October 16, 2015
RAMALLAH â€" The Halabi family home, with its wrought iron gate bordered with flowers and shrubs, looks impressive and spacious. But there's no furniture left inside except for two mattresses in a corner and some plastic chairs. The occupants decided to evacuate in a rush, because Israel has promised to demolish it.
For now, the family welcomes guests in the empty rooms of their house in Surda, near Ramallah. One after another, cousins, friends and neighbors come to offer their condolences for the death of 19-year-old Muhannad Halabi, who was shot and killed by Israeli police after stabbing two Israelis to death in Jerusalem's Old City on Oct. 3.
Muhannad Halabi was a law student at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. A few days before he launched the attack, he attended a ceremony in memory of a young man killed by Israeli troops near Hebron. "After what I've seen today, Iâ€™m confident that this university will bring up a generation that will follow in his footsteps," he wrote that evening in a Facebook post.
His fits of anger were evident on his Facebook page. His most recent posts had focused mostly on the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, located in East Jerusalem and known to the Jews as Temple Mount. The most recent Jewish holidays saw almost daily violence between Israeli soldiers and rioters who were barricaded inside the mosque to prevent Jewish extremist groups from visiting the site. "Anger, anger and more anger," Halabi wrote. "Wake up and save al-Aqsa. Let the revolution erupt!"
His father, 51-year-old Shafiq Halabi, says he had no idea that his son was filled with so much rage, that he could be driven to kill people. "I didn't think he had all of these things inside him, that he was capable of that," he says sadly. "It's a very active and emotional generation. As parents, we cannot control them. They see the daily attacks committed by the Israeli settlers and soldiers. My son died because of the occupation and because of their crimes."
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has escalated again over the last two weeks, except that something's different this time. For years, there was the illusion of a status quo. There was no obvious political progress. Meanwhile, on hill after hill, settlers were encroaching on Palestinian territories, trampling on international law. In the West Bank, a renewed anger was burgeoning among young people, the so-called Oslo generation.
Aged between 16 and 25, this generation was born around the time when Israelis and Palestinians signed the 1993 Oslo Accords in Washington, paving the way for peace and the creation of a Palestinian state. But there have been so many renunciations, lies, violence and wars in Gaza since then. Making matters worse is the archaic Palestinian political system that lacks legitimacy because there are no elections. These young people have found other ways to express themselves, on social media and through violence. They share videos of Israeli military brutality and of clashes at al-Aqsa.
Defending human sacrifice
Anan R. is 22 and lives in Birzeit, north of Ramallah. He introduces himself as a "peace militant" and talks eloquently â€" and anonymously â€" about his generation. "It has nothing to do with that of the Second Intifada of the 2000s," he says. "The current generation has one advantage: knowledge. We're no longer ignorant. We have access to academic work on our history, to infinite sources of information. We understand better and better Israeli media and we're very reactive."
Anan relies on Facebook a lot, "given the lack of any reliable news sources in Palestine." He hopes to become an engineer and has traveled extensively in both Israel and the United States. He understands those who choose violent action. "In history, human sacrifice has always been the way people have obtained their rights."
Many experts are observing these rioters with a mindset that's stuck in the past. They imagine invisible strings controlling their movements, operated by Palestinian puppeteers with dark intentions. Israeli leaders believe the primary responsibility lies with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, who has continued to play the game of security coordination with Israel. But this approach dismisses a crucial element that Palestinian activist and politician Mustafa Barghouti identifies.
Palestinian protesters near Ramallah on Oct.12 â€" Photo: Shadi Hatem/APA Images/ZUMA
"The street has its own dynamic," Barghouti says. "The Israelis thought they could subdue this new generation, but it's turning out to be among the most patriotic and audacious. It looks like the youth of the Arab Spring or of Greece. As a result, our old structures are in complete disarray or in denial."
In the courtyard of Birzeit University, hundreds of students are gathered, answering calls from student unions. Professors and many young women, dressed with veils or in Western clothes, listen to the enthusiastic speeches interspersed with patriotic chants. There's a call for unity, for resistance and for overcoming the age-old divisions among different groups.
Apart from the crowd, Moumin Mousameh is chatting with his friends who, like him, are studying to become engineers. The diminutive 18-year-old wearing white Hugo Boss glasses looks perfectly harmless, but what comes out of his mouth is a little terrifying. "I don't believe in pacifist resistance," he says. "Oslo meant the loss of our lands. What was taken by force must be retaken by force. He who attacked must be attacked."
He lives in Tulkarem, in the northern set. Every day, he takes a shuttle to the university â€" a journey that normally takes an hour. But lately, Israeli restrictions on the roads mean it takes him twice as long. Asked whether he'd personally fight, he says, "Of course. I'm ready to sacrifice myself. My mother would be proud."
He believes there is no difference between attacking a soldier and a civilian. "Even civilians serve in the army as reservists," he says. "Women too." Asked if he's ever met an Israeli, he says, "Yes, one. Well, it was actually a Jew from Syria."
Strangers in the same land
Most of the students say they've never met any Israelis. "And I don't want to meet any," adds Ossaid Qaddoni, 18. "When they've left the land occupied since 1967 (and the Six-Day War), then we'll talk. No, wait. The Jews should go back where they came from, to Europe and the United States." The son of a electrician father and a pharmacist mother, Qaddoni wants to become an computer engineer. He supports the stabbings "because it's a wake-up call for all of us."
Outside Ramallah's northern exit, near the checkpoint, hundreds of young people fight every day with Israeli troops, not far from a gas station. Many of these kids come after school with their school bags still on their backs. There are also veiled girls.
Rami Mesleh, a 19-year-old literature student, came to bear witness. But his mother is on the phone, pleading with him to return home and stay out of trouble. "I listen to her, but not always," he says smiling, before launching into everything that's wrong with the Israeli occupation. "Our main problem is the roads. We're under siege, surrounded by colonies. There are barricades between villages. And then, we're not allowed to go to al-Aqsa because we don't have authorization."
Neither he nor the other students ever mention the need for a Palestinian state.
In their family house in Surda, the Halabis are expecting the soldiers to return at any time. Only one person here questions the assassin's "sacrifice" â€" 19-year-old Muhannad Younes, a neighborhood friend who works as a barber while studying video production. He often used to smoke or drink a soda with Muhannad Halabi. He came to pay his respects to the family, but not to condone the attack.
"What he did was unacceptable," he says. "There will be collective punishment from the Israelis, and Palestine won't be any freer. Those who are ready to commit such actions are the exception. Most of us aren't interested in politics. We're more interested in the Western way of life."
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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