openDemocracyUK

'The London riots reminded me of Gaza'

My family thought London was the safest place we had ever lived. But rioting near our home made us feel like we were back in a war zone.
Sameh Habeeb
12 August 2011

We are the most unfortunate people in the world. As a Palestinian friend once told me, “wherever we go, we will not experience the taste of stability”. Many of us have lived through becoming a refugee many times over. Some Palestinians were kicked from their homes to Gaza then Egypt, then to Jordan, Syria, Iraq and so on. We are not treated justly in most countries, especially in the Arab world. There is huge discrimination in places like Lebanon and Egypt, where Palestinians are seen as troublemakers.

Arafat’s stance on Kuwait and Iraq didn’t help Palestinian refugees in either country, from which they were forced out. Then there were the Israelis. In Gaza, Israel launched an intensive war against people’s psyches. The war not only consisted of rockets but comprehensive propagandising. Israelis dropped thousands of leaflets asking people to leave their houses. They also made recorded phone calls threatening people either to get out of their homes or be attacked. People were driven north, east, south, west, moving in any direction to be safe.

I now live in West Ealing in London where extensive looting took place. And I have to tell you that maybe the setting and the science is different, but the results are similar. After following news bulletins for an entire day, we knew that we should expect a riot storm to hit our area in Ealing. It reminded me of Gaza just shortly before the war, when Israel tightened its siege. I calculated that this would happen if it was going to happen, early on Monday morning, and I told my wife we should be ready.

Having lived in Gaza, the events that followed were not strange to me. My family and I experienced war for days on end. Life had many ironies. We were trapped in our homes with no safety bunkers or shelters. My trembling mother had to reassure my two little sisters. We ran out of food. We lived in the dark in what seemed like a perpetual power blackout. We had to gather in one room fearing bomb attacks and pretending to each other that the room could protect us although this was quite impossible. We had to sleep close together trying to keep warm. This suffering will never be forgotten by us. Surely Londoners will never encounter this.

But there we were when my wife heard the sound of sirens and people shouting. At her request, I went to look out over the balcony to see all my neighbours out in the street trying to find out what was happening. Then the BBC began to cover events in Ealing, though with no film footage. Some of our neighbours went up on the roof and from there they could at last see what was going on, and report back to the rest of us.

I live in a complex where dozens of flats are crammed full of Londoners. It was around 11pm on the Sunday when the sirens started to wail through our area. Not much later, chaos seemed to descend - people screaming and shouts echoing all around us. I wasn’t scared or frightened: I felt ready for all possibilities. I quickly urged my wife to help me prepare our bags and our documents so that we could leave any time. Leaving the house was the obvious decision to come to once we had seen what had happened in Tottenham where dozens of flats were burned to the ground. My place is located right next to Wilkinson’s store which we thought might well be a target. It was not only me who thought this. My Polish neighbour and her dog left their flat very quickly as soon as chaos spread into the area.

Flashback

This fresh experience brought back memories when my family almost packed our bags and set out to seek some kind of shelter. It reminded me of so many families that fled the eastern parts of Gaza from Israeli bombings, trying to find a safe place in Gaza, where there are none.  My family in Gaza didn’t in the end leave our house despite the threats. We stayed put and remained strong although death was of course stronger.

Remembering this, I decided to stay home last night and protect my flat as well as my neighbours if anything was to happen. I went out on the balcony and found all my neighbours out on their balconies. Now they were all asking what we should do.  We were trapped. Like the people of Gaza, we didn’t know where to go. We have two entrances to our home, at the front and the back. Both were completely encircled by thugs as the Wilkinson warehouse is at the back whilst the store entrance is next to our front door, in a row of shops, similarly surrounded by thugs. We were afraid to go out into the unknown as we didn’t know the nature of these thugs…

Time passed slowly as the danger seemed to grow. Carphone Warehouse and Boots were attacked and smoke started to rise in a plume from Carphone Warehouse. Rioting was ongoing; looters stormed Wilkinson and looted parts of that building, and then ransacked an entire jewelry shop.  Unfortunately, the police got there too late. We made many phone calls, asking for police protection as the whole complex might burn down if Wilkinson took fire.  As we lost hope in the police, we decided to defend ourselves.

My Irish friend and his family got out some knives.  I also prepared and vowed to defend my wife and myself. My wife unluckily was less bullish about all this and was afraid, although she has survived far worse conditions. Her family is from Gaza. They migrated to Kuwait, then got kicked out to Iraq, then to Egypt then to Gaza, and now here she was in London. She thought London was the safest place she had ever lived in.

Finally, the police arrived. I went out to explore what had happened and was shocked. There were looters still there, continuing to loot although the police were there looking at them. So many shops had been looted and extensively damaged. I saw that many of the looters were really young. They were certainly not only black kids as some people said on the BBC, but they were from what looked like all sects and races mixed up. It makes some kind of sense when you see foreign soldiers looting your country: they are the enemy. But it really is pitiful to see Londoners looting their own London.

I got up in the morning and went up the high road, noting the dissatisfaction on the faces of people. Everyone was upset. Things seemed to be calm in Ealing. Yet, fear is still there. Most of the shops are closed. Police are there in limited numbers. Some shops had clearly built their own defenses. In war-torn Gaza, it had been extremely hard to get a loaf of bread. Shops were closed. And getting fresh water was even harder as water sources were either bombed or exhausted. Indeed, the streets of London that day were similar. Most of the shops were closed and people found it hard to get their basics. Imagine if this lasted days or weeks!

Looting also took place in Gaza. Yet it was not done by Gazans but by Israeli soldiers as many Israeli organisations have testified. But the same atmosphere of panic and fear was really here in London. I could clearly see the signs of fear in people’s faces. Maybe we are used to that: Londoners are not. Maybe now Londoners will understand a little more. This could be a chance to engage Londoners more in what’s happening worldwide.

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