‘Train of Return’ rolls through Bethlehem as refugees commemorate Nakba Day

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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Several hundred Palestinians marched through Bethlehem on Sunday in commemoration of the 68th anniversary of the Nakba, which means catastrophe in Arabic and marks the period between 1947 and 1948 when an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes and hundreds of others are believed to have been killed.

The theme of the Nakba march this year was the “Train of Return.” (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

The theme of the Nakba march this year was the “Train of Return.” (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

The theme of the Nakba march this year was the “Train of Return” and a train was made by volunteers from the three refugee camps in Bethlehem city for the march. The train was powered by a car built into the front of the train, which pulled the other carts. The train weighed around 1.5 tons, was made up of five carts, and took two weeks to build, according to the organizers of the march.

“The idea behind the train was to show that we will return to our original villages,” Mohammed Abu Srour, one of the volunteers who helped build the train told Mondoweiss. “It is a simulation of our dreams to come back to our land.” (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

“The idea behind the train was to show that we will return to our original villages,” Mohammed Abu Srour, one of the volunteers who helped build the train told Mondoweiss. “It is a simulation of our dreams to come back to our land.” (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

“We will return to our land,” Abu Srour, who lives in a nearby refugee camp, said smiling. “Maybe not this year or next year, but in my lifetime, of course we will return — that is not a question.”

Each cart of the train had names of Palestinian refugee camps in the occupied West Bank, and the names of the cities many of the residents originally hailed from. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

Each cart of the train had names of Palestinian refugee camps in the occupied West Bank, and the names of the cities many of the residents originally hailed from. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

Demonstrators waved both Palestinian and the famous black “right of return” flags while marching through the city.

Nearly half the demonstrators sported t-shirts sponsored by BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights with the slogan “Return is our right and our will.” (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

Nearly half the demonstrators sported t-shirts sponsored by BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights with the slogan “Return is our right and our will.” (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

The t-shirts featured a graphic also found on posters hung throughout the city, designed by Iyad Abu Zinada, a young man from the Gaza Strip who won the annual design contest organized by BADIL. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

The t-shirts featured a graphic also found on posters hung throughout the city, designed by Iyad Abu Zinada, a young man from the Gaza Strip who won the annual design contest organized by BADIL. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

Motasem Abdo, a refugee and volunteer medic rode on the train along with several other local youth, dressed in traditional Palestinian clothing.

“It means a lot to be here to today, because the Nakba means a lot to us,” Abdo said, as the train rolled down Bethlehem’s main street. “I don’t care if we take a train, or a bus or a car or if we have to walk, what we are saying is we will return to our homes.” (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

“It means a lot to be here to today, because the Nakba means a lot to us,” Abdo said, as the train rolled down Bethlehem’s main street. “I don’t care if we take a train, or a bus or a car or if we have to walk, what we are saying is we will return to our homes.” (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

Both Abdo and Abu Srour are much too young to remember the Nakba. They are just two of the estimated 5 million descendants of the original 750,000 Palestinians who fled 68 years ago.

One man, a 90-year-old from Aida refugee camp, didn’t participate in the march, but waited in the summer heat under a tent for the march to meet him at the city-center. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

One man, a 90-year-old from Aida refugee camp, didn’t participate in the march, but waited in the summer heat under a tent for the march to meet him at the city-center. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

“I hope to see my land again before I die,” the man said, sitting next to an orthodox priest and several members of the Palestinian Authority’s security force.

While most of the marchers stopped after the initial mile-and-a-half march reached a main intersection in the city, more than one hundred other marchers, along with the train, continued down the road to a military base that lies just behind Israel’s separation wall, which hems the city.

Most of the marchers were from one of three refugee camps in Bethlehem city: Aida, Beit Jibrin, and Dheisha refugee camp. Children, teens, the elderly, women and men participated in the march. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

Most of the marchers were from one of three refugee camps in Bethlehem city: Aida, Beit Jibrin, and Dheisha refugee camp. Children, teens, the elderly, women and men participated in the march. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

Israeli forces immediately began shooting off tear gas at marchers, briefly dispersing the demonstration, however as the train made its way toward the base – accessible through a garage-like door in the separation wall – forces stopped to confront the train and its passengers.

After more than 30 minutes of being stopped by forces, the train was permitted to turn around and continue through the city. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

After more than 30 minutes of being stopped by forces, the train was permitted to turn around and continue through the city. (Photo by Sheren Khalel)

After the slow-moving train had left the area, Israeli forces continued shooting tear gassing protesters, catching the yard of a home on the main street on fire.

Protesters responded by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the separation wall and Israeli forces.

Palestinians across the world commemorate Nakba Day each year on May 15 each year. While around 6 million Palestinians live in Israel, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, another 5 million Palestinians, referred to as the diaspora, live in different countries around the world.

Around 1.5 million Palestinians live in 58 refugee camps recognized by the United Nations in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, according to UN documentation.

Some 80 percent of the population in the Gaza Strip are registered refugees, according to BADIL.

The right of return is an issue at the center of the Palestinian struggle.

About Sheren Khalel

Sheren Khalel is a freelance multimedia journalist who works out of Israel, Palestine and Jordan. She focuses on human rights, women's issues and the Palestine/Israel conflict. Khalel formerly worked for Ma'an News Agency in Bethlehem, and is currently based in Ramallah and Jerusalem. You can follow her on Twitter at @Sherenk.

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One Response

  1. just
    May 15, 2016, 3:20 pm

    Thank you for reporting this with your eloquent words and photos, Sheren.

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