By Ben Morris
On a London street a few months ago, I got chatting to a girl from Gaza City named Nour Nafez. Last summer, the offices which housed her brother’s media company, were destroyed by the Israeli Defence Force. Following the destruction of his livelihood, Sajed left his homeland, family and friends to forge a new life in Europe.
This is his story.
Sajed Nafez lived close to the Islamic University of Gaza, where he had read social studies. He had founded a mobile reading club, which roamed the schools of Gaza, in order to improve the literacy rate of local children, and had appeared on TV to discuss it. He had dreamed of doing a Masters abroad, but given that the ongoing siege severely restricted the movement of Palestinians, this was not an option. Instead, Sajed acquired several small loans and established his own media company, Sjaia Media Productions, bringing his best friend, Mohammed Al-Rantisi, to help out.
He lived with his two parents, sisters Nour, Doha and Sarah, and brothers, Mohammed and Abd Al-Rahman in their terracotta-white family home in Gaza. Sajed and Nour were very close, and he would constantly knock on his sister’s door asking for advice.
Sjaia Media Productions was based in the Al-Basha tower, in a high-rise not far from the family home. Sajed and Mohammed were focused on producing several documentaries regarding cultural/historic topics related to Palestine and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza; as such, on 26th August 2014, Sajed did not leave the building until around two in the morning.
Such was his exhaustion that the shaking of his home’s foundations during the night was not enough to wake him. It was left to Nour to inform her younger brother, in the morning, that his workplace had been decimated, leaving twenty or so people wounded.
Sajed and Mohammed continued to work adjacent to the tower’s smouldering rubble in an act of defiance. However, renting a high-quality camera was proving difficult. Also, rumours of inbound Qatari compensation did not extend to destroyed vocational equipment – homeowners of damaged properties were first in line to receive assistance.
It was around this time that the boys had heard about new tunnels leading out of Gaza through the city of Raffah, which straddles the Egyptian border. The boys began to correspond with other like-minded young men, and decided that in order to financially support their families in besieged Gaza, they had to leave.
On 4th September, 2014, at 10pm, a car containing Mohammed and several friends arrived at Sajed’s house. He called Nour into his room, informing her how to access his laptop’s hard drive should the worst happen. Sajed got in the car and departed.
An hour later, a whispering Sajed informed his sister by phone that they had arrived and were waiting at the entrance to the tunnels. Nour spent the next six or seven hours in an agonised state, before Sajed finally texted to say that they were out of the tunnels and were on their way to Alexandria.
Their underground journey had taken far longer than had been suggested, and there had been nobody waiting for them on the other side. It was proving to be a constant game of cat-and-mouse with the dishonest smugglers.
On 6th September Sajed called to say that he would not be able to get a signal until they reached Italy in a week’s time. Thankfully on 12th September a family friend, in contact with the traffickers, reported that the boys were safely out of the water and had landed in Italy.
It was later found that this message wasn’t true; so over the next two days’ they eagerly awaited Sajed’s call. They were optimistic he had indeed reached Italy. It was Nour’s birthday on September 14th and she quietly celebrated eating chocolate cake and drinking Fanta. However, the joyous atmosphere didn’t last, as attention turned to the lack of communication from Sajed.
Only two hours later, Nour’s sister Mona entered her room, distressed. ‘The ship was attacked’, she told Nour. ‘Everybody sank – Sajed is gone.’ Her pain was indescribable: she has lost her her beloved brother.
Over the coming months she tried to discover what happened on board; of the hundreds on board, only eleven people were rescued. Nour contacted both the Italian and Maltese coastal guards and the International Red Cross, who refused to release information regarding the whereabouts of survivors, claiming as justification: ‘We receive thousands of immigrants every day.’ She also contacted the Palestinian embassies in Italy, Malta and Greece, who deemed the incident unworthy of further investigation.
Through sheer persistence, Nour managed to trace three of the survivors who were being held by the Italian and Maltese authorities. All three implied that the craft had been deliberately hit and sunk by another boat. Whether traffickers or otherwise, the killers, according to one account, were laughing ‘die, die’, and shooting at the hundreds of migrants as they struggled helplessly in the water, increasingly bloody from limbs hacked by the vessel’s propellers.
The witnesses claimed that the boys had been treading water alongside them for four long days without food or drinking water, through the burning daytime sun and icy night time temperatures. The survivors had been separated from her brother for only a few hours before they were rescued, in the early morning of their fifth day in the water. A fog had descended on the exhausted group, and Sajed had disappeared.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the influx of people into Europe, what is abundantly clear is that Sajed and Mohammed’s hand was forced by circumstance. A profound lack of opportunity and absolute hopelessness is the reason they felt they had to leave Gaza city.
Conversely, it is hope itself, for a better future, which keeps Nour going through these dark days.