Stillborn under occupation. Documenting Palestinian checkpoint births

//An outfit belonging to a stillborn baby; the only trace the mother has of her tragic birth at a checkpoint.

Between 2000 and 2005, more than 67 women gave birth at checkpoints. Some of these women lost their babies, others had children with physical defects due to a lack of medical attention. All of the parents share horrifying tales of their ordeals, and none of them have received any compensation. For this project, I took part in the 2015 Arab Documentary Photography Program (ADPP), which provides support and mentorship to photographers from across the Arab world. ADPP supported my project, and I was mentored by Peter Van Agtmael, a Magnum photographer.

I chose to speak about women giving birth at checkpoints because it is something that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. It felt like it is an under-documented part of history, and in terms of photography it has not been done before. It’s very difficult to photograph something that happened so many years ago, where the proof is almost erased. Yet I still felt like the least I can do is collect the stories of these women and gather them in one place, adding to it a visual reference.

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I began researching and quite immediately found out that I was faced with a huge challenge as there was no list with names where I could find the women I was looking to interview. So I had to get in touch with various organisations who were able to give me a couple of names or names of people who might know someone who had suffered from this. The problem was that the names I got were either “Umm Ahmad” or “the wife of Hamdan Mamdouh.” Most of the phone numbers weren’t up-to-date anymore, so I found myself struggling to get in touch with these people. So I decided to go to villages and knock on doors to try to find these women by word of mouth. It was a lengthy and very exhausting process because most of these villages were very far from [where I live] and I had to travel up to three hours to get to some of them. It was a little bit of an oral history project if you like.

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I asked each woman to show me an object that reminded her of [when it happened]: an object that bore witness to that day, or the clothes of the child if they had kept them. This was challenging; in some cases as many as 10 or more years had passed, so the women had to look into their storages to dig the clothes out. Most were surprised that after so many years someone wanted to document this. Most of these women had neither received any compensation nor were able to sue the soldiers.

The project also includes portraits of the children who survived, many of which have suffered of physical complications due to the delay in birth, lack of oxygen and other factors. And photos of the checkpoints where the forced births took place.

When the ADPP website was launched, I was surprised by a couple of emails I received from people in the US who told me that they had no clue that this was happening. It’s hard, because these stories go against how the Israeli army portrays itself, claiming to be one of the most ethical armies in the world and the Middle East’s only democracy. We should not let such stories get lost because they are one of the proofs that this army is committing war crimes without anyone holding them accountable. I see this as a part of Palestinian history and a brutal side to the conflict which has not been given the attention it deserves. I believe that each Palestinian should use whatever tool he/she has to transcribe these stories, which are now mostly forgotten, and turn them into something touchable in order to create this historical archive of the ongoing Palestinian catastrophe and ethnic cleansing.

The impact of this project might not be immediate but I hope that one day it will be used as a reference and proof that war crimes have been committed.

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Samar Hazboun

10/04/2016

 

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