Deir AlBalah – Nawa – By Wafa Abu Khsewan
Ten-year old Huda Abu Ghorab is a pupil at AlAyeshia School in Deir AlBalah. She travels daily from her home to her school, which is situated at approximately 3 kilometers from her home. Sometimes, she rides a car, but many other times, she only walks.
The scene of Huda and her friends in the car is heartbreaking. I saw them with my own eyes with other schoolchildren. They are thrown into a small car, packed like sardines. It does not matter who sits in the front or the back of the car. They even sit in the trunk or on the gas canister that may explode in their faces any time. But, nobody cares!
Huda, the little girl with her hair combed in a braid, says, “Drivers refuse to let us ride with them, because we only pay half a Shekel. To avoid being late for school, we ride in the “Tuktuk” (three-wheeled motorcycle with a plastic cover), which is overcrowded. Another driver took us in the trunk of his car, on top of the gas canister.”
At AlMashaala Bridge, to the south of Dier AlBalah, ten children in school uniform stepped down from a Subaru. They had all gathered around the trunk to look for their bags while the driver was screaming loudly at them.
I talked to one of these children. His name is Mohammad Salout and he is 9 years old. He explained, “The driver told me: if you want to travel with the other kids, climb into the trunk. I rode in the trunk and was terrified throughout the ride. I was near the gas canister, which may explode at any moment. Even, the lock of the trunk could have fallen on my head and the head of the other kids riding with me. I will never again ride in the trunk. I prefer to walk to school.”
Some children have access to private cars to take them to school, but these are only the better off. The poorer ones have no choice; they either walk a long distance to school or pile up in the car or its trump or in the cheaper “Tuktuk”.
Talking to the drivers transporting kids to schools, they confirmed they were taking care of the safety of the pupils to avoid any accidents. They also reiterated that they were committed to the maximum allowable number of passenger in their vehicles. Driver Abu Mohammad, 40 years, opens his car door and calls the pupils. He points with his hand showing that he can pick 5 students to ride with him and go home. “I have been working as a driver for 15 years. I always pick up schoolchildren. Even their parents know me and they know that I take good care of their children. I only take the maximum load allowed so that everybody goes home safe and sound.”
Unlike him, other drivers exploit the students whose school is far from their homes. They expose them to danger and traffic accidents. The fault of these children is that they live in remote areas, away from the main streets, where they would have been able to find a safer ride.
On the other side of the street stood a Tuktuk driver. He refused to give us his name. He appeared to be in his twenties. He said, “In the morning, I pick up kids from elementary schools; they are my neighbors. I drive to school and back to their homes at the end of the school day.” The students opt for the Tuktuk because it is cheaper, according to the driver. “They pile up on top of each other because their school is quite far from their homes and they do not find alternative transportation. They live in a dire situation.”
Are parents aware of what is happening to their children? Um Mohammad, mother of 5 schoolchildren of different ages, says, “Kids leave in the morning to school and return in the afternoon. I am busy doing housework and providing for them. I do not have time to ask them about their school.” She stopped as I showed her a picture on my mobile phone. She was shocked. “This is my daughter, my beloved one!”. she cried, “After I saw my daughter sitting in the car trunk over the gas canister, I do not understand anything anymore. For a moment, I felt I was losing my daughter, if this bomb explodes. Therefore, I started standing with her in the morning till she rides the car. I sit with my children and steal some time to ask them about what happens to them at school. I do not want to lose them.”
Nawa interviewed Captain Ibrahim Abu Jayyab, Traffic Operations Officer of Gaza, and asked him about his department’s responsibility vis-à-vis what happens to the schoolchildren sitting in car trunks on top of a gas canister. He replied, “This poses a high risk on the life of the children”. He reiterated that it was necessary to take legal action against drivers who violate the law and withdraw their licenses. They must all undergo a rehabilitation course so that they do not undermine the life of the people traveling with them. He stated that traffic police organized campaigns against illegal cars, especially those operated with gas. He explained that they followed on vehicles that exceed the load limit, including Tuktuks, which are commercial vehicles that are not apt to transport children. The police seize the Tuktuk that violates the law and confiscate the gas canister.
Abu Jayyab underscored the importance of school, parents and traffic police cooperation to raise traffic awareness, especially with the overpopulation of the Gaza Strip. He stressed that it was necessary to build new schools and explained that traffic police forces are not enough to cover all the schools. He also explained that they sent traffic guides to all schools in the Gaza Strip to raise students’ awareness of traffic laws and safety.
Abu Jayyab hopes that pedestrian-bridges will be built to connect the schools alongside the main roads, especially on the Salah El Din High Way. However, because of the siege and insufficient building material, not to mention the occupation’s assaults and destruction of main streets’ infrastructure, the building of such bridges is not possible.
When she grows up, Huda will remember her childhood as riding in the car trunk to go to school in a century when technology is most advanced.
 Because of prolonged Israeli siege and restrictions on importation of fuel, many Gazans attempted to find substitutes to operate their cars. Some use regular cooking gas and place a canister in the trunk of their cars, which they connect to the motor to operate the car.