‘In our teens, we dreamed of making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Then my friend was shot’ | Israel

On 11 Could 2021, I was sitting with a small group in a restaurant in southern Tel Aviv, learning Arabic. Our trainer, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, had been telling us that he and his pregnant Jewish spouse stored getting turned down by landlords who wouldn’t lease their property to a “combined” couple. We had been virtually on the finish of the three-hour class when air raid sirens sounded. A number of days earlier, missiles had been launched from Gaza into Israel, however this was the primary time they’d hit Tel Aviv. Past the concern of an airstrike, I had a tragic, heavy feeling. I had just lately returned to dwell in Israel after 15 years learning and working overseas. I remembered a time, within the mid-Nineties, after I had believed that Israel was going to be completely different, extra simply and much less violent. That perception now felt like a distant reminiscence.

My religion in Israel’s future had been impressed by an expertise I shared as a youngster with a bunch of extraordinary individuals. As we waited for the rocket hearth to cease, I recalled one of these individuals in vivid element, an individual I’ve barely been capable of speak about in my house nation for greater than 20 years. His identify was Aseel Aslih.

Once I first met Aseel, in 1997, he was 14, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Arraba within the Galilee and I was 13, a Jew from the Mediterranean metropolis of Ashdod (previously the Palestinian village Isdud). We had been chosen as Israeli delegates to a summer season camp within the US for youngsters from battle areas. A number of months earlier than camp we each attended a preparatory seminar for the Israeli delegation. We didn’t turn out to be mates right away. I was skinny, wore denim overalls and largely frolicked with women. Aseel was barely taller than me, bodily greater and already had facial hair. I felt uncomfortable round boys, undecided in the event that they had been going to touch upon the best way I spoke, which on the time I believed was too female. However I warmed to Aseel. His presence was partaking. He had a behavior of tilting his head barely to the facet, his cheeks rising as he smiled. In dialog, he lowered his voice and narrowed his eyes, demanding consideration.

Our delegation to the summer season camp, which was referred to as Seeds of Peace, had been chosen by the Israeli ministry of training, which was searching for individuals with management expertise and good English. Whereas information of a overseas language is commonly a product of privilege, neither Aseel nor I got here from rich households. My father was a taxi driver and my mom labored for the Port Authority; Aseel’s father owned a small enterprise and his mom was an academic counsellor. Our knack for languages and the reward of curiosity made us good candidates.


Seeds of Peace was based by two Individuals, John Wallach and Bobbie Gottschalk, in 1993, the 12 months that the Oslo peace accords had been signed between the Israeli authorities and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The aim of Seeds of Peace was to create bonds between younger members of communities in battle, and lay the groundwork for future understanding. Situated in a rural half of Maine, the summer season camp provided conventional actions like sports activities, artwork tasks and expertise reveals; it additionally facilitated group dialogue classes, during which campers from the completely different delegations talked about their hopes, fears and traumas with children from enemy nations.

The 12 months Aseel and I attended camp for the primary time, 1997, there have been 120 campers from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Qatar, in addition to the US. The camp was funded via a combination of company partnerships, particular person donations and federal grants. It was the 90s: the chilly warfare was formally over and the USA was the worldwide chief, presenting itself to the Center East as a hopeful messenger. We had been younger and we ate it up. To be placed on a airplane to go to summer season camp – what may very well be extra thrilling?

When we arrived, the counsellors hugged us as we bought off the bus. Camp felt secure, heat and welcoming. The carefully packed bunk beds put us inside arms’ attain of one another, and assembly rooms nested within the pines invited us to have interaction in dialog. Even the lake was referred to as Nice. However battle emerged on day two, when every of the delegations stood in entrance of their flag and sang their nationwide anthem. Aseel and a fellow Palestinian citizen of Israel refused to sing the Israeli anthem. As Aseel informed a friend, he couldn’t relate to an anthem that began with the sentence, “So long as within the coronary heart inside, the Jewish soul yearns … our hope isn’t but misplaced.” I was astonished by Aseel’s boldness. Being queer, I was at all times making an attempt to not name consideration to the methods during which I was completely different. And right here was this child from my delegation, solely a 12 months older than me, who acted the best way he felt, who set himself except for the pack. Not with out jealousy, I started to admire him.

Not every part Aseel did was iconoclastic; he additionally had a fun-loving, foolish facet. In our first summer season collectively, he co-wrote a music whose refrain was, “No meals no meals no meals no meals no meals no meals no meals I hate ready on the eating corridor”. Aseel sang these lyrics along with his co-writers on the camp’s expertise present, exuding confidence. There was one thing about camp that made our younger group shine. Being at Seeds of Peace felt like being half of historical past. Wallach informed us each day that we had been the longer term leaders of our peoples. I believe Aseel and I shared the intoxicating pleasure of seeing ourselves as brokers of change.


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In reality, Aseel was already effecting change. His unwillingness to sing the Israeli anthem was solely the primary in a collection of actions that defied the Israeli delegation leaders’ expectations. Each group included three to 5 authorities officers who accompanied the youngsters. The officers made certain the scholars had been properly schooled within the official model of historic occasions. Israeli delegation leaders had party-line solutions in regards to the 1948 warfare, Palestinian refugees, settlements. However Aseel knew Palestinian historical past and insisted on telling it.

After our first summer season at camp, a ministry of training official informed Seeds of Peace that Aseel wouldn’t be permitted to return to camp with the Israeli delegation. So Seeds of Peace invited him in 1998 to take part as his personal delegation. Aseel Aslih, a delegation of one. As a Jew whose household got here from Algeria and Morocco, I had some thought of how arduous it was to have an Arab identification in Israeli society. My grandmother Hajila glided by her French identify, Alice, whereas my father, Anjel Makhluf, glided by the Jewish identify Mordechai. It was simpler that manner. Aseel confirmed me, and your complete Israeli delegation, that it was attainable to face up to your identification.

That 12 months, I bought a glimpse of the connections that had been attainable between Palestinians and Israelis. {Our relationships} would at all times be sophisticated, however we had found we had lots in widespread, and we had lots to say. When tragedy hit these friendships, there was no solution to speak about it. For lengthy years of my life, the animated and hopeful interactions of these teenage years had been overtaken by silence.


Within the subsequent few years, Aseel and I returned to camp each summer season. We grew to become members of a bunch of younger leaders within the organisation. There was Tareq from the Jordanian delegation, whose household had been Palestinian refugees. Aseel and I each appeared as much as Tareq, who was a pair of years older than us and already very worldly. There was Alia from the Palestinian delegation, an immediate friend who I may joke round with for hours.

When the summer season of 1997 ended, we returned to the Center East. A triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda promenade had simply killed 4 individuals. Israel was tense. Beneath the Oslo peace accords, Israel had withdrawn from Jericho, Gaza and most of Hebron. To some Israelis, these withdrawals had been a betrayal of the nation’s safety pursuits; to others, they had been a betrayal of a biblical pact with God. Non secular and rightwing ideologues held mass protests towards the Oslo accords. Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had signed the Oslo accords, responded to the civil unrest and violence by severely limiting Palestinian motion from the West Financial institution and Gaza into Israel. This coverage of limiting motion, which unfolded throughout the 90s, launched new layers of permits and bodily boundaries. As kids of the 80s, my era of Israelis and Palestinians had been born into largely segregated cities; the 90s made interplay between our communities even tougher. To dwell in a Jewish city and have newly acquired Palestinian mates was extremely uncommon.

Aseel Aslih at a Seeds of Peace camp within the Nineties. {Photograph}: Bobbie Gottschalk

Returning house was particularly difficult for one 15-year-old Palestinian lady from our 1997 Israeli delegation, who despatched the Seeds of Peace journal a letter entitled Caught Between Worlds, during which she wrote, “as a Palestinian residing in Israel … I discover it attention-grabbing but additionally tough to have [these] two completely different sides to myself. Can these two worlds dwell collectively? Am I unusual?” Aseel, additionally a Palestinian citizen of Israel, responded with an open letter of his personal: “I don’t agree that you’re caught … We don’t should be caught; we can lead these two worlds.” Even within the complicated house environments we returned to, Aseel was prepared to point out us the best way.

Despite the fact that I admired his braveness, I was generally stunned by what Aseel dared to say or do in public. In 1999, Seeds of Peace opened a centre in Jerusalem, and Aseel was requested to behave as MC. In entrance of a whole lot of individuals, Aseel carried out a skit during which he “realised” that he wasn’t carrying Seeds of Peace’s signature inexperienced shirt and eliminated his garments, solely to disclose the inexperienced shirt and a pair of shorts beneath. Aseel was 6ft tall and athletic, his hairline already receding; he appeared extra like a person than a child. However he was unafraid to make a idiot of himself. I was cringing within the viewers, embarrassed by what was, looking back, a hilarious efficiency. Seeds of Peace now had a spot in Jerusalem, the Middle for Coexistence, the place Palestinians and Israelis may freely meet, and Aseel was the star of its opening night time.

Seeds of Peace’s regional workers organised actions outdoors Jerusalem. To ensure that the youngsters to get round, the American workers employed a driver – Sami Al Jundi, a Jerusalem native who was fluent within the metropolis’s languages, tradition, individuals and roads. A number of weeks after my group returned from camp in 1997, Sami picked us up in a Ford Transit and took us throughout checkpoints and borders. Each month after that, the younger camp alumni would give you a plan or an exercise and Sami took us there – whether or not it was in Nahariya by the Lebanese border, or within the West Financial institution’s Beit Sahour. The American organisation had connections that navigated authorities and navy bureaucracies, and Sami knew easy methods to safely get us to our new mates. Driving in Sami’s Transit, boundaries between Jewish and Arab areas shrank. Again then, I assumed that these boundaries would additional diminish over time, and ultimately disappear.

One weekend, when it was nonetheless attainable for us to cross these borders, Sami and different workers introduced mates to my home in Ashdod, together with Tareq and others from Jordan. Aseel got here down from the Galilee. The Jordanian visitors and Aseel stayed the night time. Aseel and I had been the hosts on this nation, so we gave the Jordanians the bedrooms. We shared my mom’s white sofa. It was a protracted, deep sofa; we may each match if we lay head to toe. We fell asleep in entrance of the TV. At one level within the center of the night time, I woke as much as the scent of Aseel’s toes. I bought aggravated, and informed myself that I’d point out it within the morning. When morning got here, Aseel donned the signature smile he had when he was about to say one thing controversial, and informed me that the scent of my toes had woken him up. We laughed – and then we talked about South Park.

The last decade that had began with peace treaties was spinning out of management. In 1995, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had been murdered by a rightwing activist who wished to disrupt the peace course of. Seven years after the Oslo agreements, Labor’s new prime minister, Ehud Barak, determined that if he couldn’t get a peace settlement signed inside a 12 months in workplace, nobody may. His assertion in July 2000 that there was “no companion” on the Palestinian facet reaffirmed what anti-compromise activists in Israel had been saying all alongside: Jews should not belief Palestinians. A number of months later, the best’s political veteran Ariel Sharon visited the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, which can also be the holy grounds of the Jewish Temple Mount. Sharon knew that his presence there would stir Muslim leaders to calls to guard Jerusalem; his advisers later stated in a documentary that they wished to antagonise Palestinians and get media protection within the run-up to the election. On 28 September 2000, the day of Sharon’s hour-long go to, scores of Palestinian protesters took to the streets and a number of threw stones on the politician’s entourage.

Inside 48 hours, Palestinian protests escalated into highway blockades, arson and sporadic assaults on Jews. They had been met with power by police. Excessive-ranking officers referred to as for the use of rubber bullets, dwell ammunition and snipers. This was an unprecedented escalation in use of power towards residents. One Palestinian protester was filmed by a information crew telling a navy sniper, “Why are you capturing us? These aren’t the occupied territories. We’re residents!” His phrases mirrored the shock of a individuals who noticed their nation’s safety forces use dwell weapons towards them.

Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youths clash in Ramallah after Ariel Sharon’s visit to al-Aqsa compound, 28 September 2000.Israeli troopers and Palestinian youths conflict in Ramallah after Ariel Sharon’s go to to al-Aqsa compound, 28 September 2000. {Photograph}: Jamal Aruri/AFP/Getty Pictures

On 1 October 2000, three Palestinian residents between the ages of 18 and 23 had been shot useless. The next day, there was a rally outdoors Aseel’s house city, Arraba, within the Galilee. Aseel, who was 17 on the time, walked in the direction of the protesters in his inexperienced Seeds of Peace shirt. His father, who was already there, stated that Aseel stood at a distance from the group. He wasn’t carrying any sort of weapon. All of the sudden, a police Jeep sped on to the scene. 4 policemen jumped out. It was a typical tactic on the time for police to make an instance out of one protester to be able to scare away the remainder. Some of the policemen later testified that the actual fact Aseel was standing by himself made him look suspicious. I’d guess that it additionally made him a simple goal.

The policemen ran in the direction of Aseel. When he tried to run, they chased him and one of them hit him within the again along with his gun. Then they shot Aseel within the neck. He fell, face down. As he lay bleeding, the police walked away. When his cousin rushed to his facet, he heard Aseel say: “They killed me.”

I was at house, standing subsequent to the sofa that Aseel and I had slept on, when Ned Lazarus, Seeds of Peace’s regional director, referred to as. “Aseel is useless,” he stated.

“What?” I stated. “No. You’re flawed.”

I heard solely muffled echoes of Ned’s phrases. The 17-year-old who defied authority, who wished to steer either side, who took his garments off in entrance of a whole lot of individuals to get fun, who was my friend. Gone.

13 Palestinian males had been killed by police in October 2000. Twelve of them had been Israeli residents and one was a person from Gaza who got here to Israel to work. There was one Jewish-Israeli sufferer, who was killed as he was driving below a bridge and Palestinian protesters threw a rock on to his automobile. These occasions marked the start of the second intifada, a violent interval that lasted 4 and a half years and took the lives of roughly 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis.

To many in Israeli society, the occasions of October 2000 revealed that peace accords had been an phantasm: Palestinians had by no means wished Jews round. The safety provided by the state appeared fragile. Gun shops reported a spike in gross sales. On 7 October, an Israeli soldier from Tiberias was one of three kidnapped by the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah; Jewish individuals in his house city took to the streets, vandalised Arab-owned companies and set hearth to a mosque.

In my Jewish highschool, I felt like nobody wished to listen to in regards to the loss of life of my Palestinian friend. Even individuals who beloved me discovered it arduous to speak about Aseel. I wished so desperately to convey Aseel into the dialog that one time, after I was 17, I introduced a newspaper along with his picture in it to a pub and waited for somebody to ask about it. One friend did. We had a brief dialog that light away rapidly. The truth that Aseel was a Palestinian killed by a police officer made the act of speaking overtly about his loss of life political. Throughout these occasions, a dialog about Aseel’s loss and my grief felt taboo.

At dinner with my household I introduced up what occurred to Aseel. My brother-in-law, who I really like, requested: “What makes you assume he was shot for no cause?” My brother-in-law’s household, like my mom’s, got here from Algeria, which Jews fled throughout the Algerian warfare of independence within the center of the twentieth century. Our mother and father got here to Israel as a result of of its promise to be a secure haven for Jews. To acknowledge {that a} Palestinian had been illegally killed by a cop meant that the state was an unjust aggressor. It meant that we – my brother-in-law and I, our Jewish neighborhood in Israel – won’t have proper on our facet. However Aseel was my friend, and my confusion rapidly turned to anger. I banged my fist on the desk and yelled at my brother-in-law for making assumptions about somebody he had by no means met. I didn’t again down within the second, however after that night, I’d speak about Aseel solely round individuals with whom it felt secure to take action. I grew to become extra reserved, extra cautious.

Whereas I was struggling to speak in regards to the occasions of October 2000 in Jewish areas, the victims’ households had been protesting their sons’ deaths. Aseel’s father re-enacted for the TV information cameras how his son had been chased and shot, in a scene that I’ve rewatched on YouTube dozens of occasions. Once I first watched this video, I imagined what it was like for Aseel in his ultimate moments, how afraid he should have been. The older I bought, the extra I considered what it was like for Aseel’s father to witness his son’s loss of life, to undergo the motions for the cameras. Israeli media bought the message: right here was an harmless sufferer. However it was a distorted one: it made out that Aseel the peace activist was the one harmless sufferer. Finally, prime minister Barak appointed an official inquiry, the Or fee, to analyze the occasions surrounding the violent occasions of October 2000.

In the course of the hearings, discrepancies emerged between the police testifying in Aseel’s case. When fee members challenged one of the policemen who chased Aseel, he stated: “The truth that [our] testimonies don’t match solely proves that we didn’t coordinate our tales.” This cynical argument, as if contradictory testimonies had been an indication of credibility, didn’t shock me. I heard this cynicism each time I attempted to convey up Aseel. “It’s a disgrace he died, however you don’t know what actually occurred.” Extra and extra, when the subject of October 2000 got here up, I deliberate what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I imagined individuals saying to me: “Did you actually know him in addition to you assume?” I considered who would hear me and who would discover out what I had stated. I surrendered to the concern of what different individuals may say, and shut myself behind a wall of silence.

In 2001, whereas the Or fee was in progress, I graduated from highschool and was drafted into the navy. After Aseel’s loss of life, I may now not imagine within the knowledge and management of our generals, however nonetheless I couldn’t think about evading navy service. It has been a deep half of Israeli tradition my total life, and the second intifada didn’t appear to be a time to withdraw from service. In March 2002 alone, 135 Israelis had been killed by suicide bombers. I joined the navy and, like most Jewish males, I served for 3 years, whereas my feminine mates served two. Many Palestinians discovered it offensive that their Israeli mates joined the navy in any respect; troopers may be tasked with finishing up state violence towards Palestinians at checkpoints and in their very own properties. Many friendships and connections disintegrated.

Aseel Aslih (seated far right) and Roy Cohen (seated third from right) at a Seeds of Peace camp in the 1990s.Aseel Aslih (seated far proper) and Roy Cohen (seated third from proper) at a Seeds of Peace camp within the Nineties. {Photograph}: Bobbie Gottschalk

The years of crossing borders in Sami Al Jundi’s van had been lengthy gone. Most of the American workers who had run the Jerusalem Seeds of Peace workplace, younger professionals of their 20s and early 30s, left within the following years. The organisation talked about cancelling the actions that introduced Palestinians and Israelis collectively. Sami, who had began as a driver and was now a workers member, was heartbroken. Earlier than becoming a member of Seeds of Peace, he had been a prisoner in an Israel jail half-hour away from my house. Within the 2011 memoir he co-wrote with Jen Marlowe, The Hour of Daylight, Sami talked about that on the age of 18, he and two of his mates assembled a bomb they meant to make use of towards Israelis. The bomb blew up in Sami’s home and killed one of his mates. Sami was despatched to jail for 10 years and bought out in his late 20s. He dreamed of a distinct life for us. When Seeds of Peace thought of closing the Jerusalem centre, Sami requested himself, “How would separating our neighborhood of peacemakers result in attaining peace?” It was a rhetorical query to which he knew the reply. Finally, Seeds of Peace shut down the centre whose opening Aseel hosted months earlier than he was shot. The Middle for Coexistence was no extra. That very same day, Seeds of Peace let Sami go.

At the same time as Seeds of Peace modified, the relationships fashioned there continued to supply me perception into how individuals outdoors Israel skilled the occasions of October 2000. Tareq, our friend from camp who grew up in Jordan, was at boarding faculty in Europe when he came upon Aseel had been killed. I noticed him at a Seeds of Peace alumni occasion in 2005, however I couldn’t get myself to convey up Aseel. This was a distinct kind of silence. We had been Aseel’s mates, however I was Israeli and Tareq was Palestinian-Jordanian. I didn’t know if he wished to speak about Aseel with me. I didn’t dare ask.

One of my different mates from camp, Alia, lived within the occupied West Financial institution. Israel’s altering insurance policies made journey practically not possible for her. After the second intifada, she had requested me to satisfy her in Jerusalem, carrying my soldier’s uniform. I knew it will make us each unhappy, however Alia was considerate about every part she did. I confirmed up in my khaki naval uniform, like she requested.

It was early winter. The streets of the French Hill neighbourhood had been full of stark mountain gentle. Alia and I had been speaking about comparatively regular stuff – what she was planning on doing after college, what I was planning on doing after the navy. We approached the constructing that was the Seeds of Peace centre. The positioning was now a painful reminder of the previous: earlier than the intifada, earlier than they shut down the centre, earlier than Aseel was killed.

The Or fee launched its conclusions in 2003. The fee really helpful disciplinary motion towards a number of high-ranking politicians and cops for utilizing dwell ammunition. Nonetheless, the policemen who shot the victims fell below the jurisdiction of the division of inner police investigations. The police’s personal investigation into October 2000 killings was lower than rigorous. Finally, in 2006, the pinnacle of the police’s inner investigations unit and the lawyer normal introduced that none of the policemen concerned within the October 2000 killings can be tried.

For years, I knew that folks round me didn’t wish to know what occurred to Aseel. Now I knew that the justice system didn’t, both.

I left Israel in my 20s. Aseel’s loss of life and the intifada had been devastating. I had skilled via Seeds of Peace how massive the world was, and I wished to be half of it. However whilst a neuroscience undergraduate within the US, I couldn’t go away behind my roots: my subject of examine was the consequences of dialogue on Palestinians and Israelis. I devoted my ultimate thesis to Aseel. After faculty, I grew to become a documentary film-maker and started making movies about know-how in London, Hong Kong and New York. I made a function movie about an American technologist who was fed up with people and tried to construct the primary really clever AI. When Machine of Human Desires got here out in 2016, I considered Aseel, who – like me – spent hours of his youth in entrance of computer systems, exploring the web. Had Aseel been alive, I questioned, would he have watched my movie? Would he have preferred it? Would we have nonetheless been mates?

Palestinian youths flee shots by Israeli troops near Gaza City, 1 October 2000.Palestinian youths flee pictures by Israeli troops close to Gaza Metropolis, 1 October 2000. {Photograph}: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Pictures

In 2019, I moved again to Israel. Now, I’m 37 and residing in Tel Aviv. A number of months in the past, I attended a protest rally towards evictions of Palestinian households from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. We had been standing in a drum circle with kids dancing within the center – not precisely a violent mob. All of the sudden policemen in riot gear with weapons appeared, and walked via our group, staring with hostile expressions as they handed near us. I was afraid. I believed they may do to 1 of us what they did to Aseel. I questioned, does my face look extra Jewish or extra Arab to them? And if I’m eager about that, then what number of others have prevented protesting alongside Palestinians for concern of getting caught up in violence?

Within the 20 years since October 2000, the cycle of land grabs, protest, violence and trauma has solely worsened. I realised that to be able to dwell in Israeli society once more, I wanted to speak about Aseel, our friendship and the painful silence surrounding his loss of life. I contacted outdated mates with the thought of making a documentary. Virtually none of my Palestinian mates had any curiosity in talking on digital camera. One friend informed me that, even when he trusted me along with his story, his popularity may very well be broken by being in an Israeli director’s movie. Somebody would inevitably name him out on social media as a normaliser of the occupation, of state violence, of the growth of settlements. I realised that Palestinians had their very own silences. In my film-making, and by selecting up Arabic once more, I’m looking for a voice to talk to Palestinians.

Silence has fallen in my relationship with Tareq. We haven’t spoken because the Seeds of Peace alumni occasion greater than 15 years in the past. He’s now a businessperson within the United Arab Emirates. Though I’ve imagined speaking to Tareq about Aseel many occasions, I’ve but to give you a solution to begin that dialog.

There may be one one that breaks her silence on this story. A number of years after we met for a stroll in Jerusalem, Alia informed me that she had requested me to put on my uniform that day in order that she may see me as a soldier and lastly let go of our friendship. Her plan didn’t have the meant impact: after that day in Jerusalem we had years of off-again, on-again communication, however we are actually nearer than ever. We speak each week. She married a person. I married one, too. In 2021, she managed to get a journey allow from Israeli authorities and we went to Jerusalem together with her kids. them, I was overwhelmed with the enjoyment of seeing a beloved one’s offspring; the methods during which they’re just like her, the methods during which they’re new. However none of us has any thought after they’ll be capable to journey once more. This isn’t the dream that Aseel and I had shared. It’s a violent actuality in an unjust place, with temporary moments of grace.

Some names have been modified

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