My experience to and while staying in Gaza August 2013
Having travelled abroad to many countries over the years, experiencing different cultures and religions nothing could have prepared me for the events which unfolded on my latest adventure.
Gaza boarders Egypt one side and Israel the other, the Gaza strip in Palestine, which is a small enclave approximately 26 miles long by six miles wide at its widest part with a population of 1.7 million people. 441 miles of apartheid wall standing at 40 feet encases Gaza which is best known as the “world’s largest open air prison”.
On arrival at Cairo airport at 1.00am with the intention of a six hour journey to the Rafah boarder bearing in mind we had just entered a country where they have had a revolution and a military coup. Even though we had the correct documentation from the Egyptian Authority giving permission to enter the Gaza strip it was still uncertain whether we would gain entrance or be turned back as the country was on lock down.
On meeting our driver Mohammed he explained to us what to expect on our journey, that being: the military have set up many checkpoints and roadblocks en route and we should listen and do exactly what he tells us. We had the luxury of our own car and driver for our long journey through the night to the border.
The Palestinian people unfortunately are not so lucky, they are held back in a holding centre at the airport, especially if you are male and under 40, to be transported directly to Gaza with a military police escort. This is not because of anything to do with the revolution or military coup; unfortunately it’s always been just for the Palestinian people including women and children entering and leaving the Gaza strip. You may well ask “why”, why these people are treated like this because to my knowledge it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.
Although there are seven other borders, bordering Gaza with Israel these borders have been closed down by Israel for over eight years, however Israel have one border which is opened occasionally to allow United Nations aid and other non-luxury goods to enter Gaza.
For the people of Gaza to survive just a bare existence it is estimated by the UN I quote: “ Gaza needs anything up to 800 trucks of food a day” Israel however may only allow from 60-200 trucks a day through, that is of course when the border is open. As the world knows it is closed more than open. Is this right? Do we really care as this is so far away from our own borders, how would you feel if this was happening to you and your family? …….food for thought!
Our journey began on Egypt’s hair-raising roads and motorway, where at times I can only describe it as a terrifying and eye opening experience, for those of you who have also experienced this you will understand what I’m saying, you need a strong heart and steady nerves. Some roads would only have a two lane traffic system but more often than not you would see three or four lanes of traffic on these, overtaking and undertaking, even cars coming towards you from the opposite direction with their full head beams on!! Occupying the same roads were donkeys and carts, guess they are used to it.
On approaching the first of many road blocks manned by the military in tanks Mohammed told us to say and do nothing unless advised to. This was mainly to hand over our passports for them to check and answer any questions they might have for us. Now onto the Suez Canal expecting to cross the “Mubarak Bridge” where we were confronted by a military road block, they had closed the bridge for security reasons and we were diverted on a detour of approximately four miles down to the “River Nile” ferry only to find queues of other cars, trucks, buses plus donkeys and carts. At this checkpoint David and myself were ordered out of the car by a young soldier to present our passports and documents to four plain clothes men sitting behind a wooded table where there was very little light other than the moon, on checking our documents and discussing between themselves they placed them on the table for a while (which seemed like ages) they continued talking to each other in Arabic and staring at us. At this point we asked Mohammed to come over and explain to us what was going on. Being surrounded by 18-19 year old soldiers carrying machine guns and these four men starring at us under these circumstances I felt intimidated and helpless, this triggered off in my mind what it feels like to be under occupation. Mohammed translated for us the question they asked “why are you going into Gaza?” David explained who we are and why we were going in, “it is all for the children and the charities that we work with” suddenly a soldier with David’s suitcases approached him and abruptly ordered him to open them, not on the table but on the dirt track, without any thought or care for the clothes or gifts inside as he searched the articles they were tossed onto the dirt track, it was impossible to re-pack them in their original order. After a long wait we were eventually allowed onto the ferry around 4.15am and we crossed over the Suez Canal.
A further three hour drive and we finally arrived at the Rafah border around 7.30am only to learn the border would not be open until 10.00am Egyptian time. I didn’t know what to expect at the border but was shocked to find there was no seating, no toilets, no shade and nowhere to acquire any refreshments. As the temperature steadily raised it started to get unbearable, we were at the mercy of the elements’ bearing in mind this is what the Palestinian people go through every time they want to enter Gaza. I saw newly born babies, children, the very elderly and some disabled people with nothing else to do but queue up at the gate with all their belongings and wait. To think that we had another 3 hours to wait in that heat with no facilities is totally inhumane for anyone let alone the Palestinians who suffer this daily. 10 .00 am came and by now more people had arrived, there must have been at least 600-800 people waiting. The Egyptian Authorities’ were constantly giving the impression to all, me included that they were going to open the gate, David told me “it’s all part of their game” as he had been through this several times before and warned me “when they do open the gate you will see for yourself and feel the horrors of being a Palestinian” how right he was. Around 10.25 am the gate was finally opened and when I say a gate I mean a gate no wider than an average garden gate! We were originally third in the queue but with anxiety setting in a surge of people behind us started to push forward, then a lady in front of us seemed to be rejected by the guard and he started to close the gate, a disturbance broke out followed by several guards shouting. By now panic set in in which we all felt thinking the worst that the gate would be shut. I felt confused and disappointed not only for myself but for the Palestinian people who just wanted to go home. Then the gate was opened and through the panic that ensued with everyone pushing forward and me not wanting to be separated from David I grabbed hold of his trouser belt with one hand while grappling with my suitcase with the other and we barged our way through like everyone else. Words cannot describe just how I felt, with the thought in my head of “so near yet so far” coupled with the panic and fear the gate could be closed on “whim” at any time I felt like I was a different person which was utterly out of my character, gone were my manners along with any dignity for those around me. On reflection I realised we had all lost our dignity as human beings forced upon us under the circumstances which happened and I add happens all the time when trying to enter. Once through the gate our passports and documentation were handed in for examination, outside this room were about six seats so I took advantage of one, that’s when the tears started to roll down my face watching in horror as the Palestinian people young, old and disabled pushed and shoved their way through the gate and my sympathy went out to them, being treated like cattle herded through the gate, I can only presume they felt just as humiliated knowing no one cares, how demoralising. From what I saw of the guards their behaviour needed much to be desired, nobody seemed to be in charge of the proceedings, I can only say it was disorganised utter chaos.
This was just the beginning, after ½ hour waiting for the return of our passports and documents we then had to walk in the blazing sun approximately 150 yards to the terminal building only to join another queue, once inside we had further forms to fill in plus an exit visa. We spent another 1 hour and 40 minutes for this, again our passports were checked, then we could leave the terminal but not before we had to show our passports again in order to leave! Having left the terminal we had to queue again to purchase a bus ticket (although it was coach their terminology is bus) plus a ticket for our luggage just to travel 20 yards into Gaza. Everyone suffered further humiliation once on the bus (which looked best suited to be in a museum) we were not allowed to open the windows, the door was closed and we remained there in the blazing sun with no air conditioning for another 20-25 minutes. Finally the bus started moving and after 10 yards was stopped by a security guard who checked our passports yet again and count the number of people on board, a further 20 minutes went by then finally we were allowed through the gate into Gaza and their terminal.
What a contrast, a clean air conditioning waiting area, smiling organised polite staffs that were more than helpful. Our passports and documents were checked and then we were on our way to stay with the family of a friend of David who hosted our 3 week fact finding trip for the organisations we currently support, also to view and discuss any new projects that would be brought forward while we were there.
This being my first visit our host took us to many places of interest, one of the many memorable ones was our evening picnic on the beach where we stayed until around 2.00am enjoying the cooler breeze, most welcome after the heat of the day. I was surprised to see the women being fully clothed in the water, their culture necessitates this, and I also learnt it is the woman’s choice to wear a veil covering her face, I believed they had to, so you learn something different every day. We visited the bustling old town of Gaza, I attended 2 weddings, a couple of archaeological sites, one dating back to 444 AD with beautiful mosaic flooring, the British Military Cemetery to mention just a few. I add that for the majority of our stay we had no electricity, several times a day it goes off in rotation around Gaza, we often watched from the balcony as sections of Gaza were plunged into darkness, this is because Gaza has only one generator to supply the whole of Gaza, the other two were bombed by Israel in 2008/9, neither Egypt or Israel will supply spare parts or allow adequate diesel in to maintain full electricity. For those who can afford a generator it assists their daily lives, but they are so noisy and smelly. On many occasions we had to climb the 147 steps to our flat, bearing in mind there were many elderly people living in this block, this is another everyday hardship they have to endure.
What will stay in my mind forever are the posters in a classroom in one of the many schools we visited, showing the various bombs, landmines, no go areas and the mutilated bodies of children who had fallen foul of them. I was horrified; I expected to see what most of us would probably recognise from our school days that being cuddly animals along with the alphabet and other pleasantries. This is the true horror of everyday life for these children, learn the dangers of your environment or suffer the consequences…..harsh reality indeed.
The Palestinian people that I met are very well educated; many hold degrees and responsible positions, unfortunately there a few jobs available for them. The UN employs people for a six month period only, rotating it so everyone has a chance. Their resilience is to be admired considering the dire circumstances they are forced to live under; their hospitality is second to none.
The day of our departure came, after a tearful goodbye to our host and his family we set off for the Palestinian border terminal, handed in our passports and exit visa, took our seats and waited there with hundreds of other people for around an hour. Collected our documents when told to then we were allocated bus number 2, no fee to pay here! Modern with air conditioned buses which was a welcome relief from the heat. The bus set off and stopped about 50 yards later, this is where we remained for 2 ½ hours for the Egyptian border control to let us through the gate. Finally we were allowed in, the bus was stopped while a security guard entered checking everyone’s passports and counting us, to our horror and disappointment we were turned back into the Palestinian terminal. We later found out the Egyptian Authority said the bus was over crowded, they would only allow 50 people in at a time. Back in the terminal we waited a further hour or so and were reallocated another bus, the same procedure happened again, 50 yards, stop and this time we waited 1 ½ only to be informed the border had closed for the day! Again the bus returned into the terminal where everyone had to hand in their passports for the Palestinian Authorities to stamp them cancelled for the day, another wait of around an hour. Meanwhile through their disappointment women and children were crying, on talking to several people they informed us they had lost their booked flights to various other countries, such was the hospitality at this particular time a complete stranger offered us to stay at his house for the night, saying “my house is your house” We were informed we would have to return the following morning by 7.00am and would be on the first bus. Apparently this happens all the time, how frustrating and unfair for these people. We found a taxi and headed back to our host to stay another night.
The next day after another tearful goodbye we arrived bright and early and waited for around 2 hours outside the terminal before we were finally allowed in, we went through the same procedure again….hand over our passports and waited another hour or so. Previously being told we would be on the first bus, but that didn’t happen, we were called onto the second bus, took our seats and moved 50yards as before and waited another 2hours in the blazing sun, finally the bus started and we were through into the Egyptian side, the guard came aboard checked everyone’s passports, counted us and yes you guessed it they wouldn’t let us through as again they said there were too many people on board. The bus turned around and we were back into the Palestinian side. Now I felt the frustration, disappointment and anger that the Palestinian people must feel every time they embark on this. We took our suitcases off the bus and waited with two other people at the 50 yard stop as we were told to wait there for bus number 4, now da-ja- vou had set in. Another hour or so of waiting for the bus to arrive, when it did we duly loaded our suitcases, took our seats and waited about ½ hour until we were allowed entry again into the Egyptian side. By this time I just wanted to get out knowing the inevitable could happen, I crossed both my fingers, closed my eyes praying the bus wouldn’t turn left (that would mean another rejection) luckily it didn’t, after another check of our passports we arrived at the terminal. Filling in an exit visa, then handing in our passports to be processed, we sat and waited with everyone else until our names were called for the collection of our passports, that being 1 ½ hours later! Finally we are allowed to leave, walking the 150 yards to the Rafah boarder gate where we were met by our driver Mohammed (who by previous arrangement came the day before when we should have left and had to find accommodation for the night) so we set off across the Sinai desert to the Suez Canal.
What was a relatively straight forward journey there into Gaza across the desert didn’t turn out to be the case coming back. The main and only road was blocked off several times meaning a detour around the sparsely spaced out Bedouin settlements. We encountered several more Military check points where our passports had to be shown and at random our suitcases were searched. Finally we arrived at the Suez Canal only to wait in the blazing heat for over 2 hours in the queue that had built up for the ferry. As we were about to board, several Military soldiers approached our car; one demanded I open my suitcase for inspection. He took out a bag containing a rolling tin and cigarette papers, now I roll my own cigarette’s but had run out of tobacco 2 days previous so it was empty, he seemed most interested in them and accused me of smoking drugs! Apparently in Egypt if you roll your own cigarette’s you obviously smoke drugs, I tried to explain I didn’t but he couldn’t understand English, calling Mohammed from the car he explained it fully to him. Phew!! Once on the ferry we got out of the car and David took some photos, innocent enough you would think but no…………on embarking the other side we hadn’t driven more than 40 feet when our car was surrounded by armed Military soldiers and police vehicles, David was ordered out, apparently he was accused of being a spy because he had taken several photos on the Mobarack bridge, in front of them he had to delete all the photos containing this. I have since found out for what we were both accused of holds a prison sentence and quite possibly a death sentence!! It just goes to show you how something so innocent could have ended in tragedy.
Arriving in Cairo we spent 2 days there until our flight home, in the 3 weeks we had spent in Gaza so much had altered in Cairo, there was a curfew in place that being nobody was allowed on the streets between the hours of 11.00pm until 6.00am, the only traffic allowed were the Egyptian tanks which patrolled the streets. Again since my return I have learnt that a journalist was caught out after curfew and imprisoned, unfortunately he has since died while there.
The morning came for us to leave and catch our early flight home, but because of the curfew and with the best will in the world there was absolutely no way we could or would arrive 2 hours before check in, the main road to the airport contained several armed Military road blocks and check points, consequently we missed our flight (the only one of the day operated by BA) resulting in an extra payment to fly home with another airline that evening.
The whole experience and adventure of my visit will remain with me forever; I have so many wonderful memories to reminisce on especially the over-whelming hospitality shown to us by the Palestinian people. All they want is their own country back, free from dictatorship and the freedom to come and go as they please without the terrible humiliation given to them, to live a normal life without the fear of being attacked or bombed at any time.
Marion Chilver, secretary for the “Friends of Gaza”