Gaza Strip – 27 March 2012

5 Jan

Khan Yunis Night

Khan Yunis is not the refugee camp you would imagine. There are no tents, there is no deafening noise of children crying and there are no visible UN trucks.

By the time I arrive in the Gaza Strip, darkness is already creeping over the camp. From my accommodation, nine stories above Khan Yunis, I breathe in an eerie calm and observe an unending sprawl of drab grey buildings four and five stories tall. It looks like the world’s biggest building site. Few buildings have proper roofs. Some have sheets of corrugated iron while others simply have concrete pillars emerging from a ceiling with rusted steel rods swirling out the top. No building looks complete.

With its concrete buildings, including schools and a hospital, it could be considered a city – and not a small one. So why is it called a refugee camp? Because nobody considers it home. Home, the people of Khan Yunis say, is where they and their ancestors lived prior to 1948, when they were forced out of what is now considered Israel.

They believe that they will one day return to their land. It is not a protest chant or a disillusion; they believe that what the world calls Israel is rightfully their home. They are merely living out their lives here until it is time to return.

As the last ray of light fades over the Mediterranean, the hum of personal diesel generators begins to echo around the boundless grey jungle. I don’t hear the sound of fighter jets coming in or rockets flying out. Gaza, at least on this night, is a lot quieter than I had braced myself for, except for the chorus of generators. Lights gradually flicker on in about one in every hundred windows. The rest stay in darkness even though they are all inhabited.

The Gaza strip, with a population of 1.5 million living in an area of 360 square kilometres, is estimated to be the 6th most densely populated area on earth. It is half the size of County Louth while being inhabited by the equivalent of the entire populations of Connaught and Munster combined, including all their towns and cities.

There is currently not enough diesel to fuel Gaza’s one power station for more than 4 hours a day and residents must now fuel their own generators out of these hours. Three days before I arrive, three girls are burned to death when a candle they are using to see their homework is knocked over, setting fire to their home. Country spokespeople say that hospital patients needing treatments like dialysis are at a fatal risk.

The power station has been running at low capacity since being bombed by Israel in 2006 and it relies on fuel imported and smuggled from Egypt, which has clamped down on fuel smuggling, as it is currently facing its own fuel shortages. The lines of cars, monitored by armed soldiers, outside fuel stations on my drive through Sinai in Egypt are testament to this.

In the north of the strip, men queue their cars, pickup trucks and lorries overnight in disorderly queues, often 30 long and four wide, fully aware that petrol may not be delivered until the next day. There are no queues in the south as my driver informs me that all filling stations in the region of the Egyptian border were bombed by Israeli troops in its 2009 invasion.

Prior to 2010, many everyday items such as jam, canned fruit, chocolate and toys were banned from entering the strip at the Israeli border. Israel confirmed the existence of a document stating the minimum calorie intake required by Gazans to keep them alive, based on age and sex. It has denied, however, that it used this list when deciding which foodstuffs made it through the border.

In 2010 Israeli forces boarded a Gaza-bound Turkish ship in international waters, killing nine activists, some of whom the UN states were armed with iron bars, knives and dinner plates. Due to mounting international pressure, the blockade was eased but movement of people and goods is still highly restricted while the strict naval blockade remains in place.  One man I meet on the Egyptian side of the Rafah Crossing, who has been in Cairo for four weeks for work training, is not allowed back to Gaza, with no explanation being provided.

Hamas, the elected ruling party in the strip, is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and by the European Union. Its military wing fires crude home made rockets blindly into southern Israel and has been accused of using human shield tactics, putting its own citizens at risk.

Israel says that the purpose of the blockade is to stall and eventually halt the production and use of rockets and the movement of  terrorists. It is widely acknowledged, however, that the blockade is a form of collective punishment and is illegal under the Geneva Conventions. The UN has scolded Israel for the blockade but any proposed sanctions have been vetoed by the United States, due to a multi-billion Dollar Israel lobby in the States.

While in any foreign city, it inevitably happens that you stumble upon a dodgy neighbourhood and make a quick return to the beaten track. Walking through the grid street pattern of Khan Yunis, every part of town looks like the dodgy part and every track is quite literally a beaten track of sand littered with washing machines, car parts and burst pipes. Despite the power shortages, there is an abundance of supermarkets and barbers open along the otherwise deserted streets with the generator rattling outside like an ugly appendix of the shop front.

A group of young men sit around a fire on the side of the street, beside a cart selling Kanafeh: a delicious Palestinian sweet pastry made of wheat, honey and pistachio nuts. Nobody can see anyone else’s face around the fire. I talk to one 19-year-old man who is in his first year in Al Asqa University. His plan for this evening and every evening is to sit out in the darkness with his friends.

Before returning to my accommodation, my guide introduces me to three young men whose faces are covered by Keffiyehs.  They are brandishing AK47s.  It is not immediately evident why they are standing so firmly against the wall of a building until I look up and see a ledge jutting out over their heads: drones. These unmanned aerial vehicles – or “mothers in law”, as they are sometimes known, because of the repetitive high-pitched screech they emit) are capable of distinguishing a package or weapon in someone’s hand and, at the more lethal side of the spectrum, shooting Palestinians while being controlled remotely at an Israeli base with a joystick.

The Israeli navy controls the strip’s waters while the walls on the other two sides are monitored by Israeli soldiers who shoot anybody entering the buffer zone on the Palestinian side. This buffer zone runs through hundreds of Palestinians’ farms, making their own land out of bounds to them. The drones, people say, are the final crucial piece in reminding the Palestinians that they are constantly being watched and monitored from all angles. Graffiti artist Banksy has described Palestine as the world’s largest open air prison.

The young militants tell me that the time for a peaceful solution with Israel has passed and they will, in the face of Israel’s multi-billion dollar army, triumph in the quest of returning home. Nobody knows how long this literal vicious circle will continue. Regardless, the ordinary men, women and children of Khan Yunis and the rest of Palestine’s refugee camps and cities, will be the ones to suffer.

It is about 11 by the time I walk back to my hotel. The generators have fallen silent but the electricity is not back. People have gone to sleep because they have nothing better to do.


Cairo to Sinai – 26 March 2012

4 Jul

The road to Sinai: Desert, petrol queues and ugly apartments

On paper, the journey from Cairo to Gaza takes no more than five hours. When taking into account the gridlocked street outside our hotel, a bus driver who can dematerialise at the drop of a hat, no less than ten police checkpoints and one enraged soldier threatening to execute our driver, the trip is a little longer.

After an hour and a half on the side of the street, chasing shade while waiting for our bus to arrive, we depart, passing the opulent suburb of Heliopolis, complete with its cavernous houses, home to some of Egypt’s most wealthy people. We hit our stride once we pass the airport and a sign for the Suzanne Mubarak Family Park, an educational resource named after the infamous ex-president’s wife. She appears to be about as popular as her husband who, in turn, is about as popular as hunger and homelessness. The word “witch” is generally found in any sentence in which I hear her name mentioned.

Because of a legal loophole, landlords do not have to pay property tax on incomplete buildings but they are free to rent them to any desperate families who want to live in construction sites. Photo: Jonah Bettio

What strikes me for the duration of the three-hour journey to the Suez Canal is the constant presence of unfinished apartments dotted along the sandy road. These massive projects are unmissable to even the most near sighted tourist in suburban Cairo. They range in size from single blocks to entire cities but the vast majority have one thing in common: they are incomplete, mere concrete frames filled in with terracotta bricks. On the road to the Sinai, they materialise as individual blocks, clusters or clusters mixed with even uglier, endless Soviet-style blocks. I’ve asked myself “Why would anyone in their right mind live here?” in various places around the world but the question has never been more pertinent than when I fly past these run down buildings with no modern conveniences save for bricks and mortar but not always roofs.

To say they were incomplete is not to say they were not inhabited. Because of a legal loophole, landlords do not have to pay property tax on incomplete buildings but they are free to rent them to any desperate families who want to live in construction sites. Such families are not too hard to find in a country with a crippling housing shortage where 12 million people live in slums. These grim apartments are a visual reminder of the toxic legacy left by the former president’s regime. (More background here)

Our first stop is a petrol station on one of the grasping urban tentacles of the city stretching out into the northern Sahara. We are told that the station is not selling diesel as it is being re-fuelled. Our driver, Walid, who is accompanied by a friend, pulls his first disappearing act of the day and returns forty minutes later. During this time, bored and, admittedly, against all common sense, I light up a cigarette and breathe in the desert air between puffs of smoke. As the diesel fumes hit my nostrils, I become acutely aware of my stupid action and an authoritative pump attendant comes screaming in the direction of me and two fellow smokers. I quickly retreat to the bus, take my seat and pretend to be asleep, occasionally opening my eye to see the aggrieved worker drawing nearer. Several winks later, I see him return to the station.

Back on the road, we pass by the International Medical Centre, a glistening building of white stone and blue glass where an Egyptian traveller tells us Mubarak is currently being detained and treated. One article maintains that his stay here is costing taxpayers close to three million Egyptian Pounds (€375,000).

Walid and his companion pull their second disappearing act from the front of the bus an hour along the road at another petrol station. Due to a fuel crisis in the region, traffic at the station is backed well onto the road with five armed soldiers ensuring that the queue is not cut. When one gentleman driving a Chevrolet pickup tries his luck he is not-so-kindly told to keep driving to the next station by a young soldier cradling a Kalashnikov .

Walid’s companion climbs onto the roof and lowers him down diesel cans. Walid, who is standing between the bus and two lanes of traffic easily blasting by at 140 km per hour, is pouring it into the tank with no funnel. The smell of fuel wafts inside. Both driver and friend then turn to refill the cans at the station on the opposite side of the busy route. In a land where speed limits are more-often-than-not ignored and headlights are optional, a twilight crossing is no mean feat.

While we wait, a car skids in on the side of the road ahead of us. From it emerges a woman sporting a niqab who dutifully fills the tank before effortlessly strolling across the road with the empty can. When she returns she is kindly asked by her male companions to return and pick up provision for the rest of their drive. She obliges and when she returns with the goods, she crosses the road one final time and hitches a lift towards Cairo.

Realising there may be no more stops until the border town of El Arish, I decide to use this opportunity to take precautionary action and avoid any unnecessary toilet breaks later on. I will have to cross the road.

I am almost knocked back by the sheer force of trucks carrying all manner of animal, plant and mineral when I find myself opposite the filling station. The cars shriek by, the drivers attentively tapping their horns. This isn’t Cairo. Jaywalking requires at least some level of planning and a grey car with no headlights is quite easy to miss in this light. I wait two minute and take my chance. In what I image is an uncommon event for this stretch of road, four lanes appear to be free of traffic. I take my chance and make my dash, relieved and, it must be said, slightly surprised to have landed on the other side.

After emerging from a dull – but by no means sterile – restaurant on the roadside, I repeat the crossing manoeuvre in reverse. The scene that greets me at the bus is ultimately removed from the bored state of affairs that I had left. Two soldiers are screaming and waving their guns at Walid, an Arab-speaking member of the groups is screaming at them and they, in turn, are screaming back at him. Only for the fact that I have just been to the bathroom, I do not wet myself.

Cairo – 24 March 2012

21 Jun

The iconic Tahrir Square, flanked by a KFC, Mubarak’s burnt-out headquarters and vendors selling Osama bin Laden postcards

It’s not even 7am when I land at Cairo Airport both tired and slightly aggrieved by the air stewardess who refused to give me a blanket, assuring me that I didn’t need one. I am part of a contingent of 15 people who will travel to the Gaza Strip in two days’ time. In the meantime, I will spend three nights finding my feet in the Egyptian capital. It is not the grand scale of the pyramids that will resonate most with me, nor is it the cheap and tasty falafel, nor is it inadvertently ordering a drink in a raucous bar and gradually realising that I was in a brothel. What will stand out about Cairo is the traffic.

Nothing sums Cairo up more accurately than the cacophony of all manner of transport battling for every inch on the boulevards, highways and small by-ways of this mega city, the general madness of the city’s traffic and the ability of drivers to function with little or no apparent road rules.


Seatbelts: Seldom provided, never encouraged

I become accustomed to the madness in gradual steps, firstly by noting that our bus driver from the airport has considered that his passengers would be too tired to walk very far and has kindly parked across a zebra crossing in front of the terminal door. Fifteen people’s luggage is then stacked onto the roof the small bus, almost doubling the vehicle’s height, presumably making it a lot less likely to tackle a corner at high speed without toppling over.

While I suspected seatbelts would not play a huge part in the lives of most Egyptians, I am amused to find that all the seatbelts on the bus are, in fact, fastened closed with cable ties. Not only are seatbelts not generally provided in Egypt but if they are, they are discouraged. At various stages in Egypt, I will attempt to put my seatbelt on, only to be told by numerous drivers not to. I choose not to question their reasoning and go with it. They know what they’re talking about.

Cairo is only waking up when I reach my pension room and sleep for two hours. It is roaring when I awake. Five floors below me, Ladas, military jeeps and bicycles battle for space on the street. They are accompanied by a loud and frankly rather irritating clanging noise every few minutes. The noise, I later discover, is being made by an elderly man selling gas by banging a cylinder attached to the front of the bike. He is a mere harmony in the overall orchestra of noises emanating from the streets to my window.

The baseline of engines and gas cylinder percussion are mere accompaniments to the real melody: car horns. It doesn’t take too long for me to block out the noise of all manner, pitch and length of hooting from a never-ending tide of traffic. From an outsider’s point of view, it appears that there are three main reasons that drivers in Cairo use their horns.

The first is to say hello to someone, friend or stranger; the second is to warn upcoming pedestrians that you will not be slowing down and most irritating is the unrelenting continuous beeping of a driver forced to stay stagnant in a flow of traffic for more than three seconds. Fortunately, as traffic lights are a rarity in Cairo, drivers are well-experienced at filling the gaps.

The journey is exhilarating. I soon learn the Egyptian rules of the road: take every available space and do not give anybody any room. It’s a simple philosophy and one of the few things that is agreed upon across the Egyptian board.

The return taxi trip sees me once again volunteer to take the passenger seat. The journey across the 6thof October Bridge takes me high above the Nile and Gezira Island, where I take in the modern riverside hotels juxtaposed with ugly ugly brown residential buildings tens of storeys tall. I am surrounded at all times by hooting taxi drivers, fearless motorcyclists and men sitting in the back of pickup trucks. It is like a biblical chariot race of people, shoddy cars and the reek of petrol. While descending the bridge back into downtown Cairo, our driver avoids clipping two lovers walking arm in arm on the footpath, falls short of knocking a boy of no more than fifteen off his moped and gives way to an elderly man cycling a bike, the handlebar in one hand and a wooden tray, stacked with bread, held aloft in the other.

Riverside living

Once on the home straight to the pension, on 26th July Street, I see before me a human game of Whac-A-Mole. The street is between six and eight lanes wide – it’s hard to tell as there are no road markings and the cars create their own lanes at will. People are running across it without so much of a thought that they are avoiding cars that are not in the mood to slow down. The secret to crossing? Run. Run and don’t stop. Run and don’t look back. Run and keep running until you get to the other side and look confident while you run. The crossing habit dies hard when I return home and I gradually realise that Irish drivers cannot react half as quickly as their Egyptian counterparts.

Despite the fear that driving or walking in Cairo instils in outsiders, traffic rarely stops and people get from one point to another. In the four days I spend in the buzzing metropolis, I see one motorcyclist lying unconscious on a highway into the city. Considering the sheer volume of traffic, this ratio seems to be consistent with the norms I am familiar with. The system is certainly not perfect but, for the residents of this great city, it works.

I step out of my taxi and catch my breath while the flow of cars down the street shows no sign of stopping, I count down the time until my next taxi journey.

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