January 31, 2009

Email from Vittorio; The aftermath of war!

I crossed the threshold of my house in Almina, facing Gaza City port, after several days of absence. Everything was exactly as I had left it – the gas cylinder still anorexic (feeding it is too expensive) and the electric current cut off by foreign shears. The once pleasant panorama outside my window has changed and no longer gladdens my spirits from the misery of living under siege. On the contrary, it now rubs salt in the wound, a trauma that won't heal with its reminder of a massacre. Twenty metres from my front door, where the fire station once stood, a huge crater now gapes wide enough for children to mess around in, as if to expel their parents' demon. 

The afternoon call to prayer no longer has the same comforting quality of the muezzin's chant that I had grown accustomed to. I wonder where he's gone, if he managed to survive at the top of one of the few minarets that were left intact. The last time I listened to him, this anonymous muezzin had to interrupt his solemnly chanted liturgy because of a chesty cough. It's an affliction I'm familiar with myself, as the gases of the bombs in Gaza have spared no one. I found a note at the foot of the French window looking onto a small balcony, as if it had been put there by a friendly hand. The street and garden were littered with these same leaflets. They had been dropped from Israeli airplanes warning the Palestinians to stay alert, and be aware that the walls had ears and eyes. 

"At the slightest threatening action against Israel we'll be back to invade the Gaza Strip. What you've seen these days is nothing compared to what awaits you." Some kids in the streets had picked up the leaflets and folded them into paper airplanes, seemingly sending the message back to its destination. 

Ahmed told me on the phone about a new kids' game – until a few days ago, they amused themselves by relighting the fires, simply by kicking the fragments of white phosphorous bombs found scattered all over the Strip. The debris left by these devices with high chemical potential has very long-lasting inflammable properties. Even when picked up several days after their detonation, it still catches fire if shaken about. The Al Quds hospital paramedics speak of how they gave up trying to put out the fires provoked by these illegal bombs – their flames seemed to feed off the water being thrown at them.

 "The consequences of all the shit that's been thrown at us in these last three weeks will surface in the near future, with new cancer cases and deformed babies", Munir, a doctor at Al Shifa hospital told me. Even Gaza's neighbours seem to be worried by this massive use of weapons forbidden by all international conventions. In Sderot, and likewise in Ashkelon, Israeli citizens have formally asked their government for clarifications regarding the weapons that have been used to torment us. It's obvious that impoverished uranium and white phosphorous scattered in such a criminal manner all over the tiny patch of land that is Gaza won't discriminate between Jews and Muslims when it comes to provoking generic illnesses.

The truce ought to have started by now, but today I was woken in my bed by the deafening rumble of cannon shots from the war ships, exactly like a few days ago. Some brave Palestinian fishermen had ventured from the port on their tiny boats equipped with fishing nets. The Israeli Navy pushed them back. Nowadays, the only edible fish found in Gaza are the Egyptian cans of tuna that came through the tunnels months ago. Yesterday, yet two more casualties of "collateral damage" were caused by Israeli bombs. East of Gaza City two children were blown up when playing with an unexploded device. The witnesses we heard spoke of active mines in front of the Tal el Hawa houses' ruins. Some bomb disposal experts sent over by Hamas defused them and, judging by the care with which they loaded them onto an off-road vehicle, I think the al qassam brigades will soon return that message of death directly to its lawful owner.

Looking from Naema's roof, the Israeli-Palestinian border has never seemed so easy to pick out. On one side lie the green hills which are constantly watered by the Israeli kibbutzim, on the other you see the parching thirst of a land robbed of its water springs and herds. Naema wished to tell me all about her last few days – a tactile, aural and olfactory account of the massacre, considering that Naema is blind. The soldiers threateningly ordered her fellow villagers to evacuate their homes only a few minutes before storming the place. The men loaded smaller children onto their shoulders and ran away, along with their women. Naema chose to stay so as not to slow down their escape. She took refuge in her own house, believing herself to be safe, and welcomed her neighbours, who had nowhere to go: three women, an elderly lady and a paralyzed old man. The tanks and bulldozers then trespassed and started spreading death and destruction, devouring acre by acre, until they stopped in front of Naema's house. Standing on a small hill, the building she inhabits is the tallest in the village, and the soldiers of Tsahal, who found it was strategically positioned, let themselves in and occupied it for two weeks. 

"They came in and pointed their weapons at us, pushing us into a small room, where they locked us up for eleven days." Naema continues her story: "During that entire time they brought us water to drink only twice, and food came in the form of the soldiers' rations' left-overs. They never let us go to the bathroom, so we had to go to the toilet in one corner of the room. 

They wouldn't let us talk amongst ourselves, and they would come in and beat us when at night, huddled in a circle, we tried to gather some strength in prayer. Sometimes they'd come over and, intimidating us by touching our bodies with the cold metal of their weapons, they threatened us with death to confess our support for Hamas. I gave them my cell phone, so they could check my phone book and the calls I'd made. Even this gesture didn't mellow their spite." 

At the end of the eleventh day of imprisonment, the international Red Cross finally arrived and released the six prisoners from their jailers. "They didn't allow us to pick up anything, not even my sunglasses", Naema brings her story to a close, adding that when they came back to her house, they found out about the thefts that had been carried out by the soldiers. They had taken all their gold trinkets and hidden savings, after having destroyed their few possessions, two TV sets, a radio, a fridge, and the solar panels on the roof. I saw tears in this woman's eyes, hidden behind her new dark glasses. They seemed the most vivid I had ever seen. In fact, what Naema "saw" is a lot more that any young woman her age will ever get a chance to see, if she had the bad luck of being born in this tormented land. 

Stay human
Vittorio Arrigoni

(Translated from italian by Daniela Filippin)

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