07 May 2011

Granny goes to Gaza

Susan makes her third visit to Palestine as one of the trustees of the Dove and Dolphin. 'Israel', does its best to stop her via its surrogate, Egypt.

Al Deira Hotel, Gaza 4.00pm April 2011

I am sitting by the open bedroom window and before me a flurry of two dozen or more little fishing boats buzz out of the harbour heading way out of sight to the south west. Nearer on the beach three or four little groups sit on the shoreline and a handful of children play. Colourful seats and umbrellas remain unused. Is this the Gaza family and friends were worried about D and I venturing to three days ago? I think not, but I was reminded earlier in the day that the threat of the neighbours is ever present as the Israeli gunboats patrolled out to sea. Back here on land I have not heard a single sound of gunfire nor have I seen a weapon. The little fishing boats must be approaching fifty now as they head off for their night at sea hoping for a rich harvest. With the limited distance they are allowed to fish, it is likely they will be disappointed. I am happy to be here with these oppressed people who are so welcoming and generous.

The two day journey from Haytor has not been easy and whilst lying in my bed in the Novotel Cairo the night before last I was determined to turn round and go home.

It was a sleepless night. We had been robbed fifteen minutes after our arrival in the airport. We lost our overnight bag along with all our money (nearly £1000, including people's gifts to children) and the important documentation allowing us entry to Gaza. It was a typical distraction robbery while we were being assailed by dozens of taxi drivers looking for a fare amongst the milling crowds. I will spare the details suffice to say it was extremely distressing for us both. To our rescue came Maher Halawa – Egyptian surgeon who trained in Exeter and became an orthopaedic consultant in Plymouth. Maher produced action from the police who were not responding to our plight. The next three hours were spent giving statements and watching CCTV screens. The police seemed to think they could identify the culprits (a man and a woman) but of course they were long gone.

By this time my head was spinning but Maher was keen to take us into Old Cairo to eat and feel the atmosphere. He employs a driver who wove us in and out of crazy traffic until we reach a total standstill whereupon we had to hoof it to the small alleyways crowded with traders selling everything from frilly underwear to pots and pans. All so noisy and colourful but a distraction from the previous few hours.

Apart from losing our cash our big problem was how to get into Gaza without the authority from the Egyptian embassy in London. A phone call to Mary, David's sister, was a godsend – D had emailed her a copy of the document before we left and she in turn emailed it to us in our hotel. After visiting three pharmacies, Maher was able to replace D's medication so we decided to proceed and called a taxi. Our driver had been recommended and we finally set forth at 11am anticipating arrival at the Rafah gate about three (it closes at 5pm). We eventually made it just after 4pm having encountered traffic jams and numerous passport checks en route and then the next nightmare began.

The surly fellow on the gate took one glance at us through the bars and indicated 'NO ENTRY'. Our hearts sank. He spoke no English but a Canadian citizen/ex-pat Palestinian came to our aid and we were able to pass to the other side of the gate to be met by a fat, cruel man who again spoke no english apart from REFUSAL TO ENTER. Our documents seemed useless as paper and passports were passed back and forth many times to an office about 200 yards away. D grew angry and decided we should just pick up our bags and walk determinedly onwards but soldiers were on us in a flash - gently. Our taxi driver waited patiently outside the gate for nearly two hours in case we had to make the return journey to Cairo. Finally we had the nod and we walked the 500 yards to the Palestinian side having our passports checked four more times and handing over various fees which we didn't understand. Dr Khamis was there to greet us in the VIP lounge. (continued)