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'Staring at freedom a footstep away': How Gazans struggle to leave through the Rafah border Open in fullscreen

Muhammad Shehada

'Staring at freedom a footstep away': How Gazans struggle to leave through the Rafah border

Palestinians wait in line to cross the Rafah border gate to Egypt [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 April, 2018

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Blog: Muhammad Shehada recalls his family's failed attempt to leave Gaza through the Rafah border, an experience hundreds go through.
Last Week on Friday morning, the electricity returned in our home for around two hours before disappearing again. In those few priceless hours, my mother was running fast between the washing machine to do the laundry, the water pumper to store undrinkable water for showering and the oven to bake some bread, before she settled in front of the TV to follow up on daily news.

"Egypt opens Rafah Border Crossing today and tomorrow," that day's headline read. Passengers were asked to be present instantly at the border to be able to leave Gaza, or they would lose that "once in a lifetime" opportunity.

Names from my family were listed for departure on the first bus. After trying more than five times for nearly two years with no luck, this was great news for us all.

My mother jumped out of her chair and stormed into my siblings’ rooms to wake them up. We had to pack immediately and get ready to leave. Stressed out enormously by a deadline to catch for a date with freedom, they filled up their bags with any random stuff they encountered, ran to the street, jumped into a cab and arrived at the waiting hall.

In order to leave Gaza, you need a strong alibi for the Egyptian authorities, such as a medical referral for treatment in Egypt, or a university admission abroad – otherwise no Gazan is allowed to leave the enclave. My family luckily possessed the former document for an urgent eye operation for my brother, who is likely to lose his sight if it is delayed any further.

In order to leave Gaza, you need a strong alibi for the Egyptian authorities, such as a medical referral for treatment in Egypt, or a university admission abroad – otherwise no Gazan is allowed to leave the enclave

At the border, my family were put in an old bus with small windows. More than 80 passengers and their personal belongings were packed into this bus, waiting to pass through the gate to the Egyptian hall. Boiling under the desert sun, a strong smell of gasoline filled the air. It was hot, sticky and smelly, but none of this mattered. Nothing could shatter the excitement my mother felt today. 

Seeing the indescribable happiness in my brothers’ eyes and the hopes that there will finally be a life and a future outside Gaza was more than enough.  

Both my brothers have graduated and qualified as trained engineers, but finding a job and starting a life in Gaza has been impossible due to the 11-year-long blockade, the wars and the destruction.

My younger brother was happy that he will finally have his operation and be able to move forward with his life. He hopes to travel to Algeria for a scholarship after years of waiting.

My other younger siblings could not contain their excitement. For the first time, they were going to meet uncles, aunts and cousins who they have been separated from because of the ongoing blockade their entire lives.

They were happy with the thought of moving to a place with electricity and water, a place where they could visit a zoo or a park without the fear of airstrikes, a place where they could just be what they are – children. They saw all their dreams coming true, if they managed to a step a foot beyond the giant concrete walls that besiege the Gaza Strip.

They were happy with the thought of moving to a place with electricity and water, a place where they could visit a zoo or a park without the fear of airstrikes, a place where they could just be what they are – children

The pain of all that waiting and the tribulations endured for this one moment were all forgotten. My family were distracted by their hopeful attempts to peak through the windows at the Egyptian soldiers opening the gate. Egyptian military tanks and weapons pointed at them as if they were the enemy.

Once the gate was opened, an adrenaline rush spread among the travellers who competed to get closer to the windows and say "hi" to the soldiers.

But this happiness was short-lived and quickly turned into another chapter of disheartening misery.

The Egyptian authorities demanded, as usual, that the buses of "coordinated passages" – a sugarcoated term for those who had paid a $2,000-10,000 per person bribe to the Egyptian intelligence – be prioritised.

The rest, incapacitated by the inability to afford such a bribe, were left to watch these passengers be treated with great respect, as they burned under the scorching sun.

The second "priority" group were the Egyptian citizens and then the people who were sent back in the last opening of Rafah.

The ordinary passengers, among them my family, were never really considered as human beings, only unless they joined the "coordinated passages" club.

As the desert night drew nearer, bringing in a cold breeze, the ordinary passengers, shivering and trembling, were sent back into a small empty hall to wait for the Egyptian authorities to let more buses in.

Through the giant windows of the hall, my younger siblings were staring at individuals crossing through the Egyptian gate with their families while they were left behind in the cold. Their complaints fell on deaf ears of the Palestinian Authority staff.

Through the giant windows of the hall, my younger siblings were staring at individuals crossing through the Egyptian gate with their families while they were left behind in the cold

The only way to join those leaving was to simply pay a bribe that really and truly no Gazan could actually afford. This was the only way to be brought closer to the point of freedom. But instead, we were paralysed, stuck, in the same place and this was unbearably heartbreaking.

Time passed painfully slowly as those waiting held hope desperately that their turn will come next. But nightfall marked the closure of Rafah until the next morning.

My family barely slept. It wasn't the cold floor of the hall that hindered their efforts to get some rest, but rather the fear that if they closed their eyes even for a second, they may miss their turn to cross through the border.

At the crack of dawn, people returned to the bus again and waited for the Egyptian gate to open. Each minute carried a different piece of news. The passengers were losing their minds and their patience.

My mother continued to calm my brothers down. She reminded them about the fruits of patience that awaited on the other side

My mother continued to calm my brothers down. She reminded them about the fruits of patience that awaited on the other side. She herself had already cried over the scenes of bribers crossing through the gate freely while they continued to wait in great despair. Their hopes of freedom were shattering with each minute. 

After two days of standing and waiting, the border crossing was closed down. My family, who stood just a footstep away from freedom, had to turn back and return home. The future they could have had stared at them behind a barrier.

With each step they took back towards home, they felt shackled with defeat, their spirits were hollowed out even more and their hearts ached. Life was squeezed out of them.

My family, who stood just a footstep away from freedom, had to turn back and return home. The future they could have had stared at them behind a barrier

My mother tried to commiserate with my siblings and soothe their pain by reminding them that there will be always a next time. "Inshallah, it will be less humiliating," she tells them.

She reminded them that even the few people who crossed into the Egyptian side were held captive inside the hall for three days where they were starved, blackmailed, and greatly ill-treated. Many were sent back to Gaza, including cancer patients, while others were sent on a 16-hour-long trip to Cairo airport for deportation in a transit bus that is used to commute prisoners. In Sisi's Egypt, Gazans are the least respected category of human beings.


Muhammad Shehada is a writer and activist from the Gaza Strip.

Follow him on Twitter @muhammadshehad2

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