Monday, June 19, 2006

The Black Hole

Gaza City
June 19, 2006

And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt.
: Exodus (ch. X, v. 21)

I am not one to quote the bible, my beliefs are very personal and those who know me realize this. But there comes a time when you need an inspiration to begin to describe the events and surroundings you can find yourself in covering this unfolding story in Gaza.

Have you ever been somewhere so dark, so pitch black, blackness that envelopes you completely to which there is no beginning and no ending. A place where you feel like you are seeing by being present because your eyes and brain cannot fathom the scenario you are entering.

This is why the quote from the bible is so apt, because the “darkness over the land of Egypt” in those days included Gaza and for the first time in my life I felt darkness. Not of the spirit or the soul, but in real time in real life.

Last night we had to race to another reported air strike by the Israelis deep into Jabaliya Refugee Camp to the north of Gaza City. Mike Tobin (Correspondent) Ibrahim Hazboun (Producer) & Neal Ghabboun (Gaza Producer) & I scrambled in the true sense knocking over the table in the Coffee Shop where we had been watching the World Cup match between Brazil & Australia.

Gaza City is not like the Beirut of the 80’s, even though some days it appears to be. The main street at 9pm has a buzz, be it somewhat depressed with the growth of Islam and traditional aspects of Arab culture that take root ever stronger with each day. The shops have gaudy neon lights that reflect in puddles when it rains, car headlights work in a majority of cars and of course the red traffic light is merely a suggestion rather than a reason to stop.

Jabaliya is a Hamas power base a scrawling suburb of grinding poverty where the Imam rules with the authority of a 14th Century Ottoman Emperor, Palestinian Police would only enter in extreme circumstances and the Hamas Militia stand on street corners entering the suburb. In daylight it can be an unpleasant place, at night it takes on new dimensions as a place you only enter if you really have too.

We drove on and into Jabaliya, all we knew were sketchy reports that a car had exploded, in such cases you start from the premise, that

1. The Car was carrying Militia about to launch missiles into Israel
2. Israel Intelligence had identified the car
3. A pre-emptive air strike had been ordered before the Militia could carry out their mission.
4. The strike was successful and the scene would be a chaotic mess with a burnt out destroyed car, in charred ruins
5. The area would be crawling with boys of all ages whose sole intention is to aggravate and annoy you to get a response to which gives them cause to attack you. Such is the power of boredom and oppression.

What struck as all was that the further we drove into Jabaliya, was that all light was behind us. In front of us a curtain of black was descending, buildings that were six feet to the side of the alleys seemed not to exist, my headlights only seemed to light the road ahead, it was if the beams were being squeezed as to expose nothing.

As my car is armored you cannot wind down the windows, so inside the cocoon the silence is deafened and at times all I could hear was the breathing of the others. We all took solace in talking out loud that we could not see a thing.

The headlights would catch the ghosts of people walking the streets, almost like zombies the light would catch a shadow for a second and then disappear. In the dust of the streets a donkey pulling a cart of sorrowed souls came towards us, disappearing as fast as it came into the lights.

Like children hiding under the blankets from the bogeyman only to be told that he does not exist, we kept driving deeper and further into the zone. It felt like miles between small shops with an old 60-watt globe hanging from a doorway. At each one we would stop open the door and Ibrahim and Neal would ask the directions to the attack.

To people here it is quite normal for a car full of strangers with a car taped up with TV on the windscreen, side windows and back window to pull up and ask directions to the latest missile strike. And at each stop the instructions were the same, in deeper and deeper – straight ahead, left, right it did not seem to matter.

The road seemed to end and over a rise a smattering of headlights blinded me as they drove towards me, fire truck leaving, an ambulance with no lights flashing. Down a small hill the scene was not one of the chaos and outrage that you normally come across after an Israeli attack. Approaching closer the boys encircled the car and my headlights caught the charred ruins of a burnt out car.

Ibrahim told Mike and I to hold tight and not get out of the car, he and Neal would find out what happened. And they disappeared into the darkness, that all of a sudden to become oppressive again as the crowding boys blocked what light was coming from the headlights. The tapping at the windows stared, the forcing of the car door locks being rattled and ghostly faces starred in whilst hands slapped again and again on the windows.

In these times you are potentially at the mercy of the mob and getting out without causing any trouble seemed far more important than the destroyed car in front of us. There was no way Mike or I could of gotten out and worked here, even if we wanted too. The live shot if required would be done inside the vehicle using the technology we had built in for such situations.

Ibrahim and Neal appeared again and simply said, “Lets go now” and with guile and tact they parted the crowd and we turned around and drove back into the darkness.

The whole thing had been a waste of time, there had been no air strike, no militants killed or martyred. A car had been carrying Natural Gas Tanks used for cooking (Like a BBQ gas bottle), gas being a commodity that is hard to get here in the current situation. A feud between two men had grown to the natural conclusion here in Gaza and gunshots had replaced dialogue. A bullet had obviously hit a gas bottle and the result, well try explaining how your car is totally destroyed burnt out and has bullet holes to your Insurance Company.

All was that was left was to get out, as a Chinese proverb states, “It is better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness”. At each corner another candle seemed to be lit and guide us back to the bright lights of Gaza and life.

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