A prisoner once again

At last I have made it back to Gaza to see my family, armed with supplies for my ailing mother. Now

It's seven years since I left my home and family in Gaza; I wonder if they know what I look like now. Do they miss me at mealtimes? Or are there no mealtimes now my mum has had a cancer operation that nearly killed her? Will
I be able to see her before it is too late?

The Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza has been sealed for the past three years, but I am desperate to see my family, whatever the cost. I plan to take a solidarity boat from Cyprus, organised by the Free Gaza Movement. It is part of the Hope Fleet sailing from Larnaca to Gaza
in an attempt to break Israel's siege.

When I arrive at Larnaca airport, everything looks the same as when I was first here, seven years ago, after being trapped in Cairo airport for five days. (I had left Gaza with five days to spare, to be sure not to miss my flight, and like all Palestinians was not allowed to leave the airport. I found myself leaving one prison and entering another.)

Next day, I set off to find some colostomy bags for my mother; because of the siege, she is not able to find enough. The Cypriot hospital gives me just one bag. With their little English, the nurses try to tell me that all hospitals across the world have such things. I want to say that Gaza is not part of the world - well, not the world we live in, anyway.

Next morning, we are briefed on the possible outcomes of the trip: the best is being stopped by Israeli gunboats; the others are being arrested or attacked by missile. We are asked to sign a paper saying that we understand the risks involved. It also asks what we would want to happen in case of death. "Please make sure I am buried in Gaza . . ." Signed: Ahmed Masoud.

The next day, we are still waiting for the boat to leave. Someone mentions that the Rafah border might open for a short period of three days. I spend about two hours deciding whether to wait for the boat to leave or to fly to Cairo. If I don't leave for the border today, I will lose precious time with my family.

The moment I reach Cairo airport, my passport is taken away and I am asked to wait in a separate room. I am then sent to a different small room, where I wait with lots of other people for six hours. A four-year-old girl travelling with her dad can't stop crying; she hasn't had any water for ten hours, and is not allowed to get any. A bus comes to take us away, with a policeman who holds our passports. After nine hours, we get to the border. The little girl is still crying.

On the Egyptian side, the border is filthy and full of people. It takes us all day to reach the Palestinian side, where we are finally given bottles of water. I spot the father of the little girl telling her not to drink too quickly. Finally, we are on the bus to Rafah in southern Gaza.

I look everywhere for my brothers, who have been waiting for me on the other side. I keep staring out of the window to see how much Gaza has changed. There are lots of destroyed buildings as a result of the Israeli attack in January, but I feel I still know everything.

I hurry off the bus, but am stopped by a tall guy with a beard, who asks me where I am going and grabs my bags. I start shouting at him that
I don't need a taxi, but he is no taxi driver. He is my own little brother - though not so little any more. When we get home, my dad is the first
to open the door. I walk through afraid, as if saying sorry for my long absence, like a naughty teenager who has stayed out late, but he rushes to me and hugs me. I feel his tears on my shirt, making it wet. My mum is at the top of the stairs. I am so happy to see her on her feet. I feared I would find her lying in bed, unable to speak, but she is wailing and the kids are jumping around dancing dabke. I realise how long I have been away.

After a week of enjoying the food, weather and company, the question of how to leave hits me. I am anxious about not being able to return to my pregnant wife in London, and to rehearsals of my play, which we are taking to Edinburgh. I was supposed to leave with the Free Gaza boat, but it never reached its destination. The Israeli navy intercepted it two days after I arrived in Gaza. So I am stuck here. Will I wait for the border to open, God knows when? Or find an escape route?

The author's play "Go to Gaza: Drink the Sea" is at the Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 6-30 August (0131 623 3030; www.assemblyfestival.com)

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads