Body of slain Gaza activist arrives in Rome

By Liliane Khalil | Maan | Apr 24, 2011

CAIRO (Ma’an) — On Wednesday, the body of slain volunteer activist, Vittorio Arrigoni, arrived in his homeland after being transported to Cairo Airport from Gaza.

Hundreds of mourners, Palestinian friends and official delegates gathered at the Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome. The crowd broke into applause as the coffin draped in the Palestinian flag was unloaded from the plane and loaded into the hearse. Placed on top of the flag-draped casket was a wreath, sent by friends of “Vik” in Gaza, which read, “Vittorio, we will never forget you!”

Among Palestinian delegates to attend the arrival of Vittorio’s body in Rome were President Mahmoud Abbas and the minister for religious affairs, Rev. Elias Issa Musleh, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem. Other Palestinian representatives were Amb. to Rome Sabri Ateyeh, and the representative of the Palestinian community in Italy.

From the airport, the hearse was followed by mourners to La Sapienza University’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, where an autopsy was conducted on Thursday. Paolo Arbarello, the doctor who performed the autopsy, said the cause of death was most likely strangulation by electrical cord or cable. The Rome Attorney General’s office has opened a file into the murder charging the killers with kidnapping for the purpose of terrorism and aggravated death of a hostage.

Vittorio Arrigoni was born in Besana in Brianza, near Milan, to Ettore and Egidia Beretta. The family owned small businesses, but Vittorio’s mother became involved in local politics and was eventually elected mayor of Bulciaga, in the center of Brianza. Vittorio joined the family business before he became actively involved in humanitarian aid work.

That spirit of helping his fellow humans took Vittorio to Palestine. First he worked with the International Solidarity Movement in Jerusalem in 2002, where he became a vocal activist against Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian population of the West Bank.

In 2005, Vittorio was placed on Israel’s infamous “black list” of undesirables — a list mainly made up of international volunteers who work with various Palestinian NGOs to monitor Israel’s activities both in the West Bank and Gaza.

In 2008, Vittorio moved to Gaza where he began several media services to disseminate information about the plight of its people. He also made enemies within Hamas that same year, after criticizing the elected government for what he viewed as theocratic and authoritarian policies. Later, he was wounded and placed in an Israeli jail after he defended fishermen attempting to fish in the port of Gaza, which is under Israeli naval control.

Among Vittorio’s journalistic accomplishments, he was a correspondent for Italian daily newspaper, peace reporter and Gaza contributor for Italy’s Radio 2, a division of Italy’s most-watched television network RAI. He also contributed to a number of other Western newspapers, journals, television networks and radio programs. He was often considered the premiere voice of the Palestinian people of Gaza, when other journalists were banned from entering the region.

In 2009, Vittorio authored a book, Stay Human, a collection of dispatches and reports from Gaza during and after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. According to Amnesty International, Cast Lead was “twenty-two days of death and destruction which left over 1,400 Palestinians dead” and large areas of the Gaza Strip completely razed. Much of Vittorio’s book are extractions from his blog Guerrilla Radio, which achieved international fame as the only source documenting the war on Gaza. Stay Human has since been translated into English, French, German and Spanish with a new introduction in the latest re-publishing by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe.

According to his friend and fellow activist in Gaza, Nalan Al-Sarraj, Vittorio was no stranger to death threats. Because of his dedication to democracy and human rights, there were various groups against his presence in Gaza, including segments of the governing body, Hamas. On the evening of Thursday, April 14, Vittorio was abducted at gunpoint while leaving the gym he frequented in Gaza City.

Later that night a video surfaced on YouTube from a shadowy Salafist extremist organization. The footage showed a beaten and blindfolded Vittorio, while the narrator accused Italy of being an “infidel state” and said the activist was in Gaza to “spread corruption.” The group demanded the release of several militant Salafists being held in Palestinian prisons, or the hostage would be killed the following afternoon.

Hours into Friday morning, Hamas forces raided a home in Gaza City after receiving a tip from an arrested member of the Salafists who kidnapped Vittorio. Vittorio’s body was discovered inside the house and an initial autopsy performed by the Gaza Institute of Forensic Medicine correlated with the follow-up autopsy performed in Italy — Vittorio was hanged. His murder most likely occurred on the same evening of his kidnapping, according to the forensic reports.

A symbolic state funeral was held for Vittorio in Gaza on Monday, before his body was transported to Egypt. In Rafah, another group of Palestinians turned out to pay their respects and to denounce the kidnapping and murder of their “martyred brother.” Vittorio’s girlfriend, Claudia Milani, traveled from Italy to Gaza where she received mourners and friends at a funeral tent set up in Gaza City.

Al-Sarraj said she met Vittorio in 2010 and that the news of his death has broken her heart. While visiting the funeral tent last Sunday, Nalan paid respects to Claudia and recited a speech on behalf of the Palestinian youth group that she works with. Nalan said she believed that Palestinians were not responsible for the kidnapping and murder.

“They want the world to hate us and perpetuate the stereotype that we are all terrorists. The people of Gaza are about peace and love – and we loved Vittorio,” Nalan said. She went on to say that “Vittorio believed in us and our cause to ‘stay human.’ I would like to pass this message on to the world in tribute to Vittorio: Stay human and feel us with your hearts.”

Al-Sarraj lost her father during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, yet she remains hopeful that in time peace will come to her country under siege. She says Vittorio “used to call me the most beautiful Palestinian journalist. I say to him now — if he can hear me — You are my hero, brother, and I will always miss you.”

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