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Nov-01-2011 17:52printcommentsVideo

'Heal Us, Don't Leave Us... Juliano!'

Flashback to a terrible day when the headlines read: “Mer-Khamis, 52, was shot five times by masked militants.”

Frank Romano and Juliano Mer-Khamis
Frank Romano and Juliano Mer-Khamis

(PARIS) - It was shocking and strangely symbolic that after about two hours into the writing of a chapter in my book: Love & Terror in the Middle East about Juliano Mer-Khamis, I took a break and then accessed the news on my computer. A news release flashed across the screen announcing the murder of a peace activist in Jenin. I held my breath as I clicked on it. My searing scream echoed off the walls of my isolated room in the outskirts of Paris, as I read the shocking and depressing blurb about my friend: 

    Mer-Khamis, 52, was shot five times by masked militants.”

    He was murdered near the place I had interviewed4 him about five years ago, in 2006, in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, the same year he, along with Zakaria Zubeidi, the former leader of Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades in that West Bank city, had established the “Freedom Theater”. From the beginning some members of the community were against the project and threatened to destroy the theater. In spite of the appointment of Zubeidi as co-theater director, an attempt to temper the threats, the theater was torched two times as threats persisted even after Zubeidi’s official appointment.5 The threats were inspired, in part, by the co-ed activities engaged in by the theater company which was prohibited under the Islamic moral code.

    A friend originally took me to the Freedom Theater to meet Juliano. I was searching for assistance, in particular, suggestions on how to plan and carry out my envisaged interfaith marches and dialogues. Juliano welcomed me into his office at the theater where we worked on strategy concerning how I was to lead the dialogue/marches for freedom in Israel and the West Bank.

         Here’s how our first meeting went as chronicled in my book, “Love & Terror in the Middle East”6: 

         Walking around it, he sat in the wooden chair, his eyes never leaving mine.

         “I mean, my vision started about 30 years ago, and I’ve been faithful to it all these years. Finally I’m…”

         “What do you mean. . .vision?”

    Watch 'Arna's Children' - full movie

         I continued where I left off: “I’m carrying it out now, that is, a vision I had in Paris about being a part of the interfaith peace process, like organizing dialogues and peace marches.”

         “There is no effective model, nothing I can spoon feed you; you have to make it yourself.” 

         I surmised that he was a bit jaded by beautiful people using beautiful words of intentions, but with no follow up, no acts to back them up, nothing. . .he seemed a bit frustrated at the indifference of visitors and their unfulfilled promises.

    “I’m aware of that…”

         “And the idea of peace without freedom is meaningless—so many have died. Two actors of our theatre group were killed in this place by Israeli bullets in 2002. Look at the refugee camp; almost all the buildings around us were destroyed.” He continued, looking at me fiercely, trying to detect something in my eyes, maybe weakness, lack of sincerity, or maybe that I was a spy. . .he examined me closely, watching my every move.

         “Peace marches have come and gone; everyone wants to do one and then just take off and consider it done. Waste of time! But you, you look serious. . . so I’ve decided to help you. First, you should call them ‘Freedom Marches’ and not the clichéd ‘Peace March’ as there can be no peace without freedom!”

         “Thanks! That sounds right. I’ll call them from now on ‘Freedom Marches.’”7

    End Israel's Unwarranted Murder of Kids


         Juliano was a peace activist, a known actor and director of the “Freedom Theater,” a children’s theatre in the middle of the refugee camp. It was a continuation and an enhancement of his and his mother’s dreams. 

         The idea originated in the 1980’s with his mother: Arna Mer-Khamis’ project was called “Care and Learning,” implemented for children in the Jenin Refugee Camp, during the First Intifada in 1987. Her goal was to provide a theatre through which children could express their fears, depression and traumas during that violent occupation. It was a way for the children to sublimate their hate and aggression, give them a chance to express themselves, live the childhood that the constant battles had robbed from them and give them a reason to live other than for revenge, for killing, for becoming suicide bombers. It was a place where children could seek refuge from the fierce fighting and loss of life around them. As a part of that original project, the Stone Theater was built, but was destroyed by Israeli soldiers during the invasion of the camp in 2002. 8

         Juliano directed and produced a film called “Arna’s Children-Children of Palestine,” about his mother’s incredible work and about the lives of the actors; most of them died during the battle for Jenin.

         One actor, Yousef, was always the joker and made everyone laugh. During the Intifada, an Israeli tank fired a shell into a school. Everyone ran, including the teachers and Yousef was the only one who went inside. He found a little girl who was bleeding on the floor and carried her to the hospital. On the way, she died in his arms. He was apparently seriously traumatized by that experience and couldn’t stop talking about her. According to friends, he became hardened and no longer laughed or made jokes.9 He, with a friend, subsequently carried out a suicide attack in Israel and was killed.10


    Stranger than fiction Order Now

    Several months after Juliano’s murder, I returned to the Jenin Refugee Camp. I owed it to my friend to continue organizing interfaith freedom/peace marches in spite of the danger and to find out who killed him. To deal with my own closure with respect to his passing, I desperately needed to understand why anyone would want to kill this dedicated peace activist, who with a Jewish mother and Arab father, was the epitome of interfaith peace and would be a key to a durable peace in this epicenter of world peace and conflict.

         I was a guest of the “Freedom Theater” and slept there a few nights, only about a block away from where Juliano was murdered. No one in the Refugee camp had an idea who would want to kill our friend; some were still in bereavement over his death and refused to talk about it. 

         During my stay, I re-connected with potential participants in my next interfaith activities and marches scheduled for the Spring, 2013 in Israel and the West Bank. I shared the bereavement for this great leader with the people deep in the heart of the refugee camp. I also learned from the Freedom Theater’s employees that he was so fearless that he refused to place security cameras around the building or to hire a body guard even after the attempts to torch the theater and the wave of threats persisted against him.


    The beauty of this man was summed up by Kadura Musa, governor of Jenin, who said: "He was a Palestinian citizen of Israeli origin. An actor and an artist but most of all a true human being. We don't know why this happened, but all the people of the camp condemn the death of this son of ours whose mother also did so much for the people of Jenin."11

         His legacy will survive and his work will continue to play a vital role in helping the people strive for  peace, understanding and compassion in the Middle East.

         Here is my final tribute to my friend Juliano:


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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.

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