Most people know Geneva as the hub of the UN. Slick and cosmopolitan, it is Switzerland’s second most populous city, with a population of 200,000 and a patchwork of nationalities. A massive forty per cent of its inhabitants are foreigners. Understandably, given its central role in international affairs, it is no stranger to the world stage, but on Saturday you’d have been forgiven for overlooking it. Why? Because, like millions, Genevans turned out in their thousands to condemn Israel’s attacks on Gaza and the mainstream media ignored them.
I came across the protest by accident as I made my way home. It was just a small group at that point, setting up by the fountain in Place du Molard. Like every day, the square was filled with shoppers and tourists, sipping cappuccinos in the cafes. Only today, a hush had fallen beneath the umbrellas, as two middle aged men set up a speaker system and several others pulled Palestinian flags out of a car.
Although my French is still limited after just two months in Geneva, I managed to muster ‘Je peux, aussi?’ and pointed at a flag. One of the men nodded. It seemed that here, at last, was the chance to make a stand about Gaza.
I expected a couple of hundred people, perhaps. Five hundred, tops. But, by the time three o’clock came round, almost 1,500 had gathered in the square. Downtown Geneva was awash with red, black, white and green ¬– people, flags, placards, as far as the eye could see, and a sea of confused tourists, cameras at the ready. The local news would have a field day, I thought. How could they not?
After several impassioned speeches, the first in a series of chants went up. “Israel, assassin!” the crowds cried, as we set off in the direction of Palais Wilson. Among us were the old, the young, the activists, the stay-at-home-mums, the families, and the every day people of Geneva who had decided that they could no longer sit back and let Israel kill innocents in Gaza while their governments looked away.
“Viva, Palestina!” the crowd continued, crossing over Lac Leman and marching into the centre. Passers-by joined us as we went, while above, on balconies, onlookers applauded. Everywhere I looked, Palestinian flags fluttered in the breeze.
On Rue du Mont-Blanc, traffic came to a standstill. Then, as one of the protest organisers sounded an air raid siren, someone handed me a slip of paper.
Altogether, over 1,000 people laid down in the streets of Geneva, each bearing the names of a Palestinian who had died at the hands of Israel in less than a month. I was Hatim Ziad Ali al-Zabout. Twenty-four years of age, killed in al-Shujayeh, only five years younger than me. It could have been me, but through sheer accident of birth it wasn’t. It could have been any of us.
For the first time since I’d known them, the streets of Geneva were silent. Bodies filled every square inch of space. I heard sounds I hadn’t heard there before – the ticking of a pedestrian crossing, a sewer running below, and above us, the screech of eagles, which had already begun circling. We stayed that way for a minute. It seemed like a lifetime – something those whose names we bore had lost forever.
Later, after the protest, I pulled up a Google search for Hatim. I found nothing, except his name on a list of dead Palestinians. Aside from the A4 sheet of paper I had clasped to my chest that day, he had been effectively erased from the conscience of the world –¬– nothing but a name and a faceless victim of Israel’s ‘self-defence’. Where was that paper now? I had given it to a little girl, sitting on the shoulders of her father, watching the final speeches on the lakeside. “Tu peux?” I had said to her. She took it and held it high, her face filled with pride. Hatim’s last stand.
Soon, I started to hear talk about the police using tear gas in Paris, and estimates of 45,000 people attending enormous protests in London. But when I looked, the mainstream news told me almost nothing. Just a small piece here and there. Social media with a few tidbits, reassuring me at least that I had not gone mad and imagined the whole thing. Where was the outrage that we’d felt on the streets that day? Where was the response from our political representatives? Where was journalism?
In Geneva alone, thousands had turned out to show their solidarity with the people of Gaza, marching through the city and calling for justice. Millions all over the world did the same. Ordinary people had spoken out everywhere, but in newspapers and on television sets it was as if it never happened.
The fourth estate, the mass media, has failed us. On its hands is the blood of innocent men, women and children. In ours, now, is the fate of millions more.