Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Man his Donkey and Groundhog Day

Gaza City
February 2nd 2006

Looking through the windscreen of the armored car, the vehicle in front of us carrying Associated Press had stopped and was seeking directions from a man on a donkey cart carrying tomatoes.

In true Middle East fashion there was a lot of hand waving and fingers pointing in all four directions. Shaking of heads and smiles all around.

It had started off as a quite morning late in the bureau down in Gaza, Breakfast had been as bad as ever, and been the same as the day before and the day before and the day before. Life down here is Groundhog Day, and for you trivial buffs, today is actually the Official Groundhog Day in the States.

Ibrahim, Mike and I had not even had a chance to grab a cup of coffee before Niall (our local Gaza Fixer) came running in and said

“ Quick Quick, A car has been blown up by the Israelis”

Now down here, you take those words seriously as many top leaders of Political Parties, including Hamas have been taken out by helicopters, literally driving to the mosque and bada bing, one flash and they are ash. It can be the scene of complete and total chaos with cars smoldering and sheer mayhem in the streets.

Collecting our kit together down the “Alram” lift, which has to be the most dingy slow and undesirable elevator in the entire Middle East.

We call it Alram because they mispelt “Alarm” on the buttons on the control board and somehow the lift has gained infamy as the “Alram lift”. If you are ever in Gaza, make sure you stop by and use it. I point of courtesy to fellow lift users make sure you light up a cigarette before getting in and smoke it throughout the whole journey. Its even better if you all smoke.

The lift only holds five people and has a single 40watt light bulb dangling down from the ceiling; it is not good to suffer from claustrophobia. The grinding noises you hear are part of the surround sound system to enhance the enjoyment of your ride.

A quick “ Yemeen, Yemeen and an a Alatool” and off through the traffic I drove, no doubt you are impressed by the fact that I understand traffic directions in Arabic let alone the fact that I drive down here in Gaza.

Down to the Beach Camp avoiding the great perils of driving down here “Small Children” not mention donkeys. It is not unusual to see small children under two years of age wandering the streets and lanes of Gaza being lead by an older sibling who is maybe three. We are not talking curbed roads and tree lined suburbs, but rough tracks with potholes, past the UN Food Distribution Centre and along the beach road.

The radio had now downgraded the initial report from an attack to a couple of injured carrying a rocket, and the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) had categorically denied any attacks had been carried out.

Like lemmings, the media starts to converge, the odd car becomes a couple traveling together then becomes four, I am following AP and MBC from Lebanon is behind and Abu Dhabi TV is behind them and so on. Past the five star Movenpick Hotel that is half built and the foundations for the Marriott that will never been completed. Why they ever started building defies logic.

You can only drive so far north from Gaza City before you enter the “Dead Zone” close to the border with Israel. Basically if you come anywhere near the border fence you are playing with death, because the Israeli soldiers in the watchtowers will just open fire.

The media convoy slows to a halt before a rise in the road, the latest information has the details that two gun men from Islamic Jihad had been carrying rockets into the area to fire into Israel and that one of the rockets had blown up injuring both of them.

Turning back around the media convoy went back and turned inland trying to find a safer road into where the accident had happened, down the dirt road came the man on a donkey carrying tomatoes. He stopped and told the Associated Press that there was nothing to see.

Being such a credible witness, the story was over. Why would anyone doubt a man on a donkey carrying tomatoes? We turned and headed back to the office, the only good thing about it all was that another hour had passed, or had it. After all it is Groundhog Day.

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