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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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!