The battle at Waco – tanks, guns, fire and cover-up.

The Guardian, January 15 1994

In the early Spring of this year, the armed agents of a foreign government surrounded 33 British men, women and children. Using assault rifles, CS gas and tanks, they killed and burned 24 of these British citizens, destroyed their homes and all of their belongings, arrested the survivors and paraded some of them in chains before jailing them without charge.

The government which was responsible for this destruction was that of the United States. If it had been the government of Iraq or Libya, or even of France or Germany, it may well be that the diplomatic outcome would have been very different but, as it is, eight months after the incident, the British Government has expressed no official concern nor registered any protest on behalf of its passport-holders.

The 33 Britons were members of the Davidian religious community, whose base at Mount Carmel near Waco in east Texas was surrounded by armed law officers from February 28 until April 19 when tanks were sent in to end the siege. As the smoke cleared over the charred remains of the 75 men, woman and children who died in the ensuing fire, the US Government was firm and clear in its account of what had happened.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms declared that its men had been ambushed when they arrived at Mount Carmel on February 28 without realising that the occupants had been tipped off about their plan to search the building. The Federal Bureau of Investigation explained that the Davidians had died at the hands of their leader, David Koresh, who had organised a mass suicide and then ordered the murder of those who tried to escape him. The White House claimed that there was “a mountain of evidence” that children were being abused and beaten inside the community while the siege was going on.

But now their story is not so clear. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has admitted that it lied; its director and five other senior officials have resigned or been sacked. The FBI has disclosed a catalogue of errors in its handling of the siege, and the evidence of mass suicide and murder is dissolving; one of the US Government’s own pathologists has stepped into the limelight to complain that his findings have been twisted. And the White House has admitted that there never was any evidence at all of children being beaten during the siege.

Yet, eight months after the incident, the British Consul General in Houston, Texas confirms that the Foreign Office has still not attempted to gather any independent information about what happened to its people.

*

It is visiting time at McLennan County Jail in Waco. The visitors pass through the metal detector and the electronic sliding door, grind slowly upwards in the creaking lift, walk through the gateway of heavy black iron bars, past the guard with the belly and the gun, and, finally, around the corner to a beige-coloured corridor with six little windows running along one wall, like portholes. Peering through them, they can dimly see The Tank.

It is about 30 feet long on each wall. It has no windows to the outside world: the only light comes from low-powered bulbs on the ceiling, which burn all night and day, too dull to see clearly, too bright to sleep deeply. It has no fresh air and it is full of men: slumped on the floor in half sleep, perched on the two tables, leaning silently against the wall, all of them wearing baggy orange trousers and orange jackets with “County Jail” stamped across the back. Several of them are wrapped in blankets against the cold. By night, they move into five-man cells and, once a week, if the guards permit, they are taken up on to the flat roof of the jailhouse to exercise for an hour. Otherwise, they spend all day of every day sitting in the Tank.

Most of them come from east Texas, a few come from other parts of the United States, but three of them are English: Livingstone Fagan, who is from Nottingham; Norman Allison, from Manchester; and Renos Avraam, born in London of Greek parents. They are survivors of the siege at Mount Carmel who are being held without the possibility of bail. They have been convicted of no offence.

Now, they take it in turns to come to one of the portholes and duck down towards a rectangular metal plate beneath it, about the size of two match boxes and perforated with little holes. All along the line of windows, other prisoners are doing the same, shouting through the metal plate, turning their ear to pick up the reply, and through the muddle of noise, the three Englishmen rehearse their memories. Reinforced by the accounts of other survivors, they have little in common with the official version of events.

Livingstone Fagan, who used to be a social worker in Nottingham, recalls how he was sent out of the siege by David Koresh to explain their faith to the waiting media. He says he was jailed before he had a chance to fullfil his mission and then he describes how he sat alone in a cell in McClennan County Jail and watched on a television screen as Mount Carmel burned, knowing that his wife, Yvette, and his mother, Doris, were both inside. Neither of them survived.

They remember Zilla Henry, the nurse from Nottingham who lived in the community with her four children, who used to get up on the stage together and sing at bible-study sessions; and other friends from Nottingham – Beverley Elliott who was such a good artist; and Sue Benta who just couldn’t remember her bible studies until she had the idea of hanging quotes from the Bible all around her bed to memorise them as she went to sleep; and Malcolm Livingstone, known as “Stone”, from London, who was always being pointed out to visitors by Koresh because he was cousin to the Jamaican Reggae star Bob Marley. All of them died in the clouds of fire on April 19.

They talk about Derek Lovelock, from Manchester, who staggered out of the fire with a burned arm and was then held alone in a cell in McLennan County Jail for 200 days on the grounds that he was a material witness. He was never charged with any offence. Lovelock’s lawyer in Houston and the survivors all believe that the authorities wanted him to crack and give evidence against his friends. When Lovelock heard in October that his father had died, he became furious with grief, banging the walls and doors of his cell until the guards came and tied him down with chains. Under pressure from his lawyer, the US authorities suddenly changed track and released him, depositing him on the pavement outside the jail, where other Davidians found him and arranged for him to fly back to Manchester.

They wonder about Marjorie Thomas, from London, who lost the skin from the lower half of her body as she struggled through the fire. She was taken to the burns unit at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where she lay for days, unidentified, until one of her relatives tracked her down. She survived and began to recover, though she told a recent visitor that all she wants now is a day without pain.

They remember the four British children who were caught in the siege. Three of them – an eleven-year-old girl and Livingstone Fagan’s two daughters, aged four and eight – came out during the negotiations, assured that all would be well, only to lose their mothers to the flames. They are now living with relatives in England. A fourth British child, a six-year-old girl named Melissa Morrison, refused to leave her mother, Rose, and , during the tank assault, the two of them hid together in a concrete bunker with wet blankets spread over them; the bunker collapsed and suffocated them and then the fire engulfed them.

And, with particular rage, they remember Winston Blake, who died on the opening day of the siege as the ATF – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – arrived at Mount Carmel. A high velocity bullet smashed into his skull just behind his right ear as he sat in his bedroom.

Like many of the other British Davidians, Blake came from Nottingham, where he had worked as a painter and decorator and worshipped regularly with the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He and his girlfriend, Beverley Elliott, had taken a holiday in the United States and visited Nottingham friends in the Davidian commune. They liked what they saw and, on the hint of a job as a car sprayer, they decided to move there permanently in the Spring of 1992. Blake was a soft, shambling character, who liked soul music and was widely known among the Davidians as Big Boy because of his bulging waistline and his famous anxiety to obtain second helpings of food.

Survivors say that on the morning of February 28, at about half past nine, as the ATF closed in on Mount Carmel with 75 armed men, three helicopters and a search warrant, Blake was sitting on his bed, enjoying a piece of French toast which he had salvaged from the cafeteria. Although it was daylight, it was dark in the room, because the window was almost completely blocked by a yellow plastic water tank outside.

One of Blake’s room mates, a young Australian named Oliver Gyarfas, says he was on the other bunk. They had both been up late at a bible study session the previous night and Gyarfas, who is now back in Melbourne, concedes that he was half asleep when the shooting started. To this day, he is still not quite sure what happened: “All I know is that there was suddenly this pool of water everywhere, Winston was on the floor and he was dead.

“The water came gushing out of the tank as though a cannon had gone through it. It was horrible, there was blood staining the water, and brain matter. All I wanted to do was to get out of that room. I didn’t want to end up looking like him. I just wanted to duck for cover. I don’t really know how it happened, but I guess he was hit by some projectiles from a helicopter.”

The shots awoke Renos Avraam, who had been asleep in the next room. He says he stumbled from his bed into Winston Blake’s room to find out what was happening. “I saw him lying in the water. He was obviously dead and he still had this little bit of French toast in his hand.”

Gyarfas and Avraam say they have no doubt that it was a bullet from the ATF which killed their friend. However, according to a report by the US Treasury Department, which controls the ATF, Winston Blake was murdered by one of his fellow Davidians. They do not claim to have a suspect,and they have offered no explanation as to why – in the middle of a raging gun battle – anyone would have the time or reason to murder Winston Blake. They have, however, produced autopsy evidence that he was shot at close range.

The Davidians stand by their story. Gyarfas says the Treasury Department’s account is “ludicrous”. The kind of bullet which was found lodged in Blake’s skull – a high velocity .223 – was in the possession of both sides. The British Government has made no inquiries at all on behalf of its murdered citizen.

When the ATF arrived at Mount Carmel that morning, they were acting on a dossier of allegations about life in the Davidian community, which has since been subjected to a cross-fire of claims and denials. The ATF says Koresh was hoarding weapons to wage war against the United States, but survivors say they had fewer guns per person than most homes in Texas and that Koresh had bought many of them to sell for profit at local gun shows. The ATF also says that Koresh was sexually abusing and beating young children in the community, but Texas social workers say they investigated these allegations in 1992 and found no evidence to support them, and survivors claim that children liked Koresh and sat in his lap during bible study sessions. The Davidians say the truth lies in their faith and that this has been distorted.

From jail, Livingstone Fagan insists that Koresh never claimed to be the Son of God and was never even their leader. “Mount Carmel was like a monastery and we were there to study the scriptures in depth. Most of us came from theological colleges and we were tired of the stuff that the Church was giving us. I had a Masters Degree in theology and I became a Minister in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Leicester, but the information which David Koresh gave me was far more profound than anything I ever learned in any college. He was not our leader. He was our teacher. He taught us to understand the Bible, the mysteries of God, the question of salvation.”

Other survivors echo Fagan’s words: God’s truth was lost when Jesus Christ was crucified; since then, the truth has been concealed in Scriptural codes, symbolised by a book which is sealed with seven seals; as the end of the world approaches, these seals will be broken by a new prophet; Koresh, they believed, was that prophet, a messenger from God sent to decode the Scriptures and reveal the truth so that humans had the chance of redemption before the End.

For them, Mount Carmel was the most important place on Earth, and David Koresh was the most important figure. They say they admired him and they also liked him and they were prepared to sacrifice anything, including their lives, in order to help him finish God’s work. And to illustrate their confidence in him, they tell a story about the Londoner Malcolm Livingstone, known as ‘Stone’.

Stone spent a lot of time constructing a new communal swimming pool but – presumably from shyness – he never told anyone that he couldn’t swim. One day, soon after the pool was finished, he climbed up on to a high diving platform by the side of the pool where he started fooling around with his friends, one of whom pushed him into the water for fun. It was 16 feet deep. Stone floundered and sank and evidently came close to drowning before the others realised he was in trouble and dived in to pull him out. When he heard what had happened, Koresh was extremely upset and told Stone and the man who had pushed him that he had to teach them a lesson.

Several of the survivors recall how Koresh called them all into the cafeteria and told them that he was going to spank the two men so that they would never do anything so foolish again. “He wasn’t doing it to hurt them and we all knew that. And Stone understood, too. He was much bigger than David, he could have turned right round and stopped him, but he knew David loved him, so he let him use the paddle on him. David said it hurt his heart to think that Stone might have died like that and we all knew it, too. It wasn’t cruel. We believe that we all have to be tested before the time of trouble comes. Stone was being tested. But if you didn’t live there, if you didn’t see how we were all like one family, then you wouldn’t understand it.”

Some survivors say there is a thread of truth in the allegations – that Koresh was preparing to use firearms to defend Mount Carmel from attack and that he was sleeping with young women – but they insist that it has been twisted into a rope to hang them with by people who are determined to slander their faith. Whatever the truth about life at Mount Carmel, there is no dispute that when the ATF arrived with its warrants on February 28, it had no interest in any of the 33 British citizens who were inside, none of whom had ever been named in relation to any allegation of crime. The ATF had a warrant to search the whole site and to arrest only one person, David Koresh, for breaking firearms laws.

At the time, the bureau said it had no option but to storm the place since Koresh never left Mount Carmel. It has since emerged that Koresh often left the community; that ATF agents had seen him do so from a covert observation point across the road; and that when he discovered that he was being investigated some months earlier, Koresh had invited the ATF to come in and examine all of his firearms, an invitation which was ignored.

The ATF has not explained why, in these circumstances, it chose to mount the biggest armed operation in its history. Observers in the United States suggest that the bureau had been battered by allegations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination, that its leaders were concerned to protect its budget from a financial review in Washington DC, and that this was ‘a rice bowl raid’ designed to gather prestige points. The fact that a gaggle of local reporters were tipped off about the raid and were waiting with cameras to catch the action may be evidence of this.

The 33 Britons had no chance to leave before the gun battle began. Most of the women and children were on the first floor in their bedrooms. Very soon, there was a chaotic firefight in progress as the Davidians used their weapons to shoot at the ATF. An American woman, Jaydean Wendell, was shot dead where she lay, in her bed. Others threw themselves on to the landing floor. Vicky Hollingsworth, from London, dived under her bed and stayed there.

Downstairs, in the men’s bedrooms, there was more chaos, with Winston Blake dead and others running for cover or firing on the ATF men. Koresh was hit by two bullets and was nursed by Zilla Henry. A couple of miles down the road, at a workshop owned by the community, three Davidians heard what was happening and set off to join their friends. One of them was Norman Allison, a musician from Manchester who could “rap” religious songs. As they approached Mount Carmel, they ran into the ATF: an American, Mike Schroeder, was shot dead; another fled; Allison was arrested and charged with unauthorised possession of a firearm and conspiracy to murder.

No one knows how the shooting started that morning. The US Government insists that Koresh ambushed them. Koresh certainly knew that the ATF men were on their way, because one of the reporters who was covering the raid asked for directions from a Davidian on the road and told him what was about to happen. However, both sides agree that when the ATF arrived, Koresh was standing in the doorway asking them to stop and that within minutes of the beginning of the battle, his friend Wayne Martin, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was phoning the local Sheriff’s office in a state of panic, begging for help and pleading that there were women and children in the building. By the time the firing stopped a little over an hour later, four ATF men were dead and six Davidians.

With the ATF reeling in shock, the FBI arrived to take over the operation, promising that they would “talk them out, no matter how long it takes”. They encircled Mount Carmel with tanks and armed snipers and called on the Davidians, including the 32 remaining Britons, to surrender. Over the next days, parents started to send out some of the children clutching souvenirs of family life, but when two elderly American women surrendered, they were arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder. Survivors say they were afraid to follow. According to Renos Avraam: “I was scared of getting beaten up and I decided I would come out with everyone else, but not alone. David had a message from God that told him to wait, so we all waited.”

As the days wore on, the FBI’s patience began to crack under the strain. According to the Justice Department, which controls the FBI, a series of disputes broke out between the FBI negotiators, who were pleading for calm to persuade the Davidians to come out, and their commanders, who wanted to take a tougher line and started switching off the Davidians’ electricity. On the ninth day, Koresh’s close friend, Steve Schneider, argued by phone with the FBI; that evening, a tank rolled forward and crushed Schneider’s motorcycle. After twelve days, Oliver Gyarfas agreed to surrender, along with an American woman and her four children. The negotiators were jubilant; the hard-liners responded by arresting the two adults and cutting off the Davidians’ electricity again.

After ten more days of deadlock, broken by the occasional surrender, Livingstone Fagan emerged to speak to the press and was arrested as well. No more followed. As the weeks passed, the squabbling between the negotiators and the hard-liners grew worse, and the Justice Department confirms that tanks were used systematically to crush all of the Davidians’ cars as well as most of their childrens’ bicycles, and that ear-splitting sounds, including the squeals of a rabbit being slaughtered, were broadcast into the compound. Anyone who was seen outside the building was ‘flash-banged’ with smoke bombs. Inside, Steve Schneider, who was handling most of the negotiations, complained bitterly that the tactics had stopped people surrendering. The Texas Rangers, who were officially responsible for investigating the opening gun battle, were so angry at the destruction of evidence that they walked out on the siege.

By the beginning of April, the Davidians and the FBI were travelling in opposite directions. Koresh had started his final work, producing his definitive account of the seven seals as a forecast of events at the end of the world. Inside the compound, survivors say, there was an atmosphere of elation at the news that Koresh was ready to deliver God’s greatest message. Once he had done it, they would all walk out together to share it with the world. In the meantime, the FBI’s leaders in Washington DC were secretly planning to abandon negotiations.

On April 9, the Director of the FBI went to the US Attorney General, Janet Reno, with a plan to flush out the Davidians with CS gas. For nine days, while the negotiators talked peace, the plan was being shuttled between officials in Washington. On April 18, the Attorney General informed President Clinton that she had approved the plan. The reason, she said later, was that the FBI men were tired and they had evidence that the remaining children were being abused and beaten inside the building. Senior British officials in the United States say they were never consulted.

That evening, the negotiators at Mount Carmel sent a new type writer ribbon in to Koresh so that he could type out the results of his work on the first seal. That night, he spent four hours typing and dictating, ending with an appeal “to accept this truth and come out of our closet and be revealed to the world as those who love Christ”. At six o’clock the next morning, the tanks went in.

The plan was for the tanks to dump CS gas cannisters into the building, forcing the Davidians to run out and be arrested. It failed, simply because the Davidians refused to surrender until Koresh had finished God’s work. No-one ran out. That morning, the FBI shot so much CS gas into the building that they had to send off to Houston for extra supplies. They shot that in as well, but still no one surrendered. Late that morning, the FBI started to improvise.

Although they had promised President Clinton that the tanks would not be used for any offensive purpose, the FBI now started to ram the building. They now claim that they were doing this “to enlarge the size of the exits to make an easier escape route for the Davidians”. The building started to collapse and within minutes, fire had broken out at three different points.

The FBI say that the fire was deliberately set by Koresh as part of a plan for mass suicide, enforced by murder. Originally, they claimed that two survivors had confessed to starting it. Now they admit that that was untrue but they still claim that one survivor heard a man’s voice saying “Light the fire” and then again “Don’t light the fire”. The other survivors say there was never any such plan, and tape-recordings of the negotiations confirm that Koresh repeatedly denied any interest in suicide. Survivors say that they had piled hay-bales in front of the windows to keep out bullets during the siege and that, since their electricity had been cut off, they had been using oil lanterns all over the building. The tanks knocked the lanterns into the hay, they say, and their friends died simply because the flames spread like a nightmare through the dry wooden building.

Renos Avraam says that he had fled through the gym rafters to escape the CS gas in the morning and that he was nearly crushed there when the tanks made the gym collapse. He says he found his way to the first floor landing and then realised that the building was on fire. “There was a lot of smoke coming along the hallway and I moved back into one of the rooms, but it started to get very hot in there. The next thing I knew there was all this black smoke in there and I couldn’t handle it. The whole room was black with it and I was coughing and I found a window.

“The glass was all broken, so I took out the bits and I just stuck my head out so I could breathe and I felt all this heat behind me, so I just dived through it onto the roof underneath. I could hear them screaming inside the building and in a way I wanted to be back in there with them all. But I was outside, on my own.” He dropped down on to the ground and walked towards the snipers with his hands up. Derek Lovelock walked almost unscathed from the right-hand end of the building. Marjorie Thomas was found in front of the building with her body still on fire.

Only six others survived the fire. One of them was a Canadian woman named Ruth Riddle who had been working with Koresh the previous night as he dictated his work on the first seal. She had typed it on to a computer disc. She was arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder and, in jail, she discovered that her knees were burned. She couldn’t remember doing it but she guessed she must have fallen down and prayed in the middle of the fire and then somehow found her way out. In her pocket, she was carrying the computer disc.

When the flames had died down, pathologists arrived to retrieve the bodies: 50 adults, 25 children, two unborn babies. They found no sign of mass suicide: Davidians were scattered in little groups throughout the building; most had been killed by smoke and carbon monoxide; some had been suffocated by the collapsing building; some had been burned alive. However, there was evidence of broken bones and of gunshot wounds – on 21 of the corpses – and this was grasped as evidence that Koresh had ordered mass murder.

A senior pathologist on the case, Dr Rodney Crow, has since appeared on national television to complain. “Our product has been twisted,” he said. He dismissed the assumptions of murder and suggested instead that this was evidence of a desperate attempt to escape the final pain and confusion. “If I were in a fire and my child was on fire, if the situation was so unbearable, then I would shoot my child and I would hope to have the strength to shoot myself.” Some children did have broken bones, he said, but this was caused by a concrete ceiling collapsing on them, and not by any beating.

The pathologists identified the remains of nine of the 24 dead Britons and they recorded what they saw: “… global charring and fragmentation… covered in broken glass and masonry …internal organs are charred, shrunken and blackened … heat-related traumatic amputation.” They found many of the Britons, including the Henry family, huddled together near the kitchen. Livingstone Fagan’s wife and mother died together in the hallway. On the stairs to the auditorium, they found the blistered torso of Stone.

Some of the dead Britons still had the remains of gas masks strapped across their skulls. In the collapsed bunker, amongst fragments of dampened towels, they found “a co-mingling of dismembered bodies with variable degrees of charring and decomposition”. This was all that remained of 27 women and children, including Melissa Morrison and her mother. In amongst the charred debris, they found the burned scraps of British passports.

*

In McLennan County Jail, after being held for months without being charged, the three Englishmen have now been accused of conspiring to wage war against the United States and formally indicted for conspiring to murder the ATF agents. If they are convicted at their trial next month, they face up to 45 years in jail without parole.

Renos Avraam, who was held for four months before he was charged, says: “I was there but I didn’t take part in any violence. I didn’t even know about it. I was asleep when the ATF came. I was in there because I was seeking after truth. That’s all. I’ve never been in trouble in my life. I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong. We were there studying the Bible. It’s not our fault that the ATF came in there like Rambo. Now we’re stuck in this place that’s concrete all around. It’s enough to drive you crazy. In a way I don’t really expect the British Government to do anything. We are in America which is the most powerful nation in the world. ”

Norman Allison, with a blanket draped around his shoulders, says he wants people to know he is innocent. Livingstone Fagan says he has little confidence that they will receive a fair trial: “This system is fraught with corruption. It’s incredible. I am astonished – the lies that are being told, the mistreatment we have received. And my belief at this time is that they can do what they want with us.”

His lawyer in Houston, Rocket Rosen, says he will fight. “I am going to go to trial and say these people were attacked and their friends were murdered and these children were burned. And for what? Because they followed a leader? We all have leaders. We follow our teachers, we follow our rabbis, we follow our Presidents. These people have been demonised, so now the US Government thinks it can do what it likes with them.”

In the days following the fire, US authorities flew into a tail-spin of denials. President Clinton explained that the final assault was necessary because “children inside the compound were being abused significantly”; his spokesman referred to “a mountain of evidence” of such abuse. Within days, the White House and the Attorney General had admitted this was “a misstatement”. There was no evidence of abuse at all, and social workers and psychiatrists who dealt with the 21 children who left during the siege said they were happy and healthy considering the fact that they had survived the gunfight with the ATF.

The American Government has produced two thick reports on the incident. Reviewing the ATF peformance, the US Treasury Department found evidence of “flawed decision-making, inadequate intelligence-gathering, miscommunication, supervisory failures and deliberately misleading post-raid statements”. The two raid commanders, they said, had rewritten internal paperwork after the raid. The Justice Department has disclosed the detail of the disputes between FBI officers. But the British Government has asked no questions at all.

The silence from London surprises American lawyers in the case, some of whom speculate that the British Government has been cowed by its allegiance to Washington. Kirk Lyons, who is trying to sue the American authorities on behalf of the bereaved British families, said: “British people in the United States have the same rights as anyone else and, conservatively speaking, these people’s rights were grossly abused. We put Red China beyond the pale of civilised society because they used tanks against civilians whose beliefs they disagreed with, and yet here is the US Government surrounding a Church and home with tanks and knocking the buildings down and apparently causing the deaths of nearly a hundred people. The British Government should have been outraged.”

Nearly 200 miles from Waco, on the 22nd floor of a gleaming sky scraper, the British Consul General, Mr Bernard Everett, is in his office with the picture of the Queen and the map of the United States and the panoramic view of downtown Houston behind him. He says his officials have done all that they can to look after the welfare of the survivors and of the bereaved.

“It is a very delicate situation.” he says. “Clearly the raid did not go as planned and a number of people were killed, including police officers. Our concerns about the welfare of British citizens have been more than adequately conveyed, but it is not my role to criticise American tactics.”

Mount Carmel is dead now. The rubble and cinders of the Branch Davidians’ buildings have been bulldozered into heaps, the site is ringed with wire mesh and occupied by two guards, but, as she walks slowly around the fence, the elderly lady who lived here for years remembers exactly how it once was alive. “Here’s where the men built our gym. They had such trouble getting the floor level and they had to do it all over again … And over there you can see the hole where they made the tornado shelter. This is tornado country, you know, so we wanted to be safe … And that’s where we had our swimming pool. It was an Olympic one, 16 foot deep.

“And we used to catch fish in the lake – big-mouth bass, they were. And there were birds. There was a mocking bird which used to come every day and sit on a post and watch the men work. We had peach trees. And a vine, a grapevine … We used to wash our clothes at the well over there… There used to be a path here, it ran all round the edge of our land, it was made of concrete, and I used to come and walk along it every day and every evening, and now it’s gone. It’s all gone. We were so happy here. It was like a park.”

She stops and frowns at the ground, pokes around in the stalks of yellowing grass and yelps in triumph. “Here’s a bit of path they missed. You see? That’s my path. And, oh, look. That’s my tree, and with my branch still there.” And with that, she reaches up above her head with slightly arthritic fingers, grips hold of a branch, pulls herself a few inches off the ground and starts to swing. “Swinging in the tree!” she sings. “I used to come here every day, you know. Swinging in the tree!”

She moves on, her eyes bright with excitement until she comes across a scruffy pile of lost belongings in the dust: a toddler’s boot with Eeyore on the side, a white crib smashed flat, a pair of child’s pyjamas, and a bicycle. It is a girl’s bicycle, with a basket strapped to the front handlebars and little bears painted on to the crossbar. It is covered with rust and, briefly, the elderly lady stoops and touches it with one hand. “Oh, yes,” she mumbles. “I know who you belonged to.”

She starts to walk away, pressing the knuckles of one hand against her mouth, whispering “Oh, I hadn’t thought of her for a while.”

There is a terrible silence over Mount Carmel.