I’m stuck on a bus from DC to New York, and I feel claustrophobic. It’s been over five hours, and now that the bus is standing still in a dark tunnel, with traffic surrounding us every which way, it’s easy to feel overcome by a sense of confinement.
A few days ago, I was pedalling along on a bike from Philadelphia to Washington DC. The open spaces, small country roads, endless green fields and trees, and the overwhelming sensation of freedom, could not be more different to my surroundings right now.
I was part of Cycling4Gaza, a group of 40 people who were cycling to raise awareness and funds for Gaza. One of those 40 was a 16 year old boy from Gaza, Ahmed Abunammous. Ahmed was shot in the leg by an Israeli sniper last year, at the age of 15. His leg had to be amputated, and Ahmed was lucky enough to be treated by the tireless PCRF (Palestine Children’s Relief) who flew him out to the US soon after to be operated on and fitted with a prosthetic leg. A year later, this time last week, Ahmed was cycling with us across the east coast, working his one leg nearly twice as hard as the rest of us.
One night, after we had arrived at a rest stop in Maryland, around 100km from our final destination of DC, we were talking to Ahmed about Gaza, eager to find out more about what life was like there. As Ahmed spoke casually about wars and violence, the demolishing of homes, the siege, and daily electricity blackouts, we were reminded that those theoretical words for us were a part of mundane daily life for people like Ahmed. At one point, someone asked Ahmed what he thought of his cycling trip so far, whether he was enjoying himself. He replied in Arabic that he felt “mirtaah”, comfortable, when he was out cycling on the open road, that he felt at peace. I don’t know why, but I cannot get that phrase out of my head. I think it’s because the idea of a teenage boy knowing what it is to find peace of mind means that he understands all too well not having it. Knowing what it means to feel “mirtaah” when he should feel relaxed and light-hearted like other children his age highlights the injustice of the situation that Ahmed and hundreds of thousands of other children are in, where just being is a luxury in itself. To hear Ahmed speaking like an adult who has been through trials and tribulations felt unjust. To understand that he could only get this sense of peace of mind outside of his home, away from where his roots are, felt unjust.
And while I type in darkness in a seemingly endless tunnel of traffic, stuck with no place to go, I hear Ahmed’s words again, talking about feeling at peace. I try to imagine what it means for this feeling of claustrophobia, of being trapped somewhere, to be a part of your everyday life. What does it mean to wake up in the morning and know that you can’t leave the neighbourhood you’ve been confined to, to know that if you cross a line one metre too far, you’ll be shot by a soldier? What does it mean to do your homework every night in darkness by candlelight because of the constant blackouts (and my eyes are struggling as I type this in the darkness of the Lincoln tunnel)? What does it mean to have your fate in the hands of an army that decides whether your injured son will be granted permission to leave the Gaza for emergency medical care, or be left to rot like so many others? What does it mean for your very existence to be contained and confined, for your day to day life and for your future to be dictated and controlled by a hostile force?
In a situation where the rhetoric of politics has become the main narrative, we have lost the human story. We have forgotten that when we speak of Gaza, we speak not of political forces and a peace process, but of children being made victims of political violence, of hospitals being left in states of crisis with overflowing patients and a chronic shortage of medical supplies, of families being divided by the imposed blockade that stops people from travelling in and out of Gaza, of a community of refugees being made homeless once more through incessant violence that orders the destruction of homes.
A solution to the crisis in the Gaza Strip does not lie in politics alone. It lies in a shift of consciousness, where people will finally begin to see that terrorism is not the face of Gaza, but that innocent, vulnerable children, who make up nearly half of Gaza’s whole population, and who are living under suffocating forces that try to colonise minds, are the face of Gaza.