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“When there are bombings I tell my children there are fireworks”

“When there are bombings I tell my children there are fireworks”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Interview with human rights activist Yamen Al Madhoun

On 14 June 2009, a missile hit the second floor of the house of 39-year-old Palestinian human rights activist Yamen Al Madhoun. Glass and stone splinters slightly injured two of his sisters. Whose missile that was, is still under investigation. Violence and other violations of human rights are an everyday occurrence in the Gaza Strip. That’s why Al Madhoun is staying in Maastricht for three months, as a participant in the Shelter Cities project of human rights and social justice organization Justice and Peace Netherlands. Through this project, human rights activists can catch a breath, continue their work safely, and do some networking visits in several Dutch cities.

Al Madhoun is also supposed to do some resting. But that’s difficult, he says. Mainly because his wife and four children are still in Gaza. “I miss them a lot and I worry about their safety.” He proudly shows a picture of his youngest child. “The way they have to grow up is terrible. To my youngest children I always say that there are fireworks outside, when in reality there are bombings.”

Al Madhoun himself was born in Kuwait, where he had a nice childhood until he was thirteen; that’s when the Gulf War broke out. Together with his parents, both teachers, and his three sisters and two brothers, he fled and went back to his native country Palestine, Gaza to be more precise. There he went to high school, where on his way to and from school he repeatedly witnessed protests against the Israeli “siege”, as he calls it. “People were burning car tires and throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.”

 “I was in Geneva last week to meet with the United Nations Human Rights Council and next week I’m going to visit two French filmmakers in Paris,” Al Madhoun says. “They are making a documentary about my work.” They followed him a couple of days in Gaza and are going to finish the documentary next week. In addition, Al Madhoun is following a class in International Humanitarian Law at Maastricht University. On November 26th, he gave a Studium Generale lecture about his life and work in Gaza.

After a study in Communication and Organizational Sciences in Algeria, he came back to Gaza and started working as a fieldworker for Al Mezan, an independent centre for human rights in the Gaza strip. It is never a dull day working in that field there, Al Madhoun says. “I originally wanted to be a journalist, but the work I do now is similar in many ways. I take pictures and interview many people about human rights violations every day. Obvious things like murders, but also ‘minor’ things like limited access to food, water, education, jobs and healthcare. People in the Gaza Strip have electricity for four hours a day and all water is virtually undrinkable. Contrary to the time when he was younger, students nowadays aren’t able to study abroad. Many people who need medical care from outside the Gaza Strip can’t get it, because Israel won’t let them leave. Last year, 54 patients died because of this. Israel controls everything that goes in and out of the Gaza Strip.”

On the 17th of December, Al Madhoun will go back to his family. Hopefully that trip goes quicker than his trip to Maastricht. “If you want to leave the Gaza Strip, you always have to plan your trip months in advance. The border with Egypt is open only three days every three months and they want to know exactly who is going in and out. I had to stay at the crossing in Rafah for a day. From there, the Egyptian police brought me under custody to Cairo airport. That’s about 500 kilometres, but it took us all day. My luggage and passport were checked about thirty times along the way. At the airport, they locked me in a small room for two days until my visa was ready; I had to sleep on the floor.”

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