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Risking all to reach a doctor

For a Bethlehem couple, their 10-month-old's cry is more frightening than gunfire. So they take a gamble.

[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Noha Talgie clings to her son, Jereas, during a visit Monday to the doctor in Beit Jala in the West Bank.

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 9, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Where has everyone gone?

The streets are deserted. Not a soul on the sidewalks, not a face in the windows. It's as though a neutron bomb has fallen, wiping away all traces of life, leaving only the dead shells of buildings.

Then an ancient white Fiat chugs into view. Inside is a man, his wife and their baby. The weather is cool, but beads of sweat glisten on the father's brow. He knows this trip could get them all killed.

Since Israeli troops moved in a week ago today, Bethlehem has been under curfew all but a few hours. Its 22,000 residents are running out of bread, milk, fresh fruits and vegetables. They are running out of medicine, too -- even if they venture into the streets, no doctors' offices are open.

So Saba Talgie and his wife, Noha, are taking a gamble. The baby, 10-month-old Jereas, has such a bad infection his eyes are swollen shut. The Talgies have listened to him scream for days and, curfew or not, they are determined to get him to a doctor in the neighboring city of Beit Jala.

Saba drives neither slow nor fast, but he knows he is conspicuous simply by being in this ghostly part of town. He looks down every street, to see whether there are Israeli tanks or soldiers. As they cross Hebron Road, the dividing line between Bethlehem and Beit Jala, he relaxes, a bit. There is a curfew here too, but no Israelis.

The baby's appointment is at 3, and it is a little after 1:30 p.m. They stop to visit Noha's sister, Nisreen, who shrieks with glee and greets Noha as though they have not seen each other in years. It has been just a week, but time passes slowly under curfew, when you have nothing to do but eat, sleep and watch CNN or Al Jazeera.

"Now when people see each other, they don't say, "How are you?' but "I am bored,' " Nisreen jokes. Then she adds: "I'm very nervous now, more nervous than before. We are without work, children are without school. Every man has a fight with his wife."

The sound of gunfire keeps Noha and Saba Talgie alert on a Bethlehem street as they take their son, Jereas, to a pediatrician who will check to see whether he has an ear infection.

In her large extended family, Nisreen is the only one who still holds a regular job. She is an executive secretary at the Inter-Continental hotel in Bethlehem, which hoped to attract millions of visitors to Christ's birthplace and other Holy Land sites during the millennium celebrations. But after the second Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, tourism died, and the now-closed, five-star hotel retains only a skeleton staff.

As the baby continues to scream, the adults swap stories of what has happened in the past week. Nisreen points to a bullet hole above a bed on the sun porch, and relates how on Easter Sunday, a young Israeli soldier wagged his finger in the face of an elderly priest at the church down the street.

"The soldier said, "Nobody moves,' " Nisreen recalls. "When people want to go home, he don't let them. You don't know whether to laugh or cry when you see this, a very well-known old man and this very young soldier. Finally everybody got to his house."

The Talgies, meanwhile, have been without power for days, and most of the food in their refrigerator has gone bad. They live near Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where 250 Palestinian gunmen have been holed up since the start of the Israeli incursion. When the couple went to get some medicine for the baby, they got caught in a crossfire and were nearly shot, they say.

Over the next hour, as the curfew is temporarily lifted, another sister and her family join the impromptu reunion. They are bearing Easter eggs -- fear of imminent fighting kept everyone home that Sunday.

In this predominantly Muslim and Jewish region, the sisters and their families are among a steadily shrinking number of Christians. In just 50 years, Bethlehem has seen the percentage of Christians in its population drop from 95 percent to as little as 35 percent, as many Christians fled the region to escape the seemingly endless violence.

Among them: Samir Ganem, a family friend who has taken advantage of the lifted curfew this afternoon to get a tooth pulled and do some visiting. As he cups his swollen jaw with his hand, he fondly recalls his years in Canada running a coffee shop in Toronto and working at the big casino in Windsor. He returned to the West Bank in 1998 to train employees at the new Palestinian casino in Jericho, which made millions off Israeli gamblers before it too closed because of the intifada.

Now unemployed -- "what we saved, I now spend" -- Ganem remains only because he has an elderly mother here and three children in school.

"There is no place for them to play, no time to enjoy being children," he says. "In Canada, my children did skating, did swimming. Here, nothing."

It is close to 3 p.m., and time to get the baby to the doctor. Ophthalmologist Charlie Kanawati has a large, tastefully furnished home in an area from which Palestinian gunmen used to fire at a nearby Jewish settlement. In retaliation, Israeli troops shelled Kanawati's neighborhood last year, damaging the roof and the back part of his house.

Nonetheless, it's a beautiful home, he is told. "I hope it stays that way," comes the reply.

Since the latest Israeli military action began a week ago, Kanawati has been afraid to go to his office. So patients come to him, if they dare.

The baby screams while Kanawati pries his eyes open to put in some drops. That should clear up the eye infection, but Kanawati is concerned that Jereas may also have an infected ear.

"You need to see the pediatrician," he tells the parents. They nod solemnly and leave without paying. Nor are they supposed to -- Kanawati knows that Saba Talgie, like so many Palestinian men these days, has no regular job, so the doctor doesn't charge them.

By now the streets have come to life with thousands of people trying to get groceries and other necessities before the curfew goes into effect again. The Talgies find their pediatrician coming out of a little store in Bethlehem, carrying two bags of apples, rice and Kit-Kat bars.

Dr. Fouad Jaar ushers them a few doors down to the building that houses his office. It is the first time he has been here in a week.

As Jaar checks the baby's ears, the shrieks of pain barely conceal the sound of gunfire just a few blocks away. The shooting grows steadily louder. And closer.

"This is the worst in my life in Bethlehem," the doctor says, as he writes out a prescription. "Never have we experienced this."

The Talgies head to the pharmacy next door to get the baby's medicine. The streets are emptying as fast as they filled up. It is time to go home.

Off chugs the little Fiat, the Talgies praying once again that no one will shoot as they pass.

-- Susan Martin can be contacted at

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