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Mohammed Na’im Abu-‘Akr

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 17.03.2006:

Mohammed Na’im Abu-‘Akr was born in Dheisha refugee camp on September 13, 1971. He had four brothers and two sisters. His family emigrated from their native village Ras Abu-‘Ammar inside the so-called green line in Palestine, and settled down in Dheisha Camp together with other Palestinian refugees. When he was five years old, Mohammed played with other children in the pathways of the camp. He joined a traditional kindergarten run by UNRWA, and later on completed his elementary and preparatory studies at Dheisha Boys’ school.

When he was fourteen years old Mohammed was imprisoned for about two months. He was an active member in the Youth Activities Centre and participated in many festivals and celebrations that were held in the camp. At the age of fifteen, when he was in the third preparatory class, he was accused of resisting the occupation forces as a supporter of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and was arrested. In 1987 he was arrested for the third time and set free after a month. When the army wanted to arrest him for the fifth time he escaped. Since then he was considered to be a wanted person. On the run he slept most nights outside the camp, returning home from time to time to have a shower and to get clothes.

A sixteen year-old teenager, Mohammed Na’im Abu-‘Akr was critically injured on the morning of August 6, 1988, when during a stone throwing demonstration in Dheisha a soldier shot him in the lower abdomen with the kind of high velocity bullet that fragments when entering the body. According to eyewitnesses, a soldier aimed at him from a nearby rooftop. As Mohammed fell, a second bullet narrowly missed his head. Women rushed out of their houses to surround him as the soldier raised his automatic rifle in both hands in a seeming gesture of victory. Friends of him managed to get him to a hospital in Bethlehem where he received first aid. After this he was transferred to Al-Mokassed Hospital in East Jerusalem which used to treat the most serious Intifadah injuries. Mohammed was not expected to live after four-and-a-half hours of emergency surgery to remove the exploded fragments, to cut out five feet of the small bowel which had been perforated in eighteen places, and finally to wash out the abdominal cavity.

At the insistence of his father, Mohammed underwent more surgery three weeks later to remove the necotic material resulting from the onset of gangrene, which destroyed most of the rest of his small bowel. The family had already ordered the picture posters that had by then become conventional trappings for Intifadah martyrs funerals. Except for Mohammed’s mother, everyone had given up hope. When he was transferred to Mokassed’s intensive care unit, he was skeletal and moaned with every breath he took. Two weeks later it was Mohammed’s seventeenth-birthday celebration. Flowers were taped to the walls of his room in the hospital. A great number of his friends participated in the party. Some of them had been visiting him regularly, sometimes walking part or all of the way from Dheisha when they did not have money for a bus or a taxi.

A week or so after Mohammed’s birthday his surgeon said that the teenager’s life depended on getting a small bowel transplant in a Western country. Thirteen days later Mohammed was on his way to Boston’s New England Deaconess Hospital for life saving treatment. Given the daunting list of arrangements necessary to get a wanted person out of the country and into surgical hands that could perform the still-experimental transplant on the other side of the world, that everything happened so quickly was nothing short of a miracle. Firstly, there was the problem of finding a transplant programme that could carry out the procedure. Secondly, there was the problem of finding an airline willing to transport Mohammed to the US. All US airlines refused liability for such a serious case. Thirdly, there was the problem of money to cover not only the transplant, but also the costs of transportation. The expenses of the surgical operations ran into thousands of dollars, but a centre for human rights in East Jerusalem, other associations, and European and American Palestinian refugees abroad managed to collect the needed money.

When at last the different problems were solved, Mohammed arrived at the New England Deaconess Hospital in October 1988 to receive an alternative system of nutritional support simply to keep him from dying. He would need a small bowel transplant to keep him alive in the long run.

On his discharge from Deaconess Hospital in mid-January 1989, his weight was up to 108 kg. He had been evaluated positively for a small bowel transplant by a surgical team that included the Palestinian American Anthony Sahyoun who had fled Haifa in 1946. Over the course of two and a half months out of hospital treatment, Mohammed’s father was trained by the hospital to operate the dropper machine that infused liquid nutrition through a catheter inserted into Mohammed’s chest. On January 12, 1989, a discharge letter was written to Mohammed’s Mokassed doctor, indicating that he would need close and collaborative watching. Two months later, they prepared for Mohammed’s safe return through Ben Gurion Airport.

Knesseth member Dedi Zucker, a young Israeli lawyer and human rights worker, was prepared to prevent an attempt to arrest Mohammed on his arrival as he was apparently still on the wanted list. The Mokassed doctor gave instructions to airport security police before the plane landed. The boy needed immediate medical treatment. A journalist was at his side when he disembarked from the plane together with four Israelis from human rights circles, representatives of the Red Cross and the United Nations Organisation in Charge of Palestinian Refugee Affairs. They all were ready to intervene on Mohammed’s behalf at any sign of trouble. Everything went smoothly. He was brought in a wheelchair to Mokassed Hospital where he had to stay for another six weeks. Many of his comrades from Dheisha lined up to celebrate the “living martyr’s” return from death. On March 6, 1989 Mohammed was discharged from the hospital and returned home. It was Glenn Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, who brought him home.

The homecoming celebration continued for three days. Hundreds of people greeted Mohammed as he emerged from Frankel’s car. As Frankel wrote: “Mostly they were children, many of them younger than ten years, many in bare feet despite the afternoon chill. They choked the entryway to the house, strained for a glimpse of their frailed hero and waited patiently on a winding reception line for a chance to shake his hand or kiss both cheeks.” “The children’s devotion to Abu ‘Akr and his legend,” Frankel went on, “helps to explain how the uprising is kept alive.”

On the morning of the second day back home, Mohammed walked through the camp to visit the three families whose father and two sons had been martyred.

On August 28, 1989, Mohammed arrived in Boston for his second visit. After nutrition and testing arrangements were made with Deaconess Hospital, Mohammed settled down in an apartment of a young Palestinian couple and their infant daughter.

After returning back home, Mohammed became very ill on October 1, 1990, and he was again transferred to Al-Mokassed hospital. His doctor said that Mohammed was passing a dangerous phase, so he was admitted to the surgical section. After several operations, his health deteriorated and he had failures of the kidneys and the lungs.

Early in the morning of October 22, 1990, Mohammed’s heart stopped and he followed the other Palestinian martyrs. When he died thousands of people from Dheisha and other surrounding communities broke a regional curfew to walk behind his body along the mountain path to the nearby village of Artas where he was buried in a small martyr’s cemetry. Reuters news service reported that there were more than three thousand people in the funeral procession.

As a “living martyr,” an emblem of the Palestinian struggle that itself arose out of its own ashes, Mohammed Abu ‘Aker became a symbol of the Intifadah.

Sources: Oral History, Janet Varner Gunn, A Long Way from Home: A West Bank Memoir, and “Mohammed Abu Akr, The Living Martyr: His Life, His Martyrdom.” (in Arabic)

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