Saturday, 12 November 2011

Going for Gold in Gaza: The Making of...

Hatem ZaqoutWednesday 09 November 2011
Aidan Hartley

Producer Richard Cookson and I quickly discovered the athletes' story opened a window onto the daily struggles people face in Gaza in quite astonishing ways.

Unreported World: Going for Gold in Gaza

I (Aidan Hartley) wondered if following a group of disabled Palestinian athletes hoping to compete in the London 2012 Paralympics might distract from the big themes I always hope to investigate in my assignments.

Producer Richard Cookson and I quickly discovered the athletes' story opened a window onto the daily struggles people face in Gaza in quite astonishing ways.

The Palestinians responded warmly when they heard what we were doing, perhaps because Western journalists covering Gaza so often need to focus on distressing themes that emphasise this embattled enclave's despair and isolation from the rest of the world.

By contrast this was a positive story about a group of determined individuals. They shrug off all their hardships - and in Gaza they have it particularly tough - so that they can compete in what they see as the greatest sporting event in the world.

For all this, the athletes are completely unknown in Gaza. 'We never knew there was even a Palestinian Paralympic team,' was a constant refrain we heard.

The athletes themselves spent hardly any time complaining, despite their challenges. They just made do.

Most days Hatem Zaqout, a blind religious teacher, practices throwing the discus in a dusty cemetery around the corner from his mosque because he can't easily get to a training ground. I noticed Hatem was a gentle man who had a lovely relationship with his children, on whom he was completely dependent for even simple tasks like walking down a street or eating a meal.

Before I went to Gaza I was told that people with physical disabilities were often shunned by society and that they might not have the care and support one finds in a Western country. On the ground we found the contrary to be the case.

'I dont feel I'm missing out when I help my Dad,' Hatem's 13-year-old son Mohamed told me when I asked if he felt he'd rather be out playing with his friends, as a boy in Britain might. 'I like helping my Dad. It means that we spend a lot of time together.'

The athletes' training sessions were striking too. I thought it was extraordinary to film in a gym with the women disabled athletes wearing hijab while pumping iron.

I found them to be a particularly determined group, with their star athlete Fatma Halooli proudly telling me that she was the first woman to establish her own business in the district, a mobile phone shop.
I was extremely touched when Fatma, an amputee, said that her best chance for obtaining a new, improve prosthetic limb was to do well in the Paralympics so that a sponsor might take pity on her.
For the athletes, the training sessions often seemed as much about friendship and conversation as sport.
Often, long before the noon call to prayer that signalled the end of training, we'd see the wheel chairs parked in a circle with many cups of tea being consumed. Off to one side partially-sighted Mohamed Fanuna, a top long jumper and javelin thrower, trained with strenuous dedication, while team captain Khamis Zaqhout surreptitiously smoked Egyptian cigarettes and told jokes in a booming voice.
Khamis was a builder until he fell seven floors on a construction site and his broken back put him in a wheelchair. That didn't stop him from becoming a discus thrower with a great sense of humour. 'I won't brag,' says Khamis. 'I'm the best. But seriously, of course I want to bring back medals. But my dream is to raise that Palestinian flag in London.'

Gaza is hard to get out of, but at the fortified border with Israel we found clusters of empty wheel chairs like abandoned supermarket trolleys. One of the ways to get approval to leave Gaza is if you're sick or need an operation in Israel. The wheel chairs have to be left behind and new ones fetched on the other side because of intensely tight security.

In many ways the athletes' stories very much represented many aspects of life in Gaza, a territory paralysed and isolated by conflict - suffering some of the highest rates of disability in the world.
River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian

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