Omran Al-Mokaddemi: From Gafsa to Palestine and Back

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A man stands on a poster of former President Ben Ali, in Gafsa. Ben Ali ordered postponing the martyr’s return for 8 years. (Photo: Ali Garboussi)

By: Rajana Hamyeh

Published Thursday, April 12, 2012

It took a revolution for Tunisian martyr Omran al-Mokaddemi to return home. When Hezbollah recovered his remains in a 2004 swap with Israel, Ben Ali ordered a quiet burial, postponing the martyr’s return for eight years.

Everything was ready that day: the martyr’s portraits, the white shroud, and the hole in the ground where his body would rest. In January 2004, while Hezbollah was receiving prisoners and martyrs remains that Israel held onto in a prisoners exchange, Khalisa al-Mokaddemi – the mother of Omran Ben al-Kilani al-Mokaddemi – was preparing all of this.

She searched her son’s home for pictures of him to hang on the walls. The house in Gafsa, Tunisia opened its doors to visitors who wanted to greet the returnee from his forced asylum in Lebanon.

His mother knew that she would not see the details of his features. Sixteen years since his death would have surely erased them.

Bringing back his body would “ease the pain,” she said when asked about her wishes following his martyrdom. On 26 April 1988, he led the “Abu Jihad” operation on the occupied Kafr Shuba Hills in the Galilee close to Shebaa Farms.

The dream was fitting for a bereaved mother yearning to see anything that remains of her son who departed years ago to a faraway land. But she did not know she will have to wait another eight long years.

The moment the family completed the arrangements, news arrived that former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali had ordered that they bury al-Mokaddemi without ceremony or else he would have to remain in Lebanon.

The presidential decision was final. The operation that al-Mokaddemi had led was meant to “avenge the assassination of Abu Jihad al-Wazir in Tunisia,” says Qassem Aseit, an official of the Tunisian Workers General Union (TWGU).

The family refused to abide by the decision. Omran should be celebrated, they insisted. He is a martyr. He stayed in a graveyard in Lebanon next to many who were waiting to go home.

The family’s sorrow grew stronger, as if Omran had been martyred all over again. His mother’s shock at the decision was greater than when she had watched his death on television. At the time she was unaware that he was going to carry out a guerrilla operation in Lebanon.

“Poor boys, how would their mothers feel?” she was saying when she found out al-Mokaddemi was one of them. She wailed and remembered her son, who went to Syria to study psychology and came back with a party card saying he had joined the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

On a small piece of paper, he wrote his final words to his mother: “Do not cry or wear black on my wedding day. Ululate and call out God’s name. Scatter roses over the paths we used to take and remember my best moments. I will always remember you as a beautiful mother and ask for your forgiveness forever. I do not say goodbye, for in Palestine we shall meet.”

Koucha, as they call Omran’s mother, cried because “martyrdom then was not as it is now. Back then people used to offer condolences and not blessings as they do today,” her son Rachid explained.

When the presidential decision came, she opened Omran’s closet where she still keeps his trousers and “tricot” sweaters and held her son’s will weeping and reading it over and over again hoping for tranquility.

She could do nothing but cry. “Zein el Abidine Ben Ali’s humiliation was very upsetting,” Rachid says. For the next few years, she would hope the mornings would bring news that her son can come back.

She waited for eight years. Her vision got weaker and the locks of hair that peek out from under her scarf changed their color before she heard the news about the Tunisian revolution against the regime. It was a good omen that her son’s remains will return after all those years.

After the departure of Ben Ali, arrangements were made to retrieve the remains. The TWGU began coordination with Al-Wafaa Union and the Lebanese Association for Prisoners and Freed Detainees, in addition to the new Tunisian government that “assisted greatly, even on administrative matters,” says Aseit from the TWGU.

The contacts led to “news about the return,” he continues. The mother went back to her arrangements, but this time with “joy and pride,” she says, adding they will plan a “wedding” for the returnee.

The martyr “will lay to rest in his hometown from which he was forbidden all those long years,” Rachid, ten years his junior, says with elation.

His family and supporters were pleased with the timing of his return. “We will bring his remains in April,” says Aseit. It is “when he was martyred in 1988 and the month of Martyrs Day.”

Al-Mokaddemi’s family had planned to bring his remains back on April 8, as a delegation of the TGWU was scheduled to be in Lebanon at the 39th Session of the Arab Labor Organization (ALO). Even though the session was moved to Egypt, some went to Lebanon nevertheless.

Aseir says they wanted “the martyr to be buried on April 9 – Martyrs Days – as atonement.” He was finally brought to Carthage Airport in Tunis on April 8 to a completely different reception.

The silence that would have greeted him in 2004 bears no resemblance to last Sunday’s ceremony. Soldiers and officers lined the tarmac alongside the plane carrying his remains. His body was then flown on a military plane to his hometown, Qafsa.

His mother and “the whole village” were there, recalls Rachid. Koucha could not wait to see the wooden box carrying her son draped with the Palestinian and Tunisian flags. But the joy turned into tears.

There is pride, of course, but “her pain is bigger,” his brother says. Nevertheless, Koucha feted her son. She tossed roses on “the paths we used to take” and called out God’s name like the will said. But the moment of parting was painful when they laid him down in his white shroud.

It was a moment shared by many mothers waiting to “empty” the white bags that carried their loved ones on their way to Beirut during the last swap between Hezbollah and Israel in July 2008.

At the grave, his mother said she remembered “his smile when I used to tell him to get married and have five sons.” His siblings would reply saying “he is still young.” He will always be young to her, even when he returned as remains, “50 years old.”

For now “there is a real place for my son,” she says, where she plans to plant flowers and water them every day.

Al-Mokaddemi went home, but in Lebanon – his old resting place – many “remains” await their return. He was barred by a presidential decree, but many of those from the last swap remain in limbo as the DNA tests fail to determine their identity.


A Stone’s Throw Away

In 2004, Hezbollah and Israel conducted a swap through German mediation, whereby Hezbollah was handed the remains of 59 Lebanese and 24 non-Lebanese citizens.

Four hundred Palestinian and 23 Lebanese were also freed (including senior Hezbollah member, Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, and senior Amal member, Hajj Mustafa Dirani), in addition to five Syrians, three Moroccans, three Sudanese, one Libyan, and Stefan Mark, a German citizen accused by Israel of being affiliated with Hezbollah.

They were all swapped for the remains of three Israeli soldiers and reserve officer Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was lured and captured by Hezbollah in 2000.

The body of Tunisian martyr Omran al-Mokaddemi was among the remains. He was killed during an operation in 1988 avenging the assassination of Fatah co-founder “Abu Jihad” Khalil al-Wazir.

Al-Mokaddemi had left to Syria three years earlier to study psychology at the University of Damascus. Like many of his generation, and being the son of a fighter against French colonialism, he joined the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

His friends say that he left to Syria because “the rifle has its charm and Palestine was a stone’s throw away. What separated it from the Palestinian fighters assembling in Lebanon was a mere thrust of a horse.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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