ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Ripple Effect of Peace

The Muslim village of Bakoura in Jordan benefits from a new friendship with CNEWA.

On 5 June, Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl met with King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin in the tiny Jordanian village of Bakoura. Most Jordanians had never heard of the hamlet. Ironically, our CNEWA-PMP staff in Amman was quite familiar with it. Yet we could not imagine why anyone would hold an international political conference in this desperately impoverished village. Everything had to be shipped in to accommodate these sessions – even the tents to house the meetings.

Located on the banks of the Jordan River, near the base of the Sea of Galilee, Bakoura has fallen victim to politics for years. The location is so militarily strategic that even now, one year after the signing of the formal peace agreement between Jordan and Israel, I am still required to cross checkpoints and show a Jordanian identification pass before entering the area.

The tents for the conference were pitched on a parcel of land just recently returned to Jordan. Littered with the remains of the cement barracks of British troops who occupied the area more than 45 years ago, the site seemed ripe for discussions of peace.

Most of the inhabitants of Bakoura arrived from Palestine after having fled their native villages and towns – Tiberias, Nablus and Sirin – during the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948. After fleeing across the Jordan River, the refugees settled on the first safe spot in Jordan. Dazed and distraught, thousands squatted here in tents, hoping for a speedyreturn to their homeland. By 1966, 8,000 people continued to huddle in temporary shelters on this unstable frontier.

Now, more than 47 years after they arrived in Bakoura, the 800 villagers who remain have begun to build more stable dwellings. Most are constructed of cement block. Yet it is difficult to call some of these structures houses – many are without furniture, windows or bedrooms. What came to our attention, however, was the fact that these people lived without sufficient Water supply.

During the 40-odd years of the state of war between Jordan and Israel, the fresh waters of the Jordan River were off limits: soldiers stood guard on both sides. A local fisherman could not cast his nets in the river from the Jordanian bank; instead he had to travel to the riverbank in the nearby village of Sheik Hussein for his diminishing daily catch.

Water was delivered to the entire population of Bakoura once a week through a four-inch-diameter pipe. Those with sufficient oil barrels, plastic jugs and metal boxes tried to store enough to survive the week. Generally, however, bathing or safe drinking water were the stuff dreams were made of – water was at a premium. With the average household including six children, life was neither hygenic nor pleasant. And with summer temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, something had to change. Strangely, a line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” seemed appropriate here: “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”

Then, a year ago, the villagers cautiously sought assistance from our Amman office. How could a village of Muslims request support from a Christian – a pontifical – organization? They prepared themselves for a polite rebuff and an escort to the door.

The tension on their faces waned as we served heavily sweetened Turkish coffee and a bowl of hard candy. As the elders explained their water dilemma, Ra’ed Bahou, our Project Manager, and I listened, occasionally interrupting to ask a few questions.

Not long thereafter we stopped in Bakoura to visit the mukhtar (akin to a mayor) and a few members of the village committee. The children ran about shoeless, covered with dust. They shouted and ran behind our four-wheel-drive vehicle as we bounced down the dirt roads. Judging from the stares at my Roman collar, I think I may have been the first Christian priest to tour this Muslim area. Yet, in a village not accustomed to strangers, the people of Bakoura were exceptionally friendly.

While Ra’ed and I surveyed the area, we noticed the blue Israeli flag fluttering atop an army outpost not far from us. When we left the car for a closer look, the Israeli soldiers watched us through their binoculars. And at one point, the Jordanian soldiers cautioned us to move back from the barbed wire that delineated “No Man’s Land.” Tenant farmers and day laborers trudged past us to fields of eggplant, squash, beans, string beans and tomatoes. Not one car drove by, only overladen pickup trucks.

We entered the house of Shahadeh Mustafa Bitawi, an 85-year-old man who, standing slowly to stretch his muscles, greeted us warmly. His two-room mud hut sat in a grove of palm trees along the riverbank. Usually the Jordan overflowed to within a few feet of his house. Yet he had little clean water.

Shahadeh’s first house was bombed in 1948, injuring his daughter’s hand. A second dwelling, damaged in 1963, lay next to the ruins of the first house. Forced to rebuild a third time, he seemed to have expended little effort. One fluorescent tube illuminated the drab, simple quarters. An outhouse stood only 10 yards from the house.

Improvements were necessary everywhere, but where should we begin?

Our conclusion, after hours of analysis, differed from the villagers’ solution. The elders sought a new and wider pipe system for water delivery. Our Amman staff concentrated on the storage capabilities for each household. We reached an impasse.

Our discussions with local officials revealed a great deal. Prior to the signing of the peace accord between Jordan and Israel, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) had jurisdiction over the area. Insufficient funds, however, hampered any UNRWA infrastructure developments. And the financially strapped Jordanian government was reluctant to invest any funds in such an unstable frontier. Thus few public works were initiated, especially after the Six Day War in 1967. Now that the signed agreement between the two countries delineated borders, the village of Bakoura was finally defined and significant acreage was scheduled to be returned. Villagers and government officials breathed a sigh of relief. At last, they could work together to plan for the future.

Not wanting to duplicate or supplant government responsibility, our Amman office advocated a joint role. We would supply the personal storage needs if the government would examine the largescale distribution of water.

Progress has since flowed. Mukhtar Muhammad Fawaz Abbassi (better known as Abu Hassan), an efficient organizer who worked for years in the Gulf state of Qatar, determined that 72 families were in need of immediate assistance.

Beginning in May, a metal fabricator from the nearby town of Irbid delivered 10 metal water tanks per week. Larger families received two-cubic-meter tanks; smaller families received one-cubic-meter tanks. Normally placed on the roofs of structures, the water tanks have been placed next to the mud huts – the dwellings cannot bear the weight. And competitive bidding has brought down the cost of each unit to only $115. For this minor price, each household may store 2,000 liters of insectfree, potable water – more than doubling the water storage capacity. Now we are examining other pressing needs affecting the lives of the people of Bakoura.

This project has created a revolution in a hamlet of mud huts and dirt roads. So often we measure the success of treaties in dramatic terms such as the break-up of military units or the reduction of defense budgets. However, the peace dividend for the forgotten village of Bakoura is rather mundane. Now, “peace is flowing like a river.”

Father Corcoran is Director of our Amman office.

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