The 411th child

On the morning of his death, Omar Matar woke up later than usual. Omar loved to eat breakfast together with his father Musa, a truck driver, before Musa left for work at 5:30 A.M. But on that Friday two weeks ago, Omar didn’t wake up until seven. He ate alone – tea, pita, za’atar and cheese, and then did something else that he’d never done before: He offered to wash the stairs for his mother.

After he’d finished that, Omar took a shower, changed clothes and went out as he did every Friday to the mosque in the Qalandiyah refugee camp. That was where Musa Matar saw his young son for the last time. Omar, who was just shy of 14, left the mosque to go to a demonstration in support of the Iraqi people and then headed for the deserted airport across from Qalandiyah. Omar dreamed of being a pilot when he grew up, but that day he had another childish plan in mind – to try to disconnect the observation balloon that the soldiers sent up over the airfield, apparently to film the goings-on in the refugee camp.

Box cutter in hand, and accompanied by his brother Fadi and his friend Mujahed, Omar approached the airport fence. It was early afternoon. The soldiers immediately noticed them and started chasing them back toward the camp. When they had almost reached the house of Walid Zawawi, on the main road, a soldier kneeling on the road fired two shots at Omar, according to Zawawi. One hit the boy in the head and the other in the neck.

Zawawi, the deputy manager of the refugee camp for UNRWA, who watched from his window as the episode unfolded, claims that one of the soldiers clapped his comrade – the sniper of children – on the shoulder after he saw Omar fall. Mujahed Taya, 19, the friend who was with Omar, tried to move Omar, who was bleeding from his head and neck, but then he was shot, too – in the hand and leg.

Omar died five days later in the hospital in Ramallah. He was the 411th Palestinian child to be killed in this intifada, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Just over a week went by from when the 406th child victim, 12-year-old Christine Sa’ada, whose story was told here last week, was shot while riding in her family’s car in Bethlehem until Omar’s death. In between, several other Palestinian youngsters were killed: a 14-year-old boy in Jenin, a 17-year-old boy in Nablus and a 16-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy in Gaza. Six children in just over a week.

The usual memorial posters have been attached to the wall at the dead boy’s home, but there is also a huge poster of Omar all along the side of the house, from which his face stares out at the surrounding houses. The last time we came here it was to meet Sami Kusaba, to hear the story of how he lost his two sons, Yasser and Samer, within 40 days of each other. This week, we came to meet bereaved father Musa Matar. His spirits do not seem that down, perhaps because he has already been through so much in his life, including 12 years in prison for weapons smuggling. Portly and mustachioed, in his dusty work clothes that barely fit around his stomach, he speaks dryly about the loss of his son. “God gave and God took away. We give thanks to God.”

About ten thousand people live in the refugee camp, most of whose origins lie in the lost villages around Jerusalem. Thirty-two Qalandiyah residents have been killed in this intifada, three times more than in the previous one. The IDF actually does not often enter the camp, and most of the confrontations between the local children and the soldiers take place on the road and not inside the camp. The unemployment rate is 70 percent.

Musa Matar and his wife Turiya have 11 children and 18 grandchildren. Omar and Khaled were the youngest. Musa is 68. Omar was in eighth grade at the UNRWA boys’ school in the camp. Sometimes he would help his father work in the garden behind their small house. Khaled winces whenever his dead brother’s name is mentioned.

That fateful Friday, Omar and his brother Fadi, 16, did not come home for lunch. After leaving the mosque, they took part in a demonstration against the war in Iraq. Khaled told his father that he saw his two brothers on the side of the road with another group of kids and teenagers. That’s where the youngsters go to burn tires or throw rocks, when there’s nothing to do. And there usually isn’t much to do in this impoverished and encircled refugee camp. The kids were apparently throwing rocks over the fence of the abandoned Atarot airport, where the soldiers were, but Omar, Fadi and Mujahed decided to take it a step further and try to cut off the observation
balloon.

Meanwhile, at home, Musa and Turiya were sitting on the roof, enjoying the sun. At 1:45 P.M., they heard four or five shots from the direction of the main road, but they didn’t think much of it. They hear gunfire practically every day. Fifteen minutes later, a little boy came up to the roof and told them that Omar was wounded in the eye and was being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Omar’s older brother Mohammed hurried to the hospital in Ramallah. Omar was already unconscious. Turiya and Musa came as fast as they could. The doctors told them that Omar’s condition was grave – a bullet in the head and one in the neck. All they could do was pray.

Zawawi, the eyewitness, saw from his window three youths hiding behind some barrels on the side of the road and the soldiers chasing after them on foot. Suddenly, Omar came out from behind the barrel and started running toward Zawawi’s house. The soldier knelt down behind the separation fence on the main road, aimed and fired – from a distance of about 100 meters. Omar was just a few meters from Zawawi’s door, facing the soldier.

The soldier and the child were facing each other, until the child fell. Not from rubber bullets or from tear gas, but from live bullets fired at the child’s head. The IDF Spokesperson: “The military police are investigating. When the investigation is complete, the findings will be transmitted to the military advocate general.”

Mujahed darted out from behind the barrels and ran to the aid of his bleeding friend. He tried to pick him up to get him out of there, but the soldiers shot him, too. There were about ten soldiers there. When they left, people from the camp came out and stopped passing cars to get them to take Omar, and then Mujahed, whose injuries were not as serious, to the hospital.

Leaning on his crutches, Mujahed comes into the tiny living room of his parents’ house in the refugee camp. He has on a white T-shirt and shorts, and has styled his hair with gel. His father served 15 years in an Israeli prison for the murder of a Palestinian real estate dealer in the camp. A photo of the father after his release, standing with Yasser Arafat, hangs on the wall. Mujahed, 19, doesn’t go to school, doesn’t work – doesn’t do anything, apart from occasionally throwing stones at soldiers on the road along with children who are much younger than him.

On Friday, after the demonstration, they suddenly noticed the observation balloon floating over the airport with a camera attached, apparently to spy on life in the camp. They’d never seen this contraption before. From the camp, it appeared that it would be possible to sever the cord attached to the balloon, so they took a box cutter and headed for the airport. They knew there were always soldiers around there, but this didn’t stop them. They thought that the balloon was attached to the airport fence. As soon as they got close to the fence, they saw five jeeps speeding towards them, says
Mujahed.

His elderly grandmother comes into the room, hugs him and asks how he is. His arm and leg are bandaged; the bullets entered and exited, fortunately.

The boys started running from the soldiers toward the refugee camp. Mujahed says that they shot him while he was holding his wounded friend Omar. He dropped Omar on the sand and fled to Zawawi’s house. New sand now covers the bloody trail left when Mujahed tried to carry Omar. The barrels are still there, waiting for the next child to use them for cover.

For five days and nights, Omar’s family stayed by his bedside in the intensive care unit in Ramallah, until early Wednesday morning, when he died. “He wanted to liberate Palestine from the air,” his father says with a bitter smile.

Courtesy New Profile – Movement for the Civil-ization of Israeli Society
POB 48005, Tel-Aviv 61480, Israel
E-mail: mailto:newprofile@speedy.co.il