“A Day in the Life of Abed Salama”: How the Death of Abed’s 5-Year-Old Son Sheds Light on Life Under Israeli Apartheid
Written by GRB on 05/10/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Today we spend the hour looking at the devastating reality for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. The acclaimed journalist Nathan Thrall has just published a new book titled A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy. Abed Salama is a Palestinian father who lives in Anata, a segregated Palestinian neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem that’s surrounded on three sides by the 26-foot-high Israeli separation wall — many refer to it as the apartheid wall. In February of 2012, tragedy struck Abed’s family. His 5-year-old son Milad died in a fiery bus crash during a school field trip to a theme park.
Abed’s quest to find out what happened to his son was immediately hindered because he was a Palestinian living on the wrong side of the separation wall. He held the wrong ID to pass Israeli military checkpoints and didn’t have the right papers to enter the city of Jerusalem.
Nathan Thrall, who lives in Jerusalem, first wrote about this tragedy in a remarkable 2021 essay for The New York Review of Books.
On Wednesday, Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I spoke to Nathan Thrall and Abed Salama. Nathan began by discussing why he wrote about Abed Salama and the tragedy his family faced.
NATHAN THRALL: You know, this event is every parent’s worst nightmare and an awful, awful tragedy under any circumstances, but it was made so much worse by the unique circumstances in which it took place, by the fact that the victims were Palestinian, that it took place on a road that is controlled by Israel, patrolled by Israeli police, but on the other side of a separation wall, a 26-foot-high concrete wall that separates and segregates tens of thousands of Palestinians from Jerusalem, born and raised in Jerusalem, residents of the same city I live in, but who are cut off from the city that they were born and raised in specifically because of their ethnic identity. And these people live in the same city as me, but they live an entirely different existence.
And the parents of the kids on this bus live in a walled ghetto, encircled on three sides by this separation wall, and a fourth side by a different wall that runs in the middle of a segregated road, famously called “the apartheid road.” And inside that walled ghetto, which sits just underneath the manicured grounds of Israel’s most prestigious university — you can look down on it, from Hebrew University down onto this ghetto, with trash being burned in the street because the municipal services are nonexistent there, with no sidewalks, roads in total disrepair. When I drive into this area to visit Abed and other families there, I have to pull off to the side just to let a bus pass on the main artery for tens of thousands of people. I’m rolling down my window and pulling in my side mirror to let a regular bus pass me. And this is just the everyday reality of all of these people. They receive virtually no services from the city that they pay taxes to.
And they are forced to prove that they have maintained their residency in the right part of this enclave, or else Israel will strip them of their blue ID, which allows them to travel in and out of Jerusalem. And they live in terror of having this blue ID taken away from them. Some of the parents in this area have green IDs; some have blue. They’re all from the same families.
And the outcome for them on this day was very different. There were real consequences to having a different-colored permit on that day. Abed was one of the parents who wasn’t able to go and look for his kid in Jerusalem, when he was told that that’s where his boy was. And other other parents did. There were bystanders. Because the emergency services came so very late, all of the kids had been evacuated by just ordinary people in private cars, before the first Israeli emergency service provider arrived. And those people themselves drove off in all kinds of different directions depending on what kind of color ID they had and whether they could pass through a checkpoint. And there was total chaos. Parents didn’t know where their own children were. And so, this awful event allowed me, in telling the story, to describe the entire elaborate system of segregation and subjugation and apartheid in which all of these people live.
AMY GOODMAN: Abed, I hate to take you back to that day, but it is such an important story for people to understand. Introduce us to your little boy Milad, and talk about what happened that day.
ABED SALAMA: Hi, everyone.
My son Milad, he was only 5 years old. He was a cute boy, a cute boy, a funny boy, a lovely life.
So, the day before the accident, in the night, he said, “Father, I want to buy some sweets and chocolates for my trip.” It is the first trip with the school. So I took him to a grocery around, supermarket, and he buy his things and the favorite chocolate, the Kinder Kids, and juice. Then we go back home. He was very excited to join his friends on the journey and the trip. So, we got to sleep earlier.
Next day, I was planning to go to Jericho for business with my cousin. There was — early in the morning was very stormy. So, I got up. I didn’t see Milad when his mother prepared him and put him in the bus to — in the car to the school. So, after an hour, my cousin came, and we took his car on our way to Jericho. Then I received a phone call from my nephew. He asked me if Milad in the bus with the school, in the bus to the trip. I said — I told him, “Yes, he is there.” He said, “Uncle, there’s an accident in Jaba road. A bus has crashed.” So, we went — we changed our way from Jericho to Jaba road in that stormy weather.
When we arrived before the accident, or the place of the accident, before, there is a military — Israeli military checkpoint. They closed the street before. They didn’t allow to us to pass with a car. So I jumped out of the car and start turning to the place of the — to the accident. In my way — you know, it’s raining and stormy weather — a military Jeep passed me. So I start to — I wanted to stop them to take me with them. They didn’t take me, so I continued my way to the place of the accident, running uphill.
So, when I received there, there was nothing. Only I saw the bus crashed on the side and a big trailer on the other side of the street. So I start asking about what happened to the kids. “Where are the kids?” Everyone — there was many, many people around. There was only one firetruck. I didn’t see any ambulances at the time. I saw only civilian police officer from the PA. So, the main thing at that time, I wanted to know what happened to the kids, where are they, and start searching and asking, “Where are they? Where’s the kids?” So, somebody told me that they took them to — some of them took to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in East Jerusalem. Others told me they took them to a military space, Israeli military space around. And others told me maybe they took them to the hospital in Ramallah. So, I asked — I met two guys from Jenin, I thought. I asked them to take me to Ramallah Hospital. I didn’t — they are strangers; I didn’t know them. They are allowed to take me. Then they took me to the hospital.
When I arrived there, it was very crowded, many, many people there, the parents of the victims and the police and the ambulances, media. It was very, very crowded. And I start to search in the building of the hospital. So I asked the doctor who was in the reception about what — “I’m looking for my son Milad. He was in the accident.” When she looked at the list, she didn’t find his name. She told me his name is not in the list of the — on this bus. So I started to search in the hospital rooms. I didn’t meet — I didn’t find them. I met other parents who are from our neighborhood I know, and they find — already find their kids. They were injured. And I asked them if they saw my son or their sons know anything about Milad. Everybody was busy in his own case. So everybody said, “No, we didn’t find him.”
So, here, I started my — I started to search where to search. I searched again the same hospital. I didn’t find him. Then somebody told me, “Maybe they took him to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in East Jerusalem.” I didn’t have a permit to pass the checkpoints to Jerusalem. They didn’t allow to us to pass, because I have a green ID, Palestinian ID. So I called a cousin of mine who have blue ID, and asked him to search in Hadassah Ein Kerem. After maybe one hour or two hours, he called me back. He said, “I searched all the hospital there. Milad is not there.” So, after six or seven hours, everyone from the parents find his son injured or safe, except me and seven other, six families.
So, a doctor from there came to me, and he said, “You didn’t find your son yet. And we have to take some blood from you to make a DNA test.” I asked him why. He said, “We have six bodies for small children and the body of the teacher, burned.” So he asked me also to call my wife and my son Adam to come to the hospital to take blood from them for the test, DNA test. I called them. It took more than an hour to receive to the hospital. So, they took blood from us. My wife was shocked. I was crying. At the same time, I was looking at her face and my Adam’s — son — face. They were shocked. She did cry until now. I think she’s still in shock.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Abed Salama describing the death of his 5-year-old son Milad in a fiery bus crash on the way to a theme park in Jerusalem in 2012. We’ll return to our interview with Abed and journalist Nathan Thrall in a minute. Nathan’s new book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy. Back in a minute.