Gaza – to hell and back
Tuesday’s Child has supported children in Gaza since November 2007. We currently fund a feeding
programme for 1050 children in 150 families and help 3 primary schools in the strip. We work in
partnership with the Daughters of Charity, in Ain Karem, Jerusalem, and we donate 100 percent of
proceeds. This report covers our two-day field visit to Gaza.
31st August 2008
We arrive at Erez, the northern border of Gaza at 8 a.m. The heat is already a blistering 39 degrees.
The Erez terminal, is about the same size as Belfast International Airport, a formidable border for the
40km strip of land that lies behind it, home to some 1.5 million Palestinians, both Muslim and
Christian. The military presence is considerable and an Israeli spy blip hovers overhead. The Red
Cross help us with our bags as far as the main gate: 3 large cases and 2 rucksacks, about 120kg of
Clearance was approved for entry into Gaza on 27th August 2008, the same day I flew to Tel Aviv. We
had been waiting several months so it was a relief when it finally came through. Despite official
clearance, the interrogation at the border is intensive. While waiting at the external gate I step one foot
back into the shade and am barked at to return to the spot where I was standing by a security guard;
she could not be more than 21 yrs old. One of the Red Cross guys, who must have read my face, put
his finger to his lips, signaling to me to say nothing. It was a good tip, as there would be much more of
it to come. After passing through a series of security gates we arrive in what I can only describe as a
narrow airport hangar, with bits of rag hanging down in places and I notice over a period of about 60
feet, what appears to be, spots of dried blood on the walls. The silence is deafening. We walk for
about ¼ mile turning onto an open sandy stretch. I would love to take out my video camera. Here we
meet some Palestinian men who help us with our luggage. We follow them by foot for another ¼ mile
until we reached the Palestinian border. The total crossing takes about 45 minutes.
As we walk towards the Palestinian border I scan the horizon without looking back at the electronic
and human eyes still watching us. It is surreal and hard to take in, like walking into the film set of a
nuclear disaster movie, devastation and destruction all around as far as the eye can see. I am
immediately struck by the sheer contrast between the two sides of the Erez terminal, from the high-
tech, wealthy and fertile world of Israel and the busy fast-flowing motorway into this wasteland littered
with crumbling buildings, piles of rubble and desert scrub. There is not as much as a flower or garden
and barely a car in site. To the left and right, piles of rubble litter the sand with some larger buildings
burnt out, some their shells still teetering, others a caved in mess. All around the cold 28ft wall of steel,
similar to that which encloses and isolates the West Bank. Unfortunately, it is still not possible to film
here. The silence is pin-drop. Apart from the wall and the spy blip, no sign of tanks and guns. I would
realise later, it was a good time to enter. The international humanitarian boats docked a few days
earlier and, with the world media focusing on the strip, military presence was unusually low key.
Just before the Palestinian border, on the left, about 15 pairs of eyes bore into me, all men, sitting
outside a waiting area; it, too, broken and run down, probably a café in its day. I notice they are all
incredibly thin and unshaven, a ragged looking people with haunting eyes and sunken cheeks. I
acknowledge each group as we pass, much to the concern of my traveling partner, as it is not
Palestinian custom for a woman to salute men in this way or to have their head uncovered in public.
However, they nod quietly and respectfully in return and my heart goes out to these men who are
clearly suffering unnecessarily. I wonder what stories of human misery are behind these saddest of
My traveling and charity partner, Sr S___, walks beside me in her habit and her head bowed. I have
great admiration for this Irish-American who has been making this trip now on and off for some 14
years. Uncanny, that we share the same surname and the same ancestral home of North Cork. I tell
her what I know of the personality types of the North Cork connection and it lightens the atmosphere a
tad. I smile inwardly as I wouldn’t say no to a hurling stick and a sliotar now; maybe I could take a
puck at the spy blip that seems to follow us overhead and score? I have a flashback to a conversation
with my father in 1994; his advice, as always, gentle and wise, often including some connotation to his
beloved hurling. A fine hurler, he would strike the blip with ease although I know, if he was here, he
would tell me to keep my powder dry. As for Sr S____, she is looking forward to her visit and meeting
the people she knows here. It is the first in 7 months and the first time she would stay overnight in
Gaza. If she is apprehensive, it doesn’t show.
Fig 1 Map of Palestine and Israel
For the last 3 days, we had worked together and planned the visit, purchased and sorted the supplies
for each school. During these days, Sr S___, spoke at length about the horrors these people endure
and I was touched by the empathy she had for their plight. She outlined the dangers of entering Gaza,
that humanitarian workers, peace activists and many civilians, mostly Palestinian, had been killed,
others injured and told me I was welcome to change my mind at anytime. I reassured her that I had no
fear of entering Gaza, that the decision to enter was mine and my responsibility alone and that I
needed to see the situation first-hand for the funding-stream to continue smoothly.
I contacted an aid worker with a large NGO before leaving Belfast about the Gaza situation. He had
considerable experience of the strip having worked here for 2 years and approached me with a
request to build an orphanage in Gaza as not part of their remit. Again, I had huge respect for him; 2
yrs is a long time in this place, I was only going to be there for 2 or 3 days at most. “Gaza is shocking”,
he said in his last email, “ Not, I guess the worst area in the world in terms of sheer poverty, as I have
seen worse on that score, but in terms of diminution of the human spirit it is totally appalling”. While I
carried his words with me, nothing would prepare me for the window on inhumanity that lay ahead.
Fig 2 Erez border – Gaza side
Our driver, O__, was waiting at the Palestinian border and we drove quickly from Erez along the main
road to Gaza city. It’s easy to see why it is called the Gaza strip as it is literally a strip of straight road
albeit very potholed and bumpy. Words failed me as I surveyed the devastation on either side of me. I
have never witnessed anything like this and I wonder how people can possibly live here in this
desolation rendered worse by the searing heat. To the right, a group of 5 little boys walk along
together, each wrapped with a knotted sheet, walking and sifting through sand for things to recycle.
Child labour I would soon learn is commonplace here. As we drive on, the words kept coming, Eli Eli
lama sabbachtani, for this is surely a God-forsaken place. The people we meet along the way, are
either walking or traveling by donkey and cart. Some of the donkeys look as thin and ragged as the
people. And then another flashback, this time to my childhood days holidaying in Connemara,
stopping to feed every donkey we came across with sugar lumps and apples and squealing with
delight when they would eat out of hand; the sugar lumps taken from morning raids of breakfast
tables, always two neat cubes wrapped in red and white paper. No idyllic holidays and happy
memories for the children in Gaza! Almost all of the children here suffer from post-traumatic stress
disorder. Donkeys are vital to these people, many steered by children. There are very few cars on the
road. With the price of petrol soaring, those who own cars can no longer drive them; others have
resorted to trying to drive on cooking oil, which may, in part, have explained the abandoned and
broken down vehicles we passed. Once we were away from Erez, I film as best I can, from the car, but
with Nigel Mansell behind the wheel and the endless potholes and bumps it is difficult to get much.
The strip itself is 40km long (fig 1), and 360 sq km, the most densely populated place in the world,
home to 1.5 million people, 53 percent of whom are under the age of 17yrs. There are 3 Israeli
borders enclosing this “open-air prison”., one city, two towns and eight refugee camps. In our two day
stay we would visit most of them. Israel “disengaged” in August 2005; an inappropriate term given how
they are still starving and persecuting these people; a “slow genocide” as one priest described it.
There is no free movement in and out of the strip, the only people permitted entry, NGO workers,
press, military, diplomats and UN officials. There are no exports and clearly no tourist trade. The fresh
water mains supply was re-directed and salt water only flows into Gaza, making it impossible for
people to drink from mains supplies and for many crops to grow. The electricity is also rationed and
there is on average, just 2 hrs of electricity a day in most homes across the strip. Hospital services are
on their knees and many treatments we take for granted at home, and readily available in Israel,
simply aren’t available resulting in needless deaths. With electricity cuts par for the course, people
turned to gas for cooking, but it too is now rationed and the cost increased. One canister costs 80
shekels (20 euros), expensive for a people with no income and no social welfare. Former workplaces
lie empty and the sandy beach which lines the Mediterranean lies deserted. While the world media
has been told of a ceasefire in June this year, the reality on the ground is that embargos and curfews
have been stepped up and the people have never been so broken. The continued shelling of the Gaza
infrastructure under ever tighter siege is causing rapid decimation. Power, sewage and hospital
services are grinding to a slow halt. Almost all people in Gaza now rely on humanitarian aid; yet even
this is subject to long deliberate entry delays and endless hungry queuing.
Fig 3 The Gazan donkey and trap
As we drive on, the lack of civil services is clearly apparent. Torn up lamp-posts, traffic lights that don’t
work, people sifting through rubble, litter everywhere and, from time to time, the rancid smell of
sewage. In recent months, the few working garbage trucks have seized up, litter is piling as is the
incidence of diarrhoea. There is not a play area or park in sight and play is so important to child
In terms of human rights, it is the children that are most violated. Child torture is common statis tic and
already in 2008 alone 68 children have lost the right to life, the majority in random attacks and air and
ground strikes. Some children killed while picking almonds, others while collecting strawberries and 3
boys flying their kites opened fire on. A total of 633 children have been killed on this strip since 2000,
64% of all childhood fatalities in Palestine by occupied military. Women speak of sheer terror as
bullets land at their feet and encircle their children for fun while the perpetrators laugh at their fear.
The right to education and to play and leisure seem relatively minor when children are being killed so
needlessly. Since the occupation commenced in 2000, 562 children have died as a result of Israeli
gunfire. I wonder how many more will die before the world stands up and says, STOP, ENOUGH.
We arrive at the convent we are staying overnight in courtesy of the Missionary Sisters of Charity as
mass is just starting. There are 600 Christian families in this parish. While better dressed and shod
than the many barefoot children along our drive into the city, I could not help but notice the sheer
thinness of some of the children. Others look tired and pasty and others dark circles under their eyes. I
was surprised to see so many fair-haired and even red-headed children in the congregation. A guide
would later explain that the fair genes descended from crusader times. My mind wandered to the
happy faces of children in my kids liturgy group in my own parish at home and how healthy and happy
they are; how different these children’s Sundays must be.
We meet our contact, S____, a remarkable woman and a true champion of the people here. Educated
and formerly considered a middle-class Palestinian she works tirelessly for her people. With no
political persuasion, she, like 95% of people here want peace, justice and a future for their children.
There is no class division here now, of-course, everyone is in the same boat, poor and hungry and
afraid of what lies ahead for them. Ironically, I think, that very same boat Jewish people found
themselves in under Nazi occupation in the ghettos less than 70 years ago.
We drive speedily out to visit the first school and I comment on a large crowd gathered and waiting
outside closed gates. S____ explains this is the gas depot. I am shocked to learn that people have
been waiting here for one week. Many sell possessions in their homes to buy gas; some even sell
some food! To have to queue in this heat with a limited water supply for so long is inhumane, just one
way of dehumanizing these people. The people here look exhausted, some as dry as the desert
surrounding them. It is terrible and a sight that will stay with me.
S____ continues with explanations of daily living as we drive: no milk, no fresh meat, no means of
refrigeration. Fresh flowers were one of the main exports here; this left me speechless as I had yet to
see a single flower growing here. I notice the piles of rubble and earth to each side as we drive, the
leftovers of house demolitions, which continue here everyday. Israeli tanks arrive late at night or early
in the morning, shattering houses and lives with little warning. Since the Israeli occupation an
estimated 5000 house demolitions on the strip, warrants and approvals tied up in legal manoeuvering.
If people refuse to vacate their houses they are tier-gassed. A number of people have been killed in
the house demolitions, children, pregnant women and their unborn children, the elderly among the
casualties. Many others have been injured, not to mention the psychological scarring that remains. At
school, children draw their nightmares in pictures – bulldozers and tanks and broken houses are
commonplace. The high profile case of the American humanitarian worker Rachel Corrie, mowed
down and killed by an Israeli tank in 2003 when she protested against yet another house demolition,
sadly did little to quell the constant assault here. Palestinian civilian deaths never make the headlines.
On the right, rows of greenhouses, also lie smashed and broken.
I ask more about the children and how they are affected psychologically. Many have been bereaved
and many have seen their loved ones killed. Others caught in cross-fire or directly shot at to either
scare and harass or deliberately wound. Many young teenagers are stripped and beaten. Many have
lost siblings, cousins and friends. Such terrible things for children to endure! Most have some level of
stress disorder. Nightmares and irritability are common. Others are often unusually quiet for children,
afraid to speak or move. They all like to play but sometimes focusing on school work is difficult. It is
hard for any child to concentrate when hungry and dehydrated. Disruption to daily school life is
commonplace and sometimes it is just too dangerous to go to school. But like most children they find
ways to play and amuse themselves, even when out rummaging and recycling. In terms of health,
85% of children rely completely on humanitarian aid for food. Many go hungry to school regularly.
Some schools provide high protein wafers to the children supplied by UNERA.
Fig 4 Ruins of a house demolition on the strip
We drive to the Beit Hanoun area and visit the first of the schools we are here to help. Children are
gathered outside. I hand out sweets from a pick and mix bag I bought along the bazaar in the Via
Dolorosa in Jerusalem and there is great excitement all round. Parents and grand-parents join in the
street sweet party; a bit of normality if nothing else. The children here are happy and smiling and wave
at the camera. To me, apart from being barefoot, they just seem like regular kids. Inside it is a
different story. The school, due to start the new term next week, is a shell. All of the tables and chairs
smashed or burned, school materials destroyed and doors and windows broken. The strong metal
school door showing scorch marks where it was bombed open. Everything inside is destroyed; even
the curtains are slashed. We give the teachers one of the bags of supplies to help them start again.
They are delighted. Overjoyed. Paper, paints and paint brushes, crafts, window art, glue and bits and
pieces to at least make it look like a primary school. “We are delighted because we have nothing”,
explains the Head Teacher. One suitcase of materials for so many children – it won’t last long. Still at
least we got it through; often things are confiscated.
In this instance, the devastation was not caused by Israelis, but Hamas militia. I struggle to understand
why Hamas would want to do this to their own people, especially primary school children. Big brave
men who come in the night and take computer equipment, empty shelves, destroy everything in their
path and even smash up the playground. Why would they want to ruin the chance of even basic
education for their children? There is so little as it is, with so many children living on the strip, each
child only attends school for 2.5 hrs per day.
The teachers sit down to discuss what needs to be done to try and re-open the school next week.
Tables and chairs are the most basic need; but it is not possible to replace these in Gaza or to
transport them in; they decide to run with mattresses for now. I promise to send more school supplies
over from Belfast. S____ explains it is getting them in across the borders that is the hurdle. Upstairs,
the first floor of the building served as a community centre and a place for women to come and meet
and sew. Here everything was taken – computers, printers, fax, photocopier. It is very clear that while
Hamas are the political party in control here, they do not represent the people and are hardly
democratic. They seem despised by most and offer no better alternative than the previous regime who
also persecuted their own. The people of Gaza are caught between two evils – the Israelis and the
Fig 5. School supplies for primary school
During the meeting, I go outside several times to meet the children. Each time, O___i comes after me,
asking me to please return indoors. I explain to him that I want to meet the children and film them and
I ask him to translate for me as I am keen to hear the children’s stories. He tells me he cannot and it is
too dangerous for me to be on the street with a camera. He is very firm about it. I think he is being a
little dramatic but then he lives here, I don’t. I will learn later, after leaving Gaza, of another death, a
peace activist, Tom Hurndall, while taking photos; he bravely intervened in crossfire to save children. I
understand now why O____i followed my every move when outside in the open and also, later, that I
was putting him and others at risk.
We leave the school and these inspiring teachers and the children with some more sweets and I
manage to get a little footage on camera of my replacement, as sweet dispenser, getting mobbed
before we travel on. As we drive away, I wonder what future lies ahead for these kids?
Fig 6 Children playing on the street
Our next stop is at a supermarket. Tuesday’s Child currently funds a feeding programme – a lifeline to
150 families in 3 regions in Gaza. Previously, each family received a bag of food in a black bin-liner
containing basic supplies, the same for each family. The new system is a coupon system and gives
families more choice and dignity. Each family receives a coupon worth 200 shekels (40 euros) and
they can choose items from a list of 30 items. The programme is crucial for these families each of
whom has 6 or more children, some as many as 10 or 12 children. Each family has the same
allocation; so a little empirical, but it works.
The small supermarket is well stocked and supply is facilitated by transport vehicles whose main
purpose is to carry humanitarian aid. The shop is crammed with families inside and out. The
distribution in this area has been delayed by one day to facilitate our visit and to let us see how things
work. While we have received written reports and pictures it is great to be able to see the progamme
first-hand. The organisation and efficiency is a credit to the team as is the openness and honesty of
the system. In charity work in war-torn areas, there is always the worry of corruption, but everything
here is in completely in order and the accountability excellent. Prior to this programme, many of these
same families have been living on bread soaked in black tea for the main meal.
There is a nice buzz in the supermarket and it is a moment of hope and cheer in what until now has
been a pretty grim morning. I meet and talk with the women with the help of excellent translation;
many hug and kiss me, others cry and I am overwhelmed by the warmth and welcome of these
people. I also admire their spirit in the face of great injustice. It is difficult not to cry but important not to
as it may be misconstrued as pity. Later I will sob my heart out in my own private space, although it
will take a few days before I am able to do so. I am greatly humbled as I survey the scene and how
happy these women are with their limited purchases. I simply do not know how they can possibly
make it last a month with so many children to feed. One woman. Mona, who is widowed, shows me
the purchases for her 10 children. It seems so little and would fill two grocery bags. She explains that
she brings her children with her and they enjoy choosing things they like. Another woman Sarah, als o
a widow and mother of 7 children, shows me the cleaning materials she has chosen (we supply these
as well as food, if they wish). Two women, who are school-teachers at the same school, chat with me.
They have not been paid for the last six months. They explain that shopping for food in this way is fun
and sociable and it gives people dignity and, most of all, hope.
Fig 7 Mona with food item s chosen by her and her son
I ask Mona, one of the women doing her monthly shop, if we can come to visit her at home with her
family and she kindly agrees. We arrange to meet her two hours later as she lives in a rural area and it
will take them an hour or so to travel home by donkey and cart.
I look at the list of foodstuffs for nutritional value. It is a high carbohydrate and low protein diet and I
wonder if it could be more nutritionally balanced? There is no fresh milk or meat as impossible to store
perishable foods in this heat and without electricity in most of the houses and makeshift homes for
long periods a day, refrigeration is impossible. Outside the supermarket, a blue and white UN cart
laden with fruit, gives out pears to the same families and there is quite a rush. It empties in minutes. It
is great to see that we are working hand in hand with the UN, even inadvertently!
Many of the children in Gaza are anaemic. Pregnant women are also anaemic, posing considerable
risk to mother and unborn child. Tuesday’s Child are keen to supply appropriate multivitamins and
minerals to these women and children. A monthly supply for each child with the monthly food
distribution would surely help. Pregnancy supplements will help too. Before leaving for Gaza, I spoke
with a pharmacy chain in Northern Ireland and they are keen to provide us with nutritional
supplements for children, at a good price
I stop to speak to one man. We speak at length about the food programme. He says “150 families is
nothing”. He is right, we have a long way to go, 1500 would be better but even, at that, it would only be
scratching the surface. Still, it is 1050 more children than we were feeding in Gaza last year and
hopefully next year, we will be helping many more children than we did this year.
Fig 8 Mona and her son paying for food with Tuesday’ s Child coupons
Our next stop is a school in a more rural area. Again, like the previous school, it is smashed and
broken and Islamic slogans cover the walls. It defies belief. I ask the same question - Why? Again the
door was forced and everything inside destroyed. It is the same story across Gaza, with schools that
were either formerly Fatah or receiving Christian aid. The destruction caused by Hamas is appalling
and again I question how they can possibly say they represent the people of Gaza. It is clear that
many of the people do not want them, not dissimilar to our own situation in Northern Ireland. Here the
water tanks for the children are also ripped out as are the swings and slides in the playground. Inside,
children’s paintings are torn and colorful wall paintings are decimated with red paint. One graffiti artist
clearly had a fetish for red rabbits! They are everywhere. (Later, on my return, I google the rabbit and
understand the significance. The rabbit is a Hamas cartoon, a grim anti-semitic character who eats
Jewish people. It chills me how adults try to brainwash the young with their hate).
In one week, 100 children are due to start back to school and it is empty. It is badly in need of funds to
get back on its feet. The head teacher explains it is devastating for the staff, parents and children that
their own people, fellow Palestinians, would do this to children as education is the means of breaking
the cycle of poverty and oppression. A picture of Sr S____ which held pride of place in this little school
was smashed to smitherines, again underlining that Christian aid is not welcome by those in power
here. There have been 270 attacks in schools and centres throughout Gaza and increasingly some
aid agencies are withdrawing as the brutality steps up.
We drive on to Mona’s house to visit her at home with her family, as arranged. The heat is now 44
degrees and bordering on unbearable. Mona is 42 yrs old, widowed and lives with her 10 children
aged 3 yrs to 21 yrs old. She herself looks much more than her 42 yrs. As I hug her, the bones
protrude through her clothes. It is like hugging a living skeleton and I have no doubt that she goes with
very little most days to give more to her children as she seems even thinner than they altogether. The
photo in Fig 9 is Mona with 7 of her 10 children; 2 did not wish to be photographed and 1 was at the
gas depot waiting for gas.
Fig 9 Mona and 7 of her 10 children
On the right, a huge mound of earth and rubble; their former home (fig 10). During the night, just
under 2 yrs ago, Israeli tanks came and demolished their house with little warning; it took 40 minutes
to wipe out everything they had. Six months later her husband died of a heart-attack. Not only is she
widowed, but now she is widowed with no home, no money, no food, no work and 10 children to feed.
Fig 10 Rem ains of Mona’ s home after house demolition
The family now live in makeshift tents between the trees; they are made of a combination of sheets
and plastic. I ask her if we can film and she kindly agrees. There are three areas, a cooking area,
where the stove is currently burning and so it is hotter than a sauna. On the shelves beside her, bits
and pieces of utensils and crockery they recovered from the rubble of their home. I notice the two
grocery bags of food chosen earlier on the shelves. The second area is the bedroom, where she and
all her children sleep together and the third area a living area where they sit during the day and also
use for eating. There is no furniture, only mattresses. Outside, between the tents the family wash
hangs on a line. Their only other possessions, a cart and their treasured donkey. The water tank
stands in the centre of all; at least the water is cheap – 20 shekels and one tank will last a family about
Outside the children gather around a solitary tree. There is no garden or play area and not as much as
one single children’s toy. I wish I had brought a football. Immediately in front of them the rubble that
was their home, a constant psychological reminder of the trauma which undoubtedly contributed to
their father’s death. I am amazed at their survival skills. I simply could not live like this. Yet there is no
need for this much tragedy in their lives and no reason why they could not live happier and healthier
lives. Here in Gaza, so many human rights are breached simultaneously and the UN declaration, now
celebrating its 60th birthday seems irrelevant in light of how these people are violated.
From my bag I take one bottle of multivitamins. With the help of a translator, I explain to Mona how to
give them to her children with their food. They will only last a few days, but Mona understands easily
how to give them. I tell her we will send more soon for all the children. I bought the bottle in a
pharmacy on the Lisburn Rd, Belfast. It was part of a back to school promotion; the irony of it! I
thought of the road and the shops and the wealth in this area – a far cry from this terrible place. If only
every family there could sponsor just one family here, what difference it would make. I decide to start a
family sponsorship programme when I get back to Belfast and to do my best to raise more awareness
about the plight of these gentle and gracious people.
Fig 11 Entrance to Mona and her family’s makeshift home
I thank Mona for having us to her home and for her kind permission for me to film. We say good-bye
and I hope I will see her again. I offer to send funds to rebuild Mona’s home. S____ laughs dryly and I
can hear the sheer hopelessness in her voice. She explains it is not possible to build anything here,
there are no building materials to purchase and transport of these into Gaza is not possible.
We return to the school for lunch. The teachers have prepared a meal for us and I know it must have
cost them greatly. However, after the visit to Mona’s home, while I am hungry, I find I cannot eat but I
make and effort, not wishing to offend. It is good to be indoors and have a break from the heat. We sit
and discuss the challenges facing the teachers as they try and create some normality for the children,
due to return to school.
As we talk, one of the group tells me about their brother-in-law, who died several days ago. He
needed dialysis, but none was available and he died in his own toxins. It is one horror story after
another. I enquire as to the recent opening of the Egyptian border for the very sick needing hospital
treatment. She explains this allowed exit of only 60 people and was more of a media exercise than a
humanitarian one; thousands of people in Gaza are seriously ill and need medical treatment. I ask if
they will take me to visit the main hospital. I am told that we will fit it into tomorrow’s schedule. On the
subject of hospitals, I am also told of a consultant surgeon in the main hospital who was arrested by
Hamas. He went on strike because conditions in the hospital were dire. So he was taken, arrested,
beaten and badly assaulted. Beatings, chainings, torture and hangings are a commonplace means of
treating this who stand up to Hamas.
We drive across the strip to a second area from where 50 families also receive food coupons from
Tuesday’s Child and meet another of the food distribution team, a woman called D____. We speak at
length of the challenges faced by families in her patch and then we drive to visit two of them.
Next stop is Jabalyia refugee camp, “the camp of the child and the donkey”. I can see why, it is over-
run by donkeys and children. It is like a donkey derby with cars darting in and out of carts. No road
safety for children here…or donkeys! I notice some animals are bleeding and their knees are cut. It is
terrible. I guess, if the people are starving, then their animals are too. It is an incredible place. I don’t
think I have ever seen so many children in such a small space. Children race each other on donkeys
along the street while running errands and move the donkeys in and out of cars at great speed, for a
donkey! The joke in the car is that next I will be opening a Gaza donkey sanctuary. These people
have great humour. We stop at one house, a family of 13 live here, two parents, ten children and one
grandmother and another tale of human misery. They are also part of the Tuesday’s Child feeding
This family are again living in terrible circumstances. The children are much too thin. I notice the chest
bones protruding on one of their sons, Michael. He loves the camera. I tell him he is going to be a
movie star when he grows up. I doubt he has ever seen TV. He is quite a character and he takes it
upon himself to lead the tour of the house. He is 13 yrs old. Later back in the living room, his father
tells their story, he has been out of work since 2000. He used to have a good job in Israel in
construction. He was shot on the street from an Israeli tank in the stomach in 2004 and lucky to be
alive. He tells how he has had to sell everything he owns to buy food for his family – the wash-hand
basin, the refrigerator, furniture. His son shows me the space where the wash-hand basin used to be
(Fig 12). In the bathroom a water tank, for bathing, drinking and cooking. No hot water in most houses
in Gaza. I try the light switches in the kitchen and nothing. At least we still have our house, he goes
onto say, and a roof over our heads, but many of our friends’ houses have been demolished.
Fig 12 Michael in the kitchen of hi s home
Fig 13 Wash basin sold to buy food for 10 children
Their grandmother also lives with them. She is an insulin dependent diabetic and needs a wheelchair
and a commode. She has neither. She sits all day on a mattress on the floor in the family room (fig
14). I dread to think what her blood sugar control is like. No point in enquiring about primary health-
care services in Gaza! I speak to the father privately with a translator. There are many things he wants
to say but not in front of his wife and children. He worries for their future. He explains how degrading
and hopeless it is not to be able to feed his children. He does not know how long he can continue
living like this. Tomorrow is the start of Ramadan but there is nothing to celebrate. People used to
have spirit and hope but things have never been as bad as this, he explains.
Fig 14 I am diabetic and cannot walk
Again I go outside to film the children playing in the street, O____i never far behind. Most of the
children are again barefoot. A man shouts angrily and gesticulates at me from across the road. O____i
ushers me back into the house. I am not sure what all the commotion is about. Hamas he explains
behind closed doors and reminds me, for a second time, not to film on the streets. We wait for a time
here and then continue.
I am keen to visit more families to hear their stories and see how they live, but Sr S____ has had
enough; she cannot tolerate anymore heartache today.
5 p.m Women’s group
On the way back from Jabalyia, we stop at a women’s institution. Here a group of women come
together and sew. A young design student shows off her designs. So much potential and so little
opportunity, I think. This group represents 35 women who embroider and do cross-stitch here in the
Centre and at home. The problem is there are no tourists to drive sales. Sewing and embroidery used
to be a thriving industry in Gaza. I ask them to show me their work and I take almost all of it. I promise
to sell it and turn the money over quickly. I will try and sell it to the group of pilgrims from Northern
Ireland who are coming to the Holy Land next week. The women are delighted. I also tell them what
will and won’t sell back home and I promise to sell everything and turn it round as quickly as possible.
Fair play to the pilgrim group - they buy me out – everything from purses to cushion covers and the
money has been returned to these women. Tuesday’s Child will look at developing this project further.
6 p.m S____’s home
We return to S____h’s home, an oasis in a desert. I am glad she has a nice apartment and some
peace in the middle of this hell hole. S_____ asks if I would like to use her bathroom and I have never
been so glad to see a shower. It is very welcome and I feel refreshed. As I stand under the water the
images of the day flash through my mind and for a moment I think I must be in the middle of a bad
dream. But this is for real. It is terrible and scandalous that the world allows it to continue.
We have some mint tea and talk more. S____’s husband joins us. He is very informed. He explains
the history of the Gaza strip to me. We also discuss at length the health problems, the lack of
availability of everything. We talk at length about the malnutrition here and the greatest needs – food,
medicines, education and most of all peace and an end to the isolation and occupation of Gaza. He
explains how lack of availability of basic things is hugely frustrating. He cannot use his computer
because his adaptor is broken and he has no means getting it fixed or of procuring one. This in itself
would drive me crazy I think. The factory he owns is almost at a standstill. Everything in Gaza, he
says, is run into the ground and a state of disrepair. He too worries for his family and their future. At
the door of the apartment, stands an empty cylinder of gas. They, too, are bound by the gas rationing.
We decide to leave the school supplies for the other schools here in the apartment. I give S____’s
youngest child some crafts and a trendy school-bag from the supplies. All kids love presents and she
We say our farewells to S_____ and her husband. I hope we will meet again soon under better
8.30 p.m Kebab stop
Our driver O____i is superb. Since 9 a.m. this morning he has looked after us incredibly well. He is
very attentive. He suggests a kebab as we must be hungry and takes us to a place in the city where
kebabs cost 1 shekel each. They are very good. As we stand in the queue a little boy runs up and eats
quickly out of one of the bowls in the salad bar, shoveling salad into him with both hands. I have never
seen a child eat like this or so quickly. I try and hide him with my bags but we are spotted and he legs
it before I can buy him a decent meal. Children are incredibly resourceful here!
9.00 p.m Missionary Sisters of Charity
I am so glad to see the convent ahead. It is completely dark now, in part because of the electricity
curfew. The city night is alive with sound – donkeys, people and Mosque criers. The criers are
piercing. My head is splitting and the heat is unbearable. Sr S____ goes to visit the local priest and
bring him some grapes. I excuse myself as I am exhausted. The sisters have prepared fruit and cold
drinks and after another shower I sit in their living area. I drink a litre of water and the headache lifts. I
meet a lovely lady, a Sr J_____, and we have a wonderful chat. She is as thin as some of the people I
have met today and her cheeks are also sunken. I am sure she often goes without to help others. Sr
J_____ is quite a character, a scream and she is 83. We talk about life in Gaza. “The human
degradation here is terrible; they treat people like dirt …Palestinian lives are of no value to some”, she
explains. She is worried about her sister, also a nun, who is teaching in northern India and there is a
bad flood there. She tells me of her travels, her work in India and in the Sudan. “You think Gaza is
bad”, she says, “you should go and see the Sudan and Darfur, they are worse again”. She speaks of a
family she cared for in the Sudan, 12 children all of whom were abandoned and all of whom had TB.
They have a house in Sudan if I wish to go and work there. I tell her Gaza is about as much as I can
handle this year! She tells me that she thinks I have a vocation to be a sister. I roar laughing and
assure her I don’t. I explain to her that I just couldn’t wear the same colour all the time and she laughs
as loud as I do. She says pointing to her white habit with a blue stripe, that she wears two colours and
smiles. I do not tell her that everytime I see her order on TV, I think of the poor, their great work but
also pub tea-towels for draining glasses (my father was a publican and while he lost his business in
the troubles, we had an endless overstock in the hot-press at home for years). We sit and laugh at my
many reasons why I simply could not give my life the way this fabulous lady has done and we are both
in stitches. She asks me what I would miss. Sr Joan hasn’t heard of Jo Malone, The Whites Company,
Armani or definitely not Carlsberg. I could really do with one now, I think. She finally accepts that her
recruitment drive isn’t working.
Time for bed. I am exhausted. The heat is unbearable and there is no air conditioning. I go into the
bathroom to try and cool down and the lights go off….the electricity. I search my way back and fumble
for my mobile phone and put on my torch. How do old people living alone manage when this happens,
or children who are afraid of the dark? It’s a disgrace. They have candles someone explained to me
the next day. A fire hazard surely. As I try to sleep, many families are wakening to eat, now that the
power is on. Sleep won’t come, I toss and turn, the images of the families I met today keep running
through my mind.
1st September 2008
6 a.m Rise and shine
Day 2 in Gaza and the sisters are up for mass. I can barely drag myself out of bed. I lie there willing
myself to get up but I am shattered. I cannot lift my head of the pillow and it is pounding again… a
combination of dehydration and Mosque criers. I hear Sr Joan outside flying around like a poppet and
I am amazed by her energy – an 83 yr old superwoman. Despite my best efforts, I just miss mass by 5
minutes, so go up to the children’s nursery upstairs where 15 children are already awake, although all
still in their cots. These children all have families, and most one parent alive at least, but they are
simply unable to care for them. All of the children have disabilities. These nuns do great work. I hoped
to see Sr J____ after mass but she has gone straight to nurse the old people she looks after. This little
nursery depends totally on donations. They too need funds. Also, some of the children I notice are too
big for their cots and should be in single beds.
8.30 a.m. First day at school
Today, Monday 1st September, is first day back to school for Christian children in Gaza. The children
are gathered timidly in the courtyard downstairs. These children seem to have much more in terms of
clothes and shoes than the Muslim children I met yesterday.
9.30 a.m Gaza beach
O____i picks us up about 9.30 a.m. to drive us on a further tour of the strip. He explains he often
drives journalists and diplomats and he offers to take me to some of these places. Our first stop is
Gaza beach, a golden strand that runs along the whole coast of Gaza looking out onto the
Mediterranean. The hotels and cafes along the beach lie deserted and empty. There is not one person
on the beach. It is littered and few beach huts look like they are on the verge of collapse. Here, a few
days ago, the shore was crowded with people welcoming the humanitarian boats. Now it is as silent as
the grave. Here, 7 out of 8 people in one family were shot by Israelis while picnicking on the beach,
just for the fun of it. This deterred many families from going back to the beach. Picking off Palestinian
civilians is an all too common statistic. Non-Palestinian civilians have also died in their sinister game.
There is a queue at the end of the beach, but not for ice-cream, rice and flour. UNERA is issuing food
from a food depot and already people are pulling up in their ponies and carts.
We drive passed Arafat’s former palace and other sites that might appeal to journalists. However, I
explain that we are here for humanitarian work only and ask to go to the refugee camps and the
children’s hospital and to meet more families if possible.
Several days later I would hear reports of Israeli boats shooting at Palestinian fishermen and non-
Palestinian civilians in fishing boats along this same stretch of shoreline. The fishing distance is
constrained to shallow waters along the coast making significant catches impossible. People who try
to escape by boat are shot at and if still alive arrested and jailed.
We drive around the strip and I take as much video footage as I can from the car. The streets are a lot
quieter today as it is the start of Ramadan. I wish I had filmed more yesterday to give a truer picture of
the sheer number of people living in this cramped place full of still stale air. We go to visit another
family. They seem to be a little better off than the two families we visited yesterday. Another large
household – 4 adults and 7 children. The father of the house is in hospital, he is on a waiting list for
dialysis. I shudder as I recall the statistic from yesterday afternoon. Conditions are slightly better in this
home than the two homes yesterday but they are still grim.
1 pm Palestinian border
Sr S____ is keen to leave Gaza earlier than planned, so unfortunately there is no time to visit the
hospital. We drive back towards the Erez crossing, considerably lighter in luggage now as our cases
are empty. I meet a Gazan cardiologist at the Palestinian border. He speaks at length about the crisis
in the hospitals and tells me of more assaults on senior physicians. He gives me a number for a
Palestinian physician working in Ireland who was lucky enough to get a permit to leave Gaza and work
abroad. He asks if I can help him get out of Gaza. I tell him honestly that I cannot but suggest that he
is perhaps more needed here than anywhere else in the world. However, in any other country, he
could earn better and be in a position to help his family more. I reflect on my previous role as a health
educationalist and dread to think what the CPD and lifelong learning opportunities for health-care
professionals are like in Gaza.
1.15 pm Back through Erez
The crossing back into Israel takes a lot longer than on the way in. The delays are infuriating. Our
bags, for the first two checks, are only handled by Palestinians, in case of the risk of explosives. We
meet other humanitarian workers in the main waiting area. They say Gaza has never been this bad – it
is the worst situation in 30 yrs. I then have my 360 degree body X-ray. I wonder as I go into the
cylinder, if this is where they will nuke me?! We stand with our legs and arms spread. I wonder how
my bones are looking, certainly less holes in them than the women and children I am leaving behind.
Finally, we get out, and I am delighted to do so with 90 minutes of video footage. I was sure it would
be found and taken. I am interrogated again at the last gate but this time more aggressively. It is
suggested that I lied the previous day. I tell the soldier, I have not and she yells “Why did you lie to me
yesterday”. I ask her to explain herself. She says “Yesterday you told me you would be going to stay in
Ain Karem from here. Today you say you are going to stay in Bethlehem from here”. Again, she is in
her early 20s, clearly having a bad hair day. I tell her that I will be staying one day in Ain Karem and
from there to Bethlehem. She writes on my passport, reducing the number of days of the visa., still
insisting I have deliberately mislead her. I guess that now renders me a security risk.
3 p.m Israeli beach
Before driving back to Ain Karem, we stop at beach 10km away from the border to walk and relax and
get some refreshments. As I look along the coastline I spot the same industrial chimneys that were
visible from the beach in Gaza. Yet here, the beach is buzzing - a normal Mediterranean holiday
scene. Families picnicking, lifeguard stations manned, water-skiing, groups of friends having fun in the
sun. I found the lifeguard stations bizarre given what was happening just along the coast. I go for a
walk along the beach here…children building sandcastles, swimming and splashing in the water and
another group of kids lying on boards in the sand getting surfboard lessons. They are laughing and
having fun and surely unaware of the reign of terror and inhumanity children live under less than 10km
along the coast where the daily game is survival.
For the few nights after leaving Gaza, sleep won’t come. Images come into my mind and rest evades
me. I have nightmares. While I had no fear entering Gaza, the visit has clearly affected me more than
I realise. I have no appetite and I am numb in that I unable to show any emotion. “It is the shock”, a
Bethlehem Palestinian explains, “it will pass”.
This evening, it dawns on me, I entered Gaza on 31st August - my father’s anniversary. I cannot
believe I had overlooked the date! It is always a day deeply etched on my brain. I walk up the steep hill
of the visitation to stop and say a prayer for him. My father could not pass a child without playing with
them, or giving them sweets or money. He was the original Fr Christmas! A quiet man of few words,
who wore his emotion close to his face, what would he think of Gaza? I pictured him there, in the
supermarket, talking and listening, driving through Jabalyia and surveying the situation with his wise
eyes, analysing everything and saying little. How his blood would boil and how he would weep later
into one his big white initialled linen hankies. Only then, my own tears came. I ached to be a child
again and for my Dad to hold me close and rub my head as he used to do when I was little and out-of-
sorts. And then another flashback to his advice at a time of perceived injustice and I was preparing
my case. “Now Annie”, as he used to call me, “don’t be going in with all your guns smokin’” and I
smiled at the irony of it. How well he read me; my hot head is still my greatest weakness. And then I
pictured my mother, whom he cherished so; beautiful, humorous and courageous, an angel
overflowing with the milk of human kindness. I gave a word of thanks there to God, in this place of the
Magnificat, for the blessing of my beautiful parents and my idyllic childhood, for good parents are truly
a gift from God. And then I moved to our once holy family, and kneeling as a child in the middle of the
group to say the rosary in the evening after dinner. How would we have got through if we had lived in
Gaza? How do these people get through? How do they still have hope in the midst of such sheer
brokenness? How can they have any peace of mind? How can they sleep at night? Does the middle
child hate the conflict most? Or are they all equally scarred? And how I cried for the children of Gaza
and yet I could not pray. Please God keep them all safe, hold each one in your palm, was all I could
manage. That night it was a giant mosquito who joined the sisters for dinner. “It’s normal,” Sr S____
said, squeezing my hand, “to be like this after Gaza”. I wondered had she any giant tea-bags?
I join a group of pilgrims from Northern Ireland and the diversion is welcome. The craic is good in the
bar and the cold beer is very welcome. It’s been a dry week. I join the company of friends I first met in
Medugorje, fabulous people and the singing soon starts. It is quite a session. They were all here for
the official tour. I think that Gaza should be on the travel itinerary for every Irish pilgrim so that when
people come to the Holy Land they can see how unholy a place it truly is.
Today, is the All-Ireland Hurling final at home. We are at Lazarus’ tomb. If only Antrim could rise from
the dead too. And then from there the Dead Sea, clearly named for remembrance of people like me
who try to swim in it.
Our guide plays the Tuesday’s Child album on the coach as we drive across the desert along the
Jordan. Funny to hear the familiar tunes here, as I look across the desert at the camels and
camouflaged tanks. I smile when I hear Liam O’Maonlai’s song, a song his father sang to him as a
child. That was a cracking interview he gave on Ireland AM, it still warms my heart when I think of it. A
child’s repertoire is always a reflection of their parent’s musical tastes. What a weird eclectic mix of a
singing repertoire I had - irish, country and western, rock, folk and corny collection with my own dollop
of the Osmonds thrown in for good measure. At the age of nine I could sing any Wolfe Tone, Charlie
Pride, Clancys, Danny Doyle, Elvis or Mary Paul and Peter number. A nine year old singing about
Kilmainham jail, old triangles and chrystal chandeliers, jugs of punch. gamblers and roving gypsies
and you and me and a dog named boo, paddy mcginty’s goat, something stupid, all shook up, Panus
Angelicus and paper roses. Our car was mad, everyone had at least 10 party pieces. I wondered what
songs the children of Gaza sang. Do they sing? I must start my sales pitch and take a few orders. We
need a song for Gaza. I wonder is Bono or Enya at home? Wish I had their mobiles. I picture how the
conversation would go. Think I’ll try Liam O first. Or maybe Ronan, he was cool too. Wish I could
resurrect Elvis. Elvis would be deeply offended by the crimes against children in Gaza. I wonder if
Christ was a good singer? Probably, being the son of God and all, He must have been a bit of an all-
Over the last few days we have visited the most profound places in this unholiest of Holy lands. Ain
Karem - the village of the visitation, Bethlehem - the Church of the Nativity church and Shepherds
Field, Jerusalem – Gethsemane and Calvary. Yet, I have found it difficult to pray. Sleep still evades
me and I long for it. I try everything, even inwardly reciting the longest poems I know, as strangely
enough there are no sheep in Bethlehem, not as much as a baa. Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat and
Easter 1916 and still nothing. Shelley’s Ode To Night and Wordsworth’s Sleep are no help; probably
It was only when I came to Galilee, to the Mount of the Beatitudes, that I had any sense of the justice
of God. Here Christ laid down his manifesto and, fair play, He certainly picked his spot. At last, I found
some peace and that night sleep finally came. My prayer here, that the people of Gaza will find peace
too, and soon, for time is running out.
My last days in the Holy Land, I realized that it was the child in Christ who suffered most. He knew
poverty and exclusion, persecution, fear and murder. As an infant, He had to flee for His life when
many other children were killed. Being little entails being trampled on and He also was hated for no
reason. Gaza, this tiny little strip of land, persecuted by the respective hate and indifference of two
worldly powers, is therefore incredibly Christ-like, and He is surely present with them in their suffering.
I had no fear of entering Gaza and I would have no fear of returning. My fear is for the people and
what is to become of them, especially the children. May He help them, because the world seems to
have forgotten them.
My sales pitch is going well. I have 43 orders for music albums so far and all the cross-stitch is sold.
Others have given individual generous donations and I get many promises of people wanting to help.
Some pilgrims ask to sponsor a family in Gaza and others suggest holding fundraisers from Belfast to
Ballycastle, everything from pub quizzes to a jewellry party. It’s fantastic and I am bowled over.
Time to go home to Beal Feirste! We drive to Tel Aviv airport. I am only in line 10 minutes and already
4 Israelis have asked for my passport. I am taken aside from the group. Everything is removed from
my luggage, each item of clothing, every toiletry, every Palestinian souvenir opened. Nothing. I am
asked to identify my friends from the pilgrimage. As if. I am then taken to a separate area of the
airport. A pilgrim stays with my luggage as I am worried about leaving it unattended! I am brought to a
cubicle much too small for two people. I am asked if I am carrying a weapon. An intimate search
commences, under camera. I ask if I can be accompanied, my request is refused. It wouldn’t be
permitted in a hospital. It starts with strands of my hair. The head search alone takes 5 minutes; it’s
like the lice nurse back at school in slow motion. It continues and borders on the ridiculous, just like
Erez. Nothing. No full body nuking this time but my shoes are taken for separate X-ray; this concerns
me as I am not present. I wait 20 minutes for my shoes and it is now 10 minutes until the flight is due
to take off. Everyone else will be on the plane. I still have no boarding ticket and I am still in Israel.
They return and are not in any hurry. The flight is now surely about to take-off. I return to my luggage,
still not checked in. They ask me to identify it. For the remainder of my time and through to
departures, I am given an armed security escort. I am accompanied to the gate. My friends are still at
the gate at the end of the boarding queue and their relief shows. My seat is allocated on the plane
under observation by security. And all because, Tuesday’s Child is feeding a fraction of the many
starving children in Palestine.
In the air at last and relief pervades me. I wonder if I can see Gaza and look for the chimney stacks
near Erez but we fly North. I start chatting to the person to my right. He is reading a book called The
Aspirin Age. Not under 16 and contra-indicated in the third trimester of pregnancy and in breast-
feeding I note, only to be read with or after food; still a bit of the pharmacist in there. It transpires he is
former senior administrator for the voluntary sector at home. We talk at length. He has since retired
but suggests that I get hold of a book he put together. I ask him what it is called. So you want to be a
charity? he answers.
Oh yes! And I laugh at the sheer irony of it.
Gaza is a prison and Israel has thrown a way the key
Please sign our online petition for the children of Gaza
* If you are interested in sponsoring a family of 6 or more children in Gaza, it costs £31
or €40 per month. We give 100 percent of proceeds *
Tuesday’s Child will be showing a video filmed in Gaza in Queen’s Film Theatre. To
book a ticket please contact us at email@example.com