SA Blog Awards: Vote Now!

The SA blog awards is a showcase of the very best of South African blogs.

The awards endeavour to bring South African bloggers to the forefront of peoples attention, both locally and internationally, increasing exposure for South Africa’s great bloggers; and in the end reach out and touch people who are outside the realm of blogging and have them discover the fantastic world of blogging.

The ROAD TO GAZA has registered to be part of the awards and requests that you vote for us to increase our chances of becoming finalists.

The public vote phase will continue until 9 November 2011. Upon completion of the public vote phase, the top three blogs in each category will be handed over to a select panel of judges to determine the winners in each category.

Success for a blog like the Road to Gaza, will not only be a victory for the creators of it, but will go well beyond to increase publicity and awareness of the plight of the oppressed Palestinians.

We urge you to VOTE NOW!

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DAY 17: 04 SEPTEMBER 2011-Farewell

The sun rises on our day of departure from Gaza. We all predict it will be a day of deep emotion-saying farewell to a land and a people who win your hearts without even trying, can never be easy. The time for departure is set for 11am but nobody wastes any time getting ready. Nothing is predictable here in Gaza and we’ve been warned to always be prepared for that.

From the balcony of my hotel room this morning, I hear the thundering march of an army in the vicinity. They take a while to appear, but when they do, we see a orderly batallion all dressed in black chanting slogans as they file by. Few locals stop to look-it seems this militarism is well ingrained in the routine here. I use my vantage point this morning to steal a final glance at the ocean and at the beautiful but desolate cottage and its accompanying garden next door to me.

Word reaches us that we will now only be leaving at 1pm, but that we should board the buses with our luggage by 10am. Luggage is hauled down the stairs and out of the elevator and soon the lobby is dotted with bundles of bags. Many use the opportunity to gather as many contact details of the new friends we’ve made in Gaza. As we have learnt during our stay, Facebook is the most popular medium for young people here and our networking with our Gazan guides is made much simpler by just having to ‘add a new friend’ on fb. Some colleagues have last minute shopping errands to complete. Others are informally initiating fellow members to contribute some cash to be given as a farewell gift to the most hospitable staff here at the Gaza International Hotel who despite the siege have managed to deliver a five star hospitality experience to us.

Sheikh  Shamiel Panday of Port Elizabeth takes the bold step of trying to off-load some of the inexplicable emotions many of us have amassed at this juncture. In his authoritative voice he addresses all our hosts-from the guides of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the security personnel and hotel staff-and thanks them most sincerely and profusely. He goes on to describe the last few days we’ve spent here as the best in our lives and even goes to the extent of elavating them to a higher degree than the day he got married. There are a few giggles from the audience, but certainly no loud cries of disbelief. This is because today we all speak with one voice. Our experiences here in Gaza have affirmed that the Convoy is indeed a ‘family brought together by Divine Decree’ and today our hearts are moulded together with the emotions of sadness and admiration for these great people. Hence, there is also no hesitation whatsoever in responding in the affirmative when Sheikh Shamiel prays that we return to this Blessed Land over and over.

There are numerous warm hugs and embraces from our Gazan bretheren that we hope could have lasted a lifetime. We try to snap up a potrait of the entire crew together in its glory and moments later our luggage is loaded and the bus is raring to go. Technically, we still have a few hours left in the Gaza and I can only pour out my heart in gratitude when even at this stage, our guides don’t want our time to be whiled away unfruitfully. It may be our last day in Gaza, but for students across this territory, it is the first day of the new school calendar.

We are given the choice of visiting an all-boys or all-girls school in Gaza and the occupants of the bus seems to prefer the latter. I suppose, for most of us, boys  do not immediately conjure up the image of diligence and dedication, the one we’d all eagerly would like to capture at the school.  The preference is noted and soon we stumble off our bus like clumsy second graders towards the Madressa Bashir Al Raees Ath Thanawiyya, an all girls institution in the heart of the city that is described as the best school of its kind in Gaza. As I disembark, I manage to capture a picture of something that has eluded me thus far-the poster exhorting Gazans to contribute towards the victims of the famine in Somalia! The story of this picture and what it tells us about the calibre of the inhabitants of Gaza, I believe, is definately worth more than a thousand words.

Gaza united for SOMALIA!

The school is teeming with activity. It seems to be break time and girls can be heard chatting noisily in the courtyard. All the students are neatly dressed in long deep blue uniforms and pure white scarves. The principal kindly offers to give us a guided tour. As a start, she seats us down in a classroom and delivers her lesson on the state of education in Gaza. With education being the lifeblood of this countries people, it is no wonder that she is perturbed by the ageing chalkboards and classrooms that are forced to play host to 50 or more students at a time. All her words are meticulously translated by our two guides for this particular trip, Bayan and Maysam. I am embarrased to say that our class is a bit rowdy today and they struggle to keep complete silence. In addition to our questions to her, she too has her own questions for us on the purpose of our visit, which are uncharacteristically more incisive than other encounters.

Enthusiastic students on Day 1 on the new school year

Despite the littany of problems caused by the siege, true to the Gazan spirit, all the school facilites are clean and very well maintained-just like the hospitals, universities, beaches and almost everything else in Gaza. The girls at the school are just like students anywhere else on the planet. Classlists for the new year have been put up on the doors for them and I see clusters of them curiously poring through the lists and blabbering about them.

Hardworking principal of the school

We are shown the schools computer centre and then its rather tiny library. There are profound sayings in Arabic and English imprinted on walls and charts all over the school premises. One notalble liner on the wall of the library, when translated, reads ‘A house without books is like a body without a soul’

Frame in school library-"A home without books is like a body without a soul"

The condition of this school is comaparable to any well kept government school in South Africa. The difference is that Madressa Bashir Al Raees Ath Thanawiyya lies at the top of the academic ladder in Gaza. Conditions in most other schools are far worse. Unfortunately, there isn’t the liberty of time today to visit any more students.

We check up on the progress of the remainder of the group based at the Commodore Hotel. Here it appears that there’s hardly a rush to leave Gaza, and rightfully so. We perform our final Salaahs for the trip at the Mussalla and again I take full liberty of gluing my forehead to this blessed land for the longest possible time in these final moments.

We board the bus again and are pleased to hear that on our way out we’ll take a detour to be shown even more important places. Mahmud is once again wielding the microphone and as we approach the Gaza-Israel border, he takes on an enriched persona. The usually timid and charismatic young man, sensing the few precious moments we have left with each other, unleashes a tsunami of passion, offering fatherly advice to us and narrating lesson-rich anecdotes. He recounts that the Tabi’een when departing from each other and having to confront the fear of separation, used to remind themselves that if they made dua for each other, especially in their abscence, it would be like their hearts never separated in the first place. Upon our shoulders, he stresses, lies the responsibility to convey the “real and truthful” message of conditions in Gaza back to our communities.

Ever closer to the border, we witness a scale of destruction and devastation we have not seen thus far-buildings reduced to skeletons, craters carved out in the early and mangled wrecks of scrap metal. The road ahead grinds to a dead end. Beyond it is a cemetary and then no mans land. We are eager to pay our respects at the cemetary, but are reminded that if we go any further, we may just have our tombstones carved out here as well. Regardless, the enthusiasm doesn’t wane.

Remnants of buildings destroyed in the 2008/9 invasion

This is predominantly an industrial zone and evidently it has taken the heaviest pounding. As Mahmud explains, 60% of Gaza’s indigenous industries have been destroyed.

Piles of Rubble on the Gaza Border

And yet, lurking amidst these scrapheaps are portents of hope. We are made aware and shown, a recycling system with a difference. In this very vicinity, all rubble from Israeli attacks-both steel and concrete is accumulated. A machine crushes the concrete into small pieces and from there it is further refined to a fine powder. The powder is packaged and dispatched all across Gaza where, I hear with much pleasure, it is the main ingredient in the reconstruction of the country. This ingenuity is particularly valuable since construction materials are barred from entered Gaza under the siege, with the pretext that they would be used for making explosives. For me the whole story is simply one of the most potent signs of rebirth and resilience in Gaza.

Recycling, Gaza Style

I try to digest this good news but simply don’t have the time as Mahmud today is like an unstoppable volcano firing out fascinating anecdotes at an unprecedented pace. This time he gets personal as he reminices on the fateful days of the Israeli assault of 2008/9. He painfully recalls his land reeking with the smell of death and blood everywhere. There were no time for emotions as this dark cloud of uncertainty enveloped Gaza. The assault was brutal and calculated.F-16’s and helicopters patrolled the skies, navy boats fired indiscriminately from the sea and soldiers committed unspeakable horrors on the ground. All that he and other Gazans could do was seek refuge under the covers and beg for the Mercy of Allah.

The first few hours were particularly brutal, with policemen paying the greatest toll. Another of our guides recalls walking in the vicinity of a school just minutes before the terror was unleashed and narrates how he eerily noticed how mobile communications had become unavailable. Everything seemed so calm. The calm before the storm.

Almost 300 policemen were killed in the initial blitz. Over 1400 were killed altogether. Bombs and bullets did not differentiate between leaders, resistance, civilians and children. In fact, it was the weakest that were meted out the worst punishment. Yet, even in this fog of terror, Gazan society mobilised itself. Some took care of the defense of their land and confronting the aggressors, others attended to the injured, and many were made spiritual soldiers who wielded the weapon of Dua. And a potent weapon it was indeed. The anecdotes that Mahmud now narrates to us are simply mindblowing.

With much pleasure and energy he speaks of how when the ill-equipped resistance once we about to meet the superior armed Israeli counterparts, an entire batallion of men in white clothes appeared between the two parties. The Zionists fired repeatedly on these mysterious soldiers, but no amount of firepower ever harmed them. They and the resistance emerged unscathed. Then there was the incident of a figher who was near his wits end when discovering that his explosive device simply refused to detonate even as a mighty Israeli tank approached. Just when it seemed that his fate was sealed, the tank exploded in a fiery spectacle. Taking an oath on Allah, he says that when checking the explosive device thereafter, the fighter found that it still had not detonated. But it still gets better. There is the story of the rat that repeatedly brought nourishing supplies to the Mujahideen who were being severely tested by hunger and a lack of rations. And then there is the anecdote of the huge man that grabbed a group of Mujahideen whose lives were in immediate danger and hid them in another place. No Mujahideen lost their lives; the occupation forces mourned 3. “Ya Sheikh Ebrahim,” Mahmud concludes in his warm style, “we trust that what happened in Badr is happening again. “If you help Allah, Allah will certainly help you,” he says, quoting the Quranic Aayat.

Lunch of another wholesome sandwich is served to us this afternoon on the go as we make the brief journey towards the Rafah border and say farewell to beloved Gaza. Final thank yous and messages are exchanged between our leadership and our Gazan brothers once again on the bus PA system. In thanking the Convoy this time, Mahmud especially singles me out by name. It is an honour that I am totally undeserving of, but one that I wholeheartedly cherish-for I now realise that although I came to Gaza only having 2 sisters, I leave having found myself a brother. The incredible, larger than life personality of Mahmud Abu Shamala. A brotherhood rooted in faith and one that Insha Allah will stand the test of time.

We disembark at the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and sit for a few minutes in the cool waiting area of the compound. A television at the centre of the hall is showing a news bulletin and on closer inspection we discover that the broadcast is actually reporting on OUR convoy! Everyone has a good time identifying familiar faces on the screen.

The Convoy grabs the headlines

So, the Convoy has made the news and certainly made history too. And several of the local Gazans we’ve become acquainted with during this trip have abandoned their occupations to kindly be here to pay a personal farewell to us for this historic trip. 2 I identify immediately are Dr Ahmed Yousef, the former deputy foreign minister and his daughter Maphaz, who offer heartfelt thanks and prayers. We file out of the building to another awaiting bus, but in the few seconds I have remaining in Gaza I have one important task left to accomplish. There is one question I have for Mahmud that I thought I’d better leave for last. And now comes that tense moment. Mahmud towers over me with a hearty hug and we exchange best wishes. Then I call him to the side and ask: “Mahmud, tell me-what can I do, one special thing that I can make as my unique contribution to the Palestinian cause?” The answer is shocking in its beauty and simplicity: “Ya Sheikh Ebrahim, Make Dua, just make Dua for us and Masjidul Aqsa. When people like you sincerely make dua, Allah will move mountains.”

Our time is up, but the responsibility has been cast in stone. And so too has the lithmus test revealed the impeccable character of Mahmud and the rest of the Palestinian people. A people having utmost faith in Allah and never pleading poverty to the world.

We’d love to cling on, but the palm groves in this these final few square kilometers of Gaza are a blur as the bus soon crosses into Egyptian Rafah officially ending our 6 day retreat in Gaza. It is late afternoon and by the time passports are processed, we are heading back to Cairo under the cover of dusk.

For all the promise and glitter this great nation holds, today it seems to have lost its lustre. After the warmth of Gaza, all else pales away into oblivion. We try our best to keep the spirits high, singing songs and cracking jokes. But something is just not the same. Wait a minute-I think I know what it is..Let me check…Erm, yes, its my heart. I’m sure I just left it behind in Gaza.

Farewell Gaza 😦

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DAY 16: 03 SEPTEMBER 2011

Our penultimate morning in the Gaza Strip and it begins with a thud. No, not from an Israeli F-16 or sonic boom, neither from a resistance rocket. Rather it is of a more emotional kind as a bus idles outside our hotel carrying the first group of Convoy participants who will shortly say farewell to Gaza. They all will depart carrying a part of Palestine within them, most certainly dissapointed that they cannot take any more.

Farewell to the first group of the Africa 1 Aid Convoy

Fortunately, we are still here and the morning promises to be an educational one with our first calling at Gaza’s Islamic University. I recall once reading that Palestinians have the highest ratio of PhDs per capita in the world. Today at the welcoming campus of the University I am here to discover how.

They do it under highly trying circumstances like having their 2 main buildings bombed during the war. Valuable equipment is destroyed and progress in strategic fields like technology and engineering is severely hampered. But for a nation whose lifesblood is education, those are hardly setbacks. The president of the university tells us that all Palestinian universities were established under occupation and this one in particular began in a tent. I am pleased to see in the crowd Saeed Namruti, an academic at the university who is currently completing his Phd in South Africa with the assistance of the Al Quds Foundation. In an interview with him in South Africa a few months ago, he described how when Israel shut down all institutions of higher learning during the first Intifada, the Islamic University continued functioning through a discreet yet elaborate system of tuition with students meeting lecturers at homes, in cars and even on the street. Today the Islamic University is a vibrant and dynamic institution, matching the highest global standards. Buildings are clean and well maintained. Promotional material is glossy and video productions are cutting edge. It houses 10 colleges and offers bachelors degrees in over 60 disciplines. It even houses a 24 hour Islamic radio station and TV Channel on its grounds. All this for a university in which officially half of its 22000 students cannot afford to pay study fees.

This is definately a case of a people who although may physically be in shackles through the occupation, are not intellectually enshackled, as Moulana Abdul Khaliq points out. The trilogy of a good mind, body and spirit is essential for the healthy functioning of the whole. In a society the mind is represented by its educational institutions, the body by its health care system and the spirit by its religious structures. This is why it is imperative that our support for all these sectors in Gaza be strengthened. Regarding the last, we probably have more to take than give, given their incredible spirituality.

At the 'Great Hall' of Gaza's Islamic University

Two of the main roads that connect the extreme ends of the Gaza Strip are Harun al Rashid Road and Saluhudeen Street. Today, we travel on one of them to our destination very close to the border. Flowing with us all the way is the Gaza shoreline, and no matter how many times I turn your gaze to it, I am always struck by its immaculate beauty. There are also extreme changes in the urban landscape as we journey along. Whilst Gaza City, where we are stationed, is quite modern and is more home to a middle class, the refugee camps we pass are largely replicas of our shantytowns back in South Africa. Corrugated tin houses are squeezed in between concrete housing blocks, their fledgling roof sheeting held in place by huge bricks and water tanks. Sanitation is poor and huge unsightly puddles flow in the alleys. As a further testament to the extreme poverty, the most common mode of transport here, it appears, are donkey carts instead of cars.

Evident poverty at one of Gaza's refugee Camps

There are also huge swathes of lush farmland in between. And then there are the former Israeli settlements. These ‘havens’ of illegitimate privelage were a source of great injustice for Gazans until Israel ‘disengaged’ from the territory a few years ago. In all probability however, it was the heroic resistance of the Palestinian people that became unbearable to the occupiers and ultimately forced their departure. The ruins of their oppression are still here. Some settlements have been adopted and reused, others have been completely destroyed and some just lay here desolate like the remnants of the haughty and arrogant of the past-a restimony to the inevitable fate of every oppressor.

It was on the pretext of the protection of these extremist settlers that many incursions into Palestinian towns and refugee camps occurred, families were fractured, movement was hampered and homes were demolished. It was in this area close to Rafah that the courageous Rachel Corrie was ploughed down by an American subsidized Israeli bulldozer. And it was here that students attempting to get to Gaza City for university classes were often held up for hours at a time at Israeli checkpoints, ultimately forcing them to board much closer to their universities.

Fortunately, for all Gazans, many of those indignities are no more. There is not a single Israeli soldier on the land of Gaza and in their fear, Israeli forces can only police the territory from the air, sea and within the Israeli border itself. Yet, the bloody legacy of their direct occupation still haunts Gazans every day of their lives.

This is especially true for Rafah, Gaza’s only access point to the outside world. It was this town that sacrificed the most martyrs during the second Intifada and as we drive through its humble roads, it still has all the scars to prove its pain. At the height of the uprising, Rafah was hemmed in from all sides by Israeli settlements, soldiers and the then Israeli controlled border. This result was sustained and aggressive shelling and bombing from all directions.The departure of the Israeli settlers have given Rafans some chance to rebuild and today at the municipal chambers we hear the mayor report back on reconstruction efforts. We hear that funding for major upgrades is a challenge in a city where 60% of its population is unemployed and tax income is minimal. Additionally, there is a serious derth of raw materials due to the siege. Nonetheless, he is proud to announce to us several promising initiatives that include waste water purification, road construction and desalination plants. Like at the Islamic University before, there is another special call to twin this institution with similar structures in our home countries.

Shakier Baker of the Convoy with the Mayor of Rafah

It is an informative afternoon crowned with the now familiar soft drinks and bottled water which are liberally handed out to us at every engagement. But from this reasonably formal setting, I hear hushed whispers as members speculate our next destination. And sure enough, on this drowsy Gazan afternoon, we get the news that we are heading UNDERGROUND!

There can only be a few things more cloaked in mystery than the infamous Rafah tunnels which offer a lifeline to Gaza amidst the siege. Over the years, we’ve all marvelled at the ingenuity of their inventors in constructing them. We’ve heard of the more colourful ‘merchandise’ that had passed through them-from lifestock to human beings and even zoo animals. And more often than not, it were reports of Israeli strikes on these trenches that spiked our interest.

But today as the bus clanks through the narrow streets of Rafah and as the Egyptian landscape draws ever closer, it is hard to say exactly where we will unearth the reality of these tunnels. In our immediate vicinity are many tents resembling the makeshift greenhouses we have seen along the way. And it is precisely here, at this unlikely juncture that our bus grinds to a halt.

Off the bus, we are directed under the canopy of one of these tents, and sooner than expected I find my legs sliding to lower ground and entering a much dimmer realm. I am currently in one of Gaza’s only umbilical cords and thoughtlessly am bearing witness to the unshakeable human instinct to survive. Fear seems to evaporate and is eclipsed by a penchant for adventure. The descent is sharp but manageable. A steel shell conceals the earthen walls of the tunnel making it much more stable. The temperature seems well regulated and there is ample space for a bunch of people to manouevre, eliminating any possible claustophobia. As far as we wander, there are even fluorescent electric lights. As someone observes, its all quite compararable to a horizontal mine shaft.

As we near the end of our mini walk and are about to turn back, there is traffic from the other direction: Incoming human traffic; 2 dishevelled and exhausted men who have just completed the short but daunting journey from Egypt to Gaza, emerge. And here in the belly of the earth, far from the prying eyes of inconsiderate border officials, corrupt politicians and roaring F-16’s there are spontaneous congratulations exchanged with these bold men who have just played their part in defying the unreasonable and unjust.

It is a rare opportunity that we cherish even more when one of our guides, who has lived in Gaza all her life, tells us that this too is her first odyssey into the tunnels. I try to capture as much of these environs into my minds eye as photographs are explicitly forbidden. There are many questions too that tickle the brain about the exact functioning of the tunnels, but we decide they are better left unanswered. The existence of these tunnels are an open secret; the functioning of them, rather not.

Still in awe at our experience, we are told that the length of these tunnels can vary between 200m and 1km. Our bus now heads away from the border and as we pass yet more refugee camps, their bullet riddled walls expose just how much battering they have taken from the occupation.

The Scars of War-Beit Lahiya

Our destination is Beit Lahiya and this time no one really knows why we are here. We pray the afternoon Salaahs in a huge mosque and then surprisingly are allowed to walk freely for scores of metres on the streets. With numbers behind us, it appears like some peaceful rally or fun walk through the town. We turn up at the city square and first spot a whole troop of boy scouts standing at attention. Then I see the biggest bunch of press microphones we’ve encountered thus far on the trip, tailed by rowdy reporters and cameramen. Soon enough, the press briefing begins, this time with even more vocal and focused messages from Convoy organisers. The real limelight this time however belongs to the interior minister who has called the briefing to announce the inauguration of some special projects funded by the Convoy.

The entire contingent snakes up to higher ground passing on its way colourful high rise blocks with shrapnel sprayed exteriors and wardrobes hanging from their windows. We call in at a chillie and brinjal farm that was apparently set in motion by a previous convoy. Holding some of the fruits of Palestine aloft in this plantation, Dr Esam Abu Yusuf whets all our appetites when he asks if we too are ready to plant more seeds of life and greenery into this blessed land.

The Fruits of Palestine

We head over to a nursery/orchard deeper into Beit Lahiya. The greenery is absolutely breathtaking. Rows and rows of young trees embrace you and fill your lungs with crisp, fresh air. As Brother Salim Goga observes, it is truly miraculous to see such fertility springing from land which otherwise looks so dry, parched and desert-like. Everyone knuckles down to claim a stake of real estate of this Holy Land. They roll their sleeves up; some grab spades whilst others remove the plastic covering on the trees in preparation for planting. Today we plant grapefruit and olive trees in a symbolic commitment to peace and renewal of life in this war-torn land. Everyone choruses in, layering handfuls of sand atop the delicate roots. The holes dug for planting are remarkably shallow.

The incredible beauty of Palestine

This seemingly passive act of farming is in itself a powerful form of resistance. Thousands of trees across the Occupied Territories have themselves earned the wrath of the Occupation forces for at least the last decade, being pummelled and bulldozed to the ground. With their destruction comes an attempt to wipe out a rich Palestinian legacy of communion with the earth spanning centuries. Olive trees have an average life span of hundreds of years and many in Palestine are said to be almost 2 millenia old.

Planting peace-Convoy members plant a citrus tree in Gaza

Before we leave I am gifted with yet more fruits of Palestine-a soccer ball sized grapefruit and some fresh lemons from a nearby greenhouse. I graciously accept them but doubt they’ll ever be able to make the lengthy journey back to South Africa.

Fresh produce of Palestine

What I do hope will accompany me home at least, is some merchandise that can be called ‘Uniquely Gazan.’ Our shopping Convoy tonight makes its first stop at a glitzy mini-mall at the heart of Gaza City. The clothing floor has all the latest apparel from mens formal wear to trendy youth gear and glamorous abayas. Some stop over at the shoe department to see what it is like ‘walking in Palestinian shoes.’ I head back to ground level and trowl through the isles of the well lit supermarket. I grab a few bottles of Gazan olive oil and other preserved food items that carry the ‘Made in Gaza’ tag. I notice that there are many products that carry Hebrew writing and as I cash up with my US Dollar bills, I reluctantly take possession of hundreds of Israeli Shekels for the first time ever. It is quite distatesful carrying these plasticised notes, especially with many of them sporting the faces of former Israeli leaders whose role in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people is beyond doubt. Regardless, it is just another reminder that we are in the midst of a normal society which is being force-fed the abnormalities of occupation, including the oppressors goods, currency and monetary system.

Mahmud decides to sweeten the mood. Although no one really seems too keen, he gets us to stop over at the local sweetmeat shop. There is a colouful array of delicacies on offer, all on display in large circular trays. We tuck into the Kunafa, a well known Palestinian speciality, with a cream cheese filling in the center, that I understand comes in different variants. I am also surprised to note that the shop has its own restaurant-type sitdown section for clients who would like to tuck into these specialities on the premises. After browsing around briefly, we leave the premises licking our fingers and thankful to Mahmud, but rueing the fact that due to its freshness and packaging we cannot take some of this sweetness of Palestine home.

Decadent Gazan dessert

Our final stop for the evening is one everyone has been persistent to get to. A place to stock up on lots of small gifts and memorablia to prove to everybody that we were here. Enter into the small but well stocked PLO Flag Shop.

A first glance at the contents of this store suggests that some of its best customers should be the governmental departments we touched base with over the past week. We see many beautiful frames and commemorative plaques on display similar to the gifts handed over to the Convoy during our earlier interactions. Unless it is possible for this shop to export some of its wares, I think, there is hardly any other market for these products locally, especially in the abscence of tourists. The variety of merchandise on offer is bewildering-Palestinian mugs and cutlery, flags, stickers and T-Shirts. Many back home have requested the ‘original’ hand sewn black and white Palestinian scarves and the PLO shop has just what they ordered. I see that the smaller ‘neck’ scarves that are available in many designs are also flying off the shelves particularly fast today. I am quite impressed to see a black womens scarf, made here, that is hand embroidered with well known Palestinian symbols and has both the Palestinian and, to my great surprise and pleasure, South African flags as well. I don’t waste a moment and add it to my cart. The Palestinian tasbeehs with beads in the characteristic green, red, black and white are also particularly beautiful, and I snap up a few of these too. Some today are particularly interested in purchasing replicas of the deep green Hamas scarves imprinted with Arabic insignia and slogans, that they perhaps have become accustomed to seeing on TV and in pictures. The shopkeeper gladly produces the goods. Somebody then naughtily asks if he has Fatah and Islamic Jihad scarves too, to which he grinningly replies in the negative. It seems that the owner of the so-called PLO shop has firmly nailed his colour(s) to the mast.

The range of keyrings on offer is also impressive. Most feature the Palestinian flag prominently, others Masjidul Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, some look like medallions and yet others are cast in the shape of historical Palestine. I really love one that is shaped like a key itself with Masjidul Aqsa on one side and the map and flag of Palestine on the other, and I grab as many money can buy. I pray that it will remind me and others each time we open our doors and locks that the doors to Al Quds and other areas of occupied Palestine still need to be unlocked from oppression.

I open the door to my hotel room and soon I am embalmed in a blissful sleep. This is our final night in Gaza and like all preceding nights, I sleep like a baby. Besides some firecrackers and possible celebratory gunfire at a wedding earlier in the week, Gaza has been a haven of tranquility during our stay. This has helped to dissipate the fears of many of our families in South Africa and helped us concentrate on our mission rather than be consumed by our emotions, which could have possibly been the outcome in the event of any attack. In just a few hours we will say farewell to Gaza. The most pressing question of the hour though is, Will the same tranquility prevail after we leave?

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DAY 15: 02 SEPTEMBER 2011

 

 

The African Jummuah has arrived for the Gaza Strip. Ulama from the Convoy are despatched to numerous venues across Gaza where they will be delivering the Friday sermons. We tag along with Moulana Igsaan Hendricks, who has the honour of delivering the sermon in the mosque of the Prime Minister.

 

Even in a sea of humanity where Arabic is their mother tongue, Moulana articulates himself most eloquently and has the audience spellbound with his oratory. Moulana Abdul Khaliq leads the Salaah and we manage to capture some of the moments of this historic occasion live on Cii.

 

We sneak out of the Masjid afterwards through a back alley and walk straight into a reception with the Prime Minister. He is awaiting us right at the door and personally drapes each Convoy member with a autographed Palestinian scarf. In a testimony to his servitude to the people, he even has the patience to pose with each participant as photos are individually taken-quite painstaking indeed.

 

The Prime Ministers speech today is an important one. He reaffrims to those gathered, his government and the Palestinian peoples commitment to the constants of the struggle. Decisively he announces that they will never recognise the apartheid state, they will never lay down their arms in defense of Palestine and they will never cede any of historic Islamic Palestine to occupiers. ‘Leave the defense of Palestine in our hands and we leave the responsibility to make Dua, spend charity and create awareness in your hands.’

After Jummuah reception with the Prime Minister

The food today is utterly divine and I gobble the huge mutton chunks heartily. Until now, chicken in Gaza had appeared to be the staple diet.

 

The prime minister is most accomodating. As someone comments, what is witnessed in him has only previously been read about in the books of history. He relinquishes his chair when new delgates arrive and interrupts the programme to acknowledge new arrivals in the hall. More specifially, today he is kind enough to afford me an interview at the shortest notice.

 

He listens calmly to my questions and shows a working understanding of English. Moulana Bilal Vaid translates into Arabic, just in case. His message today is tailormade for the people of South Africa and on my request he also lists a variety of means to assist the Palestinian cause beyond just charity. I am really dying to hear his thoughts on the upcoming Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, but time does not permit. It is going to be a busy afternoon for the Prime Minister who whilst in our company has just received news that Turkey has cut military ties with Israel. When he announces it, there is a spontaneous outpouring of joy from the audience.

 

These new developments determine a new schedule for the afternoon. We hurry down to the Gaza seaport and embark on an impromptu protest at the memorial for the 9 Turkish activists killed in the Freedom Flotilla massacre. Flying Palestinian, South African and Turkish flags we denounce the UN report that appears to exxonerate Israel for its role in the massacre and quite bizzarely claims the siege on Gaza to be humane and legal. We are equivocal in stating that it is inhumane and illegal and our Palestinian guides back it up with some chilling statistics. Local Gazans who were frolocking on the beach, leave their merriment to join us. The international media is also present and spokespeople for the Convoy pay tribute to the Turkish activists who sacrificed for Palestine as well as the Turkish government for the bold move against Israel. More countries are called on to follow suit.

Rally at Gaza Seaport

We then follow, to a largely symbolic degree, in the footsteps of these seafarers  by jumping on a speedboat to break the naval siege on Gaza. Boats cannot go beyond a 3km radius according to the siege and we don’t get anywhere near. But with our flags flying high on the mast of the boat, hopefully the message got through. I wade my hand through the warm waters of the Mediterranean as a fine mist sprays my face. This is bliss.

 

We notice groups of Palestinian fisherman huddled up on a rock deaper into the bay. This is as far as they can cast with the stifling restrictions.

 

Our guide Mahmood informs us that this seaport was rebuilt recently using only rubble from the Israeli assault on Gaza. With this ingenuity, Palestinians were able to accomplish the development of what usually would be a $1 million project, for just a tenth of the price. It also gives him the chills recounting the Israeli naval assault on the territory during the last war. Palestinians had no line of defense and no less than 50 fishermen were brutally killed. Others were taken hostage and imprisoned by the occupation.

 

I have begun to develop a particular liking for Mahmood. He is patient and exhudes piety. He is also highly knowledgeable and has an amazing command of the English language. Over the past few days, I’ve heard colleagues mention that he can lay claim to the amazing feat of having memorized the Quraan in 3 months. Back at the hotel, I manage to get him all to myself and ask him how. What he shares opens up a new window into the spiritual awakening of Gazan society. No less than 10 000 young people, male and female, he reveals, memorized the Quran in the same 3 month summer holiday period this year and some manage to complete the memorization in just 20 days! It is an incredible story that I will Insha Allah afford more attention to in a separate post or article.

 

For our last day in Gaza tomorrow, group members have already made a request: Permission to spend a few hours at the shops of Gaza. Their message is clear, we’ve delivered the aid, now let us trade!

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DAY 14: 01 SEPTEMBER 2011

 

 

Two weeks on the Road to Gaza, an opportunity today is presenting itself to network with the group I still count myself to be part of. The youth. Everywhere one drives in Gaza, one is struck by the overwhelming numbers of youth that are visible. It is no secret that 60% of this society are considered youth and thus, not just the future, but even the present rests on their shoulders.

 

A group that has stepped up to shoulder an important responsibility towards their people is the so-called Baytul Hikmah or House of Wisdom. This independent organisation is a think tank and learning centre for young people who will be taught to advocate and articulate themselves correctly on the Palestinian cause. It is a pressing need for a people who have a most just cause, but who often are done a disservice by their own who are not savvy or tactful enough to deal with aggressive and deceptive questioning from a corporate driven media. It is pleasing to discover that most of our young guides who have accompanied us on the trip thus far are members of Baitul Hikmah and accomplished professionals themsleves.Their approach is to set the Palestinian internal house in order before attempting to take on the world.

Eman Sourani

Among the attendees today is Eman Sourani, a youth activist in Gaza. When she stands up to speak everyone listens. Her grasp of political intricacies is impressive and her articulation is captivating. What makes her story even more special is that she has been an ardent follower of the Africa 1 Aid Convoy on Facebook for months and today like Mbinji Mufalo before her, is having her moment of truth with the Convoy. When I get to speak to her afterwards, she is full of praise for South African students for their humilation of Israeli propaganda teams on their campuses, and for the University of Johannesburg for severing ties with an Israeli university.

 

The presentations this morning spell out some blatant injustices of the Israeli siege. Like the many silent bullets it fires at innocent victims who die painful deaths due to a lack of medicine and other essential supplies. In a response to a question of mine, they also indicate how the West Bank and Gaza and interchangeable parts of the same puzzle and how we should not mistake the mistake of separating their plights. Both are under siege, they say. It is just the nature of the siege that is different.

 

The venue is stylish, the presentations are sleek and the gifts are precious. The House of Wisdom exhudes a great air of professionalism.

Aftermath of Israeli strike on a library

Perhaps in testimony to the latent power of the youth and the threat the occupation perceives from education, we get to see first hand the destruction of an Israeli strike from as recent as two weeks ago, on a library. Another target hit in the same strike we are told, was a youth centre.

 

Just before noon, the Gaza Legislative Council or the equivalent of parliament, hosts a special sitting in our honour. Parliamentarians are all lined up outside the venue to meet with members of the convoy.

At the Gaza Legislative Council

In his address to the dignitaries, Moulana Igsaan compares the current visit to his trip a year ago and highlights what he feels are several major areas of progress. Even the parliamentary hall we are currently in was unusable last year as the premises was being reconstructed after an air strike. Today, all remnants of that cowardly action are gone. Except a masjid that has been established on the premises in honour of a parliamentarian who too was killed by the occupation.

 

It is a great moment of honour, but one of even greater responsibility when Sheikh Ebrahim Gabriels announces in the parliamentary chambers that from now on he will prefix Convoy members names with the word Ambassador. The nature of the experiences thus far have been overwhelming bur they cannot be confined to that realm. The ambassadors have to disseminate their experiences and enhance the commitment to the cause.

 

Zuhr is performed on the beach where the Awqaf and religious affairs ministry holds a special reception for the Convoy as well. The Ministry is also one of the recepients of a vehicle from the Convoy.

 

We breakaway from the officaldom and make it our mission to at least dip our hands in the warm waters of the Gaza beach. Which we do. Along the way, we find the beach much busier than the last few days. Mostly young children splash in the water, whilst their families picnic away. A small boat gives brief rides to the children on the calm waters. It is a most pleasant sight.

An exciting day on the Gaza beach

Incidentally, it could also have been the same picteresque setting that formed the backdrop to another chilling murder on this very beachfront some years ago. From naval gunboats an entire family together with their child had their joy erased by the occupiers from this world. Huda Ghalia and her family are never far from my thoughts on this glorious day.

 

That the occupation would even contemplate such an act is callous indeed. The Gaza beach is perhaps one of the very few outlets Gazans have for relaxation and merriment. One Gazan told me that when in stress, he would sometimes just stroll over and have an intimate chat with the sea.

 

But it is not just the threat from naval gunboats that needs to be considered. The water itself could also quite possibly be contaminated or polluted by the Israelis.

 

I cherish every moment of our next encounter thoroughly. We challenge a group of Palestinian young people to a game of football on the beach. Ultimately, it is just an excuse to share some moments of joy and get to know these enthusiastic people better. They display great sportsmanship and we thoroughly enjoy our game. Even though the South Africans come out on top, the real losers in this contest are in fact the occupiers and oppressors. Some fellow travellers feel they need to replicate the experience and thus arrange for a further friendly later in the evening.

 

Before that, we are hosted by a well established school for orphans called Darul Arqam. One man instrumental in its founding was the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. A massive potrait of him smiles down on the gathering. So too does 2 mammoth Palestinian flags, almost 3 stories high. If the proceedings yesterday were made memorable by the powerful voice of a young Palestinian girl, tonight it seems we have found her male counterpart in a little boy who also runs the proceedings professionally. As the orphans roll out their presentations from the stage, it is wonderful listening to the Nasheed Ya Ghaza Wa’Maaki Allah, which Cii had chosen as a theme song for the Convoy, but this time reverberating through Gaza itself.

Darul Arqam School for Orphans

More schoolbags are distributed tonight and the scenes are again touching. The segregated manner in which they are distributed as well speaks much on the Islamic ethos of this institution. It is a massive premises and has all the hallmarks of a school of prestige.

 

The proceedings for the day are over, but I always make it a priority to engage fellow members of the group to exchange notes on their experiences. Today is the opportunity of Hafez Mohammed Sadeqa. He recounts to me how after a particularly emotional experience on one of his day visits, he secludes himself in his room and begins reciting the Quraan. Only when he is interrupted does he realise that he has just completed reciting 5 Juz of the Quraan. All this with the least stenousness or exhaustion. His conclusion, “Ebrahim, this place is just full of Barakah!”

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DAY 13: 31 AUGUST 2011

An Eid to Remember for Gaza's orphans

The late night briefing has left us energized but also physically drained. But as we are continuously reminded,  there is work to be done here in Gaza.

 

Today, this involves yet more visits to special families in the Gaza Strip. And it is expected to climax with our special Eid party for the orphans of Gaza.

 

There are yet more sordid tales to be told. Like that of the 17 children of the Melahi family living in one ‘oven’ with no breadwinner and 4 of them being handicapped. There is also the father of the Ramadan family who just cannot get up from his sleep. Everybody just gapes when they look up at their makeshift roof. And when someone asks the obvious, our guide informs us that in the summer months, this place becomes a ‘swimming pool.’

'Roof' of the Ramadan family home

 

 

Water is also at the root of another mans problems. He tells us how lack of a clean drinking supply has inundated him with renal problems. In fact, by virtue of its contamination of Gaza’s boreholes, siphoning off its groundwater and prevention of the development of proper desalination facilities, Israel has deprived a society of a fundamental of human existence and ground its physical and technological development to a halt. South Africans do not want to be passive observers to this injustice and thus one member of the Convoy presents our host with a valuable invention called the Lifestraw, which will instantly purify water should one drink through it.

The gift of a water purifier

A tour through the Abu Jabal home is next on the agenda and the extended family is all waiting in a long queue to meet us. They are all sufferers of a condition called Thalesemia which demands blood transfusions every 15 days. Due to the the heavy financial strain on the family, this is not happening as often. To compound the crises, the Ministry of Health recently announced that due to the siege, all Thalesemia drugs are due to run out shortly.

 

If that was a hard pill to swallow, I guess no one was prepared for what they were to see at the Shabit home. Here after having an informal chat with the father at the entrance of his home, he asks if we would like to see his kids. We gladly oblige, not in the least expecting anything amiss. A few steps into the bedroom, everyone just stops in their tracks. 2 of their offspring are in a most pitiable condition. Their is hardly any flesh on their bones and they suffer extreme deformities. The reason-carcinogenic chemicals and possibly white phosphorus and depleted uranium used during Israels assault on Gaza. Sheikh Ibrahim Gabriels offers some words of motivation to their parents and we collectively make dua. We also resolve to prioritise assistance for these children. Few of us can believe what we just saw. And the bitter aftertaste promises to stay there for a long time to come.

Victims of illegal munitions

There is nonetheless sweetness in the story of another marytr, whose family home we visit. The entire extended family arrives to meet us and at the end of our interaction they present us with some date cakes and a soft drink. Despite glaring poverty, there are very few homes we visit here where a sweet bowl is not waiting to do the rounds.

Today the family adds something altogether more special. They kindly present us with a tasbih as a parting gift as well. As he frolicks in the gardens of paradise, the martyr will now experience even more ease and comfort as the tasbihs handed out in his name are used to remember Allah.

 

The morning is completed by a visit to the al Wafa Elderly Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Clinic. After an introduction to its scope of operation, our tour of the facility begins. Fortunately for us, this round of visiting brings with it more joy than sorrow. This is more a home for the elderly who do not have any surviving children instead of a hospital. The old people are overjoyed to meet us and we are just as elated. One old lady is said to have a gift of telling ones state of health by inspecting ones veins. She carries out multiple diagnosis’. Another entertains with her ability to speak 3 languages. Yet another is a Hafidha of the Quran and she is blind. She is Hafidha Rida Aish,65, who learnt the Quran prior to attending school and still retains its blessed words perfectly in her memory. We are pleased to have crossed paths with such a talented woman.

65year old Blind Palestinian Hafidha, Rida

On the rehabiltative side, the patients are all victims of conflict who are visibly in deep pain. One patient in particular has his leg positioned awkwardly and is lying awake on his pillow. He is can speak, but not now. So he musters all the stength to just respond to our Duas and wishes. And despite his plight, he is most generous in his good wishes. I am sure I hear him mutter: Sharafakallah-May Allah Honour You. It is undoubtedly a valuable dua to have earned. From a man who is most honourable himself.

 

We leave the patients beneath us and head to the roof for a panaromic view of the area. The clinic is situated a stones throw away from the Israeli border and at a very sensitive crossroad in the conflict. In the near distance we see an Israeli surveillance balloon, which is probably well aware of our presence at this stage. The industrial parks and massajid next to the hospital also all still show their scars from 2008/9. And the clinic itself was in the firing line previously. Fortunately at that stage it was in the process of being renovated and no patients were injured.

 

The most striking feature of this panaroma for me however, is the seamless transition between Gaza and what is called Israel. There may be a wall separating the two but the landscape is the same. The trees and grasses are the same on either side. And the sky they share is the same. Greed and oppression have created artificial borders, but it is just a matter of time before the natural order will restore the balance.

The border betweeen Gaza and historic Palestine

 

 

Deep into the afternoon, the Orphans Eid celebration kicks off. The location is a resort on the Gaza beach and special marquees and picnic tables have been set up around the stage to accomodate the more than 3000 orphans and their families. The scale of the celebration is grand and its intention is clear: to create another reality that would be sufficient to disconnect these young people from the daily mundaness of life.

 

To achieve this, only the best talent is on show. The MC is a lively young girl, small in size, but with an incredible stage presence and a voice that packs a punch. The sound system is also incredibly powerful. And the Africa 1 Aid Convoy team have been afforded prime seats.

The talented MC for the afternoon

 

 

Orphans do a colourful procession onto stage. Convoy members join them, carrying many in their arms or holding them aloft.

 

The programme features several Nasheed troupes, speeches, circus acts and plays. There is also the unique game played on stage where children are given a bagful of plastic pegs and are required to decorate the face of a partner with these in the shortest possible time. There is much laughter when the ‘pegged’ individual gets to see themsleves with all these colourful pegs pinching their faces.

The 'pegging' game

 

 

The ceremony ended on the stroke of sunset. But there was still another item on the agenda. Dr Essam Abu Yusuf of the Miles for Smiles Convoy had decided that his daughter who was getting married should take her vows in Gaza and that she should be afforded a traditional wedding ceremony. And so it was.

 

At the gates of the venue, duffs are beaten loudly. A vehicle carrying the lucky couple arrives and the beating reaches feverish pitch. They alight and are immediately scooped up on awaiting camels. The bride is adorned in traditional Palestinian garb with a veil partially covering her face. Daintily they proceed to the stage. On the stage, there are high levels of adrenalin pumping. A youth group does several acrobatic moves and eventually grabs the groom and tosses him repeatedly in the air. The crowd holds their breath. But soon he is safely back on his chair.

The bride arrives

The bride gets some special attention or her own, next. But it is more fitting for her status. Members of the crowd come along to congratulate her, and even the wife of the Prime Minister is on hand to offer her kind wishes. The ululating drowns away the breath of the ocean. The audience are enrapt as many have not seen a celebration of this scale for years. A local TV station even broadcasts the wedding live.

 

The crowd tonight is a cosmopolitan one. I have interesting chats with an Italian who has made Gaza his home, a Palestinian working for a Turkish charity and another who is part of a select commitee to break the siege.They all agree that todays celebration is welcome as a means of breaking the bondage of the siege by affording Gazans the right to celebrate like all others.

 

The orphans are given just one more reason to celebrate when convoy members personally distribute to them schoolbags donated by the Muslims of South Africa. This has been one of the most successful initiatives of the Convoy and a whopping 10 000 bags have made their way to Gaza. And there is elation all round from the recipients. One boy in particular catches my eye. He negotiaites with an official to give him a larger bag as he needs something big enough for all his Madressa books. When he eventually gets the one he needs, his joy is limitless. He jumps up and down and can’t wait to share his good fortune with his peers.

 

Large bottles of water from South African donors are also distributed to attendees. It is eye-opening to see how families cling on to these bottles not wanting to risk leaving them behind.

 

It is a day that captures the rich colour of the Palestinian experience. From the deep red of bloodshed to the fresh green of new talent and a generation being nurtured; a true embodiment of the Palestinian flag.

 

And then there was also the not altogether unexpected offer from a Palestinian youngster who offered to facilitate a memorable traditional Palestinian wedding ceremony for me. All I have to bring with, he says, is the bride!

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DAY 12: 30 AUGUST 2011

 

 

Barely a few hours on the Blessed Land and we’re already celebrating Eid. Buses are already idling outside by 5.30am and we are ushered onto them hurriedly. Security personnel form a ring of steel around us and don’t allow us to stray too far for our protestion. The movements of the various parts of the group are well co-ordinated. Buses do not move without all passenger being on board and the guides are constantly communicating over 2 way radios.

 

This morning, the streets of Gaza are desolate due to Eid. The bus driver hurries on at a frenzied pace, but along the way something goes horribly wrong and the bus grinds to a halt. A smaller vehicle picks up some members of the group and get them in time to the Eid Gah. The second group are not so fortunate and miss the Salaah altogether.

 

The Eid Salaah takes place over a succession of streets in front of the Khan Yunis municipality. The crowd is overwhelming-yet the Convoy are afforded a special place quite close to the Mimbar. Flags flutter overhead and security presence is tight at all access and exit points. The speciality of this gathering is that it is being addressed by none other than the Prime Minister himself. The overiding message is one of hope-Hope from the developments of the Arab Spring, Hope from Palestinian Unity and Hope from the resilience of the Palestinian people. He impresses on the attentive crowd the importance of having certainty in the Help of Allah. And he repeats the well known Palestinian slogan-Eiduna Awdatuna (Our Eid is Our Return).

Eid in Khan Yunus

 

After Eid, more fascination and interest from Gazans in our story. We also bump into a Palestinian who had the opportunity of studying in South Africa.

 

The scenic drive back to the hotel brings to life places we’ve only ever heard of in the news before. Like Deir Al Balah, which incorporates a refugee camp. We learn that it is called such due to the many groves of palm trees that can be found here, which we witness ourselves.

Deir al Balah. the place of palm trees

 

Our little drive to Khan Yunis and back brings to light the relatively small size of the Gaza strip. Getting from one place to another is hardly a challenge in a sliver that is only 40km long. And in that sense, mobility is far less an issue here than the West Bank, which is littered with Israeli checkpoints.

 

On this day of Eid, Gaza looks like a ghost town. There are hardly any people on the streets and shops have come to a complete lockdown. On probing further, we learn that it is tradition in Gaza to spend the morning hours celebrating and enjoying meals at home. It is only closer to the afternoon, that people emerge to socialise and children pour out onto the streets.

 

A noisy little lorry breaks the silence. Draped in colourful Hamas flags and manned by cartoon looking characters, it rides through the streets of Gaza playing Eid Anasheed and calling out to children over the PA system. At every block, the cartoon characters emerge and hand out candy and gifts to the children. Unusually, they also pay the Gaza International Hotel a visit. Whilst I’m still on the telephone doing an interview, a smiling elephant dressed figure approaches me, drapes his truck over my hand and gives me a wafer chocolate. They also make special announcements welcoming the Convoy to Gaza. Separately, it also reveals how sophisticated internal communications in the Gaza are.

 

One of the advices of the the Prime Minister this morning was to encourage Gazans to visit the families of the ill, martyred and injured as part of their Eid celebrations. Our guides allow us to do just that with planned visits to many homes across Gaza.

 

Although none were apparently expecting us, their doors are constantly open and they have no qualms with such a horde descending into their space. In house after house this morning, they reveal to us the shattered reality of their lives.

 

Our first stop today is at a rundown cottage looking out to Gaza’s mediterranean coast. In other parts of the world, this would be prime property and holiday makers and property developers alike would pay a purse for such idyllic views.

 

Not here. This family has no furniture nor cupboards to house their meagre possesions. Clothes are strewn in neat piles across the rooms. And dishes and implements in the kitchen appear to have been used for generations. To add to the woes, father is not here to spend Eid with his kids today as he is suffering from a psychological disorder.

 

“Psychological disorder.” How often do we hear those words in Gaza today. The wounds of the siege and ongoing occupation go well beyond the physical wounds.

 

For Abdul Haleem Hassan though, its all about the physical. 30 shards of shrapnel in his body bear testimony to the cruelty of war. He underwent close to 100 hundred operations. He visited the hospitals of the same oppressors who created his misery and he was told he would die.

30 shrapnel wounds and 100 operations...

 

Another victim we visit, sits calmly on a chair. He would love to stand up and greet us. He would love to be on his feet to celebrate Eid with his family today. More than anything, he would dearly love to walk to be given the ability to defend his beloved homeland. But none of that appears plausible. He has been injured irrevocably by war and will never walk again. All that is not sufficient though, to prevent him from smiling, which he does resolutely.

 

Across the road from him, is a home that for me is an oven. I find myself shedding some of my outer garments but to no avail as the heat continues boiling my brains. It is unbearable, but it the place this Gazan family calls home. But that too is an incomplete picture. Like many homes we visit, the family here are renting, the breadwinner unemployed or unable to work, due to health conditions. Without stipends form the Ministry of Social Affairs, the situation would be even more precarious. And the effect of such a furnace as we observe are unsightly heatboils on the bodies of little infants.

 

Visits to the families of martyrs, on the other hand, are more about hope than sorrow. It is painful to look into the eyes of the orphaned child, but families of the deceased make it totally clear that they are proud of their relatives achievement. For some families we visit, the wounds are fresh, dating back just a few months. For others, martyrdom is a family business whose story is told by the collection of frames on their living room walls. And for Shady al Jumaah, it is a living dream.

 

This brave man sacrifced his leg for Al Quds a while ago, but his internal fire to continue defending his land and his people continues to burn brightly.

He sacrificed his leg for Palestine-Shady al Jumaah

 

A common thread in discussion over the entire day so far has been the desire expressed by Gazans that the next Eid, for them and us, be celebrated in Masjidul Aqsa and al Quds itself.

 

Our last call for the day is at the Dr Abdul Aziz al Rantisi childrens hospital. For me, I am most broken by the heartbreaking encounters I have here. Children, barely months into their earthly existence, suffer from unexplicable ailments, all rooted in the siege and occupation. Kidney failure and renal ailments are most common. A mother clinging on to her baby whose entire body is puffed up due to poor water drainage is one particularly shattering sight. How will we be able to stand before our Lord, telling Him that we slept soundly, whilst even unborn babies in Gaza suffered?

 

Reaction to the days visits form Convoy members have been varied. Some break down into tears immediately. On the other extreme, members like Junaid van De Plank are visibly angry and vent their fury quite loudly at such a shameless system of oppression.

 

The sordid experiences of the day make many forget that it is Eid. But we are reminded again of this special day when we notice kids doting around on one of the many horses you see on the roads of Gaza. There are also small ferris wheels which children enthusiastically push over and over. Little girls are dressed up smartly sporting some posh handbags. Boys on the other hand are very proud of their new plastic guns which they run around with like cowboys fighting an imaginary battle with the enemy. These are scenes repeated in various neighbourhoods across Gaza.

 

Maghrib is performed at a local mosque. The design of its dome and mimbar are all inspired by the domes of Masjidul Aqsa-yet another device to remind Gazans of their ultimate goal. Whilst performing Salaah, I experience a sudden realisation. I have just made Sujood on the blessed earth of Palestine. This is no trivial honour. Moosa AS prayed to the Almighty that he at least be buried in or as close as possible to the Holy Land. And here was I in communion with my Creator in this Land of the Prophets. After Salaah, I hurriedly make another Sajdah of Shukr to prolong the ecstasy.

 

After Salaah, another demonstraton of rich Palestinian hospitality. The muezzin invites the entire delegation home to some tea and date biscuits. The process of invitation is instant. No lengthy negotiations with home executives to ascertain whether the time is opportune or whether anything is ready. Their doors are perpetually open to their Muslim visitors but concurrently, tightly shut on any foreign invaders. The host proudly introduces me to his kids and speaks at length about their names and achievements.

 

Barely a day in Gaza, but so much to tell. And Moulana Igsaan Hendricks is one man who wants to listen. He calls for an extended sitting of the group tonight at the Commodore Hotel where some of the group is staying. He shares how he thinks this journey is different from previous trips and how much easier conditions have been. He speaks about the great Barakah of time in Gaza and how he perceives a Divine cloud over the Convoy. The overland convoy had experienced not a single puncture over its arduous journey and Moulana himself speaks of his impeccable health on the trip.

 

And then he hands it over to the audience, who despite only being in Gaza for a day, are already deeply touched. What are their stories and reflections? He wants to know. Sister Fatima Ismail speaks about a pledge she has made today to spend at least a part of her Eid every year with orphans, when she is back home. Rabia Gabriels recounts being jolted when visiting the home of a child who had a sibling killed by a bomb that went off just metres from where he was sitting. Moulana Salmaan speaks of his desire to start a family and how he is viewing these plans through a new prism after the days encounters with the children of Gaza. The rigid Junaid van de Plank breaks down as he thanks the Almighty for giving “a former alchoholic” the opportunity to enter Gaza. Since the beginning of the journey, he says, convoy members have been calling him ‘The Pyramid’ because he appears so hard and unemotive. ‘The Pyramid’ he officially announces is broken. Todays sights and sounds appear to have been too overwhelming for him too.

 

Boeta Rashaad reminices on his mothers Dua for the success of the Convoy and wonders aloud if she is the reason the trip is proceeding so smoothly. He remembers too, the young girls in South Africa who called him aside to specially give him R5 which they tasked him to take to Gaza.

 

For Shakir Baker, the story began years ago when he was admitted to the Ennerdale Darul Uloom. His mother then told the principal, Moulana Ahmed that she will keep the bones, but the flesh was his. Years later, it was a pleasant surprise to find him working with his former principal on such a pioneering initiative. In his elation, Shakir describes the night of arrival in Gaza as Laylatul Jaizah or the Night of Prize Giving. He reaches a crescendo when he describes how he managed to see a fig and olive tree growing side by side on his travels today. This for him is an embodiment of the Quranic chapter, At Teen. Moulana Igsaan takes the analogy further and informs him that he could add another aspect, that of al Balad al Ameen, which quite literally is what Gaza has been since we’ve come.

 

There is a welcome surprise for us too in the South African woman who is married in Gaza. Originally from Cape Town, she has heard of the Convoy and has come across to exchange her support. She reminds Convoy members to develop a deep-seated commitment to Gaza and not to make it appear to Gazans that this is merely a tourist stopover.

 

I find particular resonance in the story of a Capetonian member of the Convoy, who states that her journey began not just a few months or weeks ago but rather way back in 2001, when she attended the epic march in Durban to the UN World Conference against Racism(WCAR) that equated Zionism with Apartheid. It rings a bell because I was there too. So was I at the World Summit(WSSD) when we rallied from Alexandria to Sandton in 2002 for the Palestinian course. And there would be numerous smaller protests and solidarity events in between. We have been talking about the crises for long enough. But today we had saw. And with that comes much contentment and gratification.

 

Alhamdulillahi Rabbil Aalameen-And all Praise is Due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds!

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