Give me Liberty or give me Death (2010-2014)
This is a testament of those, uprooted by war, already refugees, who were forced to ultimately equal Death with Liberty.
Somewhere in the waters of Mediterranean Sea, a mixture of paralyzed politics, greed, fear and apathy, a deadly vortex is formed and has already swallowed lives of more than 1500 refugees fleeing their homelands in this year. All of them risked death only to reach life in Europe. One of the first refugees who began this deadly stampede, were the ones who fled post-war Gaza in September 2014.
If there existed a compilation of record-breaking human suffering, let’s say a Guinness book of sheer human misery, a 360 square kilometers territory of Gaza, home to some 1.8 million people would provide an above average amount of horrifying examples. Children in Gaza who are older than seven years, have experienced three wars; each of them has slowly sculptured a monument to death. Most recent war in year 2014, lasted for 51 days and has tremendously changed life for Palestinians in Gaza strip as no war has before. It is not only on the ground, where Palestinians now struggle for freedom, now their choking can be heard from waves of the Mediterranean Sea, before it’s seabed becomes their grave . After some thousands (exact number is not known) of refugees fled post-war Gaza strip, numerous families await in agony for any kind of news regarding their loved ones.
Less than two kilometers from the wall that separates Gaza from Israel, lies a town called Beit Hanoun. Footsteps through it’s desolated neighborhoods are slow and heavy. Rubble and stone, ruins of what were once homes, shamelessly spread over horizon. Iron rods pierce rubble of collapsed houses resemble to a torn canvas, on which pastel colors of settings sun are harmonized together. During war in 2014, this town, home to about 45,000 residents, was one of the targets of intensive aerial bombardments by Israeli Army. Airstrikes left behind 70% of homes destroyed and uninhabitable. Silhouettes of improvised tents draw up in a distance as blankets are spread over few poles, fixed in unstable soil. In front of one tent lays a man, a chain leads from his ankle to a wooden bench. “Don’t wake him up”, warns older woman coming from the tent. “Sa’d is my son, he’s asleep and let him sleep. When he is awake he is suffers.” She introduces herself as his mother. “Sa’d is mentally disturbed, but until the war, we didn’t have to chain him like he would be an animal! That ruins you see if you turn around, were our house once. Now we don’t have a home. Before the war, Sa’d was kept in his room, but what is left for us to do here? We live in this tent, about a kilometer from border with Israel. We cannot let Sa’d to roam freely, as he could get shot by snipers. He is chained here for his own safety! I don’t even want to tell you anything more, even if you will publish our story, nothing will change for us”. As she would lose thousands of battles each day, she stooped and angrily moved back into the tent.
Palestinians, living in areas which were nearly erased, such as Sujaia, Beit Hanoun, Abassan, left their homes during the war and took shelter in other, not much safer districts throughout Gaza. When war ended, they found more than 30,000 homes destroyed and more than 100,000 partially damaged. As quarter of Palestinians is left homeless they are more and more frustrated, tired and angry. All of those sparks, which could ignite a better tomorrow for them, were extinguished by impotent political solutions. The feeling of despair is omnipotent. As one student of University of Gaza noted: “We’ve been under blockade for eight years and had three major wars in the last six. We can’t take it anymore. I mean, we are human.”
All of this is just a small fragment of mosaic of catastrophe that forces people into exodus. No one knows exact number, between 4000 and 10,000 people fled Gaza through some of the remaining tunnels.
If there would exist a list of missing people, two sons of Ms. Fatima Asfour from Khan Younis would be included on it. With hands full of motherly love and heart full of agony, she clenched photos of her two lost sons; Ahmed (25) and Ramez (26). “Ramez was an artist, but his work was not fruitful. I tried to help him by organizing exhibitions, but no one cared for it. He lost all anticipations. Ahmed got wounded during Cast Lead offensive but couldn’t get appropriate treatment here. They both had Europe on their minds.” Last time she spoke with them was on 6th of September. “They call my sons and others illegal immigrants but they never ask what pushed them into fleeing. We in Gaza live under illegal occupation, this entire situation is a crime against humanity!”, she was angered. A soft and warm sunlight shines through a window of once beautiful house, revealing the reasons for their escape. In a middle of the damaged room, next to a broken table lies a canvas with unfinished painting on it. Ramez’ auto portrait. Like his life out of Gaza, it is left unfinished.
While relatives of immigrants wait in uncertainty for news about their loved ones, waiting is over for others. Ahmed Metleq’s brother Yasser (23) was lost as the ship sank off the coast of Malta. One of the few survivors contacted him and explained what happened. The new flow of thousands of refugees evidently stirred up predatory appetites of competing criminal gangs. Competing means fighting. “There was already a shootout in the (Egyptian) port of Marsa Matruh and people were caught in the crossfire,” explained Ahmed. “But the final tragedy happened on the sea when traffickers wanted to move people to another ship. People, suspecting a scam, refused to leave the ship. Dispute erupted between the two groups of traffickers and was followed by a shootout. The crew of the second ship decided to sink the migrants’ ship and started ramming it. After the fourth try they succeeded and the ship carrying some 500 people including 70 whole families was doomed.” Yasser was a graduate student of radiology.
Dreadful news of disappearing and mass drownings made a lot of people wary of attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Some turned back to Gaza, among them Yahya Abu Sabha (31). He didn’t make it. “We, his whole family, convinced him to come back home. He entered Egypt through the tunnel so this was the only way for him to return,” explained his brothers Yusuf and Mohammed from Khan Yunis. “He left Alexandria in the mid-September, right at the time when terrorists killed six policemen in northern Sinai. Army was everywhere and he was very afraid. In his last call he said he is wounded and is hiding from the attackers. Later we found out by an acquaintance that he is dead. Egyptian army delivered his body through Rafah crossing after 10 days. His corpse was in a terrible state, they didn’t keep him in the morgue. We saw he was shot from close range because his head exploded but to this day we don’t know who killed him. And why?”
Horrible and terrifying as they are, these news will not stem the flow of illegal migration, not in the long run. Calls coming in from Malta, Italy and Greece bring joy and relief to the families of the lucky ones, those who made it despite all the death traps. These news spread quickly too and they arouse much hope. And hope dies last. It seems as well that human traffickers are changing their approach. Since the end of September they demand more money, up to 6000 dollars per person. But, so they claim, immigrants will be safe from now on.
In a town of Khan Younis, in south eastern Gaza one would have a difficulty finding a home, where refugees didn’t try to flee or they don’t contemplate doing so in the future. In a living room of house of next to Ms. Fatima’s home, a portrait is hanging on a wall in a living room. It’s a commemoration portrait of Rae’ed Asfour. He was a 12-years-old victim of war, who was like Amar, on rehabilitation in Slovenia. At the time of his nerve system treatment there, he wrote a letter to a Slovenian magazine: ”My surname (Asfour) translates to “a bird” from Arabic. But I cannot fly or even move freely. I don’t want people to look at me with pity. I just want them to sympathize with me, and help me to feel I am normal like other children around the world. I use internet to communicate with the outside world and I wish to live like a bird and enjoy our basic rights. Palestine-Slovenia.” On September 6, Rae’ed tried to fly. Instead, his hopes of a better life with his father in Norway drowned along with him in the Mediterranean Sea. He was in the ship which was rammed it by human traffickers and sank with about 500 refugees to the bottom of the sea.
Like Ra’ed’s , blood and powder is an ink that writes a life story of Amar Abu Assi (22). He lost his both legs in an attack by a drone during the military operation Cast Lead on Gaza in year 2008. He had no possibility of an adequate treatment in Gaza as its health system has been on a verge of collapse due to Israeli- Egyptian blockade. It was October 2012, when he was included in a rehabilitation program in Slovenia, where he received his prostheses. After rehabilitation in Slovenia, proudly dressed in FC Barcelona jersey and having his black hair waxed, he returned back to Gaza in November, where he was welcomed by Israeli offensive »Pillars of defense« that lasted for 8 days. Now almost completely worn out and because he thinned over time, Amar has to fill prostheses from the sides with rags to be able to use them. In the last war in 2014, F-16 destroyed his already half-built house. Amar couldn’t take it anymore-under the rubble of his home to be, lied his future and any hopes of trying to live in Gaza. He took only his two artificial legs with him as he left Gaza on a wheelchair at the beginning of September. In less than a week he reached the coast of Libya. If luck ever shone on Amar in the darkest of times it was there. His boat, carrying people to the mother ship that was gathering refugees heading towards Europe was intercepted by navy (apparently Libya still has one). He was arrested and swiftly returned to Gaza. Where was his luck in all of this? The ship he was intending to reach has capsized. Over 200 people died. Glow of ember that Amar cooked tea on, illuminates his brown, a bit muddled eyes, as he tells how he fled Gaza: “I paid 2500 US dollars for a fake passport with forged visas in it to make it look less suspicious,” Amar said. “I left Gaza at night through a tunnel with a group of 20-30 people. On the other side cars took us to Alexandria, where we met more immigrants. We were split. Some people stayed in Egypt and the rest of us were taken to a town Sallum, from where we crossed into Libya. We had to pay another 500 dollars to a new gang of traffickers. They also charged me for my legs. All the way we were treated very badly. Some people were robbed and left behind. We heard stories about people disappearing in the desert and were terrified.” Amar took a deep breath and shrugged his shoulders. “But you know, all in all it was worth to try. I still want to go to Europe. There I can find work and get new legs.”
Amar’s face turns serious, looks in eyes somehow bring to mind a burned out fireplace where Phoenix will never rise again. He tried to escape on the same day, September 6, when another ship carrying some 500 refugees, sunk off the coast of Malta after being deliberately rammed by human traffickers.
While he pours last drops of tea into cups and puts them on ground covered with cigarette butts, asking Amar how he feels about narrowly escaping death in the Mediterranean on that day, September 6, would be downright pointless. Living in Gaza he narrowly escaped death several times. For him, as for so many others, life in Gaza equals slow death. “Soon I will leave again with another group of people going for Europe,” he announced with determination glowing from his eyes.
“And if I don’t succeed I will try again. And then again. I will try to reach freedom until I die.”