An award for the voiceless in Gaza

My ambition was to get the truth out, not as pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli, but as an independent

The siege of Gaza has many layers. I work here as a journalist, amid near-daily air and land assaults from Israel, amid the unending killings and destruction of land and livelihood, which are all made more unbearable by critical shortages of fuel, food, medicine, electricity for hospital machinery and electricity for my work. The other day I returned from fieldwork to find cheerful news from John Pilger: that I have won the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, along with my respected colleague Dahr Jamail. This is the best news I have received for many months.

As I write, I am still thrilled and honoured at such recognition. But since those first minutes during which it was explained that I would have to be in London by 16 June to receive my award, my thoughts have been racing, seeking a way to get out of Gaza. How can I get out at a time when Israel is not allowing even the most urgent medical cases to leave for treatment, a policy that, according to Gaza's ministry of health, has led to the deaths of more than 165 people?

The realities of the closed border and the siege have sobered me, transforming elation into pragmatism. The truth is that, along with all 1.5 million citizens in Gaza, we are not free to leave our prison. Rafah refugee camp, in the south of the Gaza Strip, is my home town, where I belong and where I have lived for my 23 years, along with six brothers, one sister, my parents and our extended family. Originally, the family came from Yebna, a village near Tel Aviv, one of many that people were made to leave in 1948.

Life forced me, from an early age, to face in justice and oppression. I witnessed the killing of innocents and the demolition of houses in Rafah. And so, aged 17, I felt I had to become a journalist. Initially, I could do little more than observe. I had no camera, no computer, only a small notebook in which I wrote down what was happening. I would write articles and keep them as records, for myself. That notebook lies buried beneath the rubble of our demolished house.

One day in March 2003, I returned home to the debris of what had been my home, ravaged by Israeli bulldozers. They were making room for Israel's Iron Wall dividing Gaza from Egypt.

Everything material was destroyed in that demolition. The massive military bulldozers inhaled our two-storey house, swallowed our books, furniture, clothes and all of the everyday objects precious to our family. Two things remained: memory and hope. Memory of the past, and hope for the future.

Most of my brothers have been injured by Israeli forces during invasions. One was killed. Our house sits near the Gaza border. Until 2005, when Israeli troops technically withdrew from Gaza, our neighbours were Israeli tanks and bulldozers. We lived under occupation, and so I went on writing, reaching international newspapers and magazines around the world. To my amazement and dismay, not even local media reported the reality. The international press gave no coverage to daily demolitions and killings in the Strip. Instead, these injustices were met with deaf ears or had blatantly false reports.

My ambition was to get the truth out, not as pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli, but as an independent voice and witness, posing questions and challenging international understanding. I wanted to give a voice to the silenced dead and to ordinary people still struggling: students, farmers, teachers, children, patients, refugees . . .

I wanted to present their words and stories to readers in Europe and North America. Last year, I was invited to the Netherlands for a speaking tour. Incredibly, I was able to get out of Gaza, through Israel and over Jordan's Allenby Bridge, rather than through the Rafah crossing, which, though minutes from my home, was impossible to cross. I managed this with the help of Hans van Ballen, a Dutch member of parliament.

Now receiving the Martha Gellhorn award, an immense honour, is an additional reason to try to get out of Gaza once more. However, I fear that it may be impossible to voice my gratitude to the organisers and those who have supported me in person. But, prize or no prize, I will continue to tell the truth from Gaza, in the hope that one day we will be free of this deadly siege and be able to travel like any human being.

By Mohammed Omer

Mohammed Omer

This article first appeared in Moral crisis?

2008-05-26