Fares Akram: Hope betrayed in Gaza

In January 2009 Fares Akram's diary described the ordeal of life in Gaza during the Israeli military assault. A year on, he describes how he still mourns his lost father, but keeps going for the sake of a baby born in war
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The Independent Online

It has been a year since we huddled in our homes in the dark, waiting sleeplessly for the sound of the bombs to stop. It is a year this week since my father, a 48-year-old lawyer with no link to Hamas, the Islamist movement that governs Gaza, was killed by an Israeli air strike, supposedly on Hamas militants. And it will soon be a year since my first child was born, as fleets of ambulances queued up outside the A&E unit of the same Gaza City hospital with the wounded, maimed and dead.

Twelve months after the invasion of Gaza, not a single house has been rebuilt, and we, the 1.4 million people trapped inside this blockaded territory, dream of escape but our heads stay haunted by unbearable memories.

First came the terrifying aerial poundings by F16s and then the second phase, the tanks and ground troops. In between the night bombing and shelling, Gaza City in the first three weeks of January was a ghost town except for an hour or two every afternoon during the temporary ceasefires. That's when everyone rushed around hunting for food and fresh water to buy, or in the case of my wife, dashed to the maternity clinic for blood pressure checks.

Alaa was nine months pregnant with our first child when the nightmare began and her big fear was how to get to the hospital when she went into labour. Reluctant to leave her fretting in the apartment, I began to relate our experiences for a diary in The Independent, often by phone in the dark because of the power blackouts.

I had little idea, when I started sending my reports, just how directly we would be affected by the Israeli assault. Our lives were to be shattered just hours into the ground invasion, when my father and a 17-year-old cousin were killed at the family farm, struck by a massive bomb dropped by an Israeli warplane directly on the property. They had gone there, to our beloved refuge with its lemon groves and almond trees, to make sure the farm animals didn't die of starvation during the conflict. The farmhouse was blown to rubble and powder. Mahmoud's body was found 300 metres away in a neighbour's field.We could hear the rattle of machine gun fire as we buried Dad and Mahmoud. Israeli tanks were just three kilometres away.

The first anniversary of that shocking day was painful to say the least. On the way to my office I went by the graveyard, said some silent prayers at Dad's grave, but couldn't control my tears. Later we hosted a meal for relatives and neighbours as a mark of respect.

Of course hundreds of others in Gaza are still mourning multiple losses. By the end of the 22-day Israeli "operation", launched to stop Hamas from firing rockets on towns inside Israel, 1,400 Gazans were dead, most of them civilians. In the last few months I've helped families to travel to the Eres checkpoint at the crossing with Israel so they could be interviewed by Israeli military police investigating the deaths of their loved ones. I longed to tell them my own story But the many appeals we have sent to the Israeli authorities through various human rights groups for an inquiry into the circumstances of my father's needless death have been ignored. He was a Palestinian Authority judge who believed in a two-state solution, not a terrorist. But they don't want to know.

My mother is still coming to terms with the loss of my father. At least she counts herself blessed to have been chosen for a travel pass to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca in November.

A year ago it wasn't just our grief that we had to contend with, but a collective fear and anxiety which became almost intolerable. The Israelis dropped leaflets warning us to evacuate our districts, but there was nowhere safe to run to.

The cruelty was that the Israelis were telling us to move but had closed off all our exits. We eventually took what belongings we could and moved in with relatives in the west of Gaza City. This was fortunate because our apartment took an indirect hit one night. "They killed Akrem [her husband] and now they're destroying the few belongings he left behind," my distraught mother had wept as she stood in the house the next morning. Twelve months on we've replaced the furniture and got hold of new glass for the windows, but what can you do with glass and no frames? Israel won't allow the import of aluminium so I've had to fix up temporary frames which could collapse any time.

Yet our housing problems are nothing compared to those who saw their homes completely bombed out or crushed by retreating tanks. More than 6,000 houses were totally destroyed in the 22-day campaign. Now thousands of families in the remain displaced or homeless.

Hamas removed a lot of rubble in preparation for reconstruction after the war. But the rebuilding never materialised because Israel's blockade of the strip means we can't legally get hold of most building materials.

The neediest families are being built small homes by the UN, who have resorted to mud bricks to get around the Israeli ban on the import of cement. One man I know used to have a solid concrete two-storey house. Now the family have a small dwelling made of clay. It's better shelter than a tent, I suppose, but this can't be a solution for the whole of Gaza. Those who can afford it are renting houses but rents have rocketed.

In Beit Lahiya in the north of the Gaza Strip, a tented camp went up at the end of the war. There are fewer tents now but 40 are still there with seven to 10 families in each. I visited them last week and met Ziad Khader, 67, who told me his family fled their cement-built, well-furnished house when tanks and bulldozers rolled into their farming community. "We got out with just the clothes we were wearing," the 67-year-old said as he sat on a brick outside his tent. For people living such an ordeal, asking what the new year holds makes no sense.

Rasmiia, 12, spends most of the day studying in her family's tent and, before sunset, she walks about 200 metres back to her uncle's house. "I miss my tidy desk that used to have in our destroyed house, I miss my clean and neat books," she told me. "It's sandy here in the tent but at least it's calm. I'm determined to get ahead in my studies so I can help rebuild the house in the future."

I can't share Rasmiia's optimism because politically, nothing has changed in the last 12 months, except that Hamas, reduced to communicating with the people via pre-recorded video tapes during the offensive, are very proud now. Imagine, they say, an Israeli onslaught would have toppled bigger governments or regimes, but a small islamic movement held fast and could not be defeated.

All the factors behind the current misery are still in place. The Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006, is still a hostage and so Israel maintains the blockade. But now the Egyptians are building a new steel barrier as well which will cut off our only economic lifeline, the smuggling tunnels. Without them day to day will be even bleaker.

Recently I took a Western journalist to the supermarket. He was shocked. Food imported from the Israeli side was in the refrigerator corner; yoghurt, cheese, hummus. On the other shelves, 90 per cent had been brought in from Egypt via the tunnels.

People here are confused and deeply frustrated. They thought that their houses would at least be rebuilt. Now, almost worse than losing their homes, they're losing hope. Little or nothing has been done to help people pick up the pieces psychologically. Children are desperately in need of help in dealing with the trauma but most NGOs have had to focus on emergency relief like distributing food parcels. What's troubling is that we sense the ominous atmosphere that preceded the war is back. There is scant hope of reconciliation between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, and Israeli voices are threatening a resumption of hostilities. And whenever there's uncertainty rumours here go wild. "Will there be another surprise attack?" is a question I hear people ask.

At the turn of the year, I gathered at the Light House, a beachside restaurant, with my wife, my daughter, and our closest family. My brother was there with his fiancée. They postponed their wedding after my father's death. We held our little gathering because I felt that even with sweet or bitter memories, life has to continue. Back in January 2009 I wrote in this newspaper that my daughter Somaya, born into a scene of violence and chaos just 10 days after my father's funeral, was the first light in our darkness. Now as we prepare to celebrate her first birthday, she again is a reason to go on.

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