearing away the rubble I picked up what remained of a head. There was the body of a little girl who was curled up with her teddy bear. She had suffocated when her house was demolished."
For a while, after April, she felt a numb fearlessness that allowed her to walk up to tanks and into the line of fire, to confront soldiers and withstand beatings at checkpoints. She emphasises that atrocities occur daily - and, indeed, in the two weeks I was with her, 19 civilians were shot, six fatally. Seven of the victims were children on their way to school, shot as tanks opened fire in the middle of the town. One market stallholder was shot in the head in an erratic spray of bullets from an invading tank as he was setting out his vegetables.
Friday was a very close call. Caoimhe was shot in the left thigh as she stood in between a firing IDF tank and three young boys in the street. I spoke to her on the phone shortly after the attack as she lay in her hospital bed. She explained that she had been trying to persuade the IDF, after they shot dead a nine-year-old boy, to stop shooting at the children. They had told her to get out of their way or they would shoot her. It was while she was clearing the children off the streets that she was shot. She is sure she was a direct target; the tank was close by, the soldier pointed his gun at her and fired, and continued to do so as she crawled to an alleyway for shelter.
I asked an IDF spokesman for his explanation. "We are in the middle of a war and we cannot be responsible for the safety of anyone who has not been coordinated by the IDF to be in the occupied territories right now. While we do not want innocent Palestinians to suffer, or internationals to get hurt, we are trying to ensure the safety of the Israelis and we will not tolerate internationals interfering with IDF operations. It is not the job of internationals to stand in the line of fire, unless they are the son of God, but he hasn't come yet."
The Palestinian authority, meanwhile, continues to appeal for international observers to be deployed in the occupied territories. "We have noticed in areas where international volunteers are present and witnessing the oppression, that the Israelis have exercised some restraint," says Afif Safieh, the Palestinian delegate to the UK.
Caoimhe tells me she is OK. A chunk of her thigh is missing but she is grateful that the bullet passed through her leg. Tragically, her friend Ian Hook was shot through the stomach and died. Earlier that day, they had been negotiating with the army to get a sick child to hospital, but the IDF refused to let an ambulance through. When Hook was shot, the ambulance was detained again.
Will she now leave? "I'm going nowhere. I am staying until this occupation ends. I have the right to be here, a responsibility to be here. So does anyone who knows what is going on here."