Sunday reporter Andrew Quinn net with some of the Derry people who visited the Gaza Strip recently ...
Derry man Mickey McCrossan’s life changed forever when he visited children in the Gaza Strip last month.
Mickey, 19, is from the ‘Top of the Hill’ in the Waterside and was part of a recent Irish Friends of Palestine delegation that met with representatives from the Palestinian Ministry of Education and politicians from all of the main political parties.
Mickey is a youth worker in his local community and is also a member of Derry Ógra Shinn Féin.
“The one thing that I will never forget is meeting a little boy who saw his older brother killed right in front of him,” said Mickey.
“The little boy was about seven or eight years old and he and his brother were on their way to school when an Israeli rocket hit a residential building. The little boy had run on ahead of his brother but when the rocket hit, he looked back and his brother was gone - he was dead.
“We met the little boy days after his brother’s death - it really made me stop and think and I had to try very hard to hold back the tears. Nothing could’ve prepared us for what we experienced,” he said emotionally.
Ruairí McLaughlin from Killea, Alana Campbell and Cathal Óg Donnelly, both from Tyrone, Charlie McMenamin (former Republican prisoner), Gerry MacLochlainn (Derry Friends of Palestine), Sinead MacLochlainn (Chairperson Derry Friends of Palestine) and Liam McConway (activist) made up the rest of the Irish Friends of Palestine.
Ruairí, like Mickey is also a member of Ógra Shinn Féin. Ruairí approached Derry Friends of Palestine members Gerry and Sinead MacLochlainn a few months ago to say that he would be interested in travelling to Gaza to witness the situation there for himself.
“I first became aware of what was happening in Gaza when Israel boarded the Mavi Marmara in 2010 and killed nine activists. I attended the rally in Guildhall Square. So, when the opportunity presented itself to travel with Sinead and Gerry to Gaza I said yes.”
Ruairí, Mickey and the rest of the delegation travelled from Derry to London before catching a connecting flight to Cairo in Egypt on March 28.
The group spent one night in Cairo before making the eight hour bus journey north and crossing the border into Gaza through the Palestinian city of Rafa.
“We couldn’t believe the welcome we received,” said Ruairí. “There were adults and children out in the streets waving Irish tricolours - it was a moment to remember.”
The delegation then made their way to Khan Younis, the second biggest city in the Gaza Strip, where they met with the city’s mayor, Muhammad Al Farra. After sharing a meal with Mr Al Farra the group made the 40 minute bus journey to their hotel in Gaza City.
“Meeting Muhammad Al Farra was brilliant,” said Ruairí. “We chatted briefly on the first night and it was apparent that he was glad to see people from Derry back in Khan Younis.”
The next day the group visited two local primary schools where they spoke with local schoolchildren. It was at one of the schools that Mickey met the little boy whose older brother had been killed a few days previously.
“The thing that I couldn’t understand about the children was that although they had experienced and witnessed such horrible things they were still able to smile when we came into the class.
“They were just delighted to see us and when I think about what children in the Gaza Strip experience every day it makes me really angry when I hear children of the same age moaning that they don’t have the latest iPhone or games console.”
The children in one of the schools were asked to draw pictures reflecting what life is like for them living in Gaza City. Ruairí said that after leafing through a few of the drawings he was shocked when he saw what one seven year-old child had drawn.
“I walked over to have a look at their drawings and I expected to see what anyone else would expect to see, and that is nice pictures of the children with their families or doing something that they enjoy.”
Nothing prepared Ruairí for what he saw.
“One child had drawn a picture of an Israeli gunship raining down bullets on a residential area. There were dead bloody bodies in the picture and the child had depicted the sun in the sky as sad - I couldn’t believe it.
“Children that age should never be exposed to such acts of violence. It will stay with me forever.”
He added: “I suppose the thing that angers me the most is that if what was happening in Gaza was as a result of a natural disaster the rest of the world would be lining up with their credit cards to donate aid.
“But it’s not a natural disaster - it’s a man-made one and little children like the ones we met in the primary schools are having to pay the price each and every day for the Israeli occupation of their land,” said Ruairí passionately.
Ruairí said that the aspect of the visit that impressed him the most was how knowledgeable the people of Gaza were about the political history of Ireland.
“We visited one of the universities in Gaza City and one of the women we met there was able to talk to us about Bobby Sands and the Troubles.
“From the children to the adults they are very politically aware in Gaza. There’s a real sense of nationalism.
“There are so many similarities between our own situation and that of the people in the Gaza Strip.”
The delegation was invited to a lunch at the Ministry of Education where they were greeted by Ahmed Ayesh Alnajar (Director of International and the Public Relations of Ministry and Higher Education), representing Dr. Osama Elmozini (Minister of Education and Higher Education.
The delegation was also presented with a plaque on behalf of the Ministry of Education.
Sinead MacLochlainn, Chairperson of Derry Friends of Palestine, has travelled to Gaza several times before but it was during her visit with the rest of the delegation that she heard one of the most tragic and heart-breaking stories.
“There was a couple living in Gaza City and for years they struggled to conceive but eventually they ended up having four children in quick succession.
“As a result of the Israeli occupation, Gaza only receives approximately six hours of electricity each day.
“Once the electricity is turned off, the people in Gaza have to resort to using petrol fuelled generators or candles.
“The four children were in a room studying by candle light. The oldest was around seven whilst the youngest was a little two month-old girl.
“The children must have fallen asleep and soon after the candle fell over and caught light - the entire room was ablaze.
“The parents tried their best to fight the fire but it was too late - the three oldest died. But after searching through the wreckage of the room they found the two month-old girl wrapped up in a blanket - she was still alive.
“After the fire they searched the room and they even found the charred remains of the books the little children were using.
“We went to the wake of the three children and I have never seen such a sense of loss and pain in another human being’s eye than when I looked into the eyes of the mother.
“She was holding her two-month old daughter and she asked me if I would like to hold her so I did,” recalled Sinead tearfully.
The delegation spent seven days in total in the Gaza Strip before travelling back home to Ireland through Egypt.
They also visited refugee camps, met with politicians from all the main political parties and even enjoyed a game of football against a Palestinian team which included some of the country’s beach footballers.
Just before they left, the group attended a traditional Palestinian barbeque where they met with the Mayor of Khan Younis for a second time.
“We presented the Mayor with an Easter Lily and he accepted it,” said Mickey.
“It was more informal at the barbeque. I ended up sitting chatting with the Mayor all night - he is extremely knowledgeable and it’s hoped that we will be able to arrange for him to visit Derry soon.”
Ruairí was recently appointed to the national committee of Sinn Fein’s youth wing.
The young Derry republican, who is also a student at Lumen Christi College, said that he plans to make sure that the situation in the Gaza Strip remains at the core of the committee’s future strategy.
“We have a meeting in the next few weeks so we plan to talk about it then but as a member of Derry Ógra Shinn Féin I and the others plan to do as much as we can to make sure that what is happening in Gaza remains at the fore of everyone’s mind.”
For further information visit Derry Friends of Palestine or follow the group on Twitter: @DerryPalestine.