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Last Updated: Monday, 10 May, 2004, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Eyewitness: Getting out of Gaza
Kirstie Campbell works for the family visit programme of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza, which accompanies Palestinian families on visits with relatives held in Israeli prisons.

Gaza is a surreal place to live and work - no two days are the same and no-one can predict from one day to the next what will happen.

Owing to its mandate, the ICRC is a very specific organisation to work for in the field.

The guidelines by which we work are very strict, and predictability - being seen to do what we say - is everything.

The ICRC's Kirsty Campbell
Campbell, 25, has also worked in Iraq and Jordan for the Red Cross
The family visit program (FVP) is one of the ICRC's best-known activities in Gaza.

It can be a breeze or a headache.

We transport the families of Palestinian detainees from Gaza and the West Bank to Israeli prisons.

Contact is especially important in a society which sees family as a top priority.

My role is to facilitate their journey through the Erez checkpoint - the only crossing point for Palestinians between Gaza and Israel.

Difficult days are those when all Palestinians are prevented from crossing, including those on the FVP.

It is also difficult when there are delays at Erez or in the prison itself, which can lead to late finishes or the visit being cancelled altogether.

Early start

Today, despite recent closures, the family visit has been approved by the Israeli authorities.

It is a foggy morning.

There are 200 visitors from all across the Gaza Strip, some of whom left home as early as 0300.

At 0730, the buses move from Gaza to Erez, a 30-minute drive.

Palestinians wait to be called through Erez checkpoint
Erez is the only way for Palestinians to leave and enter Gaza
With us is Nasser, in charge of the trip and one of the two Palestinian field officers working on the family visit programme.

On our arrival at Erez, the families leave the bus and cross the Palestinian checkpoint on foot.

They then proceed through an 800-metre corridor to the series of turnstiles which mark the start of the Israeli checkpoint.

It can take up to 40 minutes for the young wives, children, elderly and sick parents or grandparents, some burdened with heavy luggage, to walk the distance.

On arrival at the turnstile, the families stop.

Some sit on the concrete floor while others stand. We all wait for the Israeli officer to arrive and for the crossing to begin.

Nervous soldiers

The soldiers in Erez, with an average age of 20 and often limited experience, carry the heavy responsibility for their own security as well as that of their fellow soldiers and the people crossing.

It cannot be an easy job.

In recent weeks, their task has been particularly difficult.

The security situation has deteriorated and they have become very nervous, especially of people crossing with luggage.

One relative tells me that the soldiers at the Erez crossing symbolise everything he feels about the occupation.

He talked of his suffering and lost childhood, and explained how every hour spent waiting at Erez, every word out of tone, every additional checking procedure compounded these emotions for him.

This makes our role as interface between the two groups particularly delicate.

'I am proud of my father'

While we wait, a girl called Zainab shows me a velvet boat that her father made for her in prison.

"I am so proud of my father, I visit him whenever I can," she tells me.

FAMILY VISITS
About 8,000 Palestinians are held in detention
In 2003, the ICRC helped 16,037 relatives visit 5,412 detainees
The programme regularly visits 16 different detention centres
Visits are every two weeks in prison and once a month in military camps
Families can also use messages to stay in touch. The Red Cross has sent 3,791 messages so far this year
Source: ICRC
She usually sees him once a month, but as visits are often cancelled, she has not been to the prison in two months.

"I am miserable when I cannot see him, I miss him too much," she says, adding: "I wish he would come home. Life is not the same without him.

"My sister Hanan was crying bitterly when I left the house this morning. It was her birthday yesterday, she was 17 years old.

"Perhaps for you this is a happy age to be, but for us, the daughters and sisters of detainees, it means that you can no longer see your brother or father as your name will be added to the list of prevented persons."

Young Palestinians between the ages of 17 and 35, considered a security risk by Israel, are often barred from prison visits.

In the past, attempts at smuggling often led to massive delays.

The Israeli army has banned many items, from mobile phones to certain types of food.

The families know they cannot bring these items with them, but occasionally they try their luck.

This can mean the whole visit being delayed by several hours, or even cancelled.

Delays

At last, the families cross through to Israel at about 1400 and board the buses that will take them to the prison.

Unfortunately, on arrival at the prison there are massive delays before they can start to visit.

The relatives finally start their 45-minute visit at 2000.

Israel soldiers guarding Erex checkpoint
Soldiers have a difficult task to preserve their own security
I return to the office, to co-ordinate with the Israeli authorities for the families' late return.

The Israeli liaison officer is very understanding and agrees to open the crossing for us at 0100.

However, just as everything is arranged, news breaks of a suicide attack by militants from Gaza.

The Israeli government warns of retaliation, but Nasser and I continue with our plans.

By 0030, with the situation still quiet, the ICRC in Gaza gives us the green light to move to Erez to meet the families.

We will take them to the local branch of the Palestinian Red Crescent (PRC) where they can wait until the security situation stabilises and it is safe for them to move on.

Careful crossing

We drive to Erez very slowly, with the illuminated Red Cross flag flying above the jeep.

The Red Cross emblem is our only form of protection, and our safety depends on both sides respecting the emblem.

The windows are open to listen for shooting or signs of military activity, and the empty buses follow in convoy.

At Erez we wait for over an hour before the turnstiles open.

Nasser is in contact with the bus driver on the Israeli side to inform the families of what is going on.

I have to explain to the soldier that all the cold in the world would not allow me to mix my Red Cross bib with a green military jacket
I am in contact with the Israeli liaison officer to co-ordinate our entrance to Erez and that of the bus on the other side.

Eventually we cross to meet the families who have been waiting in the buses for us for an hour, unable to cross until we arrived.

The children are all very tired after over 21 hours of travelling.

An Israeli officer thoughtfully offers his coat for me to keep warm. However, I have to explain to him that all the cold in the world would not allow me to mix my Red Cross bib with a green military jacket.

Neutrality is a concept that is widely misunderstood. However, nowhere is it more important than in Erez.

After five years of working on the FVP, Nasser knows all the families and the Israeli soldiers working at Erez.

However, he must always project a consistent and coherent image to those on the ground.

It is paramount for our security that the ICRC is neither seen to collaborate with the Israelis nor be too closely linked to families of Palestinian detainees.

Safe return

After an hour of extensive checking, we cross back to the Palestinian side.

There is a tense and sombre atmosphere and the bus drivers are very nervous of the drive back.

We are all fearfully aware that in the darkness of night, our buses might be mistaken for Israeli military vehicles.

Nasser and I drive the ICRC vehicle to the front of the convoy, with the flag lit up and flying to identify ourselves and the buses.

We arrive at the PRC office at around 0300 and are met by a team of volunteers who welcome us in with tea and blankets.

They help people call home to reassure concerned relatives.

It is a great relief to see them. The volunteers are an amazing resource - the ability to mobilise trained and enthusiastic people at short notice is invaluable.

At 0500, it is light enough for the buses to take some of the families home in safety.

At last the visit and our day is over and it is time for us to go home too.


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