“Restiamo humani” – “Stay human” was the life motto of Vittorio (Vik) Arrigoni. He should have left Gaza for Italy some weeks ago, but he decided to stay a bit longer because he feared another Israeli “Cast Lead” being unleashed on Gaza and he wanted to be there. On April 14, he was kidnapped and murdered, reportedly by a radical Islamist group.
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. We all felt privileged to be in Gaza. I often thought how extraordinarily lucky we were that of all the billions of people on Earth, we six internationals were there.
People warned me about falling in love with Gaza, and that’s when they would always mention Vik. That is how he first entered my life, a couple of months before he turned up at the ISM Gaza flat happy, straight from the Rafah crossing.
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 at sea fishermen 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.
The videos the ISMers regularly published were a chilling reminder to the world of the unreported brutality Israel was unleashing on Palestinians in their attempt to starve and isolate them into submission.
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.
When I was in Gaza, fishermen did not allow us to go on the boats with them. They worried about all of us being captured and deported, and they didn’t like the idea of Gaza being without its international supporters. Instead, we supported farmers and participated in the peaceful demonstrations against the siege.
One thing we never ever worried about was being kidnapped. We walked late at night in a Gaza plunged into the darkness by the regular power cuts. I remember climbing up the stairs to the high floors of the tower blocks where friends lived through the pitch black, with people going past in the darkness.
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 was the safest place on earth, save the scary stuff that came from across the border with Israel and from the skies. Gaza was bombed by Israeli planes almost daily, but people outside hardly ever heard about it.
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 and there was nowhere to hide. Across the border were towers that fired by remote control, the white surveillance balls that hovered over the fields going up and down like some futuristic “sci-fi” gadgets , 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, and dozens of demonstrators were killed or wounded.
Vik was there, always handsome and photogenic! Tall and muscled with curly hair, he was a romantic figure of a fighter for justice. I have hundreds of pictures of him with his Palestinian scarf and Palestinian flag tied around his backpack. We all did. Pictures of Vik in the first lines at the demos and standing between the soldiers and the farmers taking pictures, became a symbol of the international solidarity that justice-loving people around the world feel for the Palestinians.
Those images also demonstrated to those who think that one can not change this world of suffering and injustices what determined individuals can do for what they believe in.
Vittorio paid for his noble ideals with his life. He drew his last breath in Gaza, and that is where he will always be a symbol of international solidarity and the power of human spirit.
Those who call him a son of Gaza are right. Vik and Gaza adopted each other, fell in love with each other, because of their shared need for freedom and justice.
Result of oppression
In his death at the hands of the people he was there to support, he showed to the world what keeping people in prison, allowing them to be murdered and deprived of basic conditions for life, does to some of them. After spending a short six months in Gaza, I was amazed that all Gazans were not caught up in a collective madness and hatred for the world that is standing by and permitting the inhumanity that was happening to them. Maybe now the world will start to listen.
Thinking of Vik and going through the pictures of my enormous Gaza album, I realise that in spite of spending lots of time together in a small team of fellow activists, often in a dangerous bonding situation, I knew Vik only as an activist. Vik had the looks of an extrovert but he was intensely private and I think shy.
He spent most of his “free” time writing about what he witnessed in Gaza. He would often turn up late and tired from writing all night. Everybody in Gaza knew Vik. To say that he was a popular figure would be an understatement. Reading tributes to Vik after he died, I found out that he also made close and deep friendships in Gaza.
Vik was quiet and full of surprises. But one could always count on Vik to find a funny angle and crack a joke about almost everything. His creative enrichment of both Arabic, which he did not know but loved nevertheless, and English kept us in hysterics most of the time.
As a witness he was fearless but he hated violence. He called the Israeli government fascist and he was also outspoken about the need to preserve human rights within Gaza in spite of the pressures of the siege and internal divisions. Vik was on the side of people, always, every time and without exception.
“Restiamo humani” was Vik’s motto, he stayed true to it till the end.
[Rada Daniell is a member of the International Women’s Peace Service in Palestine