It turns out I’ve been wrong when I’ve described the journey I took today as ‘crossing into Gaza’. You don’t ‘enter’ Gaza but exit Israel. You exit through what is essentially a departure terminal, much like that at any international airport. It’s big, it’s a permanent structure. You walk down a kilometre long cage-tunnel through which you can see the wall, much like the separation barrier in the West Bank, with towers every 500m. It reminds me of the photos I’ve seen of Berlin when it was halved, the boundaries of concentration camps.
We are met by our host’s driver and are escorted into a suburb to meet our first partner – the Near East Council of Churches who run Well Baby clinics. I am not going to tell the stories of our partners and the beneficiaries in these blogs. It would be a bit counterproductive as I’m here to gather those stories for Embrace so I can’t give them away. There is hope in the stories I’ve heard and whatever the opposite of hope is, I’ve seen that too. Despair doesn’t go far enough. But again, people want their stories told.
Tonight I’m going to list my observations as that’s about all I can manage. Processing it, the stories I’ve heard, the tears I’ve seen, the laughing I’ve done – that’ll take a long time.
Gaza is everything I thought it would be and many times better and many times worse.
This is a war zone. Buildings are destroyed, whole neighbourhoods gone. I don’t think I’ve seen one building that isn’t damaged or pock marked by bullet and shrapnel holes; rebuilding is barely happening.
The infrastructure is barely existent; it’s been torrential rain overnight and this morning – the roads, which are more holes than tarmac, are flooded. Manhole covers are up. I watch a shopkeeper use a broom to keep the waters back.
There’s streets and streets of car breakers and parts shops, oil flowing out onto the pavement and into the ground. There’s a VW garage that looks clean. I am told people use credit to keep their cars running.
There are no traffic lights because of power restrictions and damaged distribution networks so traffic that would be unruly and scary even with control is just a free for all. One lone man in a high vis jacket puts his life on the line directing traffic.
I’m told the power is only on 8 hours a day. Actually they call it ‘hours minus two’ because ‘whatever the Israelis say you’re going to get, you get two less’. [ETA – I was just reading this as I edited my post and the power went off….]
Horses pulling carts are almost as numerous as cars.
Much like across the West Bank, smells envelop me and will define this place whenever I smell them again. Ancient engines, animal faeces, rotting rubbish, oil, citrus fruit, shisha, spices, sweat, sea air. One of the family homes I visited today smelled like a farmyard.
The air is thick with dust even with the high winds. Dust lies thick on the car when we’ve only been away an hour. I wonder what this does to everyone breathing it in and getting it on their skin.
We can’t drink the water. No one does. It’s not like in the West Bank where Palestinians can collect rainwater in the wetter season, because they each have a roof, or less families share buildings so it is easier. The hills in the West Bank mean they can collect the water through gravity systems. Gaza is flat. They can’t dig wells, they can’t run it off of high ground. No rivers enter Gaza. Polluted ones leave and only run in the wet season.
Some people have filters on their taps, some buy water. Many kids have yellow teeth from fluoride poisoning – too much is put in the water before it gets pumped into the Strait.
Solar power which would seem a sensible solution and could release a lot of the burdens created by the power outages but it is too expensive even for the most affluent (comparitively) residents. I’m told the battery cells that are needed to store the energy are often broken, even when bought ‘new’.
There are children falling up to their waists in the storming sea as they scour the shore for coins.
A small child, maybe 4 years old, with Downs Syndrome, sits on the pavement playing with some polystyrene.
Three teenage boys, one who looks like my nephew, wave at us in the van from a shell of a building. I lift my camera and they cover their faces and run away giggling.
No signs are in English until you get to the city centre. There’s grafitti everywhere. There are fruit stalls, men push carts around trying to sell biscuits. I see a man pushing a cart full of fresh tomatoes. I wonder if he’ll be able to sell them before they go off.
There are kids everywhere. I mean everywhere. Toddlers to teenagers, walking along barefoot on their own and in groups. They sling their arms round each other’s shoulders. One little boy gives me a high five.
Kids are playing football on some grass that has sprung up where a building has fallen down (been destroyed?)
There’s a tanker driving around delivering desalinated water, I’m told it’s very salty and not good to drink.
‘Welcome’ is the word I’ve heard most often today.
A mother showed me her baby’s re-useable nappy which I think might once have been white but it now blue and grey. She asked me for pampers.
A man from one of our partners shows me photos of his kids and then of damage to his house. He flicks onto Facebook on his phone and between the ‘family’ and ‘Christmas’ albums he has three others labelled War 2009, War 2012, War 2014. It brings tears to my eyes but I don’t let him see.
Horns are constantly blaring – they’re used to communicate anything you could possibly wish to communicate when behind the wheel – ‘I’m here’, ‘get out of the way’ ‘I’m coming through’ ‘hurry up’. We return to our hosts car this evening to be driven to the hotel and he’s blocked in, cars overlapping him two deep.
I was given strawberries and fresh orange juice on arrival at my hotel. A man carried my bags to my room.
I ate the most incredible locally caught fish twice today. Both times I was told it would have been even better had it been caught yesterday not 2 days ago but there’s a storm raging and even so, the best fish are past the 3 mile line which is as far out as the fisherman can go – if they go further they’re in ‘Israeli waters’ and put themselves in danger of being shot.
One of my new friends here told me that his family is split over 3 countries. He hasn’t been in the same place as his wife and 4 children, at the same time, in 6 years.
I visited a home today where 20 people were living in 3 rooms.
I met a boy with arthritis who sleeps on a mattress thinner than my duvet at home, on a concrete floor.
There are posters everywhere of martyrs and victims of the wars. Posters of men and posters of children.
Arafat still features strongly.
The kids I got to play with and take photos of loved seeing their image on the view screen. Of the three homes I visited, none had a mirror.