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A Young Man's Chronicle of Hell

By       Message Randolph T. Holhut     Permalink
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DUMMERSTON, Vt. - What happens when one of the most important news stories in the world happens literally in your front yard?

If you are Mohammed Omer, you become a journalist.

I had a chance this week to meet with Omer, a 22-year-old freelance journalist and photographer from Israeli-occupied Gaza. He was in Brattleboro, Vt., to give a talk about his life and work, part of a U.S. speaking tour sponsored by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

This young man has seen much death and destruction in his lifetime, but unlike many reporters, he did have to go look for it. Instead, it found him.

Omer has lived his entire life in Rafah, a refugee camp near the Egyptian border. He said that growing up, he wanted to be a translator and work for the Red Cross or a similar non-governmental organization. He started doing that when he was 17, but, as he put it, "life forced me to be a journalist."

What happened to him and his family on October 2003 put him on the path to being a reporter. His family's home was bulldozed by Israeli forces. His family was still in the house at the time, and his mother narrowly escaped with a broken leg.

The demolition happened less than two weeks after one of his brothers, Hussam, 17, was killed by an Israeli sniper while walking to school. When a neighbor tried to rescue Hussam, she got shot also, as did another man who tried to help. A younger brother, Issam, lost a leg after being hit in an attack that same month.

"This is life in Gaza," said Omer.

At 18, he started reporting for international media. Over the last four years, his reporting has appeared on the BBC and other global broadcasters and in newspapers in Sweden, Norway and Germany. His photos are distributed around the world by Agence France-Presse and his blog, RafahToday.org.

In this country, his work has appeared in the Vermont Guardian and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. His work recently won the inaugural National Ethnic Media Award for Best Youth Voice, presented by New American Media.

While some would say Omer is too close to the story and lacks objectivity, given what he has experienced in Gaza, he told me that he tries to be evenhanded, but that "I'm not afraid to criticize anyone."

Omer is living and working in a place where being a journalist is hazardous to your health, and he is well-aware of the dangers. He has seen other reporters killed and says he has had more than a few close calls. But he said he has no intention of stopping what he is doing.

"If I don't do it, who is going to?" he said.

Omer is visiting the United States to call attention to what is happening in Gaza. Since the summer, Israel - with the full support of the United States - has sealed off Gaza in retaliation for the capture of a Israeli soldier by Palestinian forces. Israeli forces cut off food, water and electricity and have indiscriminately bombed civilians and bulldozed houses. The sound of explosions and gunfire has become a sad soundtrack in Gaza.

Most of this goes unseen in the American news media, which Omer says is totally biased in favor of Israel. Omer wants to change that. He said his work is one way to get the world to see the ordinary life of people in a war that they did not seek or ask for.

His pictures of the violence in Gaza are extremely gory - too gory for the tender sensibilities of American news editors. In Europe, where newspaper readers and television viewers are treated like adults, Omer's work gets wide play.

At a time when journalism is under siege by market pressures, by government, by the general dumbing down of the culture, Omer's example of courage, passion and commitment gives me hope that a new generation is rising up to bring us the uncomfortable truths about our world, regardless of the personal cost.
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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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