Robi Damelin and Bushra Awad are bound by a common, tragic thread: both lost their sons to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The boys fought on opposing sides but for them, this is purely incidental. The two women draw comfort from each other and their shared experience of bereaved motherhood. Indeed, the hijab-clad Palestinian and crew-cut Israeli are determined to ensure that other mothers do not have to share and suffer the same grief.
Addressing the Women In The World Summit at New Delhi on Friday, Bushra and Robi sat next to each other, describing their traumas. When Bushra first met Robi, she did so with reluctance. But, “when I looked into her eyes, I saw she was a mother. It did not matter that she was an Israeli. We had the same hurt. Our tears were the same.”
The women are members of the Parents’ Circle, an organization of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost someone they love in the conflict.
Damelin’s first reaction when she heard her son, David, had been shot by a sniper near a checkpoint in Ofra, was to say: “You may not kill anyone in the name of my child.” She had gone to her office a little earlier than usual that day but understood immediately why the army representatives had arrived and begged them to go away.
David, the older of two sons, was a student at the Tel Aviv University, studying the philosophy of education. He was a peace activist and was therefore reluctant to serve in the occupied territories. She had spoken to him the day before he died. All he’d said was “We are like sitting ducks.” And he’d added, “I love you.”
Robi said she didn’t feel rage about the fact that he had been killed, but about why he was there in the first place. The man who killed David had not done so because he was David.
“He killed him because he was the symbol of an occupying army…if he had known David, he could not have killed him,’ she said.
David was killed in 2002; the killer was caught in 2004 and Damelin wrote him a letter, delivered to his family, in which she expresses her hope that she might meet him one day.
“I understood why he did what he did”, she says. “He had lost his uncles in the conflict and went down the path of revenge and killed ten people including her son.”
“There is no such thing as instant reconciliation” said Robi.
She said nobody wakes up in morning suddenly at peace with the world. But the moment she met Palestinian mothers who had lost their children, she knew that together, they could become a force for change.
Mahmud was born five years into Bushra’s marriage. He was, she says, her first happiness, “the candle that lightened my house.” She hoped that by the time he grew up, the Intifada would be over. As Mahmud grew up, it only got worse.
As a teenager, Bushra says, Mahmud was very good-looking and warm.
On the terrible day he was killed, the Israeli army had arrived in their village and was intent on destroying houses.
“We went to see what was happening. Mahmud was outside, he had gone to bring his siblings inside. He had said he was scared for them,” she said.
Bushra replied that she was scared for him and begged him to stay inside but he simply told her not to worry. While she had been working in the house, Mahmud was studying but when she heard the sound of gunfire and went looking for him, he was not in his room. She immediately asked her husband to go to search for their son and he too left the house but did not return.
Not long after, a neighbour told Bushra that Mahmud had been injured: “I went out and began running everywhere in the village. I fell down. Then my brother took me [to the hospital] in his car and told me Mahmud was alright.”
But when they reached hospital, her husband was sitting out front, striking his face with his hand. He told them Mahmud had gone.
“I could not understand. My life, my safety, my happiness is gone. I cannot describe the feeling,” Bushra said.
For several years, she was too angry and anguished to emerge from her house. A friend had told her about The Parents’ Circle but she was not interested. Then one day, Robi came to her friend’s house while she was there. Bushra immediately wanted to leave, but Robi asked to speak with her. Bushra did not want to hear what she had to say.
But Robi insisted and told her about David and asked also about Mahmud. They showed each other photographs of their children and all of a sudden, they were crying. They knew, instinctively, what was in each others’ hearts.
One of the projects initiated by The Parents’ Circle is ‘History Through the Human Eye.’ Robi points out that people understand history through their own eyes, from their own perspective. But when they see the narrative of the other, they understand and empathize.
“We do not have time for children to grow up. We must educate the adults,” says Damelin.
And that’s where the trust-building process begins.