“Sometimes I feel I am nothing. Sometimes I feel I am the three bullets lodged inside my body, and the two bleeding, broken legs that they left me with”.
“My whole world is shrunken. It has become so small. It is the fence around my room. It is the high wall that stands around that fence, creating a prison within a prison. I am here, on the unlucky side of the wall. I am same as the small birds – bones and feathers not yet strong enough to take flight – innocents who have tumbled from their nest, been snatched unwilling from their home and their family and landed, like me, on the unlucky side of the wall”.
“Each time I think about my time in the jail, my mind goes back there. While my body is now free, it takes nothing for my mind to become a prisoner on the unlucky side of the wall again even as I sit here with you. I don’t like to think about it, but I want to tell you. Please, write anything about me because this is my life. This is my story. And though it is hard to remember, I don’t want it to fade from my memory”.
This is the story of Mohammed. He is an 18 year old Palestinian man who was a child when the experiences he describes were forced upon him. He is a brother to his loving siblings. He is a son to his adoring parents. He is relative of PAL’s founder, Ahmad. He was given his nickname, “Dob”, meaning “bear” in Arabic because he was so tall for his age when he was young. He used to tower over his classmates, now he struggles to walk. His experience is all-too-common. Imprisoned by the Israeli authorities at a young age for an alleged “crime” that was neither proved nor evidenced, one might expect Dob to be angry now. One might expect him to have become “radicalised” or “hardened” during his time in prison. One might expect him to have lost hope in himself and his future.
Instead, and despite still struggling to come to terms with what happened to him, Dob believes that, rather than losing himself in prison, he found inside himself a resilience, strength and compassion that might have just saved his life. And it started with a kitten.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First we should explain how Dob found himself on the unlucky side of the wall.
“Death visits me in nightmares. None worse than the day I remember waking up in pain, in handcuffs, surrounded by soldiers and their guns.”
Dob was 17, a child, when Israeli soldiers shot him in the leg three times. He was studying for his final exams for school and had gone outside for a cigarette and to clear his head before heading back to the facts and figures he was working hard to absorb. He didn’t see the soldiers before the bullets were fired. He stopped in the street, put a cigarette to his lips and flicked his lighter to light it. Then the bullets came; three in quick succession. His legs went from underneath him. The pain was excruciating. He could not run away. His limbs were a bloody mess. He was later told he was shot because the soldiers, who had been hidden behind a building, had “thought he was preparing to throw a grenade”. There was no grenade. There was no evidence. There has still been no evidence produced. Dob was arrested regardless. He was then taken away from his family, his distraught mother and siblings, to begin a 26 month sentence in prison.
It was a trauma: coming so close to death, not dying but still losing a life. He was moved from jail to jail until finally he was settled in Negev, a political prison in the middle of the desert.
He arrived still badly injured, barely able to walk, shower, or use the bathroom without assistance. He missed his mother, his sisters, his friends, and his old life, which became more and more distant and abstract to him as the weeks went on. When asked about the worst memories of those days in prison, he responded “every morning was the new worst moment. Waking up and realising over and over it was not all just a bad dream.”
Then one day he found the kitten. She was stumbling around in the compound; starving and alone. He didn’t know how she got there, but there she was. Just like him. On the unlucky side of the wall. He remembers first looking at her, knowing the destiny awaiting her if he did not help her. At that time, it felt so similar to his own – hopeless. He tried to decide what to do. He could leave her and go on trying to keep himself alive. He needed to be tough to survive here, there was no room for softness, which could be interpreted as weakness and be used against him. He thought it best to leave her to her own fate.
But then he looked around him, at the Israeli soldiers who watched him constantly. He realized that for the first time in months, he was in a position of strength, looking down at a weaker being. He could decide her fate by simply choosing to help her. He could make the decision to save her, and offer her the mercy which had been denied to him. And so he scooped up the scruffy little cat and he became her guardian.
He named her Simba. He had just one spare set of clothes which he made into a bed for her to sleep on at night. Simba followed him everywhere and visited the other prisoners. In her, Dob poured all his care and attention, like she was his child. When he was, without warning, transferred to another prison for two weeks, he thought of her constantly, worrying about her and missing her comforting presence. When he came back, she was there waiting for him.
It all happened again one day when Dob came upon two tiny birds, lying on the ground next to the broken nest which had tumbled down from the top of the wall, with its tiny occupants still tucked inside. Their mother was above them, panicking, helpless to bring them back. Dob looked at this bird and thought of his own mother, the way she had panicked when he was taken away from her. His loving mother who never would have thought her children would one day be trapped inside the walls of a prison.
Like he did with Simba, Dob raised the birds with his daily ration of bread. When they were grown and strong, with every capability to take flight and leave the prison behind, Dob was amazed to find that they chose to stay there with him. They remained close to him, save for the moments in the day when they would push themselves through a tiny gap in the entwined metal roof and fly above for a while. Dob always watched them.
Dob felt that he, Simba and the two birds shared a life and destiny and, in that belief, Dob found freedom. While the walls and fences of the prison could contain his body, they could not contain his mind, his thoughts, his compassion and his dreams. In his small act of caring for the animals, his mind breached the thick walls and was able to remember a world where good things can happen, where people take care of one another, where even a tiny animal could be safe from the violence of others.
“You become broken there, in prison. Either you stop feeling and become violent, or you become strong. And to be strong is to be kind. Kind to other people, kind to the weakest animals, kind to anything else.”
As he shares his story, he looks out over the roofs of Jalazoun refugee camp, where he was born and raised and has finally now returned to his family. A small smile flickers across his face as he watches a flock of birds swooping in circles above as he once did from under the fenced roof cage in Negev. As they fly, he sits below, weighted by the broken legs outstretched in front of him. He plans to get treatment for his injuries, learn to walk normally again, return to his studies, and continue fighting for animals the way he first learned to do with Simba. He is one man, barely out of childhood. He is one Palestinian with a tragic story, a story made even more harrowing in knowing that thousands more like him have suffered, and continue to suffer similar fates. Some will never know freedom. Right now, his country battles for a right to exist and an entire people are left to decide for themselves what it means to be strong, to fight, to build a better world. Dob plans to be one of those fighting to achieve this. He carries with him his experiences and his simple message to the world. It is only in liberating others that we can hope to find liberation for ourselves.
Since his release from prison, Dob has accompanied his uncle, Ahmad, on various activities with PAL; including taking part in the census for stray dogs in Ramallah, where PAL hopes to extend its ground-breaking spay and neuter scheme in the coming months. Already putting his compassion and energy into positive work for people and animals, the entire PAL team could not be more proud of Dob and we look forward to seeing him go on to achieve great things in the future.