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My dear friend Shireen Abu Akleh remains a symbol of Palestinians' fight for freedom

Aline Hanna recalls a lifelong comradeship with the slain reporter, whose voice for freedom lives on and inspires beyond the grave
Aline Hanna (right) poses in a selfie with late journalist Shireen Abu Akleh (left), as the pair travelled together in New York City in 2016 (Supplied by author)

Prominence was synonymous with Shireen Abu Akleh, the internationally renowned Palestinian-American journalist who was killed on 11 May 2022 while reporting from Jenin. Having marked the first anniversary of her killing, and in the continued absence of justice and accountability, I find solace and take refuge in the countless memories we shared together.

To the world, Shireen will be remembered as the voice and face of Palestine, but to me, she will always be the sister I never had. Losing Shireen has hit me so hard and broken my heart beyond repair. I wake up every morning wondering if all of this is real and wishing that it was just a nightmare.

Shireen and I had known each other since we were five years old. We attended Rosary Sisters School in Jerusalem from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade. Shireen was an exemplary student, smart and talented, but always remained humble and kept a low profile. She was consistently at the top of our class and played the organ in the school band.

I remember her as a great writer who constantly scored the highest grade in any writing assignment; it is no wonder that she became one of the top journalists in the Middle East.

After graduating from high school, our friendship blossomed, and we became inseparable along with our dear friend Rula Muzaffar. The three of us were soulmates who shared numerous life events together and supported each other through every crush, heartbreak, our parents’ untimely deaths, and all the ups and downs that life has to offer.

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We were there for each other at all the momentous events in our lives. Shireen and I even had a pact that we would be each other's maids of honour; though she did not end up getting married, she was mine at my wedding 27 years ago. Sadly, I felt that the pact was finally fulfilled when I was at church standing somberly by her side at her funeral service since she had become known after her killing as the Bride of Palestine, or "Arous Falastin".

A principled woman

Shireen was a principled woman who was successful in her career because of her integrity and strong work ethic. She never asked anyone in a position of authority for a favour or used her status for personal gain. She was also a caring person who was visibly impacted by the stories she told. What hurt her the most was seeing the look of despair on children's faces after witnessing their homes being demolished and searching desperately for their favourite toys under the rubble.

What hurt her the most was seeing the look of despair on children's faces searching desperately for their favourite toys under demolished homes

I was privileged to have a best friend like Shireen and will always be bitter that our friendship was abruptly cut short by a sniper's bullet. She was a loyal friend, a considerate person, and a woman of faith. She always carried a rosary in her purse, prayed in private, and shared with me that she read the Bible from cover to cover not only once, but twice.

Shireen was a friend whose advice you could count on, and who always put you at ease and placed things in perspective. She was an avid learner who read extensively, and we often exchanged book titles to read and TV series to watch.

We travelled together to Egypt, Jordan and the United States on multiple occasions throughout the years. In December 2021, she was going through old pictures, revisiting the past and organising her memories. She shared some pictures of our trips together more than 30 years ago, and we reminisced about our experiences and were hopeful for future plans and more memories we would create together. So many plans and hopes were cut short with no second chances.

We cared about the details of each other's lives, and I vividly recall our last phone conversation a couple of days before her killing when she asked me if I had a dress for my daughter's upcoming college graduation, or if I was still shopping around. Little did we know what was about to unfold and that I would be choosing a dress for her funeral instead.

Shireen and friends
(L to R) The author, Aline Hanna, who describes the three friends as inseparable, is pictured with the late journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and Rula Muzaffar in an undated photo (Supplied by author)

We corresponded for the last time on 10 May 2022, just hours before her death. She texted to say that she was in Jenin and was going to stay overnight. I wished her well, and her final text to me was "Habibti Alino", which translates to "my beloved Alino", her nickname for me. I have read and re-read that text a thousand times.

I feel truly blessed to have been able to travel to Jerusalem in April 2022. I had not been back to celebrate Easter in the Holy Land in more than 20 years. Shireen knew that I longed to return for Easter, and she brought up the subject in February and told me that I should finally consider making the trip. I dismissed it at first but thankfully ended up going. She was happy to hear the news and changed her vacation days to coincide with my travel plans.

During that trip, we enjoyed our customary outings, sleepovers, and sipping mint tea with dessert - two of her favourite guilty pleasures. The last time I saw Shireen alive was on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2022, in the Old City, when she and her brother Tony were coming back after delivering the Holy Fire to their parents' tombs, as is the custom. It was beyond anyone's imagination that Tony would deliver the torch to her tomb as well the following Easter.

A voice still heard

Death was never on Shireen's mind. She was very hopeful and enthusiastic about the future and had many plans and aspirations. In one of her text messages, she talked about us leaning on one another in our old age, something I now dread on my own without her. She was burdened by the fact that our mothers passed away at a relatively young age, and it pains me that she died at an even earlier age, especially considering the indiscriminate manner in which she was targeted and killed.  

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I keep revisiting the way I received the news on that fateful night, a memory that will be etched into my soul for as long as I live. It was midnight in Washington, and I was just about to go to sleep when my phone rang.

It was my brother, and I wondered why he was calling at such a late hour. It was the most shocking news I had ever received. I remember running towards my husband and daughter screaming hysterically, "They killed her!"

I flew back to Jerusalem only two weeks after I had left, but this time to tearfully say goodbye to my lifelong friend and not to sip tea with her. It was the most depressing time in my life, and the tragedy of her death was compounded by the brutal police attack on the funeral procession that almost caused her coffin to fall to the ground.

I remember taking refuge inside the hospital with Lina, Shireen's niece, amid the chaos that unfolded in the courtyard outside. Along with other people, I was later stopped from going inside the church by police, who tried to prevent mourners from attending the burial service.

On the anniversary of her death, a man visits the spot where Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by an Israeli sniper one year earlier, in Jenin, on 11 May 2023 (AFP)

This was yet another indignity to the people who wanted to pay their final respects to Shireen, but the mourners refused to back down and prevailed. Tens of thousands of people ended up pouring into the streets of Jerusalem for her funeral, one of the largest in state history and a testament to how revered she was in Palestine.

Reflecting back on that day, I believe that Shireen's prominence in Palestinian society came through once again to proclaim that she was still present and that her voice is still being heard in the face of those who wanted to silence her in life and death alike.

I knew Shireen as a forgiving person, and I keep asking myself whether she would have forgiven her killer. She may think that her death highlighted the ongoing suffering and injustice that Palestinian people experience on a daily basis and may consider this tragic outcome as a small victory or a sacrifice that someone had to make for Palestine, for she always believed that we will be free one day.

As for me, I just want to have my best friend back. I will always cherish the great memories we shared and will forever hold Shireen close to my heart.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Aline Hanna was born and raised in Jerusalem, attended Yarmouk University and has a diploma in executive office management. She lives in Jerusalem and Washington D.C.
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