Gaza and memories of the sea

children playing in the sea along with a boat in1970
The Gaza sea in 1970

As the sun turns the sky into endless shades of red and starts to disappear behind the sea, I follow my uncle away from the rest of the family chatter and we sit on the sand. I open my laptop to take notes (I’m ever the writer!) and implore him to take me back in time to this same spot 30 years ago, right here in front of Gaza's sea.

He looks out to the sea with a sad, remembering look and tells me how he used to come for a swim every other day with the rest of my uncles and aunts. They would all head out, chasing their family dog Rex – who later was poisoned by Israeli soldiers – until he beat them all into the water. My uncle loved racing Rex along the beach.

Soon, my uncle was joking about how he was (and still is) the best swimmer in the family.

“I would swim to where the water is about eight meters deep and still be able to see the yellow sand beneath me. Everything was clearer and cleaner back then," he says with a smile.

children playing in the Gaza sea today
The Gaza sea today

I follow his gaze and try to imagine the scene he's describing: the golden sand, the bracing, fresh air and the crystal-clear water. But even with my uncle's detailed descriptions, I can't help but think, how could our sea ever have been that beautiful and clear? I've lived in Gaza for the past 10 years (after living in Canada), but I've never seen it be any color other than dark blue or green.

"So what changed?" I ask as I hear my grandma calling my uncle to come and get a cup of tea. "Too much," he answers in a small voice as he gets up and walks away.

Too much. Too much has changed. The only thing I know hasn't changed is that the sea is Gazans’ only refuge from the crammed, windless parts of the city. But I know it's not the same refuge it used to be.

Most of the reasons behind the decline in the beauty of our sea can be traced to the Israeli blockade. Repeated assaults have damaged our sewage-treatment plant, and although the German development bank KfW has pledged to fund a $20 million initiative to restore the plant’s capacity, it has stagnated because Israel refuses to allow in sufficient cement and other supplies. In addition, chronic fuel shortages prevent the plant from running more than half days. Steen Jorgensen, country director for the World Bank in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said foreign donors have offered to fund a power supply to the plant, but he said Israel has not agreed to run a dedicated electricity line.

Thus, millions of gallons of raw sewage pour into the Gaza Strip's Mediterranean beachfront on a daily basis. My family has allowed me to swim in the sea only two times, because they fear the pollution makes the water unsafe. There are multiple reports of kids and adults who become sick after swimming in the sea—typically from skin infections or after accidentally swallowing a lot of the polluted water. My mom rarely goes to the sea now because the polluted air exacerbates her allergies and leaves her feeling poorly the rest of the week. My aunt, an extreme sea lover, says the smell and color of the sea have started to revolt her.

My lungs continue to welcome the salty, cool sea air as I take a deep breath and prepare to follow my uncle. I close my laptop and take a last, sad glance at the blue water in front of me. I wish I could dive into the glassy, clear water it was 30 years ago. 

Mentor: Aurora Matthews
Posted November 24, 2016


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