By Natalie Abou Shakra – Gaza
"Look, look! It’s him! It’s him!" screamed Shaymaa from the bus, as a group of 18 family members descended from it to walk closer to the border between Rafah and Al Areish in Egypt. Just around 20 meters away from the fenced border, on a building ahead, barely showing, were four figures of what seemed like a man, a woman, and two young children; a teen-aged boy, and a little girl that he carried on his shoulder.
It was Iyad and Asma Bilbesy, with their youngsters. Iyad and Asma have not seen their family in Gaza for around 15 years. "It is as if he is a prisoner and we are not allowed to see him," said Umm Wael Bilbesy, Iyad’s mother as she choked on her tears when I was still at her home before leaving altogether with a group of family members to Rafah earlier at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
Umm Alaa Shurafa, Asma’s mother, shared Umm Wael’s tears as she spoke to me of her wish to see her grand-daughter whose laugh she had only heard on the phone all the way from London. Both grand-fathers are not alive.
Iyad, Asma and the children spent a few weeks in Cairo waiting for permission to enter the Strip from the Rafah Crossing. They waited, but eventually had to leave back to England, as their children had school, and they had work commitments.
Umm Wael caught me before leaving the house to join the group waiting in the bus outside the house. "I hope they allow us to see him… I really hope so." But, we both knew it would be from behind a fence… a few meters away.
Iyad’s wish was to attend his youngest sister, Israa’s wedding which took place on the 27th of the previous month.
Umm Alaa tells me about how her grand-daughter struggles with Arabic on the phone: "she calls me ‘tata’…" She, on the other hand struggles with the little girls name. "It is… hmmm… sandra… no, wait… Kassandra!"
After about forty minutes of driving from Gaza city, to Rafah, we are told we need to wait for an hour or so, because Mazen, the journalist with the Iraqi channel, al-Itijah, said that the Egyptian authorities had informed Iyad that only 25 individuals can pass. So, we leave to Iyad’s friend’s house to wait there and bring his family and him on board. Thirty minutes later, Mazen’s face grows grim. We are told only seven can enter to see Iyad, Asma and the children. Another fifteen minutes or so pass. We are told none are allowed to enter.
It was difficult looking at the two mothers, who by now have grown very emotional, and uneasy. Toying with feelings as such was unforgiveable and excruciatingly vexing for us to experience. We ascend the bus again. All want only to have the opportunity of seeing the others beyond the borders, no matter how far, no matter how brief. Beyond the iron fence, a look upon 15 years of hopes, on the other side… here we go.
Before arriving at the borders, we pass a line of underground tunnels that are queued in front of the fence. Israa and Shaymaa, Iyad’s younger sisters, hold my hand and ask me to come down with them to take a look. The moment I get to the tunnel, I see someone being pulled out. He was sweating, and looked uneasy. It was unfit for the two elder women to get into, to be dragged around 100 metres below ground level, and then walk for around 20 minutes in a square-like compartmentalized path, with minimal air to breathe, and the possibility of attack. And, thus, it was also unquestionable for us to bring in the children and their parents through it knowing that those tunnels were jeopardized of being struck any moment.
The people present were distrustful of the Egyptian authorities in case of taking the tunnels. And right ahead, we saw the fence which also had a shorter wall behind it, and also saw the Egyptian soldiers in chambers, each soldier in a chamber and each chamber an observable distance away from the consecutive one. "Now there are live cameras on the fences, three years ago there weren’t any. Did you know that between the Egyptian and the Israeli border there aren’t any, and security is not as intense as it is here? There are no walls between Egypt and Israel", Mazen told me as the camera crew began building their set.
We went on the bus again, and moved a small distance in front of the line of tunnels, of which are easily seen. The bus stopped closer by the fence, and the family members began descending again. Moments later, I heard yelling ahead, and Iyad and Asma showed up. Umm Wael and Umm Alaa’s tears poured down, as they cried and waved their hands. Mazen, the journalist with us, held the phone and contacted Iyad. He took turns in speaking to each member, and so did Asma. Each and everyone spoke and looked ahead, at the blurred image of four figures on the building in front of us, behind the fence. They were in Egypt and we were in Palestine. They were not allowed to go in, and we were not allowed to go out. They were only a few meters ahead, a few minutes away.
Wael, Iyad’s eldest brother, joked as he spoke to the latter on the other side. "This is your cousin, Haitham, he is now 100 kgs, by next week he shall be 350!" he raised Haitham’s hand so Iyad could see whom he is referring to from the distance. "And look, even the Lebanese-in-solidarity came along!" We laughed despite accumulating tears.
Walking back to the bus, Id held Umm Wael and Umm Alaa’s hands. I looked at them without a word. They both responded smilingly. I remembered the first day I came to Gaza, before the massacre took place, a young boy, who is now no longer alive, recited to me a line from one of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems, "Oh father, the wolves are more merciful to me than my brothers!"
– Natalie Abu Shakra is from Lebanon and is affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement. She defied Israeli orders for Lebanese citizens not to go to Gaza and was able to get in with the Free Gaza movement. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: http://gaza08.blogspot.com.