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Published on Wednesday, April 10, 2002 in the Times of London

Playground of War Blessed by an Angel
by Janine di Giovanni in Bethlehem

THE laughter of children playing at the Orphanage of the Holy Family is shattered by the rattle of machinegun fire.

The children begin to wail, but Sister Sophie, 70, a Lebanese nun who runs the orphanage, is used to the barrage of war and barely flinches.

“I’m not tired of the hunger, thirst or work,” said the tiny nun, who is regarded as a saint. “I’m tired of this situation. I’m a nurse. I know people are wounded out there. If I can’t get to them, that hurts me.”

A member of the Sisters of St Vincent de Paul, Sister Sophie has spent years inside the occupied territories. She came to run this 115-year-old orphanage in the late 1980s, during the first intifada.

For the past 18 months, since the second intifada, she has watched the streets of Bethlehem turn into a bloody playground of war. One week into the siege, Sister Sophie is desperately trying to protect the 50 children who live inside the walls of this church compound — and anyone else that comes to her door seeking help or refuge. She tells of her Palestinian gardener aged 18, who died on Monday after being beaten by Israeli soldiers. His parents, fearing snipers, had not buried him, so Sister Sophie put the body in her car and helped them to find a hole in the ground. “The dogs have more value than a human being,” she said. Asked if she would harbor a Palestinian gunmen, she looks surprised: “Certainly.”

While terrified inhabitants of Bethlehem are locked inside their houses for fear of being shot by Israeli soldiers combing the streets, Sister Sophie ventures outside daily, stepping around the tanks without a flak jacket or helmet, to see who is in need of help.

Yesterday she found a woman about to give birth and too frightened to leave her flat. The nun drove the wailing mother-to-be to the hospital. It was highly dangerous. Anyone on the streets during the curfew runs the risk of being shot. No one brings a car inside the city, but the nun shrugged casually.

“An Israeli commander told me he would ask his men not to shoot me,” she said, “but he warned me that if they start to shoot, I should slow down.”

Inside the orphanage children aged under six live with staff who have not left since the siege began. Usually 70 other children, “social cases” from broken homes, also are cared for by the nuns. “But they can’t make their way here since the tanks came,” Sister Sophie said. “I am so worried.”

For now the children have enough tinned food, water from a well and bread that the staff bake. They also have generators for the hours when the electricity is cut. But the nuns are more concerned about the psychological impact of their ordeal.

Since the siege began the children are not sleeping, are wetting their beds and some of the older ones have refused to speak. “At first we told them the noise outside was a wedding party,” Sister Sophie said. “Now they know it is war. They ask: ‘Am I going to die?’ ” Despite the flag of the Vatican flying outside the compound, the area was targeted. During one barrage, a tank shell punched a bowling ball-sized dent in the stone fa├žade of the church inside the compound. A statue of the Virgin Mary on the roof was also hit.

The statue was a sign of comfort for the many Palestinian Christians who live near by in Beit Jala and have been fighting with their Israeli neighbors in Gilo. Now the Virgin’s left hand is gone; her back is peppered with bullets.

“We try to be brave,” Sister Munira, the deputy director, said, leading the way through the rooms. There is Sara, four days old, who was abandoned in a rubbish bin near Hebron; Salaam, 1, who recently had open-heart surgery; and Caroline, 18 months, who, from her crib, holds her arms out to anyone who enters the room.

“All of them have terrible stories,” Sister Munira said. “They have been abandoned or their fathers are drug addicts or their mothers simply do not want them.” For the past week, when the shooting has been especially bad, she has pushed all the cots and beds into the center of the room away from the windows and everyone sleeps together.

Outside the orphanage the streets of Bethlehem are deadly quiet. Houses are locked and shuttered and, aside from four Israeli tanks barreling down the road shooting aimlessly, there is no sign of life.

Sister Sophie is getting ready to deliver bread, venturing outside wearing nothing more protective than a cardigan. “(She) has no flak jacket,” Samir, a neighbor, said, “but she has her rosary beads.”

Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd

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