'Let me fight my monsters'
Two years ago Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American protester, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza. Since then she has become a potent symbol for both sides of the conflict. But who was the real Rachel? Katharine Viner, who has edited her writings for a new play, on an ordinary woman with an extraordinary passion
Friday April 8, 2005
There is a particular entry in Rachel Corrie's diary, probably written some time in 1999, four years before she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes. She is aged 19 or 20. "Had a dream about falling, falling to my death off something dusty and smooth and crumbling like the cliffs in Utah," she writes, "but I kept holding on, and when each foothold or handle of rock broke I reached out as I fell and grabbed a new one. I didn't have time to think about anything - just react as if I was playing an adrenaline-filled video game. And I heard, 'I can't die, I can't die,' again and again in my head."
Last year, I was asked by the Royal Court theatre to edit the writings of Rachel Corrie into a drama with Alan Rickman, who was also directing. I had read the powerful emails she sent home from Gaza, serialised in G2 in the days after her death, and I'd read eye-witness accounts on the internet. But I didn't know that Rachel's early writing - before she even thought of travelling to the Middle East, from her days as a schoolgirl, through college, to life working at a mental-health centre in her home town of Olympia, Washington - would be similarly fascinating, and contain such elements of chilling prescience. Nor did I have a sense of the kind of person Rachel Corrie was: a messy, skinny, Dali-loving, listmaking chainsmoker, with a passion for the music of Pat Benatar. I discovered all that later.
Rachel was killed, aged 23, on March 16 2003, by a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer, a vehicle especially built to demolish houses. Three decades before, her father had driven bulldozers in Vietnam for the US army. Her death was the first of a string of killings of westerners in Gaza in spring 2003, as the war was taking place in Iraq: Briton Tom Hurndall, 22, shot on April 11; another Briton, cameraman James Miller, 34, shot on May 16. She and Hurndall were activists in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organisation set up "to support Palestinian non-violent resistance to Israel's military occupation". Rachel was killed only two days before the start of the assault on Baghdad while the world was mostly looking elsewhere.
She became a martyr to the Palestinians, a victim of their intifada who had stood up to the mighty Israeli army; Edward Said praised her actions as "heroic and dignified at the same time". But many Israelis considered her at best naive, interfering in a situation she didn't understand. And to some Americans she was a traitor; websites blared that "she should burn in hell for an eternity"; "Good riddance to bad rubbish"; "I'm thankful she died."
Those close to Rachel would rather she had not become famous for being the blonde American girl who got killed. As her ex-boyfriend Colin Reese said in the documentary Death of an Idealist: "The person that I knew has been summed up as a bullet point... Everything that Rachel was, every brilliant idea she had, every art project she did, it doesn't matter, because she has become her death." Reese committed suicide last year.