I cannot forget three horror-filled days in July of 1948. The pain sears my memory, and I cannot rid myself of it no matter how hard I try. First, Israeli soldiers forced thousands of Palestinians from their homes near the Mediterranean cost, even though some families had lived in the same houses for centuries. (My family had been in the town of Lydda in Palestine at least 1,600 years.) Then, without water, we stumbled into the hills and continued for three deadly days. The Jewish soldiers followed, occasionally shooting over our heads to scare us and keep us moving.
Terror filled my eleven-year-old mind as I wondered what would happen. I remembered overhearing my father and his friends express alarm about recent massacres by Jewish terrorists. Would they kill us, too?
We did not know what to do, except to follow orders and stumble blindly up the rocky hills. I walked hand in hand with my grandfather, who carried our only remaining possessions – a small tin of sugar and some milk for my aunt’s two-year-old son, sick with typhoid.
The horror began when Zionist soldiers deceived us into leaving our homes, they would not let us go back, driving us through a small gate just outside Lydda. I remember the scene well: thousands of frightened people being herded like cattle through the narrow opening by armed soldiers firing overhead.
In front of me a cart wobbled toward the gate. Alongside, a lady struggled, carrying her baby, pressed by the crowd. Suddenly, in the jostling of the throngs, the child fell. The mother shrieked in agony as the cart’s metal-rimmed wheel ran over her baby’s neck. That infant’s death was the most awful sight I had ever seen.
Outside the gate the soldiers stopped us and ordered everyone to throw all valuables onto a blanket. One young man and his wife of six weeks, friends of our family, stood near me. He refused to give up his money. Almost casually, the soldier pulled up his rifle and shot the man. He fell, bleeding and dying while his bride screamed and cried. I felt nauseated and sick, my whole body numbed by shock waves. That night I cried, too, as I tried to sleep alongside thousands on the ground. Would I ever see my home again? Would the soldiers kill my loved ones, too?
Early the next morning we heard more shots and sprang up. A bullet just missed me and killed a donkey nearby. Everybody started running as in a stampede. I was terror-stricken when I lost sight of my family, and I frantically searched all day as the crowd moved along.
That second night, after the soldiers let us stop, I wandered among the masses of people, desperately searching and calling. Suddenly in the darkness I heard my father’s voice. I shouted out to him. What joy was in me! I had thought I would never see him again. As he and my mother held me close, I knew I could face whatever was necessary.
The next day brought more dreadful experiences. Still branded on my memory is a small child beside the road, sucking the breast of its dead mother. Along the way I saw many stagger and fall. Others lay dead or dying in the scorching midsummer heat. Scores of pregnant women miscarried, and their babies died along the wayside.
The wife of my father’s cousin became very thirsty. After a long while she said she could not continue. Soon she slumped down and was dead. Since we could not carry her, we wrapped her in cloth, and after praying, just left her beside a tree. I don’t know what happened to her body.
We eventually found a well, but had no way to get water. Some of the men tied a rope around my father’s cousin and lowered him down, then pulled him out, and gave us water squeezed from his clothing. The few drops helped, but thirst still tormented me as I marched along in the shadeless, one-hundred plus degree heat.
We trudged nearly twenty miles up rocky hills, then down into deep valleys, then up again, gradually higher and higher. Finally we found a main road, where some Arabs met us. They took some of us in trucks to Ramallah, ten miles north of Jerusalem. I lived in a refugee tent camp for the next three and one-half years. We later learned that two Jewish families had taken over our family home in Lydda.
Those wretched days and nights in mid-July of 1948 continue as a lifelong nightmare because Zionists took away our home of many centuries. For me and a million other Palestinian Arabs, tragedy had marred our lives forever.
Throughout his life my father remembered and suffered. For thirty-one years before his death in 1979, he kept the large metal key to our house in Lydda.
After more than four decades I still bear the emotional scars of the Zionist invasion. Yet, as an adult, I see what I did not fully understand then: that the Jews are also human beings, themselves driven by fear, victims of history’s worst outrages, rabidly, sometimes almost mindlessly searching for security. Lamentably, they have victimised my people.
Four years after our flight from Lydda I dedicated my life to the service of Jesus Christ. Like me and my fellow refugees, Jesus had lived in adverse circumstances, often with only a stone for a pillow. As with his fellow Jews two thousand years ago and the Palestinians today, an outside power controlled his homeland – my homeland. They tortured and killed him in Jerusalem, only ten miles from Ramallah, my new home. He was the victim of terrible indignities. Nevertheless, Jesus prayed on behalf of those who engineered his death, “Father, forgive them…”
Can I do less?
Father Rantisi was born in Lydah, now the site of Ben Gurion airport, in 1937. From 1955 to 1958 he attended the Bible College of Wales, moving in 1963 to continue his studies at Aurora College in the state of Illinois. He then served as a missionary in Sudan. In 1965 he opened the Evangelical Home for Boys in Ramallah, West Bank. In 1976 Father Rantisi was elected as Ramallah’s deputy mayor and he is now the director of the orphanage of the Evangelical Home for Boys. “Death March” faced a strong wave of criticism, orchestrated by the Zionist lobbies, on its first publication in the United States in 1991. His publishers eventually bowed to pressure and decided not to reprint the book. The rights have now reverted to the author. The following extracts are published here courtesy of the Sakakini Cultural Center.