Gaza: land of the trapped
Last summer's 50-day bombardment left thousands dead and many more maimed and homeless. Kevin Doyle visits the scarred, war-weary territory and finds a people living in constant fear, but praying for salvation too. Pictures: Mark Condren
The sunflowers are becoming ripe. Big, bright and yellow.
I expect them to be the last bit of colour we see as the motorway comes to a dusty and sudden end, marked by a 'Welcome to Erez Crossing Point' sign.
But there is nothing seductive about the grey and blue control centre with its bomb-shattered glass, casually dressed Israelis weighed down by weaponry, and pretty but stern women who will decide if you are indeed 'welcome'.
There's no queue to get in but tired faces staring back from the aspirational line on the other side of 'passport control' already tell a story. Cancer is their best chance of escape. Dying to leave.
The passage through 'no man's land' hints at the devastation caused by last summer's Operation Protective Edge.
An odious smell erodes the fresh air and every step through a desert cage is monitored from the watchtowers until you reach the tin hut that is Palestinian passport control.
Under the blazing sun, a line of yellow Skoda taxis wait for new arrivals. We are the only ones today so far.
The soldiers at the Hamas checkpoint just across the border give off a relaxed impression but are clearly suspicious. Everyone is a potential spy unless proven otherwise.
This is Gaza: land of the trapped. One of those places in the world like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan that we have come to know, but fail to understand.
It is still being pieced back together after last summer's 50-day war that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including around 500 children and 250 women.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said this week, 44pc of those killed in the Strip between July 8 and August 27 were armed fighters.
But an international report to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in nine days, is expected to say the civilian death toll far outweighed the terrorist fatalities.
Israel suffered casualties too, the rockets reined down. Sixty-six military personnel died and seven civilians.
The IDF used the so-called "knock on the roof" method to warn people of impending attacks, by launching a non-explosive missile before the main strike.
The damage was catastrophic, and yet, there are still flashes of colour.
A beautiful pier dotted with small fishing boats in uniform yellow, blue and red. The sandy beach overlooked by the boutique al-Deira hotel is teeming again at the exact spot where, less than a year ago, a missile attack killed four children. Life goes on. The city is humming as cars compete with donkeys for road space. The animated urban pulse is balanced by laid-back rural villages.
The children are like butterflies, feeding their boredom with dreams of Messi and Princess Elsa.
The whole place has a 'back to the future' charm and its own iris blue sky that any tourist agent could literally sell as 'out of this world'.
But blink and refocus - it's a warzone; a prison for 1.8 million people. On one side, a 25ft-wall blocks sight of the sunflowers. On the other, the Mediterranean stretches to a horizon marshalled by gunboats.
By the time they are adolescents, the children feel backed into a corner in a place that the UN predicts will be unliveable by 2020.
"This house could fall at any moment," says Shadi Abu Ouda (28). It was the second day of the ground incursion that left his four-storey home standing by the grace of a strong central pillar.
On the shaky third floor, the bedroom comes with a hole gaping over a squashed Mercedes below.
In the next room, a photograph of Shadi's sister hides a smaller hole. No more than the other two walls that the mortar burst through, the 16-year-old didn't stand a chance.
Even if they had the money to rebuild, they can't because restrictions on import/export mean enough cement is getting across the border.
Besides, it's a game of Jenga. What goes up is likely to eventually come crashing down. It's a risk that the aid agencies have to take for bigger infrastructure projects or else the encircled population stand no chance.
UNICEF is putting the final touches to a €10m desalination plant, but Hamas has set up a training camp in the next field, instantly making the area a target for air strikes.
Families pay up to €195 a year in water charges but more than 90pc of the supply is contaminated.
This is one area that UNICEF Ireland is focusing a lot of its fundraising attention this year.
Its Executive Director Peter Power says that Irish people have had a “long-standing empathy” for the people of Palestine.
“The people of Ireland have helped UNICEF to help the children of Gaza recover from the last war and that means repairing their water services, providing new water infrastructure, providing new schools, new teachers, providing psychological and social support for the children who were very badly damaged in the war,” Mr Power says.
Schools have had to double up as shelters and the hospitals are not a place for respite.
The majority of the 50,000 babies born in Gaza each year are sent home within two hours.
For the most at risk mothers UNICEF helps fund a home visit service whereby a midwife will assess the child and mother within 72 hours.
"Sometimes we give them supplements like iron and folic acid when they are available," explains Dr Sawsan Hammad, a senior officer at the health ministry, who meets us despite being on strike. Thousands of civil servants haven't been paid since last year but refuse to let Gaza grind to a complete halt.
In the south-eastern village of Khuza, we met Jamila Obaud (28) who became pregnant shortly after her home was obliterated. Now living in the back room of a petrol station, she cradles Soha (20 days). The only furniture is a wardrobe decorated with a SpongeBob SquarePants sticker.
"It's very difficult living in this place. My children don't wash very often. The bathroom is a hole in the ground. We feel like nomads," she says.
Another mother, Ranit (29), spent last summer in the north of Gaza "running from bombs like Tom and Jerry" with her newborn.
The mother-of-four is grateful for the bulldozers outside that are finally clearing the roadway outside of twisted metal. "I wish for peace but my heart tells me that we are coming to a more difficult time," she says, while holding four-month-old Rahf.
It's only on the way out of the hut that I notice Rahf's mentally disabled uncle is chained to a pillar. He hugs a small radio listening to music and moves two steps forward and two steps back.
At first it seems barbaric, but in the reality of Gaza, it's practical. Even if he negotiated his way around the demolition site outside, he would only need to walk 100 metres to find himself in 'the buffer zone' - an area of mostly fertile land leading to 'the wall'. Step inside and you will be shot. Only farmers known to the Israelis are allowed on that land.
Fishing is also a key employer, albeit a high-risk one. At sea, the fishermen can't go beyond three nautical miles without finding themselves in the line of Israeli fire. They attach massive floodlights to their trawlers in a bid to attract fish into the shallow water.
At over 40pc, Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world - making it hard to motivate students.
It's estimated 373,000 scared children require specialised psychosocial support. Among them is Zain Ebrahim (9) who shows an immediate hesitancy after his father, a property developer, invites us into the utility room where they now live. Zain was top of his class but now draws pictures of missiles bearing down on his family. His siblings were barefoot as fled their home with tanks just 50 metres away, climbing over bodies in the streets.
His father has installed a vegetable patch with peppers, chillies, corn, mint and pumpkins where the house used to be. "We are planting it in order to clear the image of destruction from our heads," he says.
Zain's counsellors say he is improving but as the ceasefire wobbles that night, F-16 fighter jets return overhead bringing back all the terror. Seven bombs are dropped before daylight breaks the tension, and life goes again.
Some children are sent to work, rummaging through the broken dreams of their families looking for quality metal. A good bag will earn them two Shekels (46 cents).
Abbas Abu Khmis (15) has his own business offering camel rides on the beach for one shekel each. On a busy day, he makes 40 shekels. His family have pitched their tents beside the Wadi Gaza river which is overflowing with sewage. The smell is toxic.
It's easy to see how young adults - shut off from the world - turn to militants. Hamas don't use child soldiers for combat. But go down the beach early and you'll see the 'summer camps' where teenagers combine fitness training with military stealth.
There is the odd story of escape like one teenager who managed to forge documents and pretend he got a scholarship in Malaysia. He risked everything to ride a rollercoaster and returned to his family a few days later.
It sounds like one of those urban legends but it gives faint hope to all the young men who lack the machismo of their new-found adulthood. Even for us, getting out is daunting. Gaza guilt seeps in as we broach no man's land again and head for the rest of the world.
Back through the cage, we show our passport to a CCTV camera. A steel door opens and we squeeze through to a small grey room. We open our bags on the table and rummage through them for another camera. A green light flickers and we are faced with a line of turnstiles.
Entry to Israel is through number seven. Our bags slip off into the black hole and come out opened and distorted. We go through a body scanner and finally the attractive girl at passport control clicks a button. Freedom.
Outside in the soaring heat, we venture towards a cabin that is the first toilet in Israel. Faeces coats the ground and wall, providing lunch for two rats.
For the few Palestinians who do make it to the normal world, that will be their first experience.
It's only been four days but the sunflowers seem ripe.