Robi Damelin (Israel)

“The first words that came out of my mouth were 'do not take revenge in the name of my son'”

Photography by Brian Moody

In March 2002 Robi Damelin’s son, David, was shot by a sniper while serving in the Israeli army. He was 28 years old. Robi now works for The Parents Circle ( Families Forum, a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families supporting reconciliation and peace.

When I was told that David had been killed, the first words that came out of my mouth were, “do not take revenge in the name of my son”. It was totally instinctive.

David had phoned me just the day before. “I want you to know that I’ve done everything in my power to protect this road block, but I’m like a sitting duck” he said. Afterwards I had a strange feeling and set about cleaning the house. I’m terrible at housework but that day I worked like a maniac.

David was a student at Tel-Aviv University doing a masters in the Philosophy of Education. When he was called up to the reserves, he came to talk to me. ‘What shall I do?’ he asked, because he was in such a quandry. The problem is we look at the world in black and white, nobody sees the grey, nobody understands this kid who belonged to a peace movement and who was torn about where his duties lay.

But then he went and I was filled with dread.

He was murdered by a Palestinian sniper who, as a child, had seen his uncle killed very violently. So this man went on a path of revenge and unfortunately David was in the way, along with nine other people.

After he was killed I was beside myself with grief; friends from all over Israel arrived with food and drink and other little expressions of love. Because I ran a PR office in Tel Aviv at the time, journalists wanted to interview me. In retrospect, I can’t believe I spoke out so strongly so early on – telling the Israelis to get out of the occupied territories.

The Parents’ Circle noticed what I was doing and its founder, Yitzhak Frankenthal, whose son had been kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 1994, got in touch. The organisation soon became my lifeline. I realized that I shared the same pain as the Palestinian mothers in the group and that with our pain we could become the most effective catalyst for change. I saw then that I had a choice about what to do with my pain – to invest it in revenge or try to think creatively. Since then I have travelled the world, spreading the message of reconciliation, tolerance and peace.

A few years ago there came another knock at my door. This time the army told me they had caught the sniper and asked if I wanted to go to his trial. I said no because what was the point? Would it bring back David if I felt good about the fact that this man was rotting in jail and his mother sitting alone without him? I don’t believe in revenge because what revenge could I take to bring David back? But I am also very reluctant to use the word ‘forgiving’. Does forgiving mean giving up your right to justice? Does it mean that what they did was OK or that they can do it again? Or do you forget? I simply don’t know.

But in the end I decided that I couldn’t do this work with the Parents Circle if I wasn’t willing to go on a path of reconciliation, and after many sleepless nights I wrote a letter to the family of the sniper which was delivered for me by two Palestinian friends. For a very long time I heard nothing back but then two and a half years later I received a letter through Ma’an – the Palestinian news service. The Palestinians in my group didn’t want me to read it, as it was not exactly a letter written by Martin Luther King.

It was a letter filled with hate and justification for killing, telling me that my son was a murderer. The sniper said he didn’t want me anywhere near his family and would not write to me directly. The letter upset me terribly, but the wisest words came from my other son, Eran, who thought I would be so angry. Eran just said:’Listen, Mum, perhaps this is the beginning of a dialogue.’ I also recognized through this process that I was no longer a victim because my life was not contingent on what this man did.

The pain doesn’t go away. You could take anything and everything from me, if I could only see David one more time, once more talk with him. I think of him all the time. We were such great friends and had so much in common. At the place where he is buried the parents make beautiful gardens around the graves of their loved ones. I see it as a continuation of motherhood, the enduring need to tend to your child.