‘Restiamo humani' — ‘Stay human'
The above was the life motto of Vittorio (Vik) Arrigoni. On April 14, he was kidnapped and murdered, by Salafists – an ultra conservative radical Islamist group who have clashed with Hamas. It was the first kidnapping since Hamas came to power in 2007.
I first met Vik in March 2010. I had been in Gaza since January with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) after arriving with the Viva Palestinia humanitarian convoy. At the time, there were only three of us, but in March, Vik and two other activists were finally able to join us when the Rafah crossing on the border of Egypt opened for the first time in months. They had been waiting for three months in Cairo after failing to enter with the Free Gaza March, which planned a mass siege-breaking entry at the end of 2009 to mark the anniversary of the Israeli attack on Gaza, which took hundreds of civilian lives and caused destruction on a scale that is hard to imagine.
Many activists wanted to come to Gaza, but Gaza was under blockade, and Israel was trying to ensure that there were few witnesses to what was happening there. Vik could not stay away from Gaza for long. He initially came on the Free Gaza boat, the first little vessel that broke the siege in 2008 borne by the determination of a small group of human rights activists who decided to do the impossible. Vik stayed in Gaza and with a small group of fellow activists re-established the presence of the ISM, which had ceased following the murder of hundreds of Palestinian civilians near the town of Rafah, including the ISM activists Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndal.
What Vik liked most was joining fishermen at sea trying to feed the Gazans, who were kept on the verge of starvation by Israel's siege. In their small wooden boats, they were under daily attack by the sophisticated Israeli navy, which tried to restrict their movements to the fish-free belt near the coast.
On one of these accompaniments, Vik was wounded. Later he was captured and deported after spending time in an Israeli prison. Vik told me how Israeli agents bundled him, unwashed for days and barefoot, onto a plane for Rome. But he managed to return. He was in Gaza during the Cast Lead massacres, working with the Red Crescent ambulance teams, many of whom were killed while trying to save others.
He left Gaza to publish his account of the attack. His book, Gaza: Stay Human, became a hit and was translated into many languages.
There is little transport in Gaza and every car is a taxi. You lift your hand and any car stops and picks you up. All of us had hundreds of such journeys with complete strangers day and night and never experienced anything but friendliness and respect. For me Gaza would have been the safest place on earth, if it were not for the daily violence from across the border and from the skies. Gaza was bombed by Israeli planes almost daily.
I also feared Israeli soldiers firing live ammunition almost every time we went to accompany farmers working on their land alongside the long and perilous border. The land was flat, there was nowhere to hide. Across the border were towers that fired by remote control, and of course there were soldiers in jeeps that would climb surveillance mounds and fire at the farmers.
Even more scary were the demos to reclaim the belt of land, 300 metres wide, inside Gaza, where everything that moved was considered an ‘enemy combatant' by Israelis. Gazan students, farmers, women's groups and political parties organised peaceful demos every week in different places. Dozens of demonstrators were killed or wounded.
Vittorio paid for his noble ideals with his life, at the hands of radical Islamists who do not share those ideals. He was kidnapped and threatened with execution if Salafist prisoners were not released, including their leader. A rescue did not take place, he was found dead after a tip-off shortly before the deadline.
After spending six months in Gaza, I was amazed that all Gazans are not caught up in a collective madness and implacable hatred towards the outside world. The world is standing by and permitting inhumanity and oppression on a scale which is beyond description. You might expect that keeping people imprisoned, deprived of basic conditions for life and at risk of being murdered on a daily basis, would lead to hatred and violence, especially towards outsiders. But this is emphatically not the case. The warmth and sense of solidarity shown by ordinary people in Gaza are extraordinary and inspirational.
Everybody in Gaza knew Vik and the many tributes after he died showed that he made close and deep friendships in Gaza. Vik's fate must be a rallying cause for those who believe in freedom and justice for Gaza and Palestine.