Giving voice to the voiceless in Gaza



 
24-year old Mohammed Omer from Rafah is the youngest recipient ever of the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. MENASSAT caught up with the young journalist and blogger during a trip to Sweden.
 
BY ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
Mohammen by Lattuf
A tribute to the dangers faced by 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism winner Mohammed Omer. © Carlos Latuff

STOCKHOLM, June 12, 2008 (MENASSAT) – He sits crammed on the couch, surrounded by media workers and press activists at a farewell dinner.

It's Mohammed Omer's last day in Stockholm and the past week has been packed with conferences and countless reporters hunting him down for interviews. He is due to take a red eye flight to Greece on June 11, where he will continue his speaking engagements before traveling to London to receive the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism on June 16.

Not surprisingly, Omer is tired. Yet, he is having trouble sleeping.

Growing up in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip along with his seven siblings, listening to the sound of warplanes, explosions and the chaotic aftermath of residents scrambling to pick up the dead and injured – these things have all been part of Omer's everyday life.

Indeed, the quietness of Stockholm leaves the young journalist in an uncomfortable state.

"It's strange. I can hardly sleep here. Where I come from, quietness represents the calm before the storm. Whenever Israel attacks Gaza there is usually a day of calm right before they bomb," Omer told MENASSAT. 

Omer has spent his whole life, 23 years, living in the camp – a "prison" in his own words.

Originally, his family came from the village of Yebna near Tel Aviv, which they left in 1948 along with an estimated 700,000 Palestinians who were forced out of historic Palestine in an event the Palestinians recall as the Nakba, or "day of catastrophe."

An early start

Omer started reporting at the early age of 17, and has since worked with a wide variety of reputable news agencies and broadcasters.

In the early stages of his reporting life, with no camera or computer, Omer used to keep a small notebook in which he wrote down what he experienced and saw happening. That notepad, he told MENASSAT, is now buried beneath Omer's house, which he says was demolished in 2003 by Israeli bulldozers to make space for the wall dividing Gaza from Egypt.

Mohammed Omer.


A few years ago, Omer started the blog Rafah Today where he has provided personal accounts, photos and videos of life under occupation. It has since grown in popularity with a sustained visitor count in the hundreds of thousands.

Omer is also the author of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and a monthly feature called "Gaza on the Ground," and he is a regular contributor to publications and Internet sites such as the New Statesman, Interpress Service, and Electronic Intifada.

The Gellhorn Prize for Journalism was established by the Marha Gellhorn Trust one year the legendary American war reporter died in 1998. At 24, Omer is its youngest recipient to date. Previous recipients of the award have included renowned correspondents Robert Fisk (The Independent), Patrick Cockburn (The Independent), and Jeremy Harding (London Review of Books). This year, Omer is sharing the prize with the American freelance journalist Dahr Jamail.

"Of course, I'm happy to receive the award. I'm only 24 years old and it's a prestigious award to win," Omer said.

One picture...

His trip to Europe and his attendance at the award ceremony in the U.K. was up in the air until the last minute, however. Travel restrictions are common in Gaza and Omer says it took him a week and several failed diplomatic efforts to leave. It wasn't until Dutch diplomats came to his aid that the Israeli authorities let Omer leave with an escort from the Dutch embassy.

A fluent English speaker, Omer says he learned his language skills primarily by working with foreigners and news agencies. He has chosen to report in English in order to target the largest audience possible and "to reach out to those people who are not yet convinced."

The work comes with a price tag though. Apart from receiving emails from upset and angry readers, Omer said he is also subjected to threats, often from Israelis.

Credibility then is key for a reporter in a sensitive area like Gaza where news reports often conflict with each other and where correspondents are constantly being accused of bias. Omer therefore adheres to the "One picture says more than a thousand words" principle.


From Mohammed Omer's blog: "Home demolitions in Rafah. Bulldozers erase densely populated areas to make room for the 'separation wall.' The families lose everything."

A quick look at Rafah Today and the reader will find a large number of photos accompanying almost all of Omer's reports. 

"Pictures prove what you are saying. They prove the claim that there are arms, fingers, and legs lying in the streets when people don't believe you," said Omer.

So what is the goal of his work then?

"To get the message across," Omer says with a sound voice.

One of the journalist judges, John Pilger, told The Guardian, "We try to think how Martha would judge it. That's why, when we consider the prize winner, we consider they should have reported unpalatable truths substantiated by powerful facts."

An unbiased voice, that is, as Omer recently emphasized in his article, "An Award for the Voiceless in Gaza," saying that his ambition was "to get the truth out, not as pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli, but as an independent voice and witness."

www.rafahtoday.org