I left very early in the morning with my youngest sister Tamam, heading to the Rafah border crossing with her to give her as much moral support as I could. Having experienced what can only be described as the torture of waiting at the border previously, I know very well how much of a nightmare going there is.
Tamam had been home from Turkey after nine months of studying the Turkish language there. About a year ago, she earned a scholarship to study for her BA in journalism in Ankara. After enjoying three weeks of her presence at home, the time had finally come for her to return to Ankara, as her summer vacation is about to end and she has to go through many procedures in order to register for the first semester of her undergraduate studies.
She was scheduled to leave through Rafah. Hearing of the crowds who have been trying to cross in vain for days — if not for weeks — and the restrictions that Egypt imposed on Rafah border, led us to decide to stay at home for a while. A few more hours of sleeping would be worth more to us than the hours we would have wasted if we had gone to the border. A day earlier, the Palestinian side allowed five buses in but Egypt allowed only one.
Yesterday, we decided to go, hoping that she would be fortunate enough to cross the border. As we were pulling her luggage into the car, we started laughing while mocking the dark situation we have to go through, while knowing deep inside that we will eventually have to return back home. But we insisted on going and seeing the situation with our own eyes. It was hard to imagine how the border situation and the travelers’ crisis are getting worse, especially during the difficult times that Egypt is going through.
My sister didn’t realize that a normal decision like returning home for a visit carries the risk of losing her scholarship and keeping her locked inside Gaza. She didn’t know that she should have considered such a thought a thousand times before making up her mind. Such a decision is supposed to be normal in a normal situation, but not in our case, which is very far from being normal.
As we arrived at the hall where travelers gather in hope of hearing their names called out, we were shocked to see the numerous people already waiting there. Some people had been waiting since sunrise and had been trying to cross for more than a week. Most of them were students traveling for educational purposes or patients leaving for medical reasons.
The scenes of the children who were lying down and sleeping on chairs and those of elderly people who could barely stand on their feet were the most heartbreaking. Elderly people were shouting at the police, who were forming a fence in front of the travel coordination offices. They were powerless and had nothing to say or do, but were trying their best to keep people’s anger and frustration in control and to maintain some semblance of discipline.
We were ashamed of complaining about anything, just sitting and watching people huffing and puffing. We met people who have been trying to cross for about two weeks.
At about 1pm, the police said via speakers: “We ask everyone to return back home. We received a notice that Rafah border is completely closed and not even a single Palestinian will be able to cross due to the killing of 22 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. We don’t know when the border will re-open. Keep following the interior ministry website for more information.”
I expected people to rebel and break the police fence and turn the hall into chaos. But they just turned their backs, dragged their luggage and went home. I heard many saying, “At least they finally said something. At least we didn’t have to wait until sunset.”
For many people this scenario has been happening for many days, so they expected the same to be repeated again and again.
My sister has described her experience in a few moving words she wrote on her Facebook page. This is my translation of her words:
“I dragged my luggage very early in the morning to Gaza’s only exit to the outside world, though I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to cross. Dad stood watching me from a distance and finally he stepped closer and uttered one sentence, ‘May God ease your way, my dear.’ I cried a lot.
“More accurately, we both cried. I wondered why I cried despite having a strong desire to leave this city after a three-week visit which was more tiring than joyful, while worrying about the Rafah border’s situation. This complicated city is becoming more choking. It makes us weep out of happiness and sorrow. It restricts our freedom. It forces us to learn to adapt to the inadaptable.
“At this point of frustration and thinking negatively, I can’t think of any reason why we’re so attached to this mysterious city. Nevertheless, one can’t but be always longing to return to Gaza.”
My sister’s flight is scheduled to leave from Cairo to Istanbul on Thursday. It is very likely that she will miss her flight, like many other Palestinians living in Gaza.
Why should Tamam or any other traveler living in Gaza pay the price for anything happening in the neighboring countries? How many dreams are going to be dashed or how many more patients are going to die before we have a permanent and a secure way to travel? Will we ever live a normal life? This situation is utterly insane and inhumane. Collective punishment policies must end.