A life looking for safety
Karl Schembri - 09/08/2010
Sipping a coffee while taking a puff from his cigarette, 24-year-old Ahmed Hamad remembers the exact dates and time when some of the people closest to him were killed by Israeli attacks.
“I have lost many friends and relatives,” he says. “I saw two of my cousins getting killed on 7 October 2004, at 6am. They were my closest relatives.”
The young man, one of seven siblings from Beit Hanoun – a farming village in the north of Gaza bordering with Israel – speaks with a heavy heart. The losses he has sustained, the scenes he has seen and the plans he saw going up in smoke leave him expecting nothing from the future. Even the little hideouts and special places meant to escape from the violence and destruction have come to mean death and tragedy for Ahmed.
His cousins’ death is a case in point. They were walking towards his father’s farm to collect olives – something which Ahmed always looks forward to given his love of the land and the traditional Palestinian produce. As they were walking, his cousins were hit by an unmanned Israeli drone, with the bomb cutting off their legs.
“They spent a night in hospital in agonising pain, and they both died the day after,” he says. “I had many other friends and relatives who were killed in Israeli attacks, and every time it happens you feel someone close to you has been robbed away from your life, someone you care for.”
In what he describes as the worst episode of his life, Ahmed found out how even the most sacred of places for him and his friends were totally vulnerable to the mighty Israeli military.
“Things got so much more complicated after the internal fighting (between Hamas and Fatah in 2007). We used to have one source of suffering, from the Israelis, but now it’s two. For me, our internal fighting is killing us more than the Israelis. When we were united, every time there was a war we were all together. The ones fighting are doing the job of the Israelis and they’re doing the same as the occupiers.”
After the chaos and hatred that reigned in the 2007 coup, where Palestinians were killing each other in the streets, Ahmed and his friends thought it was even more important for them to find a place where they could escape from it all.
“In 2008, things were getting a bit complicated so it was important for us to find a place where we could get away from all that. This internal conflict destroyed all the community relations and separated people. Many people hated each other, many relatives became enemies. You can see it in the street. Whenever a member of a party gets killed, only members of that party go to the funeral. It never used to happen before. Before, even people from different cities used to attend the funeral of a martyr; he would be a national symbol. Now it’s all factional divisions.
“So my friends and I used to go to a field to the east of our village. It was beautiful in spring, something to help us escape from all the fighting, just watching the fields and hanging around. We almost went daily to this field. Three of my friends rented a farm and planted onions. So we were doing something, getting some money, and had a place for us to have fun. None of my friends belonged to resistance groups – they’re all civilians, students or workers, some with the Palestinian Authority. That’s why I was never worried about going there with them. It was a very high place, so it’s visible from everywhere. There was an Israeli watch tower nearby. There’s nowhere to hide.
“We had a small room, which we always kept with the windows open and never sat inside. We used to make tea and barbeques in the field, everything instead of just walking down the street watching people fighting and killing each other.
“On 23 February 2008, I woke up and was preparing to go out. It was around 1pm. I’m not used to telling my father where I’m going, I’m very independent. On that day I told him. I was going to a friend of mine whose grandmother had died.
“On the way I met a friend, Mohammed. He was holding a paper in his hand and he was all full of enthusiasm and smiling. He told me ‘Hey what do you think about this idea to collect half a million signatures saying Fatah and Hamas should end the fighting and get back together... would you sign it?’ I said sure, I will be the first one to sign it. I told him Mohammed and Ibrahim were coming to the farm, so I would get my nargile and join them later after visiting my friend’s house.
“After about 30 minutes they started calling me saying they’re waiting for me... My friend whose grandmother had died kept asking me to stay but my friends called me again to tell me to take cards with me, so I went to pick them up from another friend. I was already late, so upon collecting the cards I went running towards the field and someone stopped me in the street. I felt like there was a conspiracy in which everyone was holding me back from going to our field. As I was around 20 metres away from my friends, something terrible happened which I couldn’t grasp at first. I was completely shocked. An Israeli rocket landed between three of my friends. I could see the smoke and hear a big explosion. I froze, not knowing what to do. Then I found myself running frantically around the farm looking for my friends. The bomb had landed in the midst of them, blowing them to pieces. They had no chance of surviving. I couldn’t even identify them, the three of them mutilated to pieces. I could recognise their clothes. It was a horrible moment. There was nobody else around. I was crying, shouting, running. I called an ambulance but they couldn’t understand what I was saying.
“I collected whatever I could ... shoes, nargile ... trying to keep something in their memory. Israelis had said there were three resistance guys in the area before us. They can see everything, they have spy drones everywhere... they know us and they see us every day. They knew we always went there.”`
It is impossible to paraphrase Ahmed’s account and do it justice. Even for himself, he confesses that he never finds the words to say how he feels, although his sullen voice and the dim look in his eyes say it all.
“The three of them were very quiet, respectable people. One aged 20 studying English at University, another was a bank clerk aged 25, and Ibrahim, 20, was working with the PA. We felt like special people together, as if we were the only people in Beit Hanoun who had our way to do what we wanted, despite all that was going around. But unfortunately they stopped us. Since that day I have lost a big part of me.
“Getting away and doing what we wanted was winning the challenge. Now I don’t do that anymore. I have never been to the field again. Nor do I go to the sea. I don’t go alone on the roof any more. I lock myself in the room. I was someone and now I am someone else. Even though I try and feel strong, part of me has died. Whenever you plan something things go differently.”
The feeling that nothing can be planned in Gaza is indeed pervasive among all the residents. It is not just the military attacks and death which reinforce it, but an everyday blockade and decades-old occupation that make planning impossible.
“There is this feeling that whenever you plan to do something, there is someone out there whom you don’t know, making decisions for you and deciding how your life is going to be,” Ahmed explains. “You want to travel and go outside, like all the other people in the world, but you find the border is closed. Who is that person who is locking us in here?”
His mother a teacher and his dad a farmer, Ahmed’s family has seen their farm destroyed three times, forcing his father to give up growing olive trees which take many years to mature.
“The last time our farm was targeted, they destroyed the water well generator, and our trees now lie dying as we can’t irrigate them. We can only watch them die.”
Living in a narrow strip where there are no cinemas, nightclubs and very few places to spend their leisure time clearly leaves its mark on Gaza’s youth. Entire generations living through the Intifadas and the daily suffering have “forgotten about their dreams”, Ahmed says. “They started just looking at life from a very small window”.
“Unlike other people around the world looking at life from different angles, life here became just the time which you spend looking for safety. This is how life became in Gaza, and this has a tremendous negative effect. Every time you want to do something for yourself, spend some time somewhere, your friends and family who care about you stop you for your safety. They will tell you not to go, one day it will get better and you’ll be able to go. And that day never comes. At the same time there are no places to go to, you can walk down the street and maybe get killed while you’re walking. Most of the sports facilities which I used to frequent have been destroyed. Everyone goes to the sea, and even there have been many attacks. And if you find something, it will not last for long.”
Part of the result of the closure is the West Bank and Gaza drifting further away, as if they were totally different countries and different people, strengthening the political divisions and killing the idea of one Palestinian nation.
“The new wall they’re building (in Egypt) is just a continuation of the Israeli wall,” Ahmed says. “It was never intended to stop the tunnels. There are a million ways to stop the tunnels. What will happen, and I’m sure of this, is that Hamas will stay for much longer. They are isolating us completely and in the process making Hamas stay for much longer. Gaza and the West Bank will never be back together. They are drifting away like two different countries – and that’s exactly what Israel wants.
“In the times of Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat) we used to negotiate about Jerusalem and refugees and our main issues. Since he was killed, what are we negotiating about nowadays? Gas, petrol, electricity, cement, border crossings. Every couple of months we get one of these issues to negotiate, to make us forget about all the big things.”
Even on a personal level, one ends up forgetting about “all the big things” and live for the day. Although he graduated in computer science at Al Azhar University a year ago, Ahmed has no opportunities in his line, and even studying IT was not exactly what he wanted to do.
“My dream was to study in the US, a degree in business or journalism. Studying IT here was like an escape for me. I just wanted a first degree so then I could do whatever I wanted for a Master’s degree. Compared with other countries, there is nothing you can do in IT in Gaza. Most of my colleagues who graduated with me ended up opening an internet coffee shop or selling and repairing computers.”
Completing the course under occupation was a struggle in itself. He started it at the height of the Intifada in 2003, and it took him six years to finish.
“Living in Beit Hanoun I was in the middle of the conflict, it was like weekly attacks, losing friends and relatives, and many times I had to skip classes and exams. My graduation was postponed by a year and a half.”
Now unable to find a job, Ahmed has been very active working with NGOs, learning while looking for opportunities.
“For three months I was going to most of the NGOs in Gaza, working as a volunteer in many areas, working with kids, building tents for people who had their houses destroyed after the war, doing workshops for young people, and at the end I got this job with an international NGO. It was a two-month project, distributing hygiene and kitchen kits, fresh food parcels, and building tents for people in need. At the moment I’m not getting any income, just waiting for funding for the programme to resume.”
For Ahmed, staying idly at home is not an option.
“I get crazy, ending up fighting with everyone and full of frustration. I find it very undignified to go to my parents asking for money, at 24 years of age. So the best thing is to go and find a job, whatever it is.
My only dream in life is to do an MA in the US. It’s not just because I want to get out of Gaza. I’m fine, I’m surviving here. Compared with many other people and what I have witnessed in the Intifada, I’m doing well. But I want to go for an MA, and I’ve started applying. I want to do an MA and come back in Gaza, maybe an MBA would be the best for me, although I am also interested in studying journalism or international relations. But I definitely want to come back and do a lot of things for my parents and for my country. My parents have been very supportive with me and I want to give them something back.”
In the meantime, Ahmed finds himself at his best when dancing Dabka, the traditional Palestinian dance, which is for him both a source of resistance and a means to fly away.
“It’s my most favourite thing in my life, it’s the only thing that makes me fly. I can forget about everything and just dance.
“It’s our culture, and in my village of Beit Hanoun everybody dances Dabka, so we start dancing it from when we’re little kids. It started being a very important thing in my life after I went to high school. There was a society called Holom, which means dream. It was a summer school and there were many activities to choose from, and I chose Dabka as my preference. I was improving and learning more about it, and that’s when I decided to keep going.
“I joined other societies and I became one of the trainers, and we had lots of opportunities to dance abroad, but because of the border closure it didn’t happen. Sometimes I would spend like three hours a day dancing and training others and taking part in competitions. I’m very famous for Dabka in my village. The thing about Dabka is that, at the beginning, it gives you a feeling that you’re fighting. You’re preserving your culture, something that your great-grandparents started first many years ago. It’s a way of keeping that culture surviving and go on. So when I train others it’s a way to make sure it will never disappear.
“At the same time it was like something that makes me forget everything. I had many sad events in my life, but when I hear the music it’s like flying, and it gets better every time. This is a very special thing in my life, and it will be forever. One of the things I’m thinking of doing when I go to the US is to open a place for teaching Dabka, for Arabs, for foreigners, for everyone. And one day it will be the biggest Dabka school in the US, insha’ allah.”
Despite all that he has been through, Ahmed remains a fighter who does not give up. He knows that only he can somehow improve his own position, even if it means struggling against the grain and keeping the glimmer of hope from fading away.
“I don’t give up, I never give up. Every time I found a closed door I go looking for another one. I’m not going to spend my whole lifetime in my room. Nobody is going to care about me because everyone has his own suffering and his own pain, and everyone believes his pain is the worst.
“If I get married and stay here I will not be ready ... I don’t even have a stable job now, so how the hell am I supposed to lead a family? I still have a lot to learn and study and so many places to visit abroad.”