The Digital Journalist
December 2004

by Stephanie Sinclair

With his two major goals unsatisfied -- a Palestinian state and a grave waiting for him in Jerusalem - Yasser Arafat was buried amid chaos in a temporary grave inside the Muqata, his half-demolished compound in Ramallah.

Covering the lead up to his death in the Palestinian Territories and then the burial in Ramallah, was an experience of a lifetime, yet one of the hardest things I have ever photographed. For 15 days we waited for any expression of love or hate from the Palestinians while their leader approached death. All we got was silence. My translator in Gaza said people were just in shock that the only leader some had ever known was passing.

Photo by Stephanie Sinclair
On Thursday, Nov. 11th, at 6 am, I awoke to the news of Arafat's death. I got dressed and ready to go to photograph the reaction, preparing myself for large crowds of demonstrators and incessant gunfire. Instead, I was greeted with a few burning tires on the street and maybe a thousand mourners reacting to the news. I thought it was an extremely low number of mourners for Gaza, the oppressively dense area populated by more than one million Palestinians.

Shortly afterwards, I traveled to Ramallah for Arafat's burial. I expected a similarly muted reaction. Because Arafat died as head of state, however ambiguous the state as Palestine, I planned to cover a tightly controlled event. AP and Reuters had been selected for pool, an unfortunate discovery for me, assigned to cover the historic burial for TIME magazine.

By 11 am large crowds began to gather outside the compound for the afternoon service. As the minutes passed the front entrance to the Muqata started to resemble the front rows a rock concert, people excitedly crammed together trying to get as close as possible.

Palestinian security officers and mourners at the grave.

Photo by Stephanie Sinclair
Few imagined what followed. By about 1 pm, the crowd was in the thousands. With little resistance from overwhelmed security personnel, it forced its way into the compound, shoving the gates open, scaling 15-foot walls and dropping onto jagged rubble. I followed, and with the help of several bewildered Arab men, clambered over the walls, my swinging cameras and fanny pack not improving my grace in this matter.

I landed intact, but my palms felt like they were on fire, because the skin was largely scrapped off in my descent. When I cleared the rubble and could see the vast Muqata courtyard, every inch seemed filled with mourners and onlookers.

Unsure how to position myself as there was no publicized schedule of what was supposed to happen, I moved through the crowd, feet barely touching the ground, until I was able to find a suitable position. I perched myself on top of a building near the entrance of the compound to try to capture the fury on the ground. I watched from above as people screamed, pushed and shoved each other.

When the Egyptian helicopters carrying Arafat's body finally landed, any rules of appropriate social behavior still being observed finally broke.

Palestinians in Egyptian military helicopter backwash

Photo by Stephanie Sinclair
The crowd started to rock back and forth and those of us standing on the roof were just about thrown off as we were pushed closer and closer to the edge. Unable to move and tired of watching helplessly as the action on the ground moved farther and farther out of my line sight, I climbed down. I knew it would be difficult to get through the mob of people and I might miss a good a long lens shot or two from above. But at this rate, there was no way I was going to be able to photograph the actual burial. It was time to move.

On the ground, as I tried to move through the crazed mob, I was groped repeatedly - my stomach, butt and breasts felt by young men in the crowd. I felt violated but there was no one to blame. Every time I turned around, it seemed there was no one in specific to yell at. It was just a sea of moving bodies and faces. So I kept trying find the coffin, which I knew was moving over the heads of the people. It was just too crowded, and being 5'2'', I was too short to see anything. Even my "hail Mary" attempts were fruitless.

Palestinians wait for Yasser Arafat

Photo by Stephanie Sinclair
People all around me were shooting guns in the air and my ears were ringing. I kept thinking that one of the bullets would come back down and hit one of us. People were starting to pass out. When I finally made my way over to the grave, a photographer friend of mine came out. He was sweaty, breathing hard and said he literally climbed out Arafat's grave. He had been accidentally pushed inside the grave by the crowd and was unable to get out as people punched each other and fired guns in the air while soldiers tried to regain control of the obviously deteriorating situation.

In the end, at least two Palestinians died in the chaos, one fell off a building and the other was struck by a stray bullet. Palestinian medical officials reported 120 people injured, 4 from shrapnel and stray bullets.

When I woke up the next morning I felt like I had played a five-hour rugby game. I was exhausted and glad it was over. I don't know exactly what the day's events say about the future for the Palestinians, but it surely shows that there is a lot more work to be done here before there is peace. The extreme lack of emotion in the buildup and death of their leader and then the intensity of the burial also made it clear to me that Arafat was deeply loved and maybe deeply hated by many people.

© Stephanie Sinclair

Stephanie Sinclair is a Corbis Assignment Photographer, based in Beirut, Lebanon. After covering the war in Iraq for the Chicago Tribune, she joined Corbis. She has since been published in Time, Newsweek, Fortune, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Stern and Marie Claire among others.

Stephanie is also the editor and publisher of the award-winning independent online magazine for women photographers called Photobetty.

See more of Stephanie's work at Occupation, her exhibit at The Peace Museum in Chicago.

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