Life in the Strip: A Rare Inside Look at Gaza

Sandip Roy
December 21, 2006

"Life forced me to be a journalist," says Mohammad Omer. When he was studying English literature at the University of Gaza his dream was to be a translator for the International Red Cross. Nowadays, the 22-year-old spends most of his time running around Rafah refugee camp writing about and photographing the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. His images of demolished homes and families mourning their dead are, he says, just images of daily life in a refugee camp. "I see targeting of civilians every single day," says Omer, who was recently on his first speaking tour of the United States organized by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. "I have to carry the camera and go on."

Unlike many journalists who come from abroad to cover the situation in refugee camps like Rafah where Omer lives, at the end of the day Omer cannot just put his equipment away and go home. Sometimes there is no home to go back to. He remembers coming back one day from university, tired and frustrated after exceptionally long waits at the checkpoints. He ran into a neighbor on the street who asked him where he was going. "Home, " he replied. "Don't you know?" said the neighbor. "What?" he replied. "Nothing," was the response. The same thing happened with two more acquaintances who just told him to be careful. When the puzzled Omer reached home, he realized why.

The wall Israel was building along the border had gone literally through his house. Omer says the Israeli bulldozers gave no warning as they crashed into the front of his house blocking the door. His mother broke her leg jumping out of the window to escape. The family lost everything they owned and ended up in a tent provided by the United Nations. "All I had on me were the clothes I was wearing, my schoolbag and my ID that I need at checkpoints," he says. "It was one of the most shocking experiences I have had."

But it's a far from uncommon experience. Rafah, home to about 140,000 Palestinians used to be the marketplace of Gaza, with orange and olive trees. But the Israeli blockade imposed after the Palestinian intifada has shattered the economy. After a wages dispute with an Israeli employer, his father spent years in jail and now has no work. Even Palestinians who work for the Palestinian Authority have not received their salaries, sometimes for months. Omer remembers walking into a family's kitchen and found it empty. When he asked what they had for breakfast he was told "bread and tea." When he asked what they had for dinner, the answer was the same.

While countries like Iran and Syria make headlines by promising to help the besieged Hamas government, nothing, whether neither supplies nor money, can legally make it into the Gaza Strip says Omer. Even police cars don't have enough fuel. For young people of his generation, the prospects are bleak. "People my age have no jobs, " he says flatly. "The parks are destroyed. There is nowhere to go for entertainment. When they graduate from school or college they just sit at home. Or they hang around on the street and make chaos."

In that sense Omer has been lucky. His work has been published all over the world. Many foreign journalists seek him out as a translator when they come to Gaza. On his current U.S. trip he showed up on C-SPAN. But he says it's still a struggle to get his work published. Often mainstream media in America think his photographs like the one of young children picking up the body parts of other children off the street are too gory. Omer says they give him nightmares as well.

But he keeps doing it he says in the hope of "building a spark of understanding." Sometimes, though, it is hard for him to imagine there can be one. When his 17-year-old brother was getting ready to go to school at 6 o'clock one morning, Israeli snipers shot him from a rooftop. As he lay dying on the street, his neighbor, a mother of three young children, came running out to help him. She was shot dead as well. When her husband came to help her, he came under fire too. The image of her two children, screaming over the body of their mother, still haunts him. "My brother was not interested in politics, military or the army," he says. "He just wanted to finish school."

Omer's other brothers and sister all bear the scars of their experiences. One had his kneecap shot, another has injuries to his spine. Omer says he tries not to talk about his personal life in his writing, but admits that "at the end I cannot forget I am a Palestinian," and he says that "a journalist should be objective and neutral. But a journalist should also be the voice of truth."

Mohammad Omer was the winner of the 2006 New America Media Award for Best Youth Voice. You can hear an interview with Omer on the New America Media website.