Cindy Corrie has battled Israel for justice ever since her activist daughter Rachel was killed in Gaza in 2003. On the eve of a lawsuit verdict, she says her fight will carry on.
By Harriet Sherwood
26 August 2012
The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie by Billy Bragg
THE NEWS that would turn Cindy Corrie's life inside out came around noon on a Sunday in March 2003. She was at home, then in Charlotte, North Carolina, when the phone rang.
"The apartment was kind of a mess, there were papers all over the place, and Craig [her husband] was doing the laundry," she recalls in a soft, hesitant voice. On the line was her son-in-law Kelly Simpson, but Cindy could hear her elder daughter Sarah "crying, just hysterical" in the background. They had bad news, Kelly said.
"At that point Sarah got on the phone and said: 'It's Rachel.' The first words that came out of my mouth were: 'Is she dead?' I guess I just had to articulate the worst possibility. And Sarah said: 'We think so.'"
Sarah and Kelly had picked up a phone message from a neighbour in the family's home town of Olympia, Washington State, conveying sympathy after hearing about "the tragedy" on television.
They turned on their TV set to find, scrolling across the bottom of the screen, the words: "Olympia activist killed in Gaza Strip."
"Sarah thought: if it's Rachel, why haven't Mum and Dad called me? Then she thought: they don't know."
Still holding the phone, Cindy walked across a car park to where her husband was, in the apartment block's laundry room. "You can't soften something like that. I said: 'It's Sarah and Kelly, and they say Rachel's dead.'"
Rachel Corrie, 23, had been crushed under an Israeli military bulldozer while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in Rafah, at the southernmost end of the Gaza Strip. According to witnesses, the bulldozer's driver had driven straight at her, then reversed over her, even though she was clearly in his line of vision.
Rachel was a volunteer for the pro-Palestinian direct action organisation the International Solidarity Movement and the youngest of the Corrie's three children. Her death propelled her family into an almost decade-long battle for accountability and justice. What Cindy describes as "a milestone" in that fight will come on Tuesday, when a court in Haifa hands down its verdict in a two-and-a-half year civil lawsuit brought by the Corries against the state of Israel.
"If you had told me 10 years ago that this would happen to us, and I'd do any of the things I have done since that time, that any of us would, I'd say you're crazy – I won't even breathe again," says Cindy. "Always for parents there's that dread of something happening to a child. I don't even know how to describe how we got through those first minutes and hours."
Rachel was born on 10 April 1979, five years younger than her sister Sarah, and seven years younger than her brother Chris. Asked what Rachel was like, Cindy pauses. "It's kind of a sad question. You try to hold on to all the memories, but you realise there are things that you lose. Sometimes it's hard to remember."
But these are some of the ways she describes her daughter: inquisitive, with a rich inner life; creative; an intense observer; an artist; a sympathetic listener; expressive; a constant doodler; able to connect with different people; a poet. "I always thought that when she came through the front door as an adult, you just knew it was going to be interesting."
The Corries lived in Olympia, a small community centred round the progressive liberal Evergreen State College, which Rachel later attended. Cindy describes the town as "politically and environmentally aware", much like the Corries themselves. "As a family we were certainly always politically interested, with a lot of discussion going on, but we were not activists, not protesters."
Cindy, now 64, the oldest of six siblings, grew up in a "very conservative Lutheran" household, but describes her own immediate family as "spiritual" rather than church-going. They were "middle-income – we lived really quite modestly, we were pretty frugal people". Cindy had rarely been outside the US, certainly never to Europe or the Middle East.
By early 2003, Craig Corrie had taken a job in North Carolina, and the couple moved to Charlotte, although always with the intention of returning to their home base in Olympia. "Like a lot of families, we had just been trying to get our kids through college, and finally we were free of that responsibility. It was like when we were first married – we could decide what to do with our time."
They hiked in the Appalachian mountains, took driving trips, saw movies. Cindy learned French and played the flute. "I'm really grateful for that time. It was a quiet time before this really intense period that came after. We spent a lot of time thinking about how we were going to spend the years ahead. It was a pleasant interlude."
Back in Olympia, following 9/11, their younger daughter was becoming drawn into the burgeoning peace movement and beginning to explore the reasons behind the atrocity. "That drew her to Israel and Palestine as at least part of the problem," says Cindy.
As for her parents, "it wasn't that we weren't interested [in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], but I think we were just very distanced from it. We knew about it in the way that most Americans did, by listening to news reports. Our sympathies were very much with the Israeli Jewish narrative, because that's what we knew. I read The Diary of Anne Frank to my kids when they were growing up, and that was the narrative we connected with – and the Palestinian narrative really didn't exist for us."
But Rachel decided to volunteer as an activist for the Palestinian cause. At the time, the second intifada (uprising) against the Israeli occupation was under way, with an escalating cycle of violence from both sides: frequent suicide bombings carried out by Palestinian militants, and incursions, shootings, shellings and demolitions by the Israeli military.
"It felt a little unnerving," says Cindy. "At first we hoped it wouldn't happen. But Rachel was 23 years old, and was very much making her own decisions, as we thought she should. We had always supported our kids in whatever steps they wanted to take. Some people say: 'Why did you let her go?' That was not ever something I felt was my role."
Cindy began learning about the Middle East: reading, watching films, discussing the issues with her daughter. Once Rachel had arrived in the Gaza Strip, her frequent emails home, describing what she was seeing and experiencing, illuminated what had been a distant conflict. "They brought us a view, a perspective, that we had never seen before," says Cindy.
The couple were anxious, but not unduly so. Rachel called soon after arriving in Rafah, asking her parents if they could hear the sound of shelling in the background. "I could hear her voice trembling. Craig and I carried our anxiety with us." Cindy spoke to her daughter again, six days before her death. "She sounded really happy."
Then, on 16 March 2003, came that terrible phone call, "the worst moment of my life". Cindy "stumbled through" the following hours, days and weeks, feeling physically ill. "I couldn't sleep. I would drift off, then feel jolts of pain through my arms. And then there was that thing of going to sleep and then waking up and finding that it is a nightmare but it's real and it's always there every day."
Immediately, intuitively, Cindy "knew we had to get her words out. I knew how important that was to her, and I knew what the impact had been on family and friends. She wanted to find ways for people to hear about what she was seeing."
The family released Rachel's emails to the media. "It was the Guardian that picked them up very quickly, and it was huge, very significant. All kinds of things came from that." Rachel's powerful writing was adapted into an acclaimed stage play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, performed in at least 10 countries, including Israel. It was also published in book form, Let Me Stand Alone.
Meanwhile, the day after Rachel's death, then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon promised then US president George W Bush a "thorough, credible and transparent" investigation into Rachel's death. Less than a month later, an internal inquiry by the Israeli military concluded that its forces were not to blame. The driver of the bulldozer had not seen Rachel before she was crushed beneath the vehicle, it said. No charges were brought and the case was closed.
The Corries' battle for justice has dominated their lives for close to a decade. They found themselves "up against a wall of Israeli officials determined to protect the state at all costs, including at the expense of truth", as they said in a statement last summer.
They learned how to campaign, deal with the media, assess legal documents, challenge authority and harness the support of their government whenever possible. Eventually – their "absolutely last resort" – in March 2010 they sued the state of Israel over Rachel's death, accusing its military of either unlawfully or intentionally killing her, or of gross negligence. "The demands of the lawsuit have been huge," says Cindy. "In some ways, we were naive, coming from the United States, where it's unusual for a trial not to be over within a few weeks."
In the past two and a half years, the Corries have spent a total of eight months in Israel, broken into short visits to coincide with the sporadic hearings. Now, Cindy says, "I'm just relieved to be at this point and, no matter what happens, we'll be at the other side.
"It's very unpredictable. We believe we know what should happen, but we also know what the state [of Israel] has to say. We'll have a verdict, and then we'll determine how to respond. But we know this won't be the end."
Apart from justice for Rachel, the Corries are also committed to justice for the Palestinians. Six months after Rachel's death, Cindy and Craig finally visited Gaza, and the house their daughter was trying to protect from demolition. There have been subsequent visits to Gaza, and Cindy hopes there will be more in the future. The family have made many friends from Gaza, including the occupants of the house, the Nasrallah family, whose home was finally razed in the spring of 2004. Cindy says she now has a "deeper sense of what injustice means".
"Craig and I have been so blessed because Rachel gave us this opportunity to focus here. There's no end to the work that can be done around this issue, and other peace and justice issues. If, miraculously, the Israeli-Palestinian situation could be fixed, there'll be something else that could command and deserve attention."
But, she adds: "I know realistically I have to find a way to get more balance in my life than I have now. I look at the weeds in my yard and I think about how much I'd love to go out and work there for an hour every day. I hardly cook any more. I'd like to make some time for those kinds of things."
The verdict in the lawsuit, she says, is part of a process, "one piece of what we've done. In terms of what happened to Rachel and the accountability that we're seeking, the process has shown there are huge problems here [in Israel] in investigations and the legal system. There continue to be things that need to be discussed, exposed and addressed."
"Closure" is not something Cindy is expecting. "Closure isn't the right word. In my mind, it suggests that there's an end to something, and I just don't see that happening.
"The loss, the void, is permanent. You feel it every day of your life," she says slowly, hesitantly. "What happened to Rachel will never be OK, but I feel pretty at peace with where I am. All you ever do is take the next breath and the next step. I'm still just taking the next step, but you get to the point where it's OK to do that."