“I have lived with hate but not in terror. We have had years of hostility directed toward us, not centuries.”
Behind most of the news reports filed by a foreign correspondent from the Gaza Strip is a fixer: sometimes a local journalist, or simply someone with a good command of the English language, extensive contacts and knowledge.
When Ameera Ahmad Harouda began working as a fixer in Gaza in 2005, she was the first woman in a man’s world. Since then, an increasing number of women have entered the profession, by choice or necessity, or some degree of both. They are young, English-speaking, educated, ambitious – in a society where one fifth of the population has a higher education qualification, but youth unemployment has reached 60 percent, and women remain less likely to find work after university.
Since the Hamas administration has been requiring correspondents entering the Strip to have a local, approved ‘sponsor’, fixers are seen as responsible for the work of foreign journalists, who usually hire them for a few days at a time. Away from the spotlight, they get no byline and, most of the time, work with no insurance or protective gear.
At 23, Walaa al-Ghussein was the only member of her extended family bringing in cash during last year’s war. Lara Aburamadan broadcasted the events live from her balcony, speaking live to a global audience.
They are three of the many women who helped tell Gaza’s story during the 52-day war that, according to the UN, killed 2,139 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, and 72 Israelis, of which 66 were soldiers.
They are three of the hundreds of fixers – women and men – who had to stay behind after the journalists left.
Ameera Ahmad Harouda: ‘They said I had no morals, no respect for my tradition’
Thirty-two-year-old Ameera’s phone never stops ringing.
When it is not a local politician granting her a meeting with this or that journalist, or a mother she has been trying to track down for an interview, it is her eight-year-old daughter Layan. She knows the 360km² Strip like the palm of her hand. There is nobody she cannot reach.
“If I face any problem in any place, I can find somebody who can help me, who respects me and I can trust,” she says.
It wasn’t always this way. When she started in 2005, Ameera says there were no women working as fixers in Gaza. She recalls how, during her early days, some of her male colleagues tried to make things difficult for her.
“If I approached someone to interview for a story, they would tell that person to avoid fixing an appointment with me, that I was going to write something against him,” she says. “Others said I had no morals, no respect for my tradition, staying out in the field till late with strangers, foreigners. You know, Gaza is a small place, people talk and talk.”
“At the beginning it was a kind of challenge between me and them, whether I was going to stay in this field a long time,” she says with a smile.
But she found a source of support in her father. “When I was a child, we moved to Gaza from Libya, and we struggled to adjust to this society. He also got criticised for letting me work alone. When I first started, he sometimes would come along when I worked in the field.”
In 2005, Israel had been evacuating thousands of settlers and pulling out troops from Gaza, a move that according to the Israeli government would officially end its occupation of the coastal Strip. A German female reporter for Der Spiegel who was covering the Israeli disengagement from Gaza approached the production company Ameera was working for and asked to work with a woman, who would have better access to women in some sections of Gazan society.
Ameera had been making her name in TV and radio. Of her time as a presenter of a children’s TV show at the government-affiliated Palestine TV, she still keeps one cassette – the archives were destroyed during the infighting between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza, after the latter’s sweeping victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections and subsequent takeover of the Strip.
Since then, Ameera has covered every war and major Israeli military operation in Gaza – ground incursions, air strikes and targeted assassinations that have left thousands of civilians dead or wounded.
The siege imposed on the Strip severely limited imports, exports and freedom of movement, shattering Gaza’s economy and its residents’ ability to earn an income.
During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Ameera’s daughter Layan was only six months old.
“It wasn’t easy for me to leave her at home,” she says, “but my husband, who works as a cameraman, didn’t have regular work for two years after we got married, and if he got a chance to work it would be on a short-term contract.”
Ameera may get a few days’ work per month, or may go for months without any work at all. Security is a distant dream for the young family, which now includes five-year-old Adam.
Nevertheless, she and her husband managed to save enough money to buy a piece of land. It is two kilometres from the border with Israel, near Beit Hanoun, a town that has been exposed to several military operations.There is an Israeli military watchtower less than 100m away. But to buy in the city, Ameera shrugs, you should be a millionaire.
They have an orchard where they plant fruit and vegetables, and built themselves a comfortable sitting area under a wooden shelter, a toilet and a small kitchen.
It feels a world away from the crowded market in Shujayea that was hit by tank shells last summer. Ameera was there and remembers every detail of the explosion, which killed 17 and injured 200 – the smell, the body parts.
“I try to understand what is going on, why so many people are on the ground. Then I try to look for the car and I can’t find it,” she recalls. “I’m wearing my flak jacket, my phone in my hand as usual. Then someone told me my driver took two or three people in the car with him. The reporter with me was crying; the cameraman was filming. I don’t remember how we got out of there.”
The land was a risky investment, but it is somewhere the family feel they can escape to. “From the city, from the crowd, from everything,” Ameera says. “The kids can play here freely. There is no limit; there is only freedom, fresh air.”
Walaa al-Ghussein: ‘There are many types of foreign journalists; some come here to be heroes, to make money, then leave’
“Did I just say ‘depressing’ too many times?” asks 23-year-old Walaa with a smile. Admittedly, she has used the word a few times while talking about her life over the past few months.
She has cut her long, black hair into a messy bob and dyed it red. She is among a minority of women in Gaza who do not wear a hijab. Even though that means, as she puts it, everyone knows you and talks about you. “Even,” she says, “reporting your movements.”
Her unfazed manner is tinged with vulnerability. She is feeling restless about getting her university exams completed and being able to move on from her education.
“I’m late, this is my fifth year of study. I’ve been a lazy student,” she says.
Walaa got her first job as a fixer last year, during Operation Protective Edge, when a friend who was working with journalists told her he needed someone fluent in English to work with him.
After the ceasefire, she got a few more assignments covering the reconstruction and aftermath, and kept busy with freelance work and attending conferences. Her course in English Education at Al-Azhar University slipped down her list of priorities.
When the war started, Walaa and her family left the high-risk neighbourhood of Al-Tawam, north of Gaza City, and took refuge at her aunt’s four-bedroom apartment by the seaport. Around 50 members of the extended family ended up sheltering there.
“I couldn’t stay in a tense place with a lot of people,” says Walaa. “None of them had prepared themselves for a war; at that point, I was the only one who was bringing money back home.”
Walaa would wake up in the room in her aunt’s home that she shared with her parents, four sisters and brother. If there was work – and there was most days – she would leave the house early, having slept for just two or three hours.
“I’d sleep only when daylight came, all the horror usually happens at night,” she recalls.
One day blurred into the next: a car would pick her up to meet the journalists at their residence, they would go to the neighbourhoods and villages that had suffered attacks the night before, to Al-Shifa hospital, where most of the wounded were taken, and to the overcrowded UNRWA schools.
She would usually return home in time for Iftar, when Muslims break their fast during the month of Ramadan, and unless work required her to go out again, she would sit in the cramped room she shared with her family, and spend the whole night following news and social media updates. On the quiet days, she would stay up until sunrise to binge-watch one of the Egyptian TV series that are so popular with Palestinians during Ramadan, catching up on any episodes she had missed.
“Once we went to Khan Younis. It was during the Eid feast. We’d heard there would be a truce because it’s a feast and people celebrate. I went with a Spanish freelance journalist to do a piece about it. But on the way, we discovered there was no feast. Whilst driving there, we saw kids on the streets, wearing their good clothes. The truce had been broken, but the streets were still full of children.”
“Then a shell fell not far from us. I pointed at it, saw the kids doing the same, some running towards it. I turned around and saw that the journalist was terrified, and thought this is not normal. Our reaction is not normal.”
“I remember that during the first war we were hiding all the time. I wouldn’t even dream of leaving my house. But then another war happened, and another war happened,” says Walaa, who never wore a flak jacket and helmet while working in the field last summer and was sometimes contracted by freelance journalists with little guarantees themselves.
“Sometimes the people I worked with had been borrowing [their bulletproof vests] from somewhere. As for local journalists, unless you are employed by an international agency few of us have protective gear, or we have [a] very old one that is not effective. It can cost $2,000 or more, locals can’t afford it.”
Of the 16 media workers killed in the Gaza Strip during the war last year, 15 were Palestinian; one was Italian.
“There are many kinds of foreign journalists. Some come here to be heroes, make money, then leave,” says Walaa. “Some don’t care that the fixer is going to be the one who is going to be messed up with when they leave.”
“I wouldn’t say I became friends with the journalists I worked with. But I tend to work with people I like. Sometimes during breaks we talked gossips or girly stuff. But then when they leave, I follow them on social media, they get married, you get married or whatever. They leave, and I’m still here.”
“But it’s not just journalists,” says Walaa, who recently travelled to Ramallah in the West Bank for the first time in her life, securing a permit against the odds – many are declined or not processed in time – thanks to an invitation to a high level conference. “Even when I left, I had to hide it from a lot of people.”
“It’s not just foreigners, people here envy whoever leaves.”
Lara Aburamadan: ‘I imagine myself in another place, in another person’
“I always say if I were out of Gaza I wouldn’t be a journalist. I would be something more free.”
“I would do something for myself as Lara. Drawing, or making jewellery, or trying new things that I don’t know here in Gaza. I imagine myself in another place, in another person,” says 23-year-old Lara, puffing away at her apple-flavoured shisha in her Gaza City apartment. She relaxes only once the voice recorder disappears from view, and the conversation shifts away from the topic of last year’s war.
Lara was brought up within a family of journalists. Her path was not necessarily predetermined but – in Gaza – perhaps inevitable. Both her mother and father have worked for several international news agencies.
At 20, while she was still a student of English and translation, Lara started helping her father on his assignments as he covered the aftermath of Israel’s 2012 offensive. She was soon publishing op-eds in international media like the New York Times .
Like many others her age, she was born into 20 years of post-Oslo instability, witnessing an all-round deterioration in Gaza’s economic, social and political conditions.
“Especially after the last war, everyone wishes to travel, emigrate. We are in a small spot, everything is closed around us.”
What people say these days in Gaza is that the last offensive has wiped out any hope that it will be the last, that things will get better.
“This makes you feel that you cannot stay here and be just hopeless and helpless. You have to do anything to tell the people what’s happening, or express yourself in any way. It can be something to help you release your negative energy too,” says Lara.
“I had a very normal childhood. I remember we used to go to Jerusalem. Yes it wasn’t easy, but at least we could make it. Then, in 2000, I heard the first bomb, during the Second Intifada.”
Fourteen years later, she and her husband Jihad, who is also a young independent journalist, were livestreaming Israeli bombs to a global audience. Using a private generator that allowed them to keep working during the long and regular electricity outages, they would set up a laptop on the balcony of their apartment every evening. Turning it to face the city, they would update their audience on the exact location of the shelling, all the while talking about that day’s toll of the dead and injured.
Half a million people tuned in to their broadcast during the war.
Those who worked with her during last year’s war recall how nothing in Lara’s demeanour ever betrayed any stress or tension – not even, her colleagues say, when the building she lived in was threatened with being bombed, just four months after the newly married couple had moved in.
“During the war there was a ceasefire, I don’t remember when exactly, all the days were the same for us. There is an institute for helping people who are internally displaced, and they called me to take photos of the people receiving medical equipment, or food. It was in one of the UNRWA shelter schools. They also asked me to help them to give these things to people,” Lara remembers.
“There were people everywhere, it was like a neighbourhood, not a school. The hardest thing at that time was that people thought we can make their lives better, give them money to rebuild. I felt hopeless, that I can’t do anything for them; I didn’t know what to say. So I kept silent.”
But her favourite stories are those that show that, even amidst the rubble, Gaza shelters life.
Sometimes, she says, being a woman is an advantage. “It’s easier for me to go to any place where men are not allowed, to show what women do, get them to talk about themselves, their work, family. So far, I don’t see a clear disadvantage with being a woman when I’m in the field.”
Hanging on the wall of her sparsely decorated living room is a painting she made, a woman in hues of purple, yellow and red about to cross some sort of door, or simply looking through it.
“I made it a long time ago, I only paint every two years or so. But I think I drew myself,” she says, “maybe, a hope.”