Monday, December 18, 2017
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Vittorio Arrigoni: The man I knew

Photo by ReutersBy Nicole Johnston

There is a packet of pipe tobacco sitting in my Gaza City apartment.

It's Victor's. He left it behind the last time I saw him, about one month ago.

Anyone who knew Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni knew that he was usually puffing away on a pipe. Like a wise sea captain.

I had hoped to give his tobacco back to him this weekend, to catch up before he left Gaza and returned to Italy.

He was heading home to see his father, who has been very ill. Also to have a break from Gaza and return refreshed on a new flotilla aiming to set sail to Gaza at the end of May and break the siege.

I last heard from him on Wednesday. It was a short text message asking me if I'd just heard the loud booms. These were sonic booms from low flying Israeli war planes. No, I replied, I hadn't.

The following day he was kidnapped and shortly afterwards killed. Members of a Salafi group say they are responsible.

I first met Vik on a story inside Gaza's buffer zone. A team from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) was accompanying a farmer and a dozen Palestinian women onto their land while they harvested their crop.

This area has been declared a no-go area by Israel. Inside the buffer zone Israeli soldiers shoot and sometimes kill Palestinians. ISM hopes the international presence will deter the Israelis.

It didn't seem much of a deterrent when we were there. Even with a film crew present Israeli troops fired shots. We crouched down low into the wheat.

Vik and his colleagues stood their ground. When they decided it was too dangerous to stay any longer, we followed them out. We went into the buffer zone once.

Gaza's ISM volunteers were doing it every week. Some say it was foolhardy bravery. But there was no doubting their commitment to the cause.

So after bonding in the buffer zone, I met Vik and his colleague, Adie Nistelrooy, many times. Sometimes it was over pasta, a seafood meal, or a shisha pipe and a World Cup football game.

The last time we all gathered, I thought I was farewelling them both from Gaza. A group of us ate, danced and watched the night slip away from my ninth floor apartment.

Adie did leave Gaza a day or two later. Vik ended up staying one month longer. A month that has changed everything.

The news of his death has shaken Gaza's small community of internationals and the Palestinians he counted as his dear friends. Italy has evacuated its nationals.

I often walk by myself through Gaza's dark streets at night, heading home from a café or after visiting a friend's apartment. Usually I carry a torch in the stretches of road where the electricity has been cut. With Hamas police manning checkpoints and street corners across Gaza City, it felt safe.

Now I hope it still is. Because that's what Victor would have wanted.

Nicole Johnston is a Doha based reporter. She has been with the network almost five years with stints in London, Kenya, Jerusalem and Gaza. Prior to Al Jazeera, Nicole was a reporter with ABC Australia for 7 years.

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