A Big Hug, Stay Human: Reflections on the death of Vittorio Arrigoni

*photo by Eva Bartlett

By Eva Bartlett published at Rabble.ca

a big hug
stay human
Your Vik

This is how Vittorio “Vik” Arrigoni always signed off in his emails.
The 36-year-old Italian, my colleague and inspiring friend, was murdered Friday by a group claiming to be Jihadists in Gaza. The Salafis do exist in very insignificant numbers in Gaza, and it is allegedly they who produced the YouTube video of Vik blindfolded, beaten, handcuffed behind his back. The video roughly translated to:

“We kidnapped this Italian prisoner, Victor, who brings to our country the corruption and the destruction of our people, and behind him his infidel country Italy…”

The message demands the release of Sheik Abu al Waleed Al Maqdisi, a leader in the small sect, who had been arrested by Hamas a month earlier. On failing to release him, the video said Vik would be executed by 5 p.m. Friday, Gaza time.

I had known Vik since November 2008, when I arrived in Gaza via the Free Gaza movement’s “Dignity,” the third boat to break the siege.

Vik, active in Palestinian justice for nearly 10 years, was already well-known in Gaza, for more than his characteristic pipe, never far from his mouth, his array of political tattoos, his Che hat, and his wacky humour. He was known for facing Israeli bullets, shelling and water-canoning when accompanying Palestinian fishermen just miles off Gaza’s coast, in Palestinian waters. Vik, and the other internationals who re-started the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Gaza, went on a near-daily basis with Palestinian fishermen, documenting the Israeli navy’s crimes against them and standing in solidarity with fishermen whose injuries, abductions, and killings at the hands of the Israeli navy rarely go reported.

The ISM, accustomed to dangerous work -the principal being standing non-violently in solidarity with Palestinians in places where they are oppressed and aggressed by the Israeli army — closed in 2003, shortly after Rachel Corrie was run over and killed by an Israeli soldier driven bulldozer.

Vik had worked with the ISM in the occupied West Bank, was arrested and deported for his non-violent activism, and had documented the tragedies and injustices Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps face. He was no lightweight, in heart nor in size, and was not politically-naïve. He stood for Palestinian justice, self-determination, the right to resist, the release of the over 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners languishing in Israeli jails, and the return of Palestinian refugees. Accordingly, one of his tattoos was Handala, the cartoon character drawn by Palestinian Resistance Artist Naji Ali signifying the Palestinian refugee.

Image from Beit Hanoun Local Initiative (Handala in background)

He arrived in Gaza in August 2008 on the first Free Gaza voyage, the first boat since 1967 to dock at Gaza’s harbour. Before that, he was integrally involved in Free Gaza’s two years of planning, fundraising, advocating, and overcoming bureaucratic hurdles.

Before I arrived in Gaza, Vik had already been newly-injured once (not including his Occupied West Bank days) when the water-canon the Israeli navy aimed at the Palestinian fishing boat Vik accompanied shattered its windows, sending glass shards into his back. This, by the way, is standard procedure by the Israeli navy: attempt to damage or destroy as much equipment on the boat as possible; kidnap fishermen and confiscate boats and equipment; force fishermen to drop their nets into the sea, or plainly steal the nets. All of this Vik and the rest of ISM were documenting.

Just a couple of weeks after meeting him, Vik was abducted with 15 Palestinian fishermen and two other ISM activists, Andrew, a Scot, and Darlene, an American. All were taken from well within the 20 nautical miles allotted to Palestinian fishermen under the Oslo accords. Vik was tasered by Israeli soldiers who tried to push him onto a sharp piece of wood, Vik jumping into the icy sea to avoid further injury. The fishermen were released, the three activists deported, the fishing boats kept. Abu Adham only received his boat well over a month later, vandalized and unusable. His boat would later be shelled and set aflame by the Israeli navy, completely destroying it.

Vik, ever determined to witness Gaza, returned on Free Gaza’s 5th successful mission, arriving just weeks before Israel began the 23-day assault on the entire Gaza Strip.

During the war, ISM and Free Gaza rode with ambulances, documenting Israel’s war crimes and crimes against civilians and against rescuers. Vik managed to both accompany ambulances and race back along darkened, drone and F-16 targeted roads, to Gaza City’s Ramattan News Agency -the only place we were able to report from-to give non-stop phone interviews and write for his blog, Guerilla Radio as well as Italian and international media, including IL Manifesto and Peacereporter.

In those horrifying 23 days, Vik’s humour and compassion matched that of our Palestinian medical colleagues, with whom we rode.

Vik was a counselor to many of us, with an empathetic ear, wise words, and always a “yalla” (lets go) to get things going. His lack of mastering Arabic didn’t matter, he peppering his English speech with Italian curses and Arabic adjectives.

To say he was eccentric in some ways would be an understatement, but it would also be irrelevant. He was a fully-conscious humanist and used his political readings and personal experience to advocate clearly, intelligently, often humorously, and humanely for Palestinian justice. He was always ready to go out with the fishermen or get up before dawn to accompany farmers facing similar threats from the Israeli army.

Many a sleepy morning we would meet to take a shared taxi Vik had arranged for our accompaniment work in the southeast or north, Vik always in good humour. He always documented our accompaniments with his hand-held camera, along with one or two of us, and would quickly have the footage transferred to computer and uploaded to the internet.

Vik managed — despite the busyness of our lives in Gaza and the constant barrage of invitations from Palestinians to eat, drink tea, stay overnight with their family — to write his book recounting the Israeli war on Gaza and the daily injustices Palestinian face. Stay Human, the English translation, was the book title and his life motto.


photo by Shadi Nasser

When we heard that Vik had been abducted, my colleagues and I, as well as friends who knew Vik, all felt disbelief, then a small hope that he would be released. Why, after all, would any group want to kill someone whose name was as big as his heart and dedication to Palestine.

Our hearts were broken when some hours later we learned Vik had been killed, not only assassinated but hanged. Hamas security reports to have found his hanging body in a Gaza City apartment.

My colleagues and friends, still in disbelief, mourn and celebrate Vik. “He survived so much, he was so strong and robust and this large, life-filled, hard living, sensitive, open man. He was all about staying human,” Polish activist Ewa Jasiewicz said. “His spirit’s never going to die. His impact, what he’s done, the effect he’s had on people, his book, his words, his courage …there was revolution in his daily life. He lived it with love.”

“Through all the tears I’m shedding, and the pain — I’m overwhelmed also by love. A love for Vik, and a memory of his huge capacity for love, and his generosity with it,” said Andrew Muncie, from Scotland.

Max Ajl, the author of Jewbonics, and U.S. activist wrote: “He was a magnificent, wonderful person, and a great friend to so many of us. He died because was in Gaza resisting the occupation. I will miss him.”

Before his murder, Vik had planned to briefly leave Gaza, to visit his ill father. “He stayed on and on further once the recent bombing began,” UK activist Adie Mormech said, referring to Israel’s newest resurgence of mortal bombings, killing nearly 20 Palestinians, including three children, and wounding nearly 70 in the last weeks. “I knew him for a year in Gaza, he was my best friend,” said Adie.

But it isn’t only his international colleagues who are grief-stricken. Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank are holding memorial vigils for Vik Arrigoni, as well as friends and supporters in Italy and around the world.

“We are heart-broken,” wrote Ayyesh, from Nablus. “To our hundreds of friends in Italy, to his family, to our global community, we in Nablus send our condolences from the Palestinians to our friend and fellow activist Vittorio Arrigoni, a most wonderful human being.”

Shady Alassar, a Palestinian from Gaza, echoed the sentiments and protests of Palestinians in Gaza over Vik’s murder.

“To the family of Vittorio,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “The murder of your son, Vittorio, was a big shock to us. It’s unfair. We want you to know that our thoughts are with you during this difficult time. Our prays for his and your peace. Our hearts are so in agony for his loss.”

Khalil Shaheen, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights Head of the Economic and Social Rights Department said, “Vittorio Arrigoni is a hero of Palestine. He was available everywhere to support all the poor people, the victims.”

“Vik was truly a person greater than life,” wrote Israeli activist Jeff Halper.

“You will always hold us up and inspire us. Like the Palestinian fishermen you loved so much, we and all others fighting for the fundamentals of life throughout the world commit ourselves to seeing your vision through.”

And I remember him, his dedication, mischievous smile, compassion, humility, and readiness, whether to join a Palestinian-led non-violent protest against Israeli attacks on Palestinian farmers or to share a coffee and a shisha and discuss politics.

Following Vik’s execution, Gazas main resistance factions — including Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees — all issued statements condemning Vik’s murder.

Hamas spokesman Ehab Ghussein said to media that the kidnappers had no intention of trading Vik, instead killing him quickly. Hamas security have reportedly arrested two suspected Salafist members, though other reports have the Salfists groups in Gaza denying involvement.

A Haaretz article headlines “Hamas official hints Israel killed Italian activist to intimidate future Gaza flotilla members.”

Vik, were he alive, would be among the activists not intimidated by such an act. In spring 2011, a Canadian delegation will join Freedom Flotilla 2 in sailing to Gaza, to “expose the Canadian government’s unjustified support for Israel” and to reject the Israeli-imposed, internationally-backed -including Canada -siege on Gazas 1.5 million Palestinians. Which is why Vik was there in the first place.

A big hug, stay human.


With Abu Hashish family, whose son was killed by the IOF and left to decompose 54 days before Local Initiative and we were able to retrieve the body. *[photo by Eva Bartlett ]


photo by Emad Badwan

photo source unknown

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5 comments

  1. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to more than exceptional human being who will never be forgotten.
    Blessings and Light,
    Noelle

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