By Nathan Guttman
Originally published by Haaretz
WASHINGTON – Craig Corrie sent just one e-mail to his daughter during the seven weeks she spent in Rafah. She addressed most of her letters to her mother, Cindy, and Craig read them with concern. When he was a soldier serving in Vietnam, he would send his loved ones letters with few details and mostly laconic, knowing that too much of a detailed description of the war and the dangers would only increase the worry at home. At home in North Carolina when he read his daughter’s letters, he knew she too was concealing a lot of the dangers. “I knew she didn’t write long letters in order not to make it hard for us,” he says, “it was hard for me to write back.” Eventually, he sent her a brief letter a week before she was killed – “I find writing to you hard, but not thinking about you impossible,” he wrote in an e-mail to his daughter, “I am afraid for you, and I think I have reason to be. But I’m also proud of you – very proud.” Rachel wrote back the next day. It was the last e-mail she sent before she was struck and killed by a blow from an IDF bulldozer in Rafah on March 16.
Since the Corrie family’s worst fears came true, they have been busy – setting up foundations, launching projects in memory of their daughter, trying to advance the investigation of the incident and working in Congress to promote their interest. One of their immediate goals is to go to Rafah to see the place where Rachel was killed, meet her colleagues in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and the Palestinians with whom she developed a connection during her stay there and also visit Israel. “We’re not looking for revenge,” they say; they just want to continue on the path their daughter took.
Cindy and Craig Corrie remember very well the conversation when Rachel told them of her plans to go to Rafah to join an international delegation of activists that assists the Palestinians and fights against house demolitions. “She gave all kinds of hints and then she said: `I’m going’,” says Craig Corrie. “I thought to myself – why don’t you find yourself a soup kitchen here instead of going over there, but I didn’t say anything.” Cindy and Craig tried to talk about the dangers involved in facing down tanks and bulldozers on battlefields, but knew they wouldn’t be able to stop her from going. Rachel told her mother she didn’t believe anyone would hurt international activists, certainly not Americans, who are unarmed and nonviolent. She also made sure to point out that in the two years that the ISM has been active in the territories, none of its activists has been killed. Since the then, the ISM has endured one death and two serious injuries.
“I know that in her heart, the most difficult thing for her was to know we will have to face this terrible loss,” says Cindy Corrie tearfully, “but she had to do it – it was a natural result of her activism.” A film friends showed to the Corries last week reminded them of the roots of Rachel’s activism. The short film shows a project run by Rachel’s school in Olympia, Washington whose topic was world hunger. Young Rachel Corrie appears in the film standing on the stage saying that humanity must strive for a solution to the problem of hunger by 2000. “People from other countries also have dreams and we have to think of them,” the young girl says in the film.
In high school, Rachel Corrie participated in a youth exchange program. She hosted a Russian student in her home and afterward was hosted by him for six weeks in his home on Sakhalin Island. “I feel that after that her life had changed,” says Cindy Corrie. “She was shocked to see people that have so little. She became skeptical about all we have and of how little we know about the Russians.”
‘Opening our eyes’
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, she decided to join a group of activists in Olympia. She contacted all the organizations but decided to focus on one that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to a large extent as a result of conversations with Simona Sharoni, a former Israeli who taught Corrie at Evergreen College and told her about what was going on in the territories. From there she came to the International Solidarity Movement and got the idea of coming to the territories. At the beginning of last year she moved in with her sister, Sara, in order to save up some money for the trip, and continued studying the subject by reading a lot about it and speaking with other activists.
Rachel’s family believe the main reason why a young student from the state of Washington chooses to devote her time, energy and life to the distress of the Palestinians in the territories was her sense that the American public and the surroundings where she grew up do not know enough about and do not sufficiently understand what is going on in the Middle East. For her parents, she prepared a reading list so that they would know more and once she was already in Rafah she was happy to hear they were reading the material and discussing the subject with their friends. “She wanted to open our eyes to this side of the conflict, that Americans, in general, do not understand. She felt that this is an unbalanced conflict between a powerful military force that has the support of the U.S. and people who have no power,” says Cindy Corrie. “She was for all humanity, against the suffering of the Israelis and against the suicide attacks. But she felt the Palestinian side is invisible and that’s why she chose to be there,” she continues. She now says she feels uncomfortable that her whole life she has heard about the conflict, but has never done anything – “our country and our family’s sympathy was always to Israel,” says Cindy Corrie.
All the reading, the chats with Rachel and the e-mails they received from her during her stay in Rafah changed the Corrie family’s position. In one phone conversation, Cindy asked Rachel about the Palestinian violence and wondered why they did not use nonviolent forms of protest. Rachel responded in a long e-mail in which she wrote in detail about what the Palestinians in Rafah she meets must go through and said: “I really think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves as best they could – I think I would.”
“Rachel felt that we don’t understand the ongoing violence toward the Palestinians, says Cindy. She herself said she empathizes with all the sides. “I know there are families in Israel that lost more than one family member in suicide attacks and I know now that their pain is double,” she says. But on the day Rachel would have celebrated her 24th birthday, Cindy’s anger won out. A day earlier, Tom Horndal, British ISM activist, had been critically injured and she phoned the Israeli consul in San Francisco and told him that despite her great empathy for the Jewish people, the fact that the army had already injured three unarmed peace activists was not giving her any peace. “Even worse is that that same week 17 Palestinians were killed, including five children and that didn’t make any waves here,” says Cindy Corrie.
Since Rachel Corrie was killed, around 10,000 letters have reached the e-mail boxes of the Corrie family; many of them were sent by Israelis and Jews wishing to express their sorrow. One of them is a reserve officer and a father of two who was in contact with Rachel during the course of her stay in the territories. He was the one who suggested that she try to appeal to the humane side of soldiers and he also is the one who taught her a few key Hebrew phrases so she say them to the soldiers. “What would your mother think about what you’re doing,” was one phrase; another was “you’re operating under a black flag.” After her death, the reserve officer wrote to her family and told them how sorry he was that he told Rachel that soldiers also have a conscience.
No comment from the IDF
Rachel Corrie’s parents make an effort to show they are not angry with Israelis, but they do not hide their opinion about who is responsible for the death of their daughter. As terrible as Rachel’s loss is for his family, Craig Corrie thinks it is also terrible for the nation when it agrees to accept such actions or agrees that its army should act this way. He cannot understand why the bulldozer driver hit his daughter while she stood in front of him – “this is a girl who weighed 125 lbs. He could have picked her up and put her under arrest.” He himself was in charge of a bulldozer force while serving as a soldier in the engineering corps in Vietnam.
The Israeli establishment has not made a real effort to contact the Corrie family. Around two days after Rachel was killed, the Israeli consul called the family home and spoke with her brother Chris. The consul expressed his condolences and said he appreciated Rachel’s dedication even if he did not agree with her politics. Chris got angry and said Rachel’s only politics was to support all humanity. The family says it never received a report from the Israeli army about the circumstances of the incident nor has it ever heard directly from any military official. The only information reaching them comes from ISM members or from the U.S. State Department.
Last Thursday, the Corrie family went again to Capitol Hill in Washington. They are trying to convince members of both houses of Congress to support a draft bill that would require the U.S. to investigate the circumstances of their daughter’s death. Craig and Cindy do not conceal their frustration – mobilizing Congress members goes very slowly, political considerations interfere and suddenly, they find themselves facing a countermove, that mentions all the Americans killed in suicide attacks in Israel. Craig and Cindy say they will be happy to support this proposal, but not instead of a demand for an investigation. In the meantime, they ignore the U.S. State Department’s advice to sit and wait for the results of the judge advocate general in Israel, while also insisting that the U.S. government launch its own investigation. Left-wing Jewish organizations voiced their support, but on the list of supporters, the names of the large organizations do not appear.
What kind of justice do they expect? Cindy Corrie says they continue to demand an investigation because they believe Israel and the world must pay attention to the issue and show responsibility, but “we are not perusing it with malice,” she stresses. Sara, Rachel’s sister, believes if the driver had stepped out and talked with Rachel for a minute, “he would have met a beautiful soul, that came to talk and convince,” while Craig Corrie says, “If the bulldozer operator will be able to understand what he did, then I hope he has a long life. It’s a terrible thing, living with the knowledge that you crushed someone like our daughter.”
The Corrie family does not think the death of their daughter and the injuring of two other ISM activists present proof that this kind of activity is too dangerous or provocative. They believe the presence of international peace activists can prevent more violent actions on the part of the Palestinians. They stress that their daughter not only faced down tanks and bulldozers – she worked to rebuild wells that had been destroyed in Rafah, tried to organize an exchange of letters between children there and in the U.S. and also tried to realize her dream – a twin-city agreement between Olympia and Rafah.
The family’s life now revolves around Rachel. Craig, the father, 56, took leave from his job as an actuarial adviser and is trying to promote the issues of the legislation and the memorials. The same is true of Rachel’s mother, Cindy, 55, who in normal times did volunteer work with children. Rachel’s older siblings, Sara – who lives in the family’s former home in Olympia and Chris, who lives in the suburbs of Washington DC – are trying to run the memorial foundation that perpetuates their sister.
Cindy feels the main message in memorializing Rachel should be the interpersonal connection – ties between Israelis and Palestinians, between peace activists on both sides, between Americans who want to act to further Rachel’s causes.
Last weekend, the parents traveled to Washington State to attend the annual ceremony marking Earth Day, when it is customary to dress up as animals and connect with nature. A few years ago, Rachel organized a group of white doves. This time there were more doves than ever at the event, including Craig and Cindy.
Rachel Corrie’s letters home
February 7, 2003
Today, as I walked on top of the rubble where homes once stood, Egyptian soldiers called to me from the other side of the border, “Go! Go!” because a tank was coming. And then waving and “What’s your name?” Something disturbing about this friendly curiosity. It reminded me of how much, to some degree, we are all kids curious about other kids. Egyptian kids shouting at strange women wandering into the path of tanks. Palestinian kids shot from the tanks when they peak out from behind walls to see what’s going on. International kids standing in front of tanks with banners. Israeli kids in the tanks anonymously – occasionally shouting and also occasionally waving – many forced to be here, many just aggressive – shooting into the houses as we wander away.
February 20, 2003
I still feel like I’m relatively safe and think that my most likely risk in case of a larger-scale incursion is arrest.
Know that I have a lot of very nice Palestinians looking after me. I have a small flu bug, and got some very nice lemony drinks to cure me. Also, the woman who keeps the key for the well where we still sleep keeps asking me about you. She doesn’t speak a bit of English, but she asks about my mom pretty frequently – wants to make sure I’m calling you.
February 27, 2003
I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house and you and me inside. Sometimes the adrenaline acts as an anesthetic for weeks and then in the evening or at night it just hits me again – a little bit of the reality of the situation. I am really scared for the people here
Just want to write to my mom and tell her that I’m witnessing this chronic, insidious genocide and I’m really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do anymore.
March 12, 2003
I am trying to figure out what I’m going to do when I leave here, and when I’m going to leave. Right now I think I could stay until June, financially. I really don’t want to move back to Olympia, but do need to go back there to clean my stuff out of the garage and talk about my experiences here. On the other hand, now that I’ve crossed the ocean I’m feeling a strong desire to try to stay across the ocean for some time. Considering trying to get English teaching jobs – would like to really buckle down and learn Arabic. Also got an invitation to visit Sweden on my way back, which I think I could do very cheaply. I would like to leave Rafah with a viable plan to return, too. Let me know if you have any ideas about what I should do with the rest of my life.