"…Because every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise; it forces the individual into situations that shame his manhood, obliging him to murder fellow men, against his will; it ravages material amenities, the fruits of human toil, and much besides.”
The Einstein - Freud correspondence (1931 - 1932)
"I have been in lockdown all my life, it’s not easy for us to be in lockdown in our house. Of course, we care and we are scared of COVID-19, but we are used to resisting and surviving."
She has lived in Nablus City, where each entry has a military checkpoint. The same city was under curfew for many years in the past (during the second intifada between 2000-2005), controlled by the Israeli Forces. The checkpoints are still present at the entries of the city.
The memory of being a child at that time is something a lot of people maintain and share, with bombs, shootings and crying for someone in the family who was killed or sent to prison. They grew up under curfew, in a place where mobility is restricted, uncertain and dangerous, sometimes for long periods of time.
Each time I say “I have a simple question” in Palestine, I do so prepared to listen to a “complex answer”. Because what the people here lived through in the past and what they face every day in the present is stressful and traumatic.
“Curfews are considered a collective punishment, turning every home into a prison. Under curfew all aspects of daily life are paralysed; the result is the total breakdown of normal patterns of social and economic interactions. Curfews create frustration, and one common responses to frustration is active aggression. If the stressful condition continues, and the individual is unable to cope with it, apathy may deepen into depression”.
World Psychiatric Association (2005). Disasters and mental health.
I’m going to share here some of the different voices I have heard since I arrived here in Palestine. They show me what it means to live and grow up under a never-ending lockdown.
The invisible occupation
Just being here, I hear a lot of stories, and I see a land separated and divided by walls. But, as I listen, I come to understand that the walls are only the visible part of the occupation. There is another part that is invisible and impacts each day of Palestinians' lives.
This “invisible” occupation can be seen when even the easiest decisions become complicated and sometimes impossible, like travelling from one city to another, feeling safe to talk, or free enough to dream.
When driving on the roads, the colour of the car number plate defines what the car can do. If the number plate is green (Palestinian) there are roads they are not allowed to use. Sometimes, they have to make journeys that are hours longer because suddenly the road is blocked for them. R. told me how dangerous can be if Google Maps wrongly guides them to a road they are not allowed to use.
Once, on the road with P., he explained to me that the beach was 30 kilometres away from where we were, but the huge wall that divides the land doesn’t let them go to the sea or even see it.
F., a young woman, remembers the emotional impact of realising that in other parts of the world no one would ask her for her passport when she moved from one city to another. She explained to me how she realised that, actually, she was not living freely and the security controls she was living under were not normal in other parts of the world.
Fear, as a universal emotion, activates when a human being feels that they are in danger. The expected psycho-biological reactions are either preparing to escape or freezing in place.
To avoid fear, it is not enough to know you didn't do anything wrong. It appears when perceiving that someone has power over you.
Under fear it is not possible to feel free.
Not in Palestine
X. grew up watching movies that taught him that the police were responsible for his safety. He shared with me the day that his father explained that things were not always like this, at least in Palestine.
“It was difficult for me to understand it when I was a child, that the police weren't there to protect me. I remember feeling so confused”.
This memory is from thirty years ago, but it has stayed with him. As have the night-time incursions, with children running because the soldiers were breaking the door to enter the house.
T., whose mother was killed by soldiers in the front door of the house, and who has been shot himself, says that the situation will continue.
He tries to joke, repeating “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido”. (“The people, united, will never be defeated”). But on a deeper level he knows that the "pueblo" are tired, frustrated of trying and not getting results, feeling helpless and hopeless because, as he says, “even our own people let us down”.
A “normal” life
For the same reason, I see a patient who cannot feel safe. He tells me that the feeling of injustice is in his mind all the time. He thinks life is unfair and that love for his land has no place. Of course, he doesn't want to talk by phone, self-silencing is his way to not feel in danger.
Another patient explains to me “I feel dead inside, life is black for me”. He says he had a "normal life”: he doesn't know that depression can also be due to social context.
A. shared with me how the ongoing lockdown due to the pandemic reminds her of the last Intifada; being blocked and hiding in the house without knowing what will happen, hearing bombs and shootings, feeling scared and confused.
It is part of some people's life, being far away from their family. M. explains to me why he decided to not see his family who are living in Gaza.
"For me, it is too painful. I cannot go to that place, I prefer to talk by phone.”
I don’t need to hear more to understand how he feels. I feel the anguish and sadness in his voice.
Nowadays, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is talking about and experiencing a curfew. Here in Palestine, it has been going on for decades, under violence and danger.
From a psychological perspective, Palestinians have developed collective coping mechanisms that let them live, enjoy and deal with the daily pain.
As R. told me, “We know how to use enjoyable moments because we know they may end very soon, and another period of traumas and stress or danger may happen, any time”.
MSF continues providing mental health and social support to those affected. The violence happens, the traumatic memories don't disappear, they are part of the history.
The strongest people are those who feel the pain, process it, and then continue looking for happiness and pleasure in life.
*The stories I shared are told by different people who tell me about their daily life. The names have been changed to respect confidentiality and privacy. The events are exactly as people told me.