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5 years on, we remember Rachel Corrie

This article was originally published in The Observer newspaper on the 2nd March 2008

It is impossible to underestimate quite how much life for Rachel Corrie’s family has changed since she was killed by an Israeli army Caterpillar D9 bulldozer in the Gaza Strip on 16 March 2003. As Rachel’s elder sister Sarah puts it: ‘What was normal doesn’t exist for us now.’

‘After Rachel was killed.’ When I meet the Corries, it swiftly becomes clear that there is a great deal they want to speak out about, but it is these four words, heavy with loss, that they have repeated most over the past five years.

Before Rachel was killed trying to prevent a Palestinian home in Rafah from being demolished, they were a pretty ordinary West Coast American family. It has been said in the past that she came from a left-leaning, alternative background, but this is not strictly accurate. Craig Corrie is an insurance executive, who has spent 24 years of his career working for the same firm. Cindy Corrie is a musician and teacher. Since the mid-Seventies they have mostly lived in the same slate-grey house in Olympia, a small town with many coffee shops an hour’s drive out of
Seattle, and it was here that they raised their three children, Chris, Sarah and Rachel. True, the Corries liked to debate politics around the kitchen table. They also liked to talk about the cats and the chickens, going skiing at the weekend, the vegetable plot, the family holiday cottage in Minnesota. Whenever the conversation did turn towards the Palestinian issue, Craig and Cindy’s sympathies would instinctively fall on the Israeli side.

After Rachel was killed, life changed abruptly. Over the past five years they’ve had to deal with the loss of their youngest daughter, at the age of 23. Cindy, a quietly spoken woman not given to over-statement or, indeed, self-pity, describes a period of mourning that will never really end.

Rachel’s parents and sister have not returned to their jobs, although their schedule is relentless. Last week Craig and Cindy were in Vancouver. Next week they’re heading to Alabama. As part of their work for the Rachel Corrie Foundation, an organisation they set up after their daughter died, to promote peace and justice in the Middle East, there are school talks and early-morning radio interviews about the human rights situation in Gaza and the West Bank, lobbying to have her death properly investigated and campaign meetings supporting their bid to fulfil Rachel’s ambition to establish a sister city project between Rafah and Olympia. Twice they have visited the contentious 40km by 10km strip of land where Rachel died.
Before Rachel was killed, Cindy had never been to Europe, let alone the chaotic, squalid, potentially dangerous refugee camp that is Rafah.

The routine of day-to-day life has been cast aside. Their two-acre garden, from where you can see the creek where the children used to swim in the summer and the rushes in which they’d play hide-and-seek, has an elegiac, abandoned feel. They’re away so often the family cat now lives with Sarah. Even if Cindy had the time to cook dinner, she’d have nowhere to serve it up. Every surface of the house is smothered with paperwork.

Rachel had been a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, a
non-violent pro-Palestinian activist group. Within days of her death, the
eloquent and vivid emails that she had sent from Gaza were published, with
the consent of the Corries, in the Guardian. In 2005 they became the inspiration for an acclaimed play, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, based on Rachel’s writing. Following two sell-out runs in London and a controversial last-minute cancellation in New York, the dramatic monologue, which follows Rachel’s life from messy teenage bedroom through to Palestinian refugee camp, has been performed across America and Canada.

Later this month, on the fifth anniversary of Rachel’s death, it will be staged in Israel and the Corries will be there to watch the first performance in Arabic. This is a typically frenetic month. Next week sees the publication of Let Me Stand Alone, a collection of Rachel’s writing and drawings from the ages of 10 to 23, the final piece written four days before she was killed.

Craig and Cindy Corrie have become well known in Olympia. This modest middle-aged couple with silver hair and sensible waterproof anoraks – in the winter it rains so much in this part of the world that umbrellas are pointless – are stopped in the street. Teenage girls in skinny jeans hover, wanting to say hello to the parents of Rachel Corrie. Cindy, in particular, lights up, as though caught in the glow from a torch beam. I ask Sarah if her mother and father are often approached.

‘All the time,’ she says. ‘I’ve got used to it.’

‘In the first hour after Rachel was killed,’ Cindy recalls, ‘I remember saying: we have to get her words out.’

I’m sitting with Cindy and Sarah in one of Olympia’s oldest coffee shops, a place where the Corries used to come as a family when the children were growing up. One by one they piece together the events of 16 March 2003. It was a humdrum Sunday. Sarah, not long married to her husband, Kelly, was living in the family home while her parents were based temporarily in North Carolina, where Craig was working.

‘I caught the end of a message on the answer machine, someone saying, “I just heard the sad news,”‘ says Sarah, ‘and it dawned on me. It was something to do with Rachel.’ She found out her sister had died by reading the ticker tape along the bottom of the television screen: ‘Olympia woman killed in Gaza.’

‘My first thought was that maybe it wasn’t Rachel. My next was that Mom and Dad didn’t know. I started trying to dial and I remember looking at the handset and thinking, “I don’t know how to punch in the numbers.”‘

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Craig was doing the laundry when the phone rang. Cindy picked it up. It was her son-in-law, Kelly.

‘I could hear that there was something wrong in his voice,’ recalls Cindy. ‘I could hear Sarah crying hysterically in the background. She came onto the phone and said, “It’s Rachel.” And I said, “Is she dead?” I just knew I had to ask about the very worst possibility so that maybe that option would go away.’

While she took the phone to her husband, the news was confirmed on the television screen back in Olympia. ‘It says her name,’ Sarah told her mother. ‘It says her name.’

It would be days before they had a chance to mourn in private. First they flew to Washington DC to be with their son, Chris – ‘He was the only one who could function,’ recalls Craig – from where they began the logistical nightmare of organising the return of their daughter’s body. Craig was in such a hurry to pack he slung a pillowcase into his overnight bag mistaking it for a shirt. A journalist pitched up on their driveway in Olympia. There were more in Washington. A congressman suggested they hold a press conference. The death of an American citizen in Gaza was front page news – all this at a time when the atmosphere in America was already intense. The Iraq war would begin four days after Rachel was killed.

Craig recalls how, at one point, he picked up the telephone to learn that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was on the line. ‘He told me: “She is your daughter but she is also the daughter of all Palestinians. She is ours too now.”‘

‘If someone had told me 10 years ago that this was going to happen to us,’ says Cindy, ‘I’d never have predicted any of the things that we have done. I would have said, “You’re crazy. If anything happened to a child of mine I would not draw another breath.” But, amazingly, you do take the next step.’

For Cindy, as for the rest of the family, that next step seemed to be exploring the words Rachel had written. ‘Immediately I was drawn to the writing,’ she says. ‘Because the writing was what we had, and what we still have, of Rachel. Nobody was thinking of a book back then but, even early on, when we were in such searing pain, we were drawn to what Rachel had written. As a comfort, as a connection.’

Most of Rachel’s words had been kept in plastic tubs in the garage, or the attic. Journals, email printouts, poems, letters, assignments for creative writing classes, scraps written on paper napkins. Sarah, who has painstakingly edited the book over the past year, recites one of the first lines she read after Rachel died: ‘There is something that I’m supposed to do. I know there is something big that I am supposed to do. I just don’t know what it is yet.’

In the early pages of Let Me Stand Alone there is the sense of someone comfortable with the notion of revealing her inner world on the page: the style is uninhibited, experimental, confident. While it’s clear this is a dreamy little girl who likes to dance and to visit her grandmother, she also has an easy relationship with words. Her parents don’t describe themselves as writers but they remember their daughter sitting on the floor with pens and crayons before she went to nursery.

What emerges is someone who could be variously idealistic, knowing, self-deprecating, earnest, quirky, pretentious, fanciful, melodramatic, obsessive, flip and wise. Some of the pieces are uneven – whose private musings wouldn’t be? – but at its best Let Me Stand Alone is a window into the private preoccupations of a singular girl growing up in middle-class America in the Eighties and Nineties, a girl discovering her own lucid and original voice. Some of the passages, particularly her accounts of her intense love affair with a young man called Colin, are breathtakingly vivid and personal.

It is impossible to read about how Rachel lived without thinking about how she died. There are times when her words are chillingly prescient as she describes dreams about falling, fears of tumbling, being out of control. ‘Death smells like homemade apple sauce as it cooks on the stove. It is not the strangling sense of illness. It is not fear. It is freedom,’ she writes on 19 May 1993. Aged just 14.

Early on there is a surprising empathy for outsiders and I realise that in a media obsessed with the Paris Hiltons of this world, we don’t often get to hear about young, politicised American women. ‘Maybe,’ writes Rachel, aged 11, ‘if people stopped thinking of themselves, and started thinking of the other sides of things, people wouldn’t hurt each other.’ But there is a healthy streak of self-obsession too, and a wicked sense of humour. She grows up into a chain-smoking Pat Benatar fan. Some of the most poignant moments are Rachel’s ‘to do’ wish lists. A teenager who imagines there are years and years ahead of her.

A trip to a remote part of Russia as a teenager, just after the fall of Communism, is clearly a catalyst. So are stints staffing telephone crisis lines and volunteering for mental health organisations. ‘I know I scare you,’ she writes to her mother when she’s 19. ‘But being on a tightrope, with a safety net and a costume, doesn’t work for me… I have to do things that scare you. I’m sorry I scare you. I hope I’m not ugly in your eyes. But I want to write and I want to see. And what would I write about if I only stayed within the doll’s house, the flower world I grew up in?’

She is a student at Evergreen State College, a famously liberal university
with a tradition of activism, when the two planes fly into the Twin Towers. Rachel Corrie, blonde, skinny, high cheek-boned, carelessly beautiful, is already looking beyond the claustrophobic confines of Olympia and into the world beyond.However, when it emerges that she is saving up to go to Gaza in order to volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) the rest of the family are dead against the idea. Her sister remembers the tension: ‘I didn’t want her to go. It was extremely stressful; I couldn’t talk to her about it.’

Her mother adds: ‘I think all of us hoped that Rachel would not quite get her act together to go.’

Her father: ‘I was concerned. Why not work in a soup kitchen or something like that, I said to her. But if that is what she really wanted to do, you can’t ask your child to do less.’ This quietly thoughtful man, a former Vietnam veteran who masks his sadness with a droll sense of humour, pauses. ‘I was concerned. But not really, really frightened. To be honest, it wasn’t until she got there that I got really, really frightened.’

The writing from Rafah, Gaza, steps up a gear. Her emails home are passionate, articulate and forensic. She’s been criticised for being naive about the dangers. I suspect many people, even seasoned war reporters, might admit to being blindsided by the situation on the ground in Gaza. She researched the region before she got there and attended an ISM training session, but the shock of being in the midst of chaos is immediately apparent. A day after arriving she’s helping someone move the body of a child. She describes a colleague with shrapnel in her shoes.

Gradually Rachel seems to adapt to this new level of anxiety. She makes friends with Palestinian families, looks after their children, learns bits of Arabic. Television footage of Rachel from this time shows her draped in the traditional black and white kaffiyeh, looking drawn. A tank rumbles by in the background. She sounds resolute: ‘I feel like I’m witnessing the systematic destruction of a people’s ability to survive,’ she tells the reporter. ‘It takes a while to get what’s happening here. Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and I realise there is a massive military machine surrounding us, trying to kill the people I’m having dinner with.’

I wonder if the family understood that, along with other ISM volunteers, she was acting as a human shield – or ‘a bulldozer cowgirl’ as she puts it. Cindy says: ‘We knew what she was doing. We knew she was staying at different houses.’ Initially Craig believed that the worst that might happen was that she would be arrested. ‘But then when she started reporting back, I realised that this was a military out of control, where there was no discipline. I said to her brother a week before she was
killed: “She can’t continue to do this sort of thing. Sooner or later it’s not going to work.”‘ Cindy adds, ‘You were just holding your breath.’

It sounds agonising for the family left behind. Sarah agrees. ‘You may not be talking about it every day, but you’re thinking about it. She knew that was what we would be doing. I don’t think it was an easy decision for her to be there knowing how worried we were going to be.’ Has Sarah ever been angry with her sister? ‘People ask that,’ she replies. ‘I never feel angry about Rachel because she didn’t intend to die. There was no part of her that intended to die. I can’t be mad at Rachel for something she didn’t intend to happen. So, no.’

This kind of bereavement, premature and violent, is hard to imagine. Now add the fact that Rachel swiftly became both a worldwide news story and a debating point and it’s difficult to comprehend the amount of stress the family must have been under. Within a few hours, Cindy’s email account had crashed. Absurdly, in the first hours of mourning they were trying to work out how to set up a new computer inbox. They received 10,000 emails in the first fortnight alone. In one of what must have been many dream-like moments, Craig recalls a candlelit vigil held three days after his daughter died: a stranger carried a huge poster-sized picture of Rachel, a photograph he hadn’t even seen before.

Overnight in Rafah there was graffiti dedicated to the young woman who believed there would be a democratic Israeli-Palestinian state in her lifetime – ‘Rachel was a US citizen with Palestinian blood.’ She had become a victim of their intifada, a heroine who had stood up to the mighty Israeli army. New mothers christened their daughters Rachel. A kindergarten was named after her. Palestinians living in America would approach the Corries crying, barely able to speak. ‘It should have been me,’ they told them.

Elsewhere the response was more mixed. The death of a young blonde female
American in the Middle East aroused extreme reactions. Angry messages to
pro-Israel websites suggested ‘she should burn in hell for an eternity’. Critics of the Palestinian cause suggested that the houses in Rafah hid tunnels which supplied arms. A picture of Rachel burning a makeshift American flag in front of Gaza schoolchildren was circulated. There was heated debate on the campus at Evergreen. Sarah and her brother Chris began filtering out some of the hate mail that arrived.

‘I don’t think people understand how divisive this issue is, and how much people care,’ says Craig. ‘I don’t think we did.’

Rachel Corrie was both lionised and demonised. ‘In some ways,’ says Cindy, ‘both reactions are threatening. Because Rachel was a very human person. I used to worry about the adulation – what happens when they find out that the real person was as flawed as we all are? On the other hand, I know she has given a lot of people hope and something to aspire to. I think it is important to people to have figures in their lives that provide that for them.’

The Corries take me around Olympia in their car, past the places where Rachel grew up. While Craig drives he recalls descriptive passages from her journals and tries to retrace his daughter’s steps in his mind’s eye. Even on a winter’s day you can see how beautiful it is: noble Douglas firs, a glint of water, secluded wooden houses with verandas.

Two years ago some of the Nasrallah family visited Olympia. They were the owners of the concrete house, pockmarked with tank shell holes, that Rachel had died defending. The two families were invited on a speaking tour to talk about the situation in the Middle East. When Khaled Nasrallah saw where Rachel had grown up he turned to her parents and said, wide-eyed: ‘She gave up this paradise, for us?’

In turn, the Corries have twice visited Gaza since Rachel was killed. ‘My feeling,’ says Craig, ‘was that she wrote about those people with warmth. Going to Gaza was a real need to see who Rachel wrote about and to thank them for the care they took of her while she was there.’ They negotiated the same checkpoints, the same rubble-strewn streets as their daughter had done. Armed men in watchtowers looked down on them. At night they slept through the sound of tracer fire. I imagine how proud, and perhaps astonished, their daughter would have been (on occasion she’d railed against her father for having ‘his head in the sand’ politically). The Corries’ instinct is to play down the danger they were in: gunfire
whistled past Craig and, one evening, dinner with the Nasrallah family was
interrupted by the menacing sound of a bulldozer outside the window. On
their second visit in 2006 they were woken in the middle of the night by
men with Kalashnikovs. Craig and Cindy Corrie would be valuable bargaining
tools in an area that has become even more desperate since Rachel was
killed. As it was, the Nasrallahs managed to persuade the men to go on their way. It was said that they killed two security guards on the Egyptian border instead.

In one of her final emails home Rachel said, ‘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.’ It’s clear that her parents have taken her at her word. Sarah says, ‘She wanted them to go there. In her writing she says you need to meet these people. Now our lives are intertwined with what goes on in Rafah and Gaza and Israel and Palestine.’ Meanwhile, in the five years since Rachel was killed, the humanitarian situation in Gaza – effectively imprisoned by Israel, with limited fuel, electricity and medical
– has grown worse, not better.

The family is still seeking information about what happened to Rachel and to have her death accounted for. According to former US secretary of state Colin Powell’s chief of staff, the Israeli government’s report was not ‘thorough, credible or transparent’, yet there is no sign that the US government plans to take any further action. Four months ago Sarah discovered distressing reports that Rachel’s autopsy was not carried out according to their stipulations. The Corries, along with four Palestinian families, are waiting for court action against Caterpillar Inc, the
American company that makes the bulldozer that killed Rachel, to be reheard.

Sarah recalls, three weeks after Rachel died, her mother meeting the family of Amy Biehl, an American anti-apartheid campaigner killed in South Africa in 1993. ‘I remember Mom asking Amy’s mother, “Do you ever get the normal back?” She paused for a long while and in the end she said, “No, not really.” I knew then that this is what was going to happen to our family. First you have to mourn Rachel. Then you have to mourn the loss of your family and the life that you had.’