J E N I N, The West Bank, April 22, 2002 -- When the Israeli troops withdrew from this Palestinian refugee enclave last week, they did not go very far. Tanks and armored troop carriers still surround Jenin. Israeli soldiers still try to keep outsiders from reaching the camp.
The only way in is to walk several miles behind Israeli military lines to a nearby village, where, in one of the quirks of this conflict, taxi drivers gladly drive us to Jenin.
Once we got there, we found the center of the camp — an area the size of several city blocks — obliterated. It looked more like the aftermath of a natural disaster — an earthquake or a tornado — than an act of man.
Shattered walls show the signs of heavy artillery. Scorch marks indicate the aftermath of grenade and rocket attacks. And mounds of dirt and rubble show the work of armored bulldozers.
Residents of the destroyed buildings return to try to salvage whatever they can. The first man we met was busily sorting through the chunks of brick and concrete that was once his home.
His seven-year-old son, he tells us in Arabic, wants to go home. "I told him we have no home," he says.
Then his son wanted to call his uncle. "There is no uncle," he told him.
Destruction Within Seconds
The man's neighbor, Hassan Abu-Eyad, says he wants to live in peace with Israelis — but if he doesn't find his two teenage sons, he says in Arabic, "I will be the first to become a terrorist — the whole camp will be terrorists."
"For 24 years, I've been working hard to keep my house," he tells us. "It took just seconds for them to destroy it — seconds."
Palestinian refugees tell of an all-out assault on this camp, where 23 Israeli soldiers died.
"Tanks were shooting at us, aircraft were shooting at us, soldiers were shooting at us," Nisserin Al-Goul says in Arabic. "All the Israeli military was shooting at us."
Al-Goul says the soldier entering her house told her that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told troops to "destroy the camp."
The camp is home to 13,000 people, according to Israeli officials, and the Israelis say their offensive here was an assault on "a hornet's nest of terrorists." These Palestinian refugees see it as the latest chapter in a long history of Israeli oppression.
"Sharon is not a terrorist?" Al-Goul says sarcastically. "Only we are terrorists? Isn't he a terrorist when he kills our children and youth?"
Relief agencies keep asking the Israelis for permission to bring in heavy equipment to search for bodies. The answer is still no — too dangerous, the government says. So most of the work is done by hand. Bodies are buried in mass graves.
There is no firm estimate of how many Palestinians died in Jenin. The Israeli army says it's only in the dozens. The Palestinians say it's in the hundreds.
Whatever the case, the smell lingering over the rubble indicates there are many more bodies buried beneath it.
A Surreal Experience
Getting out of Jenin proved to be just as difficult as getting in.
In the late afternoon, Israeli tanks opened fire on a hillside above the refugee camp — just above the road we were traveling along.
We took cover at a house — where, adding to the surreal atmosphere, some of us played with the young children who lived there. We were safe, but for a while it seemed we might not be able to leave before nightfall, when travel would be out of the question.
Then, about two hours later, the fighting had stopped, and we walked out of the village to pick up the armored car we were forced to leave behind.