Interview: Nakba survivor relives his last moments in ethnically-cleansed Saffuriyya

Guest contribution by Danya M.

Overhead they heard sounds of air planes dropping explosives onto the village, soldiers shooting up in the air and at those who dared to defend themselves, screams of women and children not knowing what to do, and the noise of panicking civilians running from their homes.

This was the scene on July 16, 1948, exactly two months after the establishment of the state of Israel. Before that night, Saffuriyya was a thriving agricultural village with thousands of years of history behind it. Saffuriyya was once was a blossoming village overlaying a hilltop, but now only remnants of destroyed buildings show from underneath the unhistorical trees planted by the Jewish National Fund in order to cover up what was once a rich and beautiful history.

A local resident whose family came from Saffuriyya holds a picture of the village in 1945. (Courtesy of Danya M.)

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I’ve had the pleasure to know a family from Saffuriyya my whole life, and I’ve had the chance to visit this village twice over the past two years. The first time I went, I was astonished by the fact that there once was a buzzing village covering that hill, which is now an Israeli tree park dedicated to Guatemala’s independence. The only building you can see is the Roman Era fortress that used to be a boys school that is placed on top of the hill. I looked from below up unto the hill, just imaging the life of the man and woman I called my Jido and Tayta for so many years, though they really aren’t my grandparents. I imagined how life was for them; growing up in such a beautiful village in a land they cultivated and loved for centuries.

The second time I went there, last summer, I had the chance to go up on top of the hill, only to find out that the Roman fortress that lies on the peak of the hill is now an Israeli Museum featuring a time line starting from the Roman Era to present day Israel. As I looked at that timeline, I saw nothing about the history of the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of the village. The history of the family I’ve known my whole life wasn’t told in that museum and I found that heartbreaking. I wanted to know more, I wanted to know the history of the Palestinian people from Saffuriyya, and specifically I wanted to know about the history of the man whose house I have been to every Friday for dinner since I was 7 years old.

In speaking about Palestine, you must understand what happened during the Nakba (The Catastrophe) to better understand the context of the situation now. This narrative isn’t taught in schools, but it’s told by the elders who pass down the stories of their struggles from generation to generation, and it’s up to us to relay these stories with our voices to the world, letting everybody know that we haven’t forgotten and we will never will. The old will eventually die out, but the young will continue their spirit and never forget about the tragedies brought upon the Palestinian people, contrary to Ben Gurion’s belief.

I’m pleased to have the privilege of interviewing Said Qassim, a Nakba survivor who was born on January of 1927. He is the father of eleven children and a grandfather of dozens upon dozens of grandchildren. He now resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife of sixty-seven years. He came to America in the late 1980s after the civil war in Lebanon. He is now currently working on a memoir about his life, and hopes he will be finished within the coming year.

Danya M.: Can you tell me about Saffuriyya, and the life in Saffuriyya?

Said Qassim: The population of Saffuriyya before 1948, was 4,500 people. It was the biggest village in the Galilee. The economy had 100% dependence on agriculture, and it was a very agricultural town and for most of its residents, it was a very simple life. Most of the population was Muslim but there was a Christian Monastery that was a girl’s school that is one of the only things that still remains today. The education level was very low and up until 1948 only seven people had high school diplomas out of the whole village, and there were about seventeen people who had finished middle school. There are a few others who finished writing & Quran School.

On the other side of the monastery is a school for girls with special needs. (Courtesy of Danya M.)

DM: Can you tell me about your life before the Nakba?

A view from the peak of the hill in Saffuriyya. (Courtesy of Danya M.)

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SQ: I’m writing a memoir right now, that has most of my life story in details, but for this I will give you highlights of my life. I’m the only survivor of the males in my family. Other males were born, but I was the only one who survived. I have three sisters. I started my education in the Quran School which was located in the Roman fortress, where I learned how to read and write; I also memorized some of the Quran. I moved to the elementary school in Saffuriyya. After elementary school I went to school in Nazareth where I finished to the tenth grade in 1943; I was about fifteen years old.  Right after school, I helped my father in the farms for about a year.  In 1944, I got married at the age of sixteen, even before I knew what marriage was. On the wedding day, my family put me on a horse for the celebration, and I didn’t know if I was going to a slaughter house or to a wedding, I was so confused. The girl I married was my neighbor, and I didn’t know her very well, and I can’t even remember hearing her voice, but I sure was happy. In 1945, when I was seventeen years old, I had signed up to join the British police during the British Mandate. I asked the officer if I could join and he said yes but he’s going to have to test me because I was so young that I didn’t even have facial hair yet. I joined the same exact day that World War II ended, and I was in the Calvary unit. For the first six months, I stayed in a police station in Bethlehem. After Bethlehem, I was moved to the West Bank town of Tulkarem where I stayed for a year and a half. I moved between Haifa and Jaffa at a police station called Telmund for eight months and then I moved to Beit Lid, near the Jewish settlement Netanya, where I stayed the rest of the time during my police years. I stayed with the Palestinian police force until May of 1948, when Britain officially left Palestine. I was the literally the last Arab police officer to leave Beit Lid junction.

DM: Can you tell me what happened during July 16, 1948?

SQ: This is opening up very painful memories for me… But I was in Saffuriyya during the war and I carried the weapons with the Palestinian resistance which was very much unorganized, and mainly volunteers. The Zionists captured and occupied Shaffa Amr, which is three miles west of Saffuriyya. In Saffuriyya there was a military regiment that was supposed to protect the village; it was led by a man named Nimer Abu-Najj who was a local of Saffuriyya. The weapons consisted of old rifles salvaged from World War I and World War II. The regiment leader put land mines around the village as precaution, as a last line of defense. At that time, the Arab countries established an army called the “rescuer army”. The army was led by non-Palestinian officers, who were mainly Lebanese and Iraqi. One of the officers of the rescuer army came to town, and I believe he was an Iraqi officer. People welcomed him, assuming he was a professional soldier guy. We showed him what our plans of defense were, which consisted of land mines, especially where the entrance of the town was. The Iraqi officer said that we were crazy and told us to collect the land mines and not use them. He told us that we’re going to have an offensive instead of defensive.

That night at 8:00 pm the Zionist militia came and brought a bulldozer. They went over the checkpoint in front of the town that we set up and ran over the people manning it. When the Zionists came to the village, they came with full force and started bombing Saffuriyya. Myself along with my parents, sister, wife, and my two kids, left the village and the only thing we brought with us were two blankets. We left everything else behind, and we thought we were going to come back when the bombings were finished. Everybody in the village left all their belongings behind when they left. We started walking north, and every time we stopped, the “rescuer army” would tell us to keep going because the Zionist militias are coming behind us. We kept walking until we reached Safed, which is the most northern town in Palestine. During that summer, we had the best crops for farming and we had to leave all of that behind us. I would say that the tragedy really started when we became refugees in Lebanon.

We walked all the way to Bint Jbeil in Lebanon. The Lebanese government didn’t treat us like humans; they treated us like fourth-class citizens. We stayed in Bint Jbeil for three days, and then they told us that those who came from Saffuriyya need to get on a bus to go to Beit Yahoun. We found a bunch of tents there, some were pyramid shaped tents and the others were bell shaped tents. The living conditions were horrible.  There were no bathrooms, running water, electricity, or anything to sleep on, but there were only tents. They delivered the water in big tankers and if people get a couple of gallons of water per family, they would be considered lucky. That water had to last for cooking, drinking, washing, and cleaning. Because there was no water or any means for personal hygiene, the whole camp got infested with lice.

After the whole camp got infested with lice, after two months, the Lebanese government moved us to another town called Karoun. In Karoun they had these big barracks that many families had to share. The families divided the barracks up by putting a sliding cloth in the middle to determine each family’s living space. We stayed in Karoun all throughout winter. It was a cold town, and we had no warm clothes because when we left Saffuriyya it was summer time. Many of those in the camp started going to the trees and started cutting them down for wood to make fires for warmth. The local farmers of Karoun complained to the Lebanese government, so the government made us move from Karoun. The majority of the refugee’s were moved to Naher al Barad refugee camp, and about one hundred and fifty were moved to Anjar refugee camp. My family and I were considered one of the lucky ones because we were one of the one hundred and fifty that went to Anjar.

Anjar was a former refugee camp for many of the Armenians, but they all left to go live in Armenia. They had one room houses, with an outside bathroom. There were no doors, but it was good enough, and better than Karoun. A year into staying in Anjar, the red cross opened some schools in Anjar and I taught there for a year. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA)was established and took over the Palestinian refugee camps. There was a need for teachers in Ain El Hilwa refugee camp in Saida, Lebanon. They moved me to Ain el Hilwa where I taught English for a school.

Ain El Hilwa was worse than anything I could imagine. Ain El Hilwa is only one mile long and half a mile wide with over 80,000 people living in that condensed area. Because of the overwhelming population, people started making makeshift shacks to build on top of their roofs, because the Lebanese government made it illegal for Palestinian refugees to construct anything with concrete. When we first got to Ain Al Hilwa all there were was tents. After a little while, the Lebanese government let us build 5 foot walls of concrete, and for the roof we had to use metal sheets. There was a police station near Ain Al Hilwa, and they limited us everywhere we go, and in order to go to Beirut or any other city we had to get a permit from the Lebanese military station.

An old newspaper clipping of Saffuriyya, found on a wall in the monastery school. (Courtesy of Danya M.)

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DM: Did you ever feel that you weren’t ever going to be able to go back to Palestine?

SQ: For me personally, in 1948 is when I knew that we wouldn’t return to Palestine because they moved us more away from Palestine and more north in Lebanon.  Many people in the camp held on to the belief and hope that we would be able to return to Palestine. Even still today, when you go to somebody’s house for coffee or tea, you always say “in Palestine, God willing”.

DM: What is your favorite memory of Saffuriyya and if you had the chance, would you go back?

SQ: My most memorable and favorite memory of Saffuriyya was when I realized and knew I was married. It was the happiest moment in my life. As for the question if I would go back to Saffuriyya, Of course I’d go back in a heartbeat if I had the chance, I loved my life there.

Danya M.

Danya M. is a Palestinian American second year undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico majoring in Human Development & Family Relations and pursuing a minor in Peace Studies.  She is currently the co-president for the UNM chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.   

There are 5 comments

  1. Noelle Clearwater

    Thank you for this interview. I am grateful to have the privilege to read a firsthand account of this gentleman’s experience as a Nakba survivor. His account brings such a vitally intimate element to such a tragic story that must be read and heard. I am honored that you shared it here.

  2. majdi Darwish

    It is really lovely. I visited Daniyall once when I was 10. I still remember what every stone, pathway, tree, etc looks like. The out pour of emotions as you stand on a spot that you know your ancestors stepped on for millennial is overwhelming and can only be experienced by Palestinians. Thinkk about that, what other peoples can claim that?

  3. Michael S. Moore

    Looking forward to Said Qassim’s memoir. I’ve been reading “Never Mind” by Taha Muhammad and Adina Hoffman’s biography of him, “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness.” It was very pleasant to revisit Saffuriyya through the eyes of another survivor..

  4. Naeem Murr

    Dear Danya,
    Could you let me know how I might get in touch with Said Qassim? I would very much like to read his memoir–published or otherwise.

    Thank you!

    Naeem

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