The first time I met Cindy and Craig Corrie was at the vigil for murdered Italian activist, Vittorio Arigoni.
We were all huddled in a circle, in the middle of Manger Square, Bethlehem. There were about 20 of us; it was a mixed crowd made up of activists, journalists, Vittorio’s friends and local people there to show their solidarity. It was cold. I remember Cindy was shivering. I made some banal comment about the weather and she introduced herself. Her husband Craig sat beside her, we had a brief conversation about Vittorio before a local photo-journalist who had known him, began to speak.
It was an extremely sombre event. Most people had met Vittorio before, he was "larger than life," a real giant of a man — someone who immediately put you at ease, made you feel that everything would be OK. People were in shock. Grief hung in the air and then it was Cindy’s turn to talk.
She spoke about having met Vittorio, about his infectious smile, his fearlessness. And then she explained how Vittorio had made a point of talking to her about her daughter Rachel and how that had touched her at the time.
When you meet people in the Palestinian Territories, it doesn’t take long before you stop to ask them why they’re there. But unlike that inevitable inquiry at a wedding or friend’s birthday designed to navigate how one fits into the picture or how you came to know so-and-so, when you ask this question in the West Bank or Gaza, the answer is always interesting and often, surprising.
Watching Cindy and Craig in the circle that had assembled that night, I was overcome with pain and sadness. I knew exactly how and why they came to be there. And looking at them, I realised that even if I hadn’t heard their story, or been introduced properly, the reasons behind their journey were clear. They wore their narrative in the glassiness of their eyes, in the rigid curve of their posture. An intense, mechanical adrenalin was fuelling their every move; the case in Haifa, the foundation they had set-up in their daughter’s name, the advocacy they were doing on behalf of the Palestinian people — this was the only why, the only how, now.
Another time when we ate felafel together, Craig spoke to me about his daughter, Sarah. She too had left her life in the States behind, joining her parents to work full-time on the trial. At the time of Rachel’s death, Sarah was working in politics in the education sector, Craig had a corporate job and I’m not exactly sure what Cindy was doing professionally — it never came up. But, she did mention how she used to love gardening.
When Rachel was killed, the family were promised a thorough and transparent legal inquiry into her death. They wanted it, of course. But to do it, they had to leave their jobs, raise extremely large amounts of money, track down reliable legal representation and, because the testimonies were all in Hebrew, hire daily translators. When I saw them at Tedx Ramallah, Craig was feeling positive about how things were going. There was evidence, he said, that indicated that the driver of the bulldozer had seen Rachel standing there. According to him, things were looking up. That was back in March of last year and I haven’t seen them since.
Rachel Corrie travelled to Palestine when she was 23 years old. As her mum explained one night, she went there to learn, to witness what was going on and if possible, to help in whatever way she could. What she saw taking place around her affected her deeply and encouraged her to act. Having spent time in the Palestinian Territories and having met lots of activists, I understand how she came to stand in front of that bulldozer that day and why.
There are many activists inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The reasons why they travel there in the first place are never quite the same. But for all those differences, the course of becoming an activist seems to be somewhat universal. It’s an organic process that takes shape incrementally, the more injustice that is witnessed, the more the passion grows, the more active one becomes. It’s a reality that many more human rights activists will die standing up for what they believe in. In the seven-week period surrounding Rachel Corrie’s death, British journalist James Miller and activist, Tom Hurndall, were also killed in Rafah.
The Corrie family originally filed the case against the State of Israel in 2005 and yesterday, a whole seven years later, a verdict was reached. The judge ruled Rachel Corrie’s death an "unfortunate accident" announcing that there was no basis for the claim that the bulldozer had hit her intentionally and furthermore, that the state was not responsible for damages in actions that occur during combat operations.
Although I wasn’t entirely surprised, the announcement made me feel physically sick. I could not stop thinking about Craig, Cindy and Sarah. I wondered what they were doing, whether after all this time, having had their lives and healing on hold, they seriously had it in them to keep fighting. Articles I was reading in The Guardian and the New York Times, indicated they were planning on appealing the decision in the High Court. I reminded myself that in these types of situations, sometimes the actual process is just as important as the outcome.
One of the memorable statements to come out of this case, came from a high-ranking Israeli army officer who testified that "there were no civilians at war." I mention this because I remember Sarah telling me that inside the courtroom, all the soldiers’ testimonies were conducted from behind a curtain, ensuring that their identities were shielded from onlookers, from the family. I recall thinking then, as I do now, that the physical presence of the curtain ironically served to remind us that beyond it was a vulnerable human being, playing the part of the soldier. Eye contact and civilian identity are extraordinary powerful weapons.
Much has been written about Rachel becoming a symbol of Palestinian resistance and certainly she and her family are loved and respected by activists worldwide and of course, throughout the West Bank and Gaza. And although the news of this highly anticipated verdict will disappoint activists everywhere, by choosing to fight, the Corrie family have set a powerful precedent which has been heard world-over. It’s not only a fitting tribute to their daughter’s memory, but an important deed which reminds governments everywhere that people are watching, questioning, acting, defending what is right and holding those accountable for what they believe is not.
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