It was meant to be a day of commemoration, albeit amid an atmosphere of festive defiance; hundreds of multi-coloured balloons were floating in the skies, national flags adorning the hill top were fluttering in the wind, speeches rich with patriotism were booming over the loud speakers.
But what started off as a “day out” to the border for thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese – many of whom had never seen the occupied territories before – quickly turned to bloodshed.
By the end of the day, six young men had been killed – and 126 people wounded – after Israeli soldiers opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators, reported the ad hoc committee Palestine Action in Lebanon, which counted the corpses and the injured.
This was the scene at Maroun el Ras, a town situated on the Lebanese border with Israel, on Nakba Day 2011.
The day, known as “The Catastrophe” in Arabic, commemorates the exodus of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and their land on May 15, 1948, sparked by Israeli violence immediately following the declaration of the Israeli state.
‘Maybe it’s time to go home’
“I remember getting on the bus from Beirut on the morning of Nakba Day with my friends, and everyone was really happy, really enthusiastic,” said Munib Masri, a 24-year-old Palestinian who attended last year’s event. “It wasn’t an aggressive situation.”
“I still remember seeing the first person getting shot,” he said. “I will never forget that image. He was about 15 or 16 years old, and I remember he had the Palestinian flag in his hand. Maybe he wanted to hang it on the fence? He had managed to get through the barbed wire, and had gotten caught in it. I heard a shot, and saw him fall.”
“That image of him caught in the wire, and not being able to move, I will never forget.”
From that point on Munib was in a daze, he said. “People were getting shot, falling down. We stayed put, by the border, breaking up stones for people to throw.”
Munib was standing with his back to the fence when he felt there was something wrong. “That’s when I realised I had been shot.”
“They put me on the floor of the ambulance. In the bed next to me was a dead body“
– Munib Masri
The bullet had entered Munib’s back and, rather than shooting through the other side, it exploded inside his body. It damaged his spinal cord, his spleen, his kidney, and his stomach.
“The first thing I thought about was ‘maybe it’s time to go home’, but I couldn’t get up,” he said. As people rushed to him, he remembers trying to speak. All that came out was mouthfuls of blood.
At the ambulance, a bystander, convinced that Munib was close to death, grabbed him to recite the Muslim declaration of faith, usually said before one dies.
“They put me on the floor of the ambulance. In the bed next to me was a dead body,” he said. “All I kept thinking about was my mother, God, and how badly I wanted some water.”
Munib’s condition was stabilised in hospital in Bint Jbeil, before being air-lifted to one of the main Beirut hospitals, where he stayed in intensive care for ten days.
The doctors removed a kidney, his spleen, and part of his stomach. His spine is permanently damaged.
“I eventually woke up, and relief flooded over me,” he said. “I thought I had died.”
He spent approximately two months in hospital before being allowed to leave for Atlanta in the United States.
One year later and Munib is still in the US, where he has had to undergo intensive rehabilitation and physiotherapy for his injury. He is paralysed from the waist down, and will be spending his foreseeable future in a wheelchair.
“It takes a long time to recover; I went through a lot of pain, and living day to day with my condition takes a lot, but I have my family who is by my side,” he explained. “I can now do things, like go to university, but my mum has to take me around.”
“The harder i work in therapy, the better chance i have of recovery, but this is easier said than done,” he said.
Yet he considers himself lucky, in comparison with others who were there that day. “Thank God, I have all these resources around me. What I wonder about are the other people who were shot, the people from the refugee camps. Who is taking care of them?”
Bullet to the heart
Miled Majthoub, a 20-year-old Palestinian living in Ain el Helweh refugee camp, had also gone down to mark Nakba Day. Bussed to the border area with thousands of others from the camp in the southern town of Sidon, Miled and his friends had not intended on going down to the border fence.
“We went to show the Israelis that we hadn’t forgotten our land, and we will not let it go. “
– Miled Majthoub, Palestinian refugee
“The elders on the day told us to go to the border, in order to show support and solidarity,” he said. “We went to show the Israelis that we hadn’t forgotten our land, and we will not let it go.”
While on the border, he watched as friends of his started getting shot all around him. “One of them was killed,” he said.
Miled had managed to reach the fence when he was shot, twice. “I was shot near the heart and in the stomach,” he said.
One bullet missed his heart by one centimetre.
He was rushed to hospital, where he spent ten days under observation, while doctors attempted to remove the shells.
“I’m a little better today, but there is constant pain around the area where the bullets hit,” he said. It has not stopped him from working, however, as he spends his days on-site as a construction labourer.
“There are some minor things I can’t do, like heavy lifting, but luckily my boss doesn’t push me,” he said.
‘You stopped feeling fear’
Arabi el Andari, a 38-year-old Lebanese citizen, had gone to Maroun el Ras with friends a little later in the day, when they were greeted with the news that there were dead and injured on the border.
“After a while, with every shot fired from the Israelis, people were becoming more and more furious,” he said. “You stopped feeling fear, and you were not afraid of death.”
The border area is littered with anti-tank landmines, and Arabi, with a few others, took it upon themselves to stop people from stepping on them.
“Every time the Israelis shot, everyone threw themselves on the ground, so we wanted to make sure they weren’t throwing themselves on the mines,” he said.
He had been trying to get people to move away from the border and back up the hill, when he moved to an area closer to the border. Several of his friends had gathered there and he wanted them to retreat from the fence.
“That’s when I got shot,” he said. “I looked down, and saw that my leg had literally been taken apart.”
The bullet, similar to the one that hit Munib, also exploded on impact, completely shattering his leg.
As people began to carry him away, he noticed his leg was hanging at a right angle. “I have no idea what held it together. I started shouting” ‘My leg! My leg!’ – because I didn’t want them to leave it behind,” he said. Taking his keffiyeh off, he made them tie it around his leg to hold it in place.
“Today I have about 50 per cent recovery in the muscles and nerves, and in some parts of my leg I cannot feel anything at all.“
– Arabi el Andari
He was taken to the hospital in Beirut, where they performed surgery while clamping his mangled leg together.
Since then, he’s undergone five operations to support the bone structure insert metal plates into his right leg above his ankle. The doctors have said he still has one more bout of surgery to go.
“I’m still on crutches, although I would say I’m finally independent again,” he told Al Jazeera. “Today I have about 50 per cent recovery in the muscles and nerves, and in some parts of my leg I cannot feel anything at all.”
“You can overcome the pain after the operations because of all the medication they give you, but the toughest thing is not being able to do anything normal, like walk, or drive, or just move around – and having to depend on someone else all the time to help you do things.”
Dr Ghassan Abu Sitta, a craniofacial, plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the American University Hospital in Beirut, operated on both Munib and Arabi.
He said the bullets used were a type of fragmentation bullet, otherwise known as hollow-point bullets, which are illegal in international war according to the Hague Convention. In addition, in 2010, one of the amendments made in the Rome Statute included the use of expanding bullets as a war crime.
“The damage done by this bullet relates to how much energy it leaves inside the tissue. If you fragment the bullet, you are able to dissipate all the energy inside the body because [the bullet] does not leave, explained Dr Abu Sitta.
Hollow-point bullets have an indentation at the tip, allowing the bullet to slow when entering tissue and either fragmenting or collapsnig in on itself on impact, causing maximum damage.
Dr Abu Sitta, who had previously witnessed the same type of bullets in patients he operated on when working in Gaza during the Second Intifada, was able to compare the fragmentation from Munib’s bullet with one he already had.
“Both Munib and Arabi were hit with the same bullets I saw during the Second Intifada in Gaza,” he said. “The Israelis denied using these bullets in Gaza, and also this time around on the border.”
The right to return
“Would I go back again? Yes, I would,” said Arabi. “But I would put myself forward as an example to the youth, to show them what could happen.”
While determined to show his solidarity with the right of Palestinians to return to their land, and to commemorate Nakba Day, he also wants others to be aware of the consequences, “so they can think twice in some situations”, he said.
Miled has no second thoughts about returning to the border. “This is our land, and we will never let it go,” he said. “It is our land, even if we are killed in the name of it.”
“If we need to go to the border again, we will do so, and if death is sent by God, then we welcome it.”
For Munib, while he regrets his injuries, he would not hesitate to go back. “It’s about standing up for what you believe in, and standing up for Palestine.”
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @samahanour