It’s appropriate to post this beautifully-written tribute to Vik on the day the current flotilla leaves for Gaza. In his memory, Free Gaza wishes them a safe journey. As he always said, ‘Stay Human.”
Vik and Captain John on the day we landed in Gaza, August 23, 2008
By Bella, Co-founder, the Free Gaza movement
Vik was part of my life for seven years. With a family background of anti-fascism, he carried a deep personal belief in social justice and peace, and a commitment to writing, working, fighting for these. By working hard throughout most of the year in Italy, while developing his voice as a writer in the evenings via the internet, he self-funded regular windows of volunteering abroad.
He and I met in the West Bank, volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement, accompanying local people resisting Israel’s land-grab wall and staying with families and villages experiencing Israeli military attack and settler harassment. We were drawn to the ISM for similar reasons: it was founded by Palestinians and Israelis working together, it is based on nonviolence and collective working, and it’s Palestinian led. Within that context there is a lot of room for flexibility and acting according to one’s own principles. Which was good, because basically neither of us liked being told what to do!
After this, we met over many years, in many places. On the rooftops of East Jerusalem, listening to the call to prayer. By the naviglio in Milan, he introduced me to mojitos; “Cuba with a little bit of Palestine”. I taught him to play chess. Eventually, we shared being blacklisted by Israel, as known human rights volunteers, and shut out of the West Bank. And then we shared the crazy Free Gaza Movement plan of getting through the siege and reaching Gaza on boats.
In the summer of 2008, after long days attempting to match the stamina and commitment of the local Greeks renovating a small fishing boat in secret, Vik and I talked a lot about life and death. We did both think we were going to die, on the Mediterranean, under attack by Israeli gunboats, in the coming attempt to break the siege.
This left us both feeling strangely free, deeply connected to the beauty around us, wanting to talk about the ideas most important to us, to find joyfulness in what we thought were the handful of days left us, before we became small footnotes in a long history of resistance and hope. Under the circumstances, Vik also felt it vital that he order us the best quality wine available, every evening. Watching a tattooed, black-clad, eyebrow-pierced, muscled Italian bloke taste-test that evening’s vintage before elegantly gesturing his approval, made me laugh. He also insisted I try fisherman’s spaghetti – and for what time I had left, I gave up being vegetarian.
In the last days in Cyprus before we boarded the Free Gaza boats and set off into the unknown, he gave me a piece of paper that he had been carrying.
It was some writing by an Italian called Enzo Baldoni. Enzo and Vik had a lot in common, both Italian journalists, both peace volunteers. They were going to have more, in the end, than we knew then, because Enzo was kidnapped and killed by fundamentalists in 2004. Vik was carrying this because it represented how he felt about the possibility of his own death.
But then, the impossible happened – our two small fishing boats, carrying 44 internationals from 17 different countries, crossed the sea, passed through the Israeli blockade and made it to Gaza’s port – the first boats to do so from international waters in over 40 years. To be welcomed by thousands of cheering Palestinians, jumping into the sea to swim out and meet us.
And in that dry, battered, land of despair and hope, of sweet tea and lost limbs and bright eyed children, shortly again to be under a hail of Israeli bombs, Vik found the rest of his life. He found his brief career giving a voice to Gaza’s voiceless.
He was never able to fit into someone else’s conventions, even when he meant to try. In Palestine, international volunteers usually have some sort of cultural training, where we attempt to adjust our behaviour so that we respect local norms, and enable people to feel more comfortable with us, avoiding causing offence. Advice like that didn’t really stick for Vik, if he felt the need to swear at the top of his voice, in his own unique mix of Italian and Arabic, he wouldn’t remember til later that this wasn’t always considered polite. ISM guidance traditionally advised that army trousers or boots might give the wrong message to an occupied people if worn by peace volunteers; it is possible I never saw Vik dressed in anything other than black army trousers and black army boots. With the addition of a borrowed cream dinner jacket he wore on the ambulances during Operation Cast Lead, and in the parsley fields with farmers under fire, after it turned out none of us had packed for Gaza’s winter.
But none of the rules seemed to apply to him anyway. He was loved from the moment he arrived.
Vik had a public persona of conviviality, charm, his conversation punctuated by shouts of laughter. He loudly hailed anyone within the vicinity as “sadiqi!” - my friend. Anytime he reached a new location half an hour before me, such as a cafe or hotel, by the time I arrived he would be able not only to introduce the staff - “this is my friend Mohammed” - but seemed to share an array of backstories, catchphrases and nicknames with them.
Yet he was actually an intensely private person, needing a great deal of time on his own to handle the outside world, struggling to face the brightness of mornings, happier in the gentleness of candle-night and evenings. At heart, he described himself as a hermit, someone who never even used the phone if it could be avoided.
In 2011, when I heard Vik was dead – within hours after he too was apparently kidnapped by fundamentalists – I unfolded that piece of paper with shaking fingers and read it again. Enzo was providing a “user’s guide” for his friends and family in case he died – which “he felt serene about”. He wanted his funeral to be “around happy hour”, for people to wear colourful and cheerful clothes. He banned all the clichéd sorrowful words that would normally be heard at funerals; he challenged the speakers to make the audience laugh, saying “don’t have any mercy on me. You will never know all the things I have been up to anyway.” He demanded a gypsy folk band, an array of good food to eat, and “everyone to pour a drop of wine on my coffin, damn it, you can’t have it all yourselves…. and smoke whatever you like - and I wouldn’t mind if people fell in love.”
Vik had two dreams: to become a writer, and to return to Palestine after Israel refused him entry to the West Bank. He achieved them both, and no matter how impossible it is for me to believe I will never share an evening of shisha and mojito with him again, I do actually see his life as complete.
Reaching Gaza on August 23 2008 was one of the happiest days of his life. This is my translation of what he wrote for his Guerilla Radio blog about that day:
History is us. History is not cowardly governments with their loyalty to whoever has the strongest military. History is made by ordinary people everyday people, with family at home and a regular job who are committed to peace as a great ideal to the rights of all, to staying human. History is us who risked our lives to bring utopia within reach to offer a dream, a hope, to hundreds of thousands of people Who cried with us as we reached the port of Gaza. …Our message of peace is a call to action for other ordinary people like ourselves not to hand over your lives to whatever puppeteer is in charge this time round. But to take responsibility for the revolution. First, the inner revolution to give love, to give empathy. It is this that will change the world. We have shown that peace is not an impossible utopia Or perhaps we have shown that sometimes utopia can be possible. Believe this: Stand firm against intimidation, fear, and despair And simply remain human.
Vik never found the world an easy place to be, but then those of us who love justice often don’t. By sharing the hard and dangerous day-to-day life of the Gaza community, with humour, compassion and often rage, he achieved his inevitable identity as a writer, telling Gaza’s stories to an ever-increasing audience. As I left Gaza and travelled home through Italy, I was able to send him a picture of his newly published book of Gaza articles, Restiamo Umani (Stay Human) in a bookshop. He replied: “Shuqran for the pic sadiqa, i was sitting in one of my dark mood, i look at the picture and i restart to work and write.”
Palestine gave him that, his life’s work. It gave him a community that loved him, and now will always love him. And for someone who had always, fundamentally, felt himself to be homeless, Gaza became home. I know if we could ask Vik now, he would say he did not lose his life in Palestine; rather Palestine gave him his life.
He would regret nothing.