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Daughter's memory caught in conflict

A family grieves while others fight over the meaning of a young U.S. peace activist's death in the Mideast.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 18, 2003

Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, is a particularly desolate and dangerous town in a part of the world with more than its share of such places.

It's a dusty, poverty-stricken refugee camp and border town, teeming with Palestinians shoulder-to-shoulder with heavily armed soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF. Suspicions are high, tempers are short. Violence is commonplace.

"In Rafah," said Simona Sharoni, an Israeli peace activist, "people feel as though they have fallen off the Earth."

It has been two months since Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American citizen from Olympia, Wash., died in Rafah, crushed by a bulldozer operated by the IDF. Wearing an orange jacket and carrying a bullhorn, she had been protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes.

Those two months were time enough for a war to be fought and won.

Time enough for yet another Middle East peace initiative to have begun. Time enough for more suicides bombings and deadly reprisals.

Time enough, also, for Rachel Corrie to be hailed as a martyr in some parts of the world, dismissed as a flag-burning fool in others.

And all but forgotten in her own country.

Her death, on March 16, received a few headlines, but three days later the world turned its attention to a much bigger story: the start of war in Iraq.

Today Corrie's family and friends struggle with their grief and with the world's sharply differing views of the young woman.

They say Rachel Corrie was neither a dupe nor a martyr. She was a compassionate person, they say, who believed in helping people she thought were in trouble, in this case Palestinian families.

Whether people agree with her work or not, they say, her death is important because she risked her life for the cause of peace.

Today the family waits for the end of a second official Israeli investigation into Corrie's death. They try to be patient, try not to judge the actions of the Israeli military, but their frustration and confusion are near the surface.

"The bulldozers just went on with their work," said Craig Corrie, Corrie's father. "They did not even call anyone."

Help was summoned, according to witnesses, by other peace activists, on their cell phones.

Predictably, the gruesome death of a young and attractive American woman produced strong reactions. Arab mothers reportedly named babies after Rachel Corrie, and a street in Lebanon now bears her name.

A March 22 memorial service in Olympia drew more than 2,000 people, and Cindy Corrie says the family has received almost 10,000 e-mails concerning her daughter's death, most supportive and most from other countries.

But she has been ridiculed, too. One man called the Corrie home and left a message saying her efforts had served terrorists, and he was glad she was dead.

"He even left his name," Cindy Corrie said.

Numerous letters to editors complained that Corrie and the other peace activists in the Gaza Strip had no business there. At least one cartoon called her death the definition of stupidity.

Officially, Israel expressed sympathy but harshly judged Corrie's presence in Rafah.

"I'm sorry for that, but it was a stupid death," said Matty Cohen, Israel's deputy consul general for Florida and Puerto Rico. "Sometimes in Gaza near the border (with Egypt), the IDF is attacked from the houses. What can we do? They (the activists) were in a military area, and they were there to make the job of the IDF more difficult."

Corrie was pronounced dead at Al Nejar Hospital in Rafah. Her body was returned to her hometown, where her grieving family closed out the world and made private arrangements.

"She is here," was all her mother would say.

I want to be a lawyer, a dancer, an actress, a mother, a wife, a children's author, a distance runner, a poet, a pianist, a pet store owner, an astronaut, an environmental and humanitarian activist, a psychiatrist, a ballet teacher, and the first woman president.

- Rachel Corrie in fifth grade, making plans

A cause far from home

Rachel Corrie grew up in a quiet Olympia neighborhood with an older sister, Sarah, and an older brother, Chris. She is remembered as a funny, curious, happy kid.

Her interest in helping others showed up early. In fifth grade, Corrie listed things she hoped to be when she grew up. Among them: "humanitarian activist."

"I know she felt she needed to do something important," said her mother, Cindy Corrie, during a recent interview in the family's modest Olympia home.

As a young woman she had no interest in martyrdom, said Sharoni, the Israeli peace activist, who teaches courses in conflict resolution at The Evergreen State College outside Olympia. "She was full of life. She wanted to live. People who think she wanted to die don't understand her at all."

"She was brave and she was principled," said Lin Nelson, who taught Corrie at Evergreen, "but she had no savior complex. She was not full of herself that way."

The Evergreen State College is a liberal institution, and peace groups are numerous in Olympia. Corrie soon came in contact with people working to help Palestinians made homeless by Israel's policy of destroying the homes of the families of terrorists.

Then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 propelled her into peace activism. She arrived in the Middle East in February 2003.

"Just before she left for Rafah she told me, "I'm frightened, but I can do this and I should do this,' " Craig Corrie said. "I wanted to ask her, "Rachel, why not just help people here? Why not work in a soup kitchen or something?'

"But I knew she would go. And I didn't really oppose her. How can we ask our kids to be less than what they want to be?"

Home demolition is a controversial "collective punishment" carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces, to, in its words, "send a message to terrorists and their accomplices that their actions have a price to be paid by all involved." Homes are also sometimes knocked down, the IDF says, to destroy the weapons-smuggling tunnels that sometimes run beneath them.

Human rights organizations criticize the practice because it harms innocents.

Last week, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency reported that Israel's demolition campaign left 12,737 Palestinians homeless between the start of the Intifada in September, 2000, and April 30, 2003.

More than anything else, Cindy Corrie said, her daughter opposed the destruction of homes.

"I'd like to ask people in this country how they would feel if someone in their family committed a crime, and a foreign government then came to destroy their home," she said.

One group working in Gaza was, until last week, the ISM, or International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led group of activists from about a dozen nations, working to end the Israeli occupation.

The group claims to have had more than 1,000 civilians participate in its West Bank and Gaza protests, many from Israel.

"The ISM had been looking for volunteer shields," said Chris Allert, 31, who worked for the group in Rafah for six months last year. "I had a friend here (in Olympia) who knew Rachel and so I talked to her about it.

"I met her in November of 2002, and she seemed almost too perfect - pretty and smart. She had a motherly way of putting her hand on your arm or shoulder that I found irritating at the time. Now that I've come to know her mother, I can see the woman Rachel would have become, and I just wish she would have that chance.

"I recruited her, and I have had guilt about it ever since her death."

A burning flag

While Corrie's motives may have been commendable, her critics say she was at least naive, and perhaps anti-American.

They point to a picture, taken Feb. 15, showing her burning a small replica of an American flag. She appears angry, defiant.

In her defense, her family and friends say that the picture was taken on a worldwide day of protest, organized by peace groups.

A friend, Kristi Schaefer, 26, said Corrie "loved her country, the people in it, but of course she would feel free to criticize it. That should not delegitimize her."

Schaefer, and others, said Corrie told them she was offered a makeshift Israeli flag to burn during that same protest but declined. But as a U.S. citizen she felt free to protest U.S. policies, they said.

"When she died, the Palestinians carried a mock coffin through the streets of Rafah, draped in an American flag," Schaefer said. "When was the last time you saw the American flag treated with respect in a Palestinian city?"

Last week, the Israelis cracked down on the International Solidarity Movement, raiding offices and rounding up workers.

"We have no office in Gaza," said movement organizer Adam Shapiro.

We are doing human shield work ... talking to community groups and standing in front of tanks and bulldozers to try to slow down house demolitions - with very little success in the latter. . . . It is pretty much impossible for us to stop the demolition of houses. The bulldozers leave sometimes, but they can just go work somewhere else and come back later.

All of this feels invisible.

- Rachel Corrie, from the Gaza Strip, in February

What happened in Rafah?

The initial investigation of Rachel Corrie's death was performed by the chief of the general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces. It found that Israeli forces were not guilty of misconduct.

As quoted in British newspaper The Guardian, the IDF found "Rachel Corrie was not run over by an engineering vehicle (bulldozer) but rather was struck by a hard object, most probably a slab of concrete which was moved or slid down while the mound of earth which she was standing behind was moved."

It is not clear what the driver of the bulldozer saw. The huge vehicles are heavily armored and the windows are small.

An International Solidarity Movement volunteer who identified himself as Joe Smith gave this account, which the ISM says it gave to Israeli investigators:

"One bulldozer, serial number 949623, began to work near the house of a physician who is a friend of ours, and in whose house Rachel and other activists often stayed. . . .

"I was elevated about 2 meters above the ground, and had a clear view of the action happening about 20 meters away. Still wearing her fluorescent jacket, she sat down at least 15 meters in front of the bulldozer, and began waving her arms and shouting, just as activists had successfully done dozens of times that day.

(Corrie had been taught a few phrases in Hebrew, according to her friends, among them: "What would your mother think?")

"The bulldozer continued driving forward headed straight for Rachel. When it got so close that it was moving the earth beneath her, she climbed onto the pile of rubble being pushed by the bulldozer. She got so high onto it that she was at eye-level with the cab of the bulldozer. Her head and upper torso were above the bulldozer's blade, and the bulldozer driver and co-operator could clearly see her. Despite this, he continued forward, which pulled her legs into the pile of rubble, and pulled her down out of view of the driver.

"If he'd stopped at this point, he may have only broken her legs, but he continued forward, which pulled her underneath the bulldozer.

"We ran towards him, and waved our arms and shouted. . . . But the bulldozer driver continued forward, until Rachel was underneath the cab of the bulldozer. At this point, it was more than clear that she was nowhere but underneath the bulldozer, there was simply nowhere else she could have been. . . .

"Despite the obviousness of her position, the bulldozer began to reverse, without lifting its blade, and dragged the blade over her body again. He continued to reverse until he was on the border strip, about 100 meters away, and left her crushed body in the sand."

As her friends gathered around her, Rachel Corrie reportedly tried to draw in her legs, then uttered her last words: "My back is broken."

I find writing to you hard, but not thinking about you impossible. I am afraid for you, and I think I have reason to be. But I'm also proud of you - very proud.

- Craig Corrie in an e-mail to his daughter shortly before she died

Continuing Corrie's work

The lives of the four remaining members of the Corrie family now revolve around the one missing.

Craig Corrie, the father, 56, took leave from his job as an actuarial adviser for a company that sells insurance. He works now on promoting an independent investigation of his daughter's death and on various memorials and projects. The same is true of Cindy Corrie, 55, and Corrie's siblings, Sarah, who lives in Olympia, and Chris, who lives near Washington, D.C.

With the support of the state of Washington's congressional delegation, the Corries have asked the U.S. government to conduct its own investigation. The prospects don't look good. A House resolution asking for an independent investigation has only about 30 representatives signed on thus far, too few to give it political momentum.

Meanwhile, results of a second, judicial investigation in Israel should come soon.

"We'll then make our own assessment of the evidence presented by the Israelis," a State Department spokesman said Friday.

The Corrie family says they will go to Rafah themselves soon, and to Israel to meet with peace activists there.

"When we have the energy," Cindy Corrie said.

For now, though, there's plenty to do at home in Olympia, including getting ready for Corrie's graduation from The Evergreen State College in June.

"She had applied to graduate and she has the credits for a bachelors degree," said college spokeswoman Kate Lykins Brown. "It's not an honorary degree, it's a posthumous degree."

And there is still grieving to do. April 10 would have been Corrie's 24th birthday.

"We all keep working as a way to deal with it," activist Simona Sharoni said. "We still have not fully felt the loss."

She added:

"She is more powerful now than when she was alive. The way she lived was inspirational to people who knew her, not just the way she died. The media didn't pay much attention at the time, but her story keeps echoing. She had an optimism, a belief that good can win over evil.

"That's what gives people hope."

- Times staff writer David Ballingrud can be reached at 727-893-8245, or by e-mail at ballingrud@sptimes.com

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