Dead Man Walking: a Message From Gaza

This is the name of a movie from the 90s that starred two actors I like, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The term is used by prison staff, guards, and wardens to describe inmates on death row. Shouts of ‘dead man walking!’ echo through the prison as a cruel reminder to the inmates that their time is limited, and execution awaits.

In 1998, I received a scholarship to the University of Minnesota to study human rights, and, for my project proposal, I wanted to learn about programs designed for inmates on death row. In order to develop my proposal, I visited prisons, learned about such programs and watched ‘Dead Man Walking’ several times. I was hoping to learn from the US how to ease the last days, months, and years of these inmates as, finally, they are humans and receive what the system and society believe is justice for their crimes. After working hard on my project proposal, I was surprised with an outright rejection with the justification that ‘the state of Minnesota abolished capital punishment in 1911.’

My project was canceled, and the only memory of it that remains is a lingering sympathy with Sean Penn’s character. I am reminded of this movie and his character now as I survive under bombardment and siege in Gaza. I hear my prison wardens scream ‘dead man walking’ every day, every night. ‘I did not kill anyone!’ I want to scream back. My only crime is to be Gazan and want to live. I wish to wake up from my death row nightmare and no longer hear their whistling calls and exploding taunts.

Biko in Gaza 

As a teenager living under occupation, I used to follow the stories of people fighting for freedom around the world. Stories from South Africa always resonated with me, because I felt a strong kinship with people who suffered under systems of apartheid.

I distinctly remember reading the story of Steve Biko, a black South African anti-apartheid activist who was killed in prison in South Africa. The story, unfortunately, was short and concluded with Biko’s murder while still in jail. I was accompanied for years by the song Peter Gabriel wrote in memory of Biko’s life and legacy, and, at some point, I was able to watch the movie Cry Freedom that documented part of Steve Biko’s struggle against apartheid.

The last part of my connection to Biko’s story was the Truth and Reconciliation Testimony Session that involved the murderers of Biko. Like others, I struggled to accept truth in lieu of justice; however, while watching the testimonies and observing the reactions from Biko’s surviving family as they listened to his killers describe the murder of their beloved, I realized that truth is not less important than justice. I realized that the truth can provide relief; it can provide a sort of peace.  Knowing the truth became important to me, too, and I became ready to give up the right of seeing or practicing justice in return for hearing and knowing the truth.

Truth became more important to me than anything else. I dreamt of meeting Desmond Tutu and speaking to him about why he came to the conclusion that the truth would reconcile people. I wanted to ask him what happens to people when they are allowed to hear the full disclosure of the truth.

My request to all of my friends who will survive the current genocide in Gaza is not to fight for justice only, but to consider the pursuit of truth for all the victims. We should demand to know from our killers: ‘Why were they killed? Why are you killing us?’

And for the growing number of children killed, I wish I could ask ‘what did you dream of last month? What did you dream of before you were killed?’

Rest in peace Biko and see you soon

The song of Biko