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Martyr's family comes home to Gaza at last


GAZA, Gaza Strip -- The last time Jihad al-Wazir left Gaza he was an infant wrapped in his mother's arms. That began a 31-year odyssey across 10 countries and three continents, a race against war, upheaval and deportation.

Along the way, Israeli commandos assassinated his father, who at the time was Yasser Arafat's second in command. And at some point in all the wandering, the meaning of "home" got lost.

Last week Mr. al-Wazir and his mother returned to Gaza, borne on the same current of change that swept Mr. Arafat back here Friday.

It was a revelation.

"I used to jokingly say, 'Home sweet home' everywhere I would go," he said. "But this time it really means something. Forget all of the dirt and the mess that's in Gaza, or the smell in the air. This is where I was born. Now I see the flowers and the trees that my mother always used to talk about. I really am home."

Mr. al-Wazir is a child of the diaspora, and his family's story is a set piece of the Palestinian experience. It is a tale of exile and intrigue, in which violence often seemed like the only path to salvation but usually brought self-destruction instead.

In the end it took a peace treaty to lead them home.

On a recent morning Mr. al-Wazir sat in the shade of citrus trees outside the home of an uncle, while inside his mother, Intissar, held court with a steady procession of prominent visitors. She has returned to Gaza as the first minister of social welfare for the new Palestinian authority governing in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.

Face of his father

On almost any street in Gaza Mr. al-Wazir can see the face of his father, Khalil, on posters and banners that revere him as the martyred "Abu Jihad," his nom de guerre.

It was mostly his doings, as the "Father of the Struggle" and reputed architect of the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, the intifada, that kept the family on the run. Trying to run a guerrilla uprising from exile is a sure way of getting yourself pushed from one country to the next.

For the past six years, Mrs. al-Wazir, 49, has tended the bright, bitter flame of martyrdom while working her way up through the leadership ranks of Fatah, the largest and most important group of Mr. Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.

But now it is time to build a government, and she and her son will be helping.

"We need to work to build an advanced society, because the infrastructure here is at zero," Mrs. al-Wazir said. "I left Gaza 31 years ago, and it was more advanced then. It has regressed."

'I will help rebuild'

Jihad al-Wazir thinks he will be able to pitch in with his training as an electrical engineer. He completes work on his degree in January in England, then will return to Gaza for good.

"I will help rebuild," he said. "I think there is a lot of potential for Gaza. The key issue right now is the will of the people."

That's what worries his mother, who senses in the jubilation over freedom the hysteria of unrealistic expectation.

"The expectations of our people are very high, but our means to fulfill those expectations are limited, very limited," she said.

She bristles when people suggest that the Palestinians, or Mr. Arafat in particular, may have trouble building a democracy.

Like her son, Mrs. al-Wazir was happy to return home. But her reaction was more complicated.

"I have mixed feelings, really," she said. "I am very happy to return to my home. But at the same time, I am very sad because I remember all our martyrs who sacrificed their lives to lead to this point, of a free Palestinian state. And I remember my husband, because we always dreamed together for this to happen."

Potency of martyrdom

Mrs. al-Wazir was a pioneer in the Palestinian use of the political potency of martyrdom. In 1966, after her family had already moved from Gaza to Algiers, Algeria, to Lebanon and then to Syria, she founded the first society for martyrs' families, not knowing that 22 years later her husband would become the most famous of all Palestinian martyrs.

Only 11 Palestinian families qualified for that status in those days. Now, after two more wars and 6 1/2 years of the intifada, there are thousands.

As the rolls of the dead grew, the al-Wazir family moved on, first back to Lebanon, to live under the Israeli siege, then off on a ship for Libya. A trip to Jordan followed, but that ended in exile, and it was off to Iraq.

"Every country I went to I needed a visa," Mr. al-Wazir said. "You always felt either that you were unwanted or that you were only a visitor. There was always either a war going on or some political action. It was always a state of unease, and I developed a habit of leaving my suitcase packed. I always said I had to be ready to leave at any time."

Iraq was followed by Tunisia, where Mr. al-Wazir's father was killed. But by then, Mr. al-Wazir was getting an education in the United States, where he spent eight years, and in England.

Faces from the past

As he has settled in over the last few days, Mr. al-Wazir said that a funny thing has happened. Faces from his past keep looming up before him in the streets -- the faces of fellow travelers in the diaspora.

"Many of what I would call the old warriors are here," he said. "Every few years you would read that they were on another ship sailing to another country. You would see them on a boat, leaving.

"Now, all of a sudden, it is a complete circle, in that you see the same faces again, in military uniforms on the streets of Gaza. They are home, too. It is amazing."

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