The ambassador of joy

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While Bangui was full of armed rebels, Tatiana rescued girls and young women who had nowhere else to go. © Conciliation Resources

I remember hearing Tatiana before I first saw her: a great peal of dirty laughter erupting from inside her office, as she threw the door open and stood, beaming, before us. It was spring 2014. I had just taken up a post in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). A new colleague had insisted I meet Tatiana, so we had swung by her office.

As we kissed each other in greeting, she started to laugh again. It was infectious. Tatiana Vivienne (Tati to her friends) is a Central African force of nature who runs her own NGO, Femmes Action Plus, in Bangui, where she lives close to her extended family. Her organization is known for supporting some of the most traumatized communities in CAR. ‘We are the voice for the voiceless,’ she says to me with fierce pride. ‘I am telling you, my sister, we work down at the roots: we support those most vulnerable communities who are ignored and neglected.’

Despite armed robberies, being forced to close down her office and chronic shortage of funds, Tati has never stopped speaking out. Throughout the last three years, when Bangui’s streets were filled with armed rebels, she took in girls and young women who had nowhere safe to go. She works in some of the most exposed corners of Central Africa with forgotten communities who have endured appalling violations, including kidnapping, slavery and being forced to kill others.

Learning from setbacks

Tati had grown from being a devoted student to a full-time carer, before emerging as a humanitarian (and war crimes) activist. ‘I have lived several different lives already,’ says Tati, now in her mid-thirties. ‘When I was growing up on the edge of this city we were ten children – four girls and six boys. But I was very lucky, I am telling you. My father believed in education, so we were all educated.’

When she was about five her father secured a new job. The family left Bangui for Baboua in northwest CAR, where Tati studied at the local Catholic school. In rural CAR, literacy rates for girls are as low as 22 per cent. But Tati and her siblings thrived.

'I decided I must stand up for those who have no-one supporting them'

This was the late 1980s, a relatively peaceful era. Tati’s family thrived at home too, until their mother became suddenly and increasingly ill. ‘She fell very sad, then depressed.’ Aged just 11, Tati began to spend periods away from school, looking after her. ‘But I learnt from this, too. I learnt to manage complex projects, personal and professional ones.’

Despite time out of school, she passed her baccalaureate. Her mother regained health and Tati left CAR in 1999, to study first in Ghana, then Nigeria.

Standing up, standing firm

She would have stayed on in West Africa but a visit home in 2009 changed everything. Tati’s family were now back in Bangui. ‘My older brother had a terrible accident and my father fell ill. I lost them both within three months. It was terrible for us all – can you imagine the effect on my mother? I couldn’t leave her. I decided I was going to stay in Central Africa: so I must do something for my country – stand up for those who have no-one supporting them.’

The political landscape had changed, too: in 2003 President François Bozizé had seized power in a military coup, leaving CAR wracked with violence and fear. Political opponents were arrested or assassinated, and communities outside Bangui abandoned to fend for themselves. Most NGOs confined themselves to the safest areas: international organizations barely worked in CAR because donors weren’t interested in this obscure, violent country ruled by a vicious dictator. Tatiana started volunteering with a local NGO, JUPEDEC, one of the few supporting vulnerable communities.

In 2010, she travelled to Obo in the Haute Mbomou province of remote south-eastern CAR, to meet women and children who had been targeted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Inspired by their messianic leader, Joseph Kony, LRA fighters have kidnapped at least 38,000 women, men and especially children across the region, leaving a whole generation traumatized. Villages across Haute Mbomou emptied as people fled to Obo for refuge.

‘Women who had escaped from the LRA have suffered things you hardly bear to believe. Some have witnessed their own husbands being killed and eaten by LRA men.’ Children in LRA captivity have been horribly brutalized, through rape, slavery, or being forced to kill other children. ‘I met girls of twelve with two children because of rape. Even if they escape, their communities often reject them – saying they are contaminated by the LRA. No-one fights for them.’

'I've spent so much time with these communities not blaming them, but understanding'

In 2011 she set up Femmes Action Plus, with just two volunteers and the support of a British peacebuilding organization (Conciliation Resources). Travelling to Haute Mbomou on a regular basis, she supported communities through training, advocacy and reintegration initiatives. ‘I remember a community meeting in Obo where a woman with five children, who had been rejected by her husband and community, was accepted back,’ she tells me, her eyes shining with pride. ‘I’ve spent so much time with these communities – not blaming them, but understanding. And now I see more people being integrated.’

LRA attacks on villages in Haute Mbomou have reduced as Kony is now frail, possibly even dead, though LRA fighters still terrorize local populations. Thousands of internally displaced people are still camped in makeshift homes in and around Obo. This is an unpopular cause, a lifetime’s work with little or no recognition: and Tatiana has never wavered. I’ve seen her render heads of international organizations speechless, even tearful, by testifying in explicit detail how survivors have struggled, even occasionally returning to the LRA, because the continued rejection by their community was unbearable.

Tati works with communities in Bangui, too. She has set up education programmes for some of the most excluded women and children, especially those who were targeted by Seleka rebels in 2014, and then the anti-Balaka (who fought Seleka for control of CAR).

Her house has been burgled by armed robbers three times, and in 2015 she was forced to close her Bangui office, for fear it would be ransacked and she would lose everything she had worked for. Bangui is still wracked by cycles of violence and Tati does not feel safe enough to return to her family home in central Bangui. She lives in a discreet corner of the city.

Amid the great challenges, there have been moments of recognition. Her work with LRA victims led to her being invited to The Hague for training on documenting war crimes. She is breaking new ground in CAR in supporting international cases against senior LRA commanders. And her NGO is now Femmes Hommes Action Plus, because as she says, ‘We need our brothers to walk alongside us.’

I once asked if anyone had ever suggested she stop for her own good. ‘My family tell me to take a rest because they see I am very tired: but I ask who will do this work if I go? We have to support our own people, n’est-ce pas?’

I left CAR last year, and Tati and I keep in touch. During a recent phone call she says that funding for her work is still a great struggle. But she has wonderful news too, of a very different kind.

‘I’m getting married!’ she squeaks with excitement. Her new husband is a Central African human rights lawyer – and a presidential candidate.

‘Can you imagine – I could even become the First Lady?’ Her dirty laugh booms down the crackly phone.

Louisa Waugh is a writer and human rights advocate who works for an international peacebuilding NGO in Mali. She loves late-night dancing, and blogs at the-waugh-zone.org

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How not to build peace: what's been missing from the UN process

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Standing to attention – but how attentive to locals’ needs are UN peacekeepers? © Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

The last time I met Sultan Ibrahim Senoussi, he was at home in the town of N’délé, sitting beneath his favourite tree, holding court from his armchair. Waiting my turn to speak, I noticed a book on his lap and surreptitiously read the title upside-down.

After we exchanged greetings, I asked why he was learning English. ‘Because of the peacekeepers!’ The sultan waved his book. ‘Those Pakistanis don’t speak French. If they can’t talk to us, we must learn to talk to them!’

In the Central African Republic, traditional leaders wield both political and moral authority. As a sultan, Ibrahim Senoussi oversees local administration, including humanitarian works, so is familiar with the UN peacekeepers, whom Central Africans call casques bleus (blue helmets). The Pakistanis in N’délé are part of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission to the Central African Republic (or MINUSCA), launched in September 2014.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York currently oversees 16 international peacekeeping missions. MINUSCA is the most recent; the oldest is the Jerusalem-based UN Truce Supervision Organization, established in 1948 to monitor ceasefires. These missions now employ over 120,000 personnel from 123 countries. Last year’s budget was $8.27 billion. This represents less than half of one per cent of annual global military expenditure – but in a world of increasingly interlinked conflicts within and between nation-states, is this UN model still relevant?

A tricky beast

Jonathan Cohen, Director of Conciliation Resources, a British NGO working with conflict-affected communities across Africa, South Asia and the Caucasus, has his doubts.

‘UN peace[keeping] operations start with existing solutions, like deploying peacekeepers, rather than the problem that needs addressing, like the unique dynamics of the conflict in question,’ he says. ‘This [approach] makes it hard for them to be tailored or innovative, or to learn from failures or mistakes.’

UN peacekeeping has traditionally been a one-size-fits-all agenda of armed men in blue helmets patrolling conflict zones. What has been missing is a parallel process to build peace from the bottom up, working alongside local communities to resolve conflicts without further bloody violence.

Rebuilding trust between shattered communities involves months, sometimes years, of low-key initiatives

Peacebuilding, though, is a tricky beast. It is difficult to quantify project outcomes for donors, as rebuilding trust between shattered communities involves months, sometimes years, of low-key initiatives. The UN is making efforts to address this. Ten years ago, it established a Peacebuilding Architecture to ‘help countries build sustainable peace and prevent relapse into violent conflict’. This grand-sounding initiative includes a Commission supporting political peace processes, a technical Support Office and a Peacebuilding Fund.

Bautista Logioco works at the Peacebuilding Fund, also in New York. ‘We are moving away from a narrow concept of peacebuilding,’ he says. ‘This is an important departure point. We [now] have to think of peacebuilding in stages, including [national] ownership of processes, political will and commitment.’ Emphasizing that the Fund provides money but does not actually implement projects, he talks up its successes in the Central African Republic. In 2014, for example, civil servants were denied salaries due to lack of government money. The Peacebuilding Fund stepped in, paying police and gendarme salaries for five months. This ‘contributed to prevent destabilization at a very fragile moment,’ says Logioco.

The UN also supports community violence-reduction projects, focusing on local initiatives, often in neglected rural areas. The mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has a community stabilization project that has engaged some 9,000 youths in labour-intensive work, focusing on rebuilding infrastructure and trust between communities while also reinvigorating local economies.

In Tajikistan, female community leaders supported by UN Women have established Women’s Watch Groups across rural jamoats (local councils) that are increasing women’s social protection and their access to vital social services. UN funding for initiatives designed and ‘owned’ by local peacebuilders can contribute powerfully to dynamic change by re-establishing opportunities for trust and security across conflict-shattered communities.

Broken accountability

It is therefore a savage irony that even as it funds projects to reduce violence, the UN has been forced to investigate violations by its own peacekeepers. These allegations are not new: cases of abuses of power and impunity have battered the credibility of peacekeeping for years. The Central African Republic has been rocked by hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by peacekeepers since the end of 2013. Investigations into violations by UN peacekeepers in the country are ongoing, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon promising to be ‘unrelenting in facing this scourge’.

But high-level declarations of outrage have been coupled with vicious campaigns against some UN officials who have blown the whistle on abuse. Anders Kompass, a veteran Swedish UN representative, was recently asked to resign after reporting on the sexual abuse allegations against peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Kompass refused to go quietly, publicly declaring with almost heart-breaking brevity, ‘The UN’s accountability system is broken. It simply doesn’t work.’

The majority of peacekeepers are not predators, and do not rape or abuse civilians. Pakistani peacekeepers in N’délé are now supported by military observers who also provide translation services. No allegations of abuse have been reported there. But in other locations the rot is deep.

Controversially, international UN personnel, including peacekeepers, enjoy effective professional diplomatic immunity. In cases of alleged abuse of power while on duty, an individual can only be subject to criminal proceedings in their own nation, rather than the country where abuse is alleged to have happened. The UN is still managed and controlled by wealthy states, while major troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping operations include India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where poverty and human rights abuses, including by the military, are rife. Peacekeepers are usually assigned to cash-poor countries, where small change buys them power over the civilians they are mandated to protect.

The UN General Assembly recently reviewed its Peacebuilding Architecture, ‘welcoming the contribution of [UN] peacekeeping operations to a comprehensive strategy for sustaining peace and… the contributions that peacekeepers and peacekeeping missions make’. But Tatiana Viviane, Director of Femmes Hommes Action Plus – a Central African NGO supporting vulnerable women and children – argues that the UN isn’t rigorous enough in preventing abuse. ‘UN peacekeepers need to be trained in protecting women and children,’ she says, citing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which calls on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls.

With UN member states now registering the highest number of refugees since records began, mainly due to escalations of violent conflict, there has never been greater need for collaboration between peacekeepers and peacebuilders. Ongoing abuses by peacekeepers undermine, and can destroy, efforts to rebuild shattered communities. How is the UN really going to face down this scourge?

At the end of this year, Ban Ki-moon will leave office. The UN General Assembly will appoint a new Secretary-General, who for the first time will probably be female. She will have a choice: to maintain the status quo and tolerate peacekeeper violations of civilians in countries scarred by conflict. Or to lead a new zero-tolerance strategy against abuses by all peacekeepers, demanding the death of impunity and firing up the organization to re-engage with its core principles. Either way, her tenure will have a profound effect on those who need UN protection the most.

Louisa Waugh is a writer who works for international NGOs as a peacebuilder in Africa and the Middle East.

The rise of Hamas

Hamas on the campaign trail in Ramallah in 2009.

Hoheit under a CC Licence

I used to live and work in Gaza, and have very good memories of my time there. I’ve kept up connections with friends and old colleagues, and at the beginning of November I returned to visit them, for the first time in two years.

I entered Gaza via the Rafah Crossing, which straddles the border between southern Gaza and Egypt, and spent two weeks catching up with my friends and revisiting old haunts. It was freakish good luck that I left Gaza the day before Israel assassinated Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabiri, and launched its latest military assault on Gaza.

For eight days and nights, the Israeli military pounded Gaza with some 1,500 air-strikes that were described by one Gaza city resident as ‘heart-stopping explosions’. Gazan friends sent me frightened messages late at night, when the bombing was most intense. One wrote a text saying ‘Thank God we are still alive’. Another messaged, ‘I’m so glad that you left before this started: no-one should have to live through this.’ 167 Gazans did not live through the Israeli military assault, and a thousand others were maimed and injured. The majority of the dead and injured were civilians. The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and there are no civilian bomb shelters.

Losing popularity

When the Egyptian government announced a hudna, or ceasefire, between Israel and Hamas on 22 November, my exhausted friends took to the streets and celebrated with the rest of Gaza. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi took the credit for negotiating the ceasefire (and immediately awarded himself sweeping new powers). US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also in Cairo when the ceasefire was confirmed: having heavily armed the Israeli military, the US then requested they make ‘every effort’ to avoid killing civilians in Gaza – before Clinton played her cameo role as a global peace-broker.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2006, and has, especially in these last two years, become richer, more powerful – and more repressive

But at its press conference, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal crowed that Israel had ‘failed’ to subdue Gaza – and despite the terrible human cost, his words rang true. Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2006, and has, especially in these last two years, become richer, more powerful – and more repressive. The regime is in no mood to be cowed by Israel. Meanwhile, local and international human rights defenders have lambasted Hamas’s human rights record, and the regime has become steadily more unpopular, and more feared, by ordinary people inside Gaza.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

By Trango (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tariq Mukhimer is a Gazan political analyst who has just written a book on the rise of Hamas. I met him during my recent visit, and he explained why he believes Hamas has become so powerful. ‘The Hamas movement has huge co-ordination skills, and has devoted these skills to keeping itself in power, as opposed to developing democracy for the people it rules,’ he told me. ‘In its ideology there is no space for [local] tolerance, or dissent.’ Tariq calls the movement’s ideology’ ‘a policy of self –absolution’. But he also believes that Israel’s closure of Gaza, and Western international sanctions against Hamas, have both failed to protect human rights in Gaza. If these sanctions were lifted, Hamas, in his opinion, could respond well to international political dialogue, as it seeks international legitimacy.

International sanctions have punished only the people of Gaza and done nothing to protect human rights in Gaza, or to weaken the Hamas regime

The Emir of Qatar recently visited Gaza, and pledged $400 million to fund construction projects across the Strip, in defiance of Western sanctions against Hamas. But Qatar is also one of the US’s strongest regional allies, and many Palestinians are cynical, believing this massive cash injection will deepen the divisions between Hamas and its political rival, the Fatah government over on the Palestinian West Bank, which is now politically weak and heavily indebted.

An inconvenient truth

Hamdi Shaqqura is a Program Officer at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza city. He agrees that closure and international sanctions have punished only the people of Gaza, ‘not our political leadership’, and have done nothing to protect human rights in Gaza, or to weaken the Hamas regime. Over the last 12 months Israel has eased its blockade of the Strip, but still massively restricts the entry and export of goods in and out of Gaza. Raw construction materials, for instance, remain banned by Israel, and are brought into the Strip via the infamous network of tunnels that snake beneath the Gaza/Egypt border. The underlying dynamics of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have not changed. Since the brief, devastating war of December 2008, when 1,400 Gazans were killed, Israel and Hamas have observed a series of truces, but these have always ruptured into violence. And as Hamdi Shaqqura points out, ‘the overwhelming majority of people killed in these attacks are always Palestinians’.

The bitter power struggle between Hamas and Fatah is one of the main political obstacles to Palestinian statehood

Just a few days ago, Palestine was admitted to the United Nations as a new non-member observer State. For many Palestinians, this was a symbolic first step on the long road towards independent statehood. The bitter power struggle between Hamas and Fatah is one of the main political obstacles to Palestinian statehood. Having secured its political supremacy in Gaza, Hamas has far less to gain from political reconciliation with Fatah, except on its own terms. The bitter irony for Israel is that, having encouraged the growth of the Hamas movement back in the mid-1980s (because back then, Israel wanted a Palestinian political rival to threaten the rise of Fatah), Hamas is a force that Israel must now, quite literally, reckon with.

Meanwhile, the Western international community must face up to the fact that Hamas may be belligerent, provocative, violent, repressive and so on (the list is long) – but sanctions against the movement have completely failed. The inconvenient truth is that Hamas is not the source of this smouldering conflict, the backbone of many other tensions across the Middle East region. Because Hamas is not occupying Israel.

Louisa Waugh is a regular contributor to New Internationalist and wrote our Gaza blog from June 2008 to April 2009.

Culture shocking

It was a strangely uneventful journey from Gaza to London. At the Erez border crossing my luggage was searched by Israeli police, after which the border guards interviewed me briefly, then made me wait for two hours while they decided whether or not to let me into Israel. Eventually they said they would allow me to enter, but only because I had a flight from Ben Gurion airport to London. By then I was running very late for my flight, and the Palestinian taxi driver who had been patiently waiting for me outside Erez sped towards the airport. ‘They used to let foreigners through [Erez] quite quickly’ he said, overtaking a whole line of cars. ‘But these days they even make it hard for you internationals to get in and out of Gaza.’

At Ben Gurion I answered the same questions about why I went to Gaza and what I did there and who I knew. I hoisted my luggage onto the inspection trestle, had my possessions examined for explosives, and x-rayed, and was then escorted to a private cubicle for a metal detector test to see whether I was carrying explosives on my body. I am used to these tedious questions and invasions of my privacy by now. I know that Israel has genuine concerns about attacks by terrorists, and I also know that for many Israelis anyone who has been to Palestine, especially Gaza, is a de facto potential terrorist. Palestinians from Gaza are not permitted to travel via Ben Gurion airport: they have to drive across the border to Jordan and fly from Amman instead.

‘Have you ever been to Gaza?’ I asked the young Israeli security officer who was escorting me to the metal detector cubicle. She laughed without humour. ‘Why would I go there?’ She said. ‘I don’t want to be killed!’

‘Palestinians think Israelis want to kill them too’ I said. ‘That’s the whole problem.’ We paused just outside the cubicle and looked at each other.

‘We don’t want to kill them’ she replied. ‘But sometimes we have to.’

The fear that Israelis and Palestinians have of each other has, in the almost two years I’ve lived in Palestine, only deepened. Politically it makes me feel cynical, while personally it makes me feel depressed. Both peoples deserve better. I passed the metal detector test, was escorted to the plane, and four hours or so later found myself at Heathrow airport, tired, dazed, and slightly drunk from the free in-flight wine. I stood at arrivals with my suitcase and bags, waiting for Gerry to pick me up, and realized my life in Gaza was suddenly over. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, or both.     

Goodbye Gaza?

Every morning I walk to my office about ten minutes away from my apartment. I’ve grown to love this brief walk through the early morning streets. On the way I stroll beneath trees which are now blossoming, and savour my glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea sparkling as I cross Martyr Street into the alleyway that connects to the street where I work. By now I know many of the local shopkeepers, so my walk is peppered with waves and greetings. Even now, after the hellish last few months of war and death, Gazans are friendly and cheerful, and it is always a good start to my day.

These two weeks I have been walking to walk slowly, memorizing the details of these already familiar streets. My work here in Gaza is coming to an end, and soon I will be catapulted out of the Strip into the world beyond. My Gazan colleagues and friends tell me I’m lucky: I can just drive up to the crossing at Erez, get my passport approved by an Israeli official and walk straight into Israel. I have friends here older than 30 who have never left the Gaza Strip in their lives. When I say I feel quite heartbroken to be leaving Gaza after almost a year and a half, some of them laugh out loud. ‘Put me in your luggage!’ They say. ‘You have no idea how lucky you are!’

But others, like my friend Zekra, understand what I’m going on about. ‘The trouble for you is you need to leave now, but in this situation you don’t know if you will be allowed to come back and see us,’ she says. ‘We are used to being locked inside Gaza, but our situation is very strange for you.’

And she’s absolutely right. Saying goodbye to people in Gaza is awfully poignant because you never know if you will see them again – or if they will be dead before you come back. Entry to the Gaza Strip is controlled by Israel, who can deny anyone a permit without giving a reason. As I said in my last blog about the political crisis crippling Gaza’s healthcare system, it is hard to think of any other place in the world ruled by such cruel absurdities.

This permit regime is one of the most frustrating aspects of living in Gaza. Israel acts with absolute impunity regarding permits, and until I actually came to live here I had no idea what a prison Gaza is. The future does not look promising either: Israel is relentless in its siege of Gaza, and the internal Fatah/Hamas power struggle has fragmented Palestinian resistance, as both sides persecute each other while at the same time claiming to want a Palestinian unity government.

But, despite the odds, there are many compensations for us foreigners who live in this broken strip of land at the edge of the Mediterranean. The wonderful Gaza food, laced with hot pepper, garlic, tomatoes and olive oil; the sunshine that smiles almost every day; and the fierce hospitality of people across the Strip. I have never known such reckless generosity in my life.

There are many things I will miss about living in Gaza, most of all my wonderful friends. But I have personal reasons for having to leave, so I am dismantling my lovely apartment, starting to pack my bags - and telling everyone to come to my goodbye party next week. The least I can do for them is to go out in style. 

Punishing the victims

There is little news coming out of Gaza right now. The war is over and the victims’ stories have been filed. The fickle attention of the world has moved on to the next catastrophe. Life in Gaza goes on of course, but the longer I live here the more I realize that normality does not exist in Gaza: there isn’t enough security for life to have anything more than a fragile semblance of normality. As anyone who has visited the Strip more than once will tell you, the situation inside the world’s largest prison is getting slowly worse.

Last week the Hamas Government took a political decision that will change the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people inside Gaza. The Hamas Ministry of Health launched a take-over of the Department of External Medical Treatment in Gaza City, which processes all referrals for Gazans who need medical treatment outside the Strip. The Department director, Dr Bassem al-Badri, was suspended from his post, and a new Hamas-approved representative appointed.

Dr al-Badri had originally been appointed by the Fatah-led Government in Ramallah, but with the approval of Hamas. His dismissal is already having devastating consequences for people who need urgent medical treatment in the Palestinian West Bank, Israel or a third country. Hamas does not recognize Israel, which in turn regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, and so all referrals for patients to leave Gaza via the Israel-controlled crossing at Erez have now been suspended. The problem for these patients is that there is no other way out of Gaza. The crossing at Rafah, on the Egyptian border, is now also closed, and so they are trapped.

Those who desperately need to escape from Gaza for urgent medical care include people with cancers, and those who sustained horrific injuries during the recent Israeli military offensive. On 16 January, 18-year-old Mona was sheltering with her family in a UN school in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, when the Israeli military shelled the area around the school. The school went up in flames, and Mona’s left leg was blown off in the attack. She now needs a prosthetic, including a new left knee, which is a delicate and complex procedure. She has been hoping to travel to France to receive a new leg and intensive physiotherapy, but is now unable to leave.         

Access to healthcare has been used by all sides as a stick to beat Palestinians, especially those inside Gaza, for years. Israel has frequently obstructed patients’ access to urgent, sometimes life-saving treatment. I have interviewed people facing lifelong illnesses because they had either been denied access to medical treatment outside Gaza by the Israeli authorities, or were slowly dying as they waited for their permits to leave Gaza to be finally approved by Israel. Now that Hamas has taken over the referrals department, these people have no access to medical treatment outside Gaza. Hamas must have known full well that this would be the immediate result of the takeover, but bludgeoned on anyway.

Even before Hamas put the boot in, the Government in Ramallah had recently announced it would no longer pay for Palestinians to be treated in Israeli hospitals. Israel had previously stipulated that the Ramallah Government cover all medical costs, or else Palestinians would lose access to medical treatment in the infinitely better Israeli hospitals.      

It is hard to think of another place in the world where life is ruled by such cruel absurdities. Hamas, Israel and Fatah are all playing with the lives and well-being of these patients, including 57 children from Gaza who need to complete complex, expensive treatments at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Their health is now hanging by a thread. The bombing of Gaza has almost stopped, but the war against the people goes on, from all sides.

Israel is sick


An American friend who has lived in Jerusalem for almost two years tells me she thinks Israel is unnerved by recent testimonies from soldiers who were recently in Gaza.

The Israeli soldiers were graduates of the Oranim College military academy, which has just published the testimonies. They describe attacks on civilians, including what one soldier described as ‘The cold-blooded murder’ of an elderly Palestinian woman, and incidents of soldiers being ordered to trash civilian houses and throw the contents, furniture and all, out of the windows. The academy director, Dany Zamir, told an Israeli radio station that, ‘[The testimonies] conveyed an atmosphere in which one feels entitled to use unrestricted force against Palestinians.’ [see www.pchrgaza.org]

Alongside these disturbing but unsurprising revelations which the Israeli military says it will investigate, is the ugly scandal of T-shirts with vicious slogans being worn by some young Israeli soldiers. According to reports in the Israeli media, and BBC news, one of the T-shirts has the slogan ‘Bet you got Raped!’ over a picture of a bruised woman in a head-scarf. Another shows the picture of a clearly pregnant head-scarved woman with the words, ‘One shot two kills.’ 

The Israeli military was quick to point out that, ‘This type of humour is unbecoming and should be condemned.’ This isn’t very convincing when you consider the graffiti left by Israeli soldiers who recently occupied houses across the northern Gaza Strip: ‘Death will find you … soon’ scrawled on the bedroom wall of Majeda Abu Hajaj, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers as she attempted to lead a group of civilians to safety after they had been ordered out of their homes by the same soldiers. After killing Majeda, and her 64 year old mother, Raya, the soldiers occupied their house and left graffiti in every room.

The rooms of other houses occupied in Gaza were daubed with slogans such as ‘Death to Arabs’, ‘An Arab brave is an Arab in a grave’ and other racist taunts. The graffiti was often accompanied by houses being trashed, or burnt, or even having bags of human shit left for the Palestinian home-owners to clear up, though the toilets were working.

Palestinian civilians bore the overwhelming brunt of the Israeli offensive in Gaza – the Gaza City-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) estimates that 83 per cent of the 1,417 people killed were civilians. These graffiti, and the vandalism alongside them, offer an insight into how Israeli soldiers (or at least some of them) think of Palestinians.

At the same time as these soldiers were speaking out, 100 extreme rightwing Jewish Israelis were causing violent mayhem in the mainly Arab-Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, in northern Israel, by arriving in the city en masse and demanding local residents declare loyalty to the State of Israel. The Israeli High Court gave the Jewish Israelis permission to march on Umm al Fahm, but the local Arab-Israeli residents were told their counter-demonstration was illegal. Violence predictably erupted, and so the distrust and hatred between the two sides deepens even more.  

I think my friend in Jerusalem is overly optimistic: it’s hard to get any perspective on Israel from here in Gaza, especially so soon after the devastating offensive. But mainstream Israeli public opinion seems to be that although the Israeli military offensive in Gaza was clearly brutal and disproportionate, Palestinians got what they deserved. Meanwhile, discrimination against Arab-Israeli citizens of Israel is blatant, systematic and ongoing. There are courageous Israelis who oppose these policies, but they remain a beleaguered minority.

Another friend of mine, Khaled, who is a psychologist in Gaza, tells me he thinks that Israel is a society profoundly ill at ease with itself. It is fragmented and sick, and often blames the Palestinian population (including Arab-Israelis) for being the source of all its complex problems. Israel, he says, needs to heal itself, stop blaming and hating Palestinians, and learn to start seeing them as people with whom it has to forge a relationship. Israel’s hatred of the Palestinians is poisoning its own people.    

Amidst the ruins, the grief

For the last few days the sun has been shining and Gaza has been bright and warm. It makes you feel better, everyone says; more optimistic about the day ahead. But when it comes, the rain in Gaza is ferocious; it lashes down in torrents, soaking the streets, flooding the roads and chilling the bones.

The rain is particularly miserable for people whose homes were destroyed in the recent military offensive, many of whom have nowhere to go except tents or the overcrowded houses of their relatives, some of whom are hosting 30 or 40 people in their homes. At the end of last week I took two British lawyers to Izbat Abed Rabbo in the northern Gaza Strip. As we drove north from Gaza City the sky got darker and cloudier, and then just as we arrived, the rain began to lash down.

Izbat Abed Rabbo lies about one kilometre from the border with Israel. During the recent offensive it was decimated by the Israeli military, who drove their bulldozers over some houses, dynamited others and occupied many more. The soldiers trashed the homes they occupied; tearing the furniture apart, writing obscenities on the walls, shooting bulletholes into the beds, and sometimes even leaving bags of shit for the Palestinians to clear up afterwards. The area is now in ruins.

We left the car and began to walk across the mud, so the lawyers could see the scale of the destruction for themselves. We passed one building, a large two or three storey house that had collapsed into the shape of a large concrete tent after being struck by a projectile. A man was sitting in the dark interior lighting a small fire.

‘Is this your house?’ I asked him.

He nodded. ‘Yes. It was. But the Israelis destroyed it when they invaded us.’ He said his name was Munir Abed Rabbo. We left him there, hunched over his smoky fire amidst the ruins that used to be his home.             

The rain got heavier and we started to look for a shelter. A man beckoned us over to a tent. I recognized him as Khaled Abed Rabbo, whose family is from this area. On 7 January, during their ground invasion of Gaza, the Israeli military ordered Khaled’s family out of their home, and one soldier shot towards them as they were standing in front of their house in broad daylight, holding up white flags. Khaled’s three young daughters, Amal, Souad and Samaa, were shot. Two-year-old Amal and seven-year-old Souad were both killed instantly. Four-year-old Samaa survived, but was critically injured, and is now in hospital in Belgium, apparently unable to walk. Her father is heartbroken. He has not been able to visit Samaa while she’s been receiving treatment in Belgium, because he can’t get out of Gaza.

As the rain beat on the canvas tent walls, Khaled showed the lawyers photos of his three daughters on his mobile phone. The lawyers were lost for words, and afterwards we stood in silence listening to the rain.

‘Do you come here every day?’ I asked Khaled, because I know his house was also destroyed, and the family is now living with relatives nearby.

He nodded. ‘Yes. Where else can I go?’

Izbat Abed Rabbo is haunted by men like Munir and Khaled, who wander amidst the ruins as though trying to salvage something from the lives they used to have before the Israeli military invaded here, and changed their lives forever.    

The Gaza solidarity circus

In the two months since the ceasefire that marked the end of Israel’s bloody offensive, the Gaza Strip has become a popular stop on the international conflict zone circuit. First of all it was the journalists, hordes of them, swiftly followed by lawyers, aid workers and then international delegations traipsing up and down the Strip looking at the aftermath of the destruction.  

These days the city centre cafés are crowded with foreigners who have either come to work on emergency programmes, or else arrive on solidarity visits. This week 60 women and a few men arrived en masse via the Rafah Crossing in southern Gaza. They were from Code Pink, which is based in the US and describes itself as ‘A women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement.’ I met the code pinkers on 8 March, International Women’s Day. They were all having dinner together at a local café, to the bemusement of the Palestinians drinking their coffees and smoking their nargila water pipes.

I asked one of the women why they had come to Gaza. ‘To break the siege!’ she told me cheerfully. I asked her how long they were staying. ‘Three days,’ she said. ‘Most of us are professionals and we have to get back.’ I spoke to her for a few more minutes and then went back to my own table feeling bemused by her responses, and told my friends what she’d said. ‘They just come to watch us for few days, and then they will go back home and tell everyone they have seen Gaza,’ said one of my friends, Mohamed. ‘Welcome to the Gaza zoo!’

Maybe this was a bit mean-spirited: after all the Code Pink website says they came to Gaza at the invitation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which has been working in the Strip for 60 years, and later the same evening another code pinker told me he had camped out at the Rafah border (on the Egytian side) for three weeks in order to negotiate the delegates’ crossing into Gaza.

But Code Pink did not break the siege: they arrived in Gaza through the back door (ie via Rafah instead of the Israeli crossing at Erez) and their visit here will make no difference to Israel’s siege of Gaza, which is going as strong as ever. Gaza needs activists who are prepared to come and sit out the siege inside the Strip and work alongside communities, not international delegations flitting in and out laden with presents for Women’s Day.

While Code Pink were handing out gifts, George Galloway and his Viva Palestina! convoy also arrived in Gaza - also via Rafah - with a hundred trucks (including a fire engine and 25 ambulances) containing aid, which they handed over to the Hamas Government. The Viva Palestina! website was jubilant, announcing that ‘grown men cried’ when the convoy arrived, ‘on the day the Prophet [Muhammad] was born.’

George Galloway also stayed just a couple of days, though a few of his supporters have apparently chosen to stay on a bit longer. Before he left, I heard George speak at a rally at the bottom of my street, where the messianic Viva Palestina! message continued. He reassured the jubilant crowd their arrival marked the beginning of the end of the Israeli siege of Gaza.

The aid he and his supporters gave to Hamas is no doubt welcome - though whether these items will be useful is a different matter - but his arrogance was breathtaking. His delusions of grandeur are so great I doubt he noticed that almost the entire crowd consisted of male Hamas police officers with guns, flanked by a posse of local male journalists. Ordinary civilians, especially women, stayed away, presumably because they recognize overt self-serving political propaganda when they see it.

Slipping into something more comfortable

‘We come here to rest,’ says Mara, combing olive oil through her long wet hair. ‘Here we can just take our time, relax and forget about the troubles outside.’ We are sitting with a crowd of half-naked Palestinian women in the steamy wet heat of Hamam al-Samra, Gaza City’s sole Turkish bath-house. The al-Samra is an ancient treasure, with thick walls, narrow subterranean corridors and a huge steam chamber heated by exposed hot water pipes. It is lit by beautiful old lamps, and tiny circular skylights that filter strobes of silvery sunshine across the walls as we scrub ourselves, and then doze in the heat like cats.           

Abu Ibrahim, who has managed the Hamam al-Samra for eons, swears it is almost one thousand years old. ‘This is one of seven ancient hamams in the Middle East,’ he told me as I paid my entry fee. His luxurious silvery moustache twitched as he talked. ‘UNESCO want to conserve this as a special site, but you know how the situation is here.’ 

So, instead of being done up and renovated, the al-Samra remains old and crooked and beautiful, as only ancient buildings can be. The sinks where we wash ourselves were carved out of rock and have slowly eroded into deep bowls of smooth hot stone. The doorways are graceful archways, and the large steam chamber has a couple of smaller inner chambers where you can remove all your clothes and feel the heat across your entire skin. The al-Samra is a popular indulgence for groups of men and women, who bathe (separately of course) in the pleasure of a sanctuary where they can slip into something more comfortable, and leave the realities of Gaza behind.

Inside the main steam chamber, the women are scrubbing themselves with home-made potions, rubbing slices of fresh lemon across their cheeks and massaging olive oil into their hair. They are lawyers, students, mothers and grandmothers. One of them begins to talk about the ‘war in Gaza’ but the others immediately tell her to shush. ‘The war and politics do not belong inside here,’ says Mara. ‘We want to enjoy our time.’    

Gaza has more than its share of misery, grief, poverty, violence and hopelessness, but for once let’s not go there. Gaza is also beautiful, precious and at moments incredibly sensual. I emerged from the Hamam al-Samra with skin like a baby and a smile like a woman who has just returned from a week-long romantic holiday – and I was there for just two hours.  

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