Risking death by drowning to escape Gaza siege

Palestinians hold photos of missing relatives during a Gaza City demonstration in September 2014 after a ship carrying hundreds of refugees, many of them from the Gaza, was intentionally capsized by traffickers as it made its way from Egypt to Italy.

Mohammed Asad APA images

Nour Hammad cannot accept that she may never see her brother Sajed again. “I’m still waiting for him to come back,” she said.

On 10 September 2014, more than 400 refugees from Gaza, Syria, Sudan and Egypt were drowned en route to Italy. More than likely, Sajed was one of them, although his body has never been found.

His friends and family are keeping his memory alive. “We are always sending him messages on Facebook in the hope that he will read them one day,” said Nour.

The circumstances in which Sajed went missing were horrific.

An investigation by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor found that the Palestinians from Gaza who drowned in the incident had been promised a safe journey to Italy by smugglers of human beings. The smugglers charged each passenger from Gaza a few thousand dollars.

Once they left Gaza, the passengers were instructed to meet in the Egyptian city of Damietta. From there, 400 to 450 people, including approximately 100 children, were transported by bus to the coast.

On 6 September, the passengers were brought by small motorboats to a ship, which set sail later that evening. Just two hours into their voyage, the passengers were told they had to move to another boat.

On 8 September, the passengers were ordered to change boats yet again. By this time, food supplies were running out.

Two days later, the passengers were once again told that they would have to switch boats. Yet when they realized that the new vessel was less than 18 meters long, many of the passengers complained it was too small and refused to board.

Soon afterwards, another small boat appeared and began ramming the ship carrying Sajed and his fellow passengers. The attack caused severe damage to the ship, which began to sink.

Most of the passengers onboard the ship drowned soon after the sinking, though approximately 50 are thought to have survived for more than two days before succumbing to the waves and exhaustion. Eight Palestinians, two Syrians and one Egyptian survived the incident, which took place in international waters, roughly 300 nautical miles off the Maltese coast.

From horror to horror

Sajed’s family understands why he decided to travel towards Europe. Opportunities are severely restricted in Gaza, which has been under siege and closure since 2007 and has suffered three devastating Israeli military attacks since 2008.

“After the long years of siege and three wars, people want to have a way out,” Muhammad, Sajed’s brother, said. “They need an option to get out of this prison. The last war made many people think about finding opportunities so that their children could escape horror and death.”

Sajed had a small media production company which was bombed by Israel in August 2014.

He rented an office in al-Basha Tower, a high-rise building in Gaza City. The building was attacked late at night.

Sajed and his colleagues were not there at the time, but all of their firm’s equipment was destroyed.

The company was known as Sjaia after the Arabic word for “qualities.” Established only a few months before it was bombed, Sajed had borrowed money in order to set it up.

Sajed Hammad at the Sjaia office in Gaza City before it was bombed. (Courtesy of Nour Hammad)

“Sajed always chased his dreams and was really enthusiastic about his work,” said his sister Nour.

“He was the one who gave us strength when we tried to console him for losing the company,” she added. “He was relieved that he and his friends weren’t in the office at the time. He was more worried about the people who lost their homes or members of their families.”

Following the attack, Sajed decided to travel to Turkey to pursue a masters program in media studies. He had obtained a scholarship to study there one year earlier. He had, however, previously been unable to take up the scholarship because of travel restrictions.

Sajed was determined to keep the company going, despite the attack. He planned to run it from Turkey and return to Gaza once his studies were completed.

Traveling to Turkey by a safe, legal route — via Egypt — was not possible. “The Egyptian authorities had denied entry to people from Gaza who held visas for Turkey, among other countries,” Nour said.

This meant that Sajed was unable to go through the Rafah crossing, which separates Gaza from Egypt. Instead, he had to enter Egypt through a tunnel.

And once in Egypt, he was not able to travel to Turkey. With little alternative, he embarked on the dangerous voyage towards Italy.

“Dying slowly”

Palestinians have continued to try and leave Gaza, despite the disasters and drownings.

Muhammad Lubad set off from Gaza just a few days after the sinking that likely claimed Sajed’s life.

Muhammad, an art graduate from al-Aqsa University in Gaza, resolved not to let fear stop him. After paying $2,000 to a people smuggler — contacted via a mutual friend — he took a seasickness tablet and boarded a boat in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.

Muhammad left his wife and two children behind in Gaza. He was planning to sail towards Italy and find a way out of Gaza for his family once he arrived in Europe.

Before boarding the boat, Muhammad called his mother Amna. “I begged him to come back,” she recalled. “I had heard about the other boat which had sunk. Unfortunately, he would not listen. I kept crying until he asked me forgiveness and helped me to calm down.”

The boat on which Muhammad left Egypt was small. There were 15 other passengers onboard, mostly women and children.

The boat sailed for about an hour before it reached a fishing vessel. All of the boat’s passengers were transferred to that vessel, which was carrying a few hundred people. The vessel was alarmingly overcrowded.

“It was a mess,” said Muhammad. “We huddled together, barely able to find places to sit. A child near me was crying, a woman was ill. There was a man hugging his child tightly.”

The voyage lasted for days. At one point, the boat’s captain started shouting. “At that moment, we realized there was something wrong with the boat’s engine,” said Muhammad. “But the captain said that everything was under control.”

Although it could not sail properly, the boat remained at sea for several more days. Food became increasingly scarce.

“Nights were full of horror,” Muhammad said. “Children were frightened and crying. When you looked around, it was as if you were surrounded by dead people. Then in the mornings, the sunlight would be too strong. I became so dizzy that it was unbearable. It was really tiring. I tried my best to keep going by eating dates.”

Palestinians sit in a police station at Rafah after their arrival to the Palestinian side of the crossing on 23 September. Egyptian naval forces arrested the group which were attempting to reach Europe, and instead sent them back to Gaza.

Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

About 10 days into the voyage, Muhammad heard someone shout, “My son is dying.”

Osama, a 4-year-old, had gone into a coma. Muhammad tried to help the boy’s family, but there was nothing he could do.

The boy died a day later. Muhammad helped Osama’s father wrap the child’s body in a white cloth before he was placed in a wooden box.

Eventually, the boat was surrounded by a number of vessels and by Egyptian maritime police who pointed guns at the passengers. They ordered the passengers to leave the boat one by one.

The passengers were brought to the coast and kept in a sports hall for a couple of days.

Then the passengers from Gaza, including Muhammad, were deported back to the Strip.

Amna, Muhammad’s mother, was hugely relieved. “When Muhammad called me and said that he was back, I came back to life once again,” she said. “I died every day that I didn’t hear from him.”

Muhammad is nonetheless still planning to leave. “I will travel when I have the opportunity to do so,” he said. “We’re dying slowly in Gaza.”

Rising above hardship

Some Palestinians have survived their dangerous journeys out of Gaza and arrived in Europe.

Abdel-Aziz Hamdouna now lives in Brussels, where he is hoping to establish a career as an artist. It took more than two weeks of traveling before he made it to the Belgian capital earlier this year.

Abdel-Aziz grew up in the Jabaliya refugee camp, north of Gaza City.

After leaving Gaza in February, he flew from Cairo to Istanbul. Unlike when Sajed set off, the Egyptian authorities were allowing people from Gaza to travel if they had Turkish visas.

From Istanbul, he and a few other young men traveled to Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city.

As arranged, they met a people smuggler there. Each man paid the smuggler $1,000.

Then they boarded an inflatable boat. It sailed towards Greece, carrying approximately 25 people.

The crossing to a Greek island took a few hours and everyone landed safely.

In Greece, the authorities placed Abdel-Aziz in a refugee camp. There he was able to secure a document enabling him to travel by boat to Athens with Syrian refugees.

Abdel-Aziz recalled it was cold when he arrived. “I bought some food, water and clothes from one of the Syrian refugees who was in the camp where the Greek police put us,” he said.

Abdel-Aziz did not stay in the camp for long. When it was dark, he escaped by climbing over the camp’s fence. “I had a map to show me the way to Macedonia,” he recalled.

Abdel-Aziz walked for hours until he was too exhausted to go any farther. After lighting a fire to keep himself warm, he lay down on the ground and fell asleep.

Abdel-Aziz Hamdouna is one of the lucky ones to have made it safely to Europe. (Courtesy of Abdel-Aziz Hamdouna)

Day after day, Abdel-Aziz found enough strength to keep moving toward Macedonia. He met some young men from Algeria in a forest and they proceeded together. They eventually reached a military checkpoint on the Greek-Macedonian border after a few days.

It was not possible, however, for them to enter Macedonia. The authorities were only allowing Syrian refugees through. As a Palestinian, Abdel-Aziz lacked the right documentation.

Realizing that they had no chance of getting past the checkpoint, Abdel-Aziz and his Algerian friends turned back toward the forest. As they were walking, a police car started following them.

The young men ran until they reached a river, which they swam across despite the cold of the water.

The men had to walk through woodland again. They did so for another few days before coming across another Macedonian military checkpoint, Abdel-Aziz recalled. Hundreds of people were waiting at that crossing. He and his friends joined them.

The Macedonian forces, who have been known to use heavy-handed tactics at the border crossing, opened fire on the refugees.

Abdel-Aziz managed to run away, but became separated from his Algerian friends.

Alone and out of food, all he had to sustain himself was a bottle of water and some cigarettes.

As he tried to sleep one night, he was attacked by dogs. He escaped by climbing a tree.

Abdel-Aziz finally found a way into Macedonia with the help of a refugee family he had met.

“I first saw this family from afar,” he said. “They were among the refugees standing in a queue.”

Abdel-Aziz crossed Macedonia and entered into Serbia.

In Serbia, he stayed at a shelter run by the International Committee of the Red Cross for a few days. He did not have enough money for a train fare to Germany.

“I told one of the [Red Cross] staff that I could draw,” he said. “She agreed to pay for my ticket if I drew her portrait.”

He felt unwell on the train, but kept traveling until he reached Germany. Then he began the final leg of his journey — to Belgium. It involved walking, taking lifts in cars and sleeping in the restrooms of restaurants.

Safely there, Abdel-Aziz has a title for an art exhibition that he is hoping to organize about his journey and his experiences in Gaza. He wants to call it Phoenix.

The name seems apposite. Like so many refugees, he is determined to rise above hardship and oppression.

Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a freelance journalist and writer from Gaza.