see below my article/short story from my epic journey to Gaza in late 2009/ early 2010, it was also published on the incredible journalist/author Antony Lowenstein’s website which is a total honour..
My journey to Gaza – Conor Ashleigh 2010 ©
My journey began on December 26th or Boxing Day as its known in Australia, three plane trips and 25 hours later I emerge through an early morning haze of pollution in Africa’s biggest city, Cairo. I head straight to meet up with two Australians who have been working in the region for the last year and have both been involved in the Gaza Freedom March and previous delegations to the Strip. Over a glass of coffee I get an update on the march, the murmurs I heard before my departure are confirmed, its quite clear that the Egyptian Government doesn’t intend to let the 1400 strong international delegation into Gaza. I was gutted by this news my efforts to generate support to travel to Gaza seem pointless, at least for a few hours until the two Australians propose that I travel with them to the border town of Rafah to establish a protest camp and from where we can attempt to enter Gaza. Trusting their sense of judgement coupled with the idea of being stuck in crazy Cairo with 1400 extremely frustrated peace activists the decision was made, I would leave as soon as possible for the border. After a few hours racing around Cairo buying supplies which included a huge canvas tent we jumped in a mini bus filled with locals and zoomed off towards Al-Arish.
Al-Arish is the closest city to the Rafah crossing and a central hub for goods travelling into Gaza via the tunnels. Throughout the day reports had been flooding in that foreigners were being refused entry and that people already based in the city for the march were being held in their hotels under house arrest, while this was a concern we had been in contact with certain people in the port city who promised to hide us as long as we could reach safely. With the girls covered in head scarves we slipped through two check points while just 200 kilometres from Al-Arish we reached a more established point with at least 20 Egyptian security. Again the door to our mini bus was opened and people were asked to show their Egyptian identification cards, unfortunately I was next to the door and my sleeping act was interrupted by a police officer demanding my card, after replying to his barking demands with blank stares it became clear I was not in fact a local but one of the foreigners the many extra security officers were on the look out for.
Caught, we piled out of the mini bus grabbed our bags and tent from the roof and sat down while the many plain clothed security officials discussed our situation. We had stupidly handed over our passports and being an identifiable fugitive wasn’t particularly appealing so a quick escape wasn’t possible. Once the initial hype settled we realised there were two Britons also waiting at the check point, soon after another two foreigners were stopped and order out as well, our group refusing to return to Cairo had rather quickly become eight. While the security officials continued to tell us that our only option was to return to Cairo we maintained our peaceful protest and refused to move, the police and security detail weren’t sure what to do with us but our presence at the checkpoint was not appreciated. Constantly the security men tried to intimidate us by screaming in our faces ‘yalla yalla’, which is Arabic for ‘go go’. We refused to move for quite some time, eventually another four vehicles full of armed plain clothed security arrived and the intimidation mounted until we were given no other option but to move up the road. By this point it was well past midnight, no one had really eaten and multiple layers were being creatively added, once we established our canvas mansion we all collapsed within it to sleep for a few well needed hours sleep before the sun was on its way back out.
Waking in a canvas mansion in the Sinai desert wasn’t as romantic as it sounds, many had barely eaten while for me it had been close to 24 hours since my last meal. To pass the time we attempted a game of chess and even tried to entice the police to a game of soccer but inevitably these were all just small distractions from our hunger and lack of a plan. Eventually it was agreed that we must find food so three members of the group set out in the direction of a sign that indicated a petrol station wasn’t too far back along the highway. After a few hours the three returned bearing gifts that seemed all so incredible considering our lack of nourishment pita bread, cheese, bottles of water, canned beef, apple juice as well as exciting news of a possible alternative to our situation. As we made a respectable arms length circle from the goods we made our way through enough food aid to relieve a small refugee camp. We mixed bread with cheese and tahina, our scouts then went on to share exciting news about meeting a local Bedouin man who through the language differences understood our dilemma and offered to help us through the desert and away from the police.
Throughout the day the police presence at the checkpoint had grown to at least 200 personnel including 6 large riot buses full of armed soldiers. Slipping away from the police into the desert with the Bedouin man was not straight forward as our returned passports would be done when we would agreed to return to Cairo. We packed down our tent and approached the head security official where we managed to negotiate to have our passports back and return to the nearest town where we could find food and water. Surprisingly the police agreed and hailed down a taxi after close conversation with the driver we were able to load our bags and start squeezing into the taxi, when we attempted to affirm with the driver that we would to stop in the next town for food the police interjected saying that we must travel directly to Cairo. In a unified protest we grabbed our bags plus the canvas mansion and plodded headed down the highway with passports in tow. After managing to get a kilometre away we stopped behind a house and called our contact, within a few minutes we could see his ute driving down the highway looking for us, as it spotted us it pulled in quickly and somehow we managed to squeeze all eight of us and our gear into the ute and drive off into the desert.
It didn’t take much to realise how well these men know the desert, maybe this has something to do with the fact that the endless mounds of golden granules all seem the same to me. Once we had negotiated a price and another ute arrived we set off into the Sinai desert. My drivers questions and eagerness to talk became worrying when a few times he slipped off the track and we launched off from a tuft of sand, It took quite some time to decipher the two cars communication, as we were scooting along sandy roads at a 100km the leading cars lights would turn off or switch to just hazards while at other points the tailing car would kill its lights placing total trust in the path taken by the first car. After two hours we stopped and were met by two men in a rather flashy new 4WD, the driver told us to put our bags in the new car and as he waved his arm around I noticed the handgun tucked neatly under his arm with extra clips stowed under the other. I informed the others quietly about the guy we were now getting in a car with, before we had time to talk about it we were piling in to the car. Being the first to open the door to the back seat I couldn’t help but notice a vest that lay across the back seat, it didn’t take me long to realise it was filled with AK47 clips and without even thinking I picked it up and asked where I should place it. Once it was resting safely in the front next to the kalashnikof we again like a three-dimensional game of tetris managed to squeeze into the car. After another few hours driving we arrived at a small thatched hut where a few very surprised looking men sat around a pit of glowing coals. The group in the little hut had tripled once our group arrived, after a cup of tea and chat with the men and with the morning fast approaching we all fell into a hazy sleep.
The next day we awoke to find other men arriving in the little camp, with just Jessie speaking Arabic we managed to tell the Bedouins about our trip so far as well as our plans to travel to Gaza to take part in the Gaza Freedom March, the men were all supportive of our plan as well as the struggle of the Palestinians. It was interesting to hear the men talk about how they identify not as Egyptians but as Bedouins, as a people who move freely not bound by the typical borders, we heard stories of how these men guide refugees and goods into Israel as well as providing supplies for the tunnels into Gaza.
In true Bedouin fashion we were given more food then we could eat and once our expanded stomachs had resigned from what seemed like a bottomless set of plates we set off in two 4WD’s for the desert. As the cars turned off a sealed road into the sand dunes I wondered why they would feed us so well if they planned to take us into the Sinai and finish us off, soon enough we stopped on top of a large sand dune from where we could see Israel and Gaza divided by the large cement fence that runs the length the Strips border. The men went about deflating the car tires and as we all hopped back in we started to descend the sheer drop of the dune. I am not sure if it is physically possible for a car to role end over end but I was convinced this was about to happen, the fear of rolling down the epic dune was shared with attempting not to land on the AK47 that bumped along on the back seat next to me, after starting slowly the driver then floored the car as we bounced away with the locals giggling at our serious stares from the rear vision mirror. Once the novelty had worn off we stopped at a rather large house in the desert, we were ushered into a palace where elaborate ground cushions ringed the large marble floor. After our adventures from the previous few days I felt naughty sitting in this incredible house, we all seemed out of place but the head man of the house made us welcome and busied us with plates of food and cups of tea and coffee. After our second meal we made up our beds with the women sleeping upstairs and the men on the luscious cushions in the main room. My life experience so far has shaped my rational mind while my time in Egypt which included escaping the government’s check points and then being warmly welcomed by AK47 wielding desert people has totally crippled any sense of normality I have known and I still hadn’t reached Gaza.
The next morning we received confirmation that a bus with just 70 of the1400 Gaza Freedom Marcher’s had left Cairo for Gaza. With knowing little about the current politics of the Gaza Freedom March or the actions that had been taking place in Cairo which was where the majority of the marchers remained, we set out in the late afternoon for Al-Arish. Travelling in the second carload with the two Australians and a Turkish girl we sped through the desert at 160km loud Egyptian music pounded through the car while a handgun and four mobile phones sat on the front seat between the driver and myself.
We arrived at the agreed Hotel in Al-Arish to meet the buses with the GFM delegation from Cairo, instead we were met by members of the Gaza Freedom March a few in particular who were aggressively trying to convince us not to enter Gaza. While a meeting swarmed inside surrounding the politics of a token number of people being given access five members of our group decided not to travel, I am thankful that I left in the second car and didn’t have the best part of an hour to become overwhelmed by the intense negotiations that had been exploding while our adventure had been unfolding. I recognise the sentiment that a smaller group entering Gaza was a political sell out, but I also know that individual’s intentions for travelling to Gaza are very diverse, some members of the group who entered were returning to Gaza to see family they hadn’t even met or see for decades. Despite the messy politics involved with the trip, I came to Egypt for one reason and that was to visit Gaza, to bear witness and share the stories I was able to learn about with a wider audience in Australia and around the world.
So in short after the complicated arrival in Al-Arish I did board the bus for Gaza along with 83 other people including Palestinians living abroad, human rights workers, Orthodox Rabbis opposed to the siege, peace activists as well as a bunch of other incredibly talented individuals, journalists and story tellers.
After a delayed crossing in Rafah we were finally allowed into Gaza where we were greeted by a large contingent of Hamas officials who escorted the group to our hotels. After another late night and a few hours sleep the Gaza Freedom March awaited us, initially Code Pink the group organising the GFM had estimated that 50, 000 Palestinians would march in opposition to the continuing siege. After talking quietly with a few locals it was made clear that the march had been taken over by Hamas and many civil society groups who had been preparing for months were no longer welcome at the march. Hearing this news was devastating, I considered not attending in protest but I reminded myself that I came to Gaza to document and i’m sure I wouldn’t find much in my hotel.
The march was quite obviously not what anyone expected, there were barely any local women present and only 500 marchers at a generous estimate. Numerous Hamas police and security officers ringed the march in particular the Orthodox Rabbis from New York, it was an impressive sight to see these Rabbis marching along waving their Palestinian flags and holding anti-Zionist signs. Once the marchers reached the Erez crossing passionate speeches ensued as well as chants from the international delegation. After the march the foreigners were rounded up and taken on a bus tour of some areas that were badly affected by the bombings a year ago. It was extremely frustrating to be stuck on a bus and not allowed to interact with the local people, the strict leash Hamas held was starting to agitate many foreigners including myself. Once we returned to the hotel myself along with another Australian photographer Jessie Boylan escaped from the hotel and despite the security details attempts to stop us we marched off keen to experience some real Gaza. Jessie has been working in the region on projects for over a year and had already visited Gaza twice before, her knowledge and friends made it possible for me to learn about the reality Hamas desperately didn’t want us to see.
Through Jessie I met an incredibly inspiring person named Doa’a, she is 25 years old and has recently graduated in Medicine from a university in Gaza. Outside the Emergency Department in the hospital where Doa’a works she showed us a tent filled with shrapnel from the bombings a year ago. Doa’s shared with us stories from the chaotic time when the bombs including white phosphorous fell on homes, schools, UN warehouses and other civilian infrastructure. Doa’a was obviously uncomfortable reliving these memories from a year ago, the conversation quickly turned to her engagement and upcoming wedding. When Doa’a is married she will move to Sweden to live with her husband also a Palestinian doctor, she seems understandably sad to be leaving her friends and family behind but at the same time life under the siege offers little opportunity or hope for young people such as Doa’a and an opportunity to work and study further in Europe would be hard to pass up.
As the year of 2009 was fast coming to an end I found myself at a Palestinian hip-hop gig come candle light vigil. With a full moon watching over what a friend Gazan friend Ahmad called ‘the worst year of his life’, the candles and sombre mood seemed fitting for a moment of reflection. P-Unit is a hip-hop crew who use their art form to tell of the injustice and struggle most Gazans face, P-Unit took to the stage and it didn’t take long to have the crowd going crazy, people were cheering and dancing on top of chairs which pushed the rappers even harder with their Arabic rhymes. After just the second song the Hamas security officials decided people were having too much fun and shut down the show, it was so disappointing this happened but the rappers themselves told me it happens to them quite a lot when they perform. While Gaza is a war zone it is also a place of incredible culture where education and the arts are highly regarded therefore witnessing this censorship was important as it allowed me to understand the lack of freedom many people face in Gaza,
The next morning, the first day of 2010, Hamas had another bus tour planned for the group however Jessie and I had other plans. After avoiding the bus we met up with a friend of Jessie’s who had organised a press taxi that was fitted with a police siren and driven by a man who used to drive for the previous political leader in Gaza, I believe it.
After flying along the coast we ended up in Rafah the area that borders with Egypt. The siege of Gaza means the closure of all borders into the territory, in order for the 1.5 million people to survive tunnels under the Egyptian border have sprung up throughout Rafah. I was able to visit the tunnels and to see first hand the process of survival, it was seven metres below the surface in a small tunnel where I met 20 year old Mahmoud. Mahmoud has been working in the tunnels since he was 17, he works for 12 hours each day and earns $45 US a day. Not a bad wage in a place where most people survive from aid deliveries but the catch being the danger associated to working in the tunnels. The week before I stood there hunched over three young men just like Mahmoud died in a tunnel collapse, it’s a common occurrence I am told and made worse from Israeli bombings.
Moving through the tunnels is everything from petrol to fruit and this lifeline is soon to be stopped, the Egyptian government recently announced their plans to build a large metal barrier under the border crossing. I asked the man in charge of the tunnel what would happen when Egypt completes this underground barrier he told me with conviction that they will find a way to penetrate it, I believe they will but what will be the costs in the meantime and how will Gazan’s manage to survive with growing prices for basic essentials.
Since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 eerie remains of their former settlements still stand as reminders of their dominance and control of Gaza. I was walking close to the ocean through the skeleton of an Israeli green house when I heard the distinct sound of rapid gunfire. We drove down to the beach where we met Gazan border police who confirmed the gunfire was coming from an Israeli patrol boat that patrolled just a few kilometres off the coast. In order to survive fisherman head out in their small boats only to come under fire from Israeli patrol boats who accuse them of crossing into Israeli waters. As we set out for Gaza city I scanned the landscape and watched the Palestinian boats zip across the water in a game of cat and mouse while on the shore the Strip’s sewage flowed freely into the ocean, this siege affects every part of life including the most basic forms of infrastructure. Once we arrived back in Gaza City Jessie invited me to visit a family she knows well, Gaza is reportedly the most densely populated region in the world and this family like their many neighbours live in an overcrowded apartment where life must be extremely cramped. The home I entered was lovely, everyone I spoke to inspired me with his or her courage and intelligence in particular Asma. Asma and her family experience a lot of social stigma for the fact that she is divorced, she is harassed for her work as a writer and activist while the facts that she has male friends and doesn’t cover her head also cause her trouble with Hamas. Currently writing her third book titled ‘Gaza is Haram’, Asma knows that when it comes time to be published she will have to leave Gaza for sometime as it wont be safe for her to remain in Gaza with the religious backlash. While sitting and chatting with the family in the lounge room the sound of a not too distant bomb fills the room, Asma’s mother instantly reaches for the radio as she holds it to her ear searching for a station with information. Nothing is known about the bomb as night falls and we must leave this incredible family for the hotel where the international delegation is meeting for a presentation from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
Without knowing my last night lay before me in Gaza I sit down and chat with my new friends and make plans for the next week, as we sit smoking a shisha and drinking Turkish coffee I received a text message from another young Gazan inviting me to stay with her family for the rest of my time in Gaza. Hope must be exceedingly hard to find in a place where freedom is only an intellectual notion but as I sit talking and joking with such a well educated, creative and ambitious group of youth I am sure there is much hope for the future of Gaza.
The following morning I awake before the sun and meet up with Jessie and a Gazan named Ahmad who has a great sense of humour, we shake off our yawns and head down to the sea for the daily fish markets. These markets must be a bizarre display from a distance as men gather round a particular box of seafood and aggressively bid until a winner is found, then just as abruptly as the catch has been won the tightly formed crowd shuffles to the next box. After a while of wrestling my way through these circles we walked down to the port where the fishing boats are docked, the shoreline is scattered with remains of buildings that lay as a constant reminder of the reality in Gaza.
Pushed for time we head back to the hotel to pack, the majority of the international delegation is leaving after the short window of time given by the government has come to an end. While people mill around saying goodbye to family and friends, myself and a group of others who intend to stay longer in the worlds most densely populated region try to avoid being shoved onto the buses. As the buses pull out from the hotel my Gazan friends join me as we plan for the day which includes visiting the Jabailya refugee camp and meeting the family I will live with for a week. As we attempt to leave the hotel a wall of Hamas security officers stops us, while I have been able to avoid the spook’s grip in previous days the suit and sweater types barricading the doorways are determined to not allow any of the foreigners out of the hotel. After an emotional few hours where I couldn’t help but cry my friends told me ‘Conor, smile your in Gaza’, after an hour or so my Gazan friends were eventually forced to leave the hotel, at this point sitting in the lobby surrounded by Hamas guards I felt very much felt alone. Elsewhere in the hotel other internationals that planned to stay longer tried to hide in the hotel but were eventually rounded up then we were all dumped on a bus from where we watched Gaza leave us behind as we drove silently to the border. As we drove along at dusk I sat there still in shock that my time had come to an end so quickly, I had planned to be in Gaza for another week and the idea of just so few days experiencing life there was heartbreaking. The official reason that our stay couldn’t be extended was that the Egyptians would close the border at midnight and after that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave, after a painfully slow border crossing into Egypt I arrived in Cairo around 3am dumped my bags in Jessie’s house and fell into a deep sleep on a pile of cushions on the ground.
In the days since I left Gaza it’s become quite evident that in fact the border is not totally closed as Hamas stated. It is difficult to not let my frustration overwhelm my other emotions and experiences from my time in Gaza, Hamas didn’t allow us the freedom to document and listen to the people in Gaza but the time I had with people in Gaza I was met with such openness and warmth that I distinguish greatly between the people and the government. Finally, I am need to acknowledge how lucky I am to possess a passport that allows me to leave Gaza under siege unlike the many Palestinians that desperately need to cross the border to receive medical care or try to return to university in Egypt.
It has taken me quite some time to process my experience. I avoided putting pen to paper for a few days in Cairo as I felt totally overwhelmed by my intense journey and I wanted m quite insecure about writing this story in a manner that would do justice to the places I visited and the people I met.
I am sending this to you from Bahrain where I am waiting in transit on my way to Bombay where I will be working on stories here in the Indian sub-continent, I will be returning to Kathmandu and Calcutta (amongst other places) to work on child labour and homelessness and mental illness in the respective locations. I will update more often from now on, I hope everyone is well and making the most of 2010 in its early stages, thankyou to all the love and support ive received for any of the good stuff that people may have left please send it on to the people in Gaza.
I have also just uploaded my photo story from Gaza onto my website titled ‘A Year After the War’.