The day of March 5, 2002, began for Nah’la Azar like any other day. She traveled to the primary school in Zur Baher from her home in the area of Tantur, near Bethlehem. Zur Baher is a Palestinian village in the Jerusalem district which means its public schools are administered by the Jerusalem Municipal School System under the Israeli Ministry of Education
The day of March 5, 2002, began for Nah’la Azar like any other day. She traveled to the primary school in Zur Baher from her home in the area of Tantur, near Bethlehem. Zur Baher is a Palestinian village in the Jerusalem district which means its public schools are administered by the Jerusalem Municipal School System under the Israeli Ministry of Education.
Nah’la arrived at the Zur Baher primary school for boys at about 7:30 am and began preparing papers for her English classes in the first and second grades. The headmaster of the school had just called the Israeli police, Nah’la knew, because of a suspicious red bag and some smaller boxes found in the school play yard for the older boys. But Nah’la was not worried because the Israeli police were on the way. She continued with her preparations.
At 7:45 am the headmaster rang the bell, signaling the students to line up in order to file into the school. Now this was unusual, Nah’la knew, because the boys usually played outdoors until 8:00 am, and observant Muslim boys would be praying at this time. But the boys obeyed the bell and soon were filing into the school.
Just as the last group of boys were entering the school, a bomb concealed in the red bag exploded with a tremendous impact, throwing nails and fire everywhere. Nah’la said, “We were all thrown to the floor by the explosion and everybody was frightened and screaming. I could hear one boy crying, ‘Where’s my brother? Where’s my brother?’ The children grabbed their backpacks and ran away. The teachers were trying to care for the children but many of the boys had disappeared. We were able to keep the kindergarten boys in the school.” Nah’la felt the school building itself shaking, much like an earthquake. And there was fire in the play yard. The police still had not arrived.
A few boys and a teacher had been injured but there were no ambulances available yet. Fear and panic reigned in the school for many minutes before the police and then the ambulances arrived by 8:15 am. The police bomb unit found two other bombs in the school yard, hidden in tins which resembled candy boxes. The bombs were exploded intentionally and no more harm was done.
That is, no more harm was done by the bombs. The physical and emotional harm continued inside the school that was now cordoned off by the police. Nah’la and the other teachers and children were not allowed to leave until nearly noon. To make matters worse, angry and frightened people from the village, including parents and students, soon arrived at the school and a big confrontation occurred with the police. Why had the police not come when they were called at 7:30 am? Why did it take so long for police and ambulances to arrive, even when the bomb had exploded? And who would do such a horrible thing, to deliberately place bombs in a children’s school play yard?
Soon the word was out that an Israeli extremist group had planted the bomb. The group claimed credit for the act, apparently in retaliation for other acts of violence that had killed Israeli children. The horrible cycle of violence was in full swing.
Nah’la Azar was born in Jordan, of Palestinian parents. She majored in English literature at the university in Jordan. Married ten years ago to Rev. Ibrahim Azar, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem Old City (ELCJ), Nah’la moved to Jerusalem and soon was teaching school. She was first a substitute English teacher at the Martin Luther School attached to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, and later taught English in Beit Hanina and East Jerusalem. This is her first year of teaching at the Zur Baher school. Nah’la and Ibrahim are the parents of three daughters: Jihan, Sally and Sama.
Later in the afternoon, after coming home, Nah’la was still shaking and upset. At home with her family, she talked about her experience. “Today was my day of death,” Nah’la said. “I do not feel safe at the school anymore, but I also do not feel safe right here at home, or anywhere.”
In a recent sermon given at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, USA, Bishop Younan stated, “When the living Church is called to carry the cross, it is then our duty to stir the conscience of the world to press for Israelis and Palestinians to fully enjoy their human and political rights. As the church of Christ we are called to be the voice of the voiceless, and even take an active part in rectifying the injustices of the past and present Without justice, there can be no peace. Without the freedom of the Palestinians there will be no security for the Israelis. And the security of the Israelis is dependant on the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Bishop Younan frequently expresses his gratitude for the prayers, statements and solidarity with the Palestinian Lutheran Church as expressed by the churches and church leaders around the world. These actions have made a difference for the Palestinian people, but the need continues for strong words and actions. The church can take a leading position in advocacy for peace, justice and reconciliation.
Nah’la will go back to school. She will continue to teach English to first and second grade students. She will continue to be wife and mother and friend. But as a mother and an educator, Nah’la is worried and concerned. Will her children grow up in fear and hatred and the unending spiral of violence perpetuated by the military occupation? Or will they have the birthright of all children, to grow up in a just peace, with security and reconciliation?
Rev. Dr. Mary E. Jensen, Communications Assistant to Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (ELCJ)
working in Jerusalem, Palestine, Jordan and Israel