Middle East

Bethlehem's shepherds a dying breed

Jon Donnison, Carlos Sarras and a lamb
Image caption Carlos Sarras has been tending flocks of sheep and goats for more than 60 years

"I love my sheep. I've lived all my life amongst them," chuckled Carlos Sarras, a spritely 74 year old with a twinkle in his eye.

But Mr Sarras is part of dying breed. He is one of the few remaining Christian shepherds in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

He has been tending flocks of sheep and goats for more than six decades.

On the day we visited his small farm in Beit Jala, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, there had been good news.

"One day old!" beamed Mr Sarras as he cradled a newborn lamb in his arms.

"And it's a male!" he declared proudly, the tiny creature, spread-eagled against his barrel-like chest.

Restricted movements

Mr Sarras is a man of seemingly endless enthusiasm and energy.

But as we toasted the new arrival with a half-pint pot of his potent homemade wine, he said the life of a Palestinian shepherd had become increasingly difficult.

Image caption The shepherds are forced to buy fodder for their sheep, but the prices are too high

He said Israeli security restrictions had made it harder for him and his sheep to roam.

"We can't move. If we want to go anywhere we have to get a permit."

Bethlehem is one of the Palestinian towns that has been most affected by the West Bank barrier, which Israelis call a "security fence" but Palestinians call an "apartheid wall".

The barrier runs right up against Beit Jala and Bethlehem.

Israel says it is needed for security reasons, but it makes it very difficult for Palestinians to move freely.

Palestinian ID holders cannot pass it without Israeli permission.

Settlements

And from Carlos Sarras's back garden you can see another obstacle.

"This is the settlement," he said, pointing his stick at the concrete perimeter wall of the Har Gilo settlement which backs on to his land.

Image caption Settlements built on occupied territory dot the hilltops around Bethlehem

He said Jewish settlements had had a major impact on his life and work.

"Thirty years ago, there were no buildings here. I used to take my sheep all over the area. But now I cannot because of all the building and that damned wall."

Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian territory dot the hilltops around Bethlehem.

During Carlos's lifetime they have expanded dramatically.

Forty years ago, there were just a few thousand settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territory Israel captured and occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Now there are around 500,000 settlers.

Settlements are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

'Too hard'

Mr Sarras told me the settlements were taking valuable water and cutting off land for his sheep to graze on.

Image caption Mr Sarras said the life of a shepherd had become increasingly difficult

He said he had to buy in food for his flock to eat and that it was getting more and more difficult to make ends meet.

And when I spoke to his 20-year-old son Jamil, a university graduate, it seemed like the end of an era might be coming.

"It's too hard. I will try to keep this tradition going as much as I can but I've discovered there's other stuff that is much easier," he said.

Jamil said he had already turned down three overseas scholarships to stay and help his father but that he did not know how long he would do that.

Now he found himself torn.

"All of my studies have been easier that staying and helping my father. It's a tough one."

For decades Carlos Sarras has led his flocks. The question is, will anyone follow?