The Paralympians Of The Gaza Strip

Gaza Under Attack – in pictures | Attacks on Gaza Timeline

Thursday 10 November 2011 |  C4 Paralympics Blog

“It was absolutely terrifying,” recounts journalist Aidan Hartley. “We went to meet at a secret rendez vous at midnight, and found ourselves surrounded by these guys with black balaclavas and AK47s who escorted us through an olive grove. There were Israeli drones in the air above us, we slipped in to a house and suddenly found ourselves presented with the disabled unit of the Islamic Jihad. They saw it almost as a badge of honour to have been made disabled in the fight against Israel, as a sort of half-way house to martyrdom.”

This was just one of the many escapades that Aidan found himself at the centre of whilst trailing the Palestinian Paralympic team for Channel 4’s Unreported World – Going For Gold In Gaza. Torn apart by decades of conflict with Israel, the Gaza strip seemed so at odds with the traditional image of elite sport.

“In Gaza, sport just isn’t there,” continues Aidan. “People were wearing Manchester United jerseys but other than that, it’s just not there. There’s nowhere to play sport, and these guys have got this one little patch of green in this landscape of unrelenting concrete and crumbling buildings.”

An extraordinarily wily bunch, Aidan’s first encounters with the Palestinian Paralympic team left him awe stricken – like blind discus thrower Hatem who trains in the nearby Mulsim cemetery, whilst his 13 year old son Mohammed claps in the distance to let him know which direction to throw; or shot putter Fatima, who simply hoped to make it to London 2012 and do well enough to attract a sponsor that would buy her a new prosthetic leg.

“They are such lovely people, they have all the challenges that other disabled athletes from all over the world have but in addition to that they also have the challenge of living in one of the most difficult places in the world – a place which is in conflict, a place where poverty is pretty general. And also they don’t have liberty. It was an odyssey stretching out before them. Will they be able to get to London? Will they be able to get out of this besieged enclave in the Middle East which is surrounded by drones and machine guns? Will they be able to cobble together the money to get there, and will they even have the equipment to be able to perform?”

“They were a little surprised that we were genuinely there to cover the Paralympics because most journalists go to cover the conflict, but they opened up to us as soon as they knew what we were about. They invited us in to their homes. We ended up having a great time with the team’s coach Khamis – a former builder paralysed from the waist down after he fell from the seventh floor of an Israeli building site – in the evening roasting crabs on the beach whilst looking out to see Israeli gunboats firing illumination flares over the water.

“In so many of the stories that we cover people complain about their lives and they usually have a great reason for complaining because they’re victims of conflict or poverty or environmental destruction and so on. I didn’t hear any complaint whatsoever from these people. They had set themselves up to face all of life’s challenges with the most incredibly positive attitude.

“And it’s so rare, frankly, in news and current affairs when you can cover a story which is actually good news, which is actually positive in a way that isn’t saccharine and lightweight. And I think this was profound about the human spirit in a place where we could so easily have made a story about despair. The fact that they are disabled is the smallest part of the documentary. The fact that they are disabled in Gaza is the point. It’s a very good metaphor for what life is like for everybody there.

“Very soon after we left the airstrikes started again. My greatest fear is that these guys will be engulfed in a new phase of the conflict and it would be dreadful if they were prevented from getting to the Paralympics. I hope that there is peace enough for them to make it.”

Watch ‘Unreported World: Going for Gold in Gaza’
7.30pm, Friday 11th November, Channel 4.

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