Protestors outside the Israeli embassy in central Wellington earlier this year. (Photo: RNZ, Angus Dreaver)

The death toll continues to rise in Gaza, despite months of protests around the world, bringing with it not only a growing sense of guilt and helplessness for those opposed to the genocide — but also the urge to turn away from witnessing the suffering. As Simone Kaho writes here.

 

I first encountered the writing of Noam Chomsky in 1999, when my dreams of being a writer-journalist or a wildlife presenter, like David Attenborough, were already dead.

It was the third year of a Bachelor of Communications degree at AUT. A few ethnics and oddballs (including me) were sprinkled among an overwhelmingly Pākehā, middle-class, blonde and blow-dried cohort.

Brownness wasn’t my only problem. Media reporting was impenetrable to me. I didn’t get what key facts should go in the opening sentence, had no clue about international politics, used flowery language, and was just the wrong flavour, like a gooseberry bush in a field of tomatoes.

After failing the TV paper and scraping through journalism and radio, I chose multimedia broadcasting as my major — building websites and designing CD-ROMs. But a light went on when I read Chomsky in my final year in multimedia studies, a critical discipline that ran through the course.

Where learning journalism had felt like imitation, Chomsky’s inimitable knowledge and fiery criticism of mass media and international politics gave me tools, insights and analytical approaches to test. My C-plus average jumped to A-minus.

In August last year, I bought The Chronicles of Dissent, a compilation of interviews with Chomsky. There’s a 1986 conversation in which he describes the relationship between Israel and Palestine as a cycle of repression, violence, retaliation, more retaliation, pre-emption and so on.

On the subject of violence, Chomsky said: “When the guys we don’t like do it, we call it terrorism. When the guys we like do it, we call it retaliation.”

This was in my mind when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. Then Israel began its “retaliation”.

At first, I got as close as I could to the footage.

I followed coverage mainly on YouTube, international and independent news, and social media. Photojournalist Motaz Azaiza (18.4 million followers) and journalist Bisan Owda (4.4 million followers) were two reporters who gripped me immediately.

Motaz was posting photos and video footage from inside Gaza, taken straight after Israeli rockets had hit. Showing communities in the aftermath of explosions, and men trying to pull bodies out of the rubble, their feet covered in ash. One of his pictures was chosen as TIME magazine’s Top 10 Photos of 2023.

The photo by Motaz Azaiza chosen in TIME’s top 10, showing a young girl stuck under her house rubble after it was bombed by Israeli airstrikes, Al Nusairat refugee camp, October 31. (@Motaz_Azaiza)

Bisan broadcasts personal updates and responses and re-posts information. She’s in her early 20s, has braces and curly hair, and often opens videos with the haunting greeting: “I’m still alive.” I followed her as she fled her home, lost friends to air strikes, missed her cats, and reported near a hospital in Rafah, where a large number of Palestinians have taken refuge, with explosions lighting the night sky behind her.

It blew away every other version of war correspondence I’ve seen. No flying in, no fixers arranging contact, no safe distance from the warzone, no going home. It was by the people, about the people, with unlimited access and horrifying immediacy.

I found myself going to bed later and later. Once in bed, I’d lie awake for hours feeling panicked and helpless. Within a fortnight I’d lost contact with daytime. After 10 days of being awake in bed to hear the birds, I asked the doctor for some sleeping pills.

At that point, I realised two things. I had to step back from the Gaza coverage or my mental health would degrade, and I needed to act. I needed to act in the most meaningful and direct way possible.

*

When I was six, my primer two teacher at the tiny white Catholic school I attended brought in fertilised chicken eggs from her farm. She wanted us to see life coming into existence. The whole class watched, unified in fascination, as if we had just two googly eyes following the timorous tapping from the inside of shells.

We were now old enough to hold an egg in our hand, but it was the whole world to these tiny new beings, whose first challenge in life was to break down their world and emerge, bedraggled and bloody, in an incubator rather than under a mum.

We collectively held our breaths. I remember the colour of the incubator, the fibrous layer in the egg, and the sticky tissue residue inside. I remember the smell.

When my teacher offered, I begged my parents to take one of the puffed yellow chicks home. We made a cat-proof box for it, and I named it Repicheep after the talking rat in the Narnia book series my older sister was reading. Once it was home, I wanted it to be with me all the time — on my head, in my hand, on my lap.

But I was a dreamy child. I’d get absorbed in whatever I was doing, in this case reading an Asterix book. Repicheep was nesting on the couch beside me. One of the cats snuck inside through a hole in the screen door, took Repicheep in its mouth and ran. I screamed and Dad gave chase, but the cat was gone.

It didn’t seem possible to me that I had failed Repicheep so fully, that he was completely gone. My grief and guilt were overwhelming. I crawled under the house looking for the cat, looking for Repicheep. I told myself I deserved to find tiny bloody bones because it was my fault that Repicheep had been taken and killed. I crawled so deep under the house that I couldn’t lift my head, and cried with my face in the dirt and dust, beside the mummified eggs of our grown hens who would lay there.

I don’t remember how long it took for my feelings to subside, but I remember everything being grey — my insides, the weather. I remember making myself hold on to those feelings because it was the closest point to the time Repicheep was with me.

Forty years later, my younger brother recalled this story to his eldest daughter, and he looked at me with an eyebrow raised and an expression of, I think, wariness. I realised then how large, visible, and overwhelming my emotions must have been. He was four years old at the time. “Reepicheep . . .” he recalled, as a 42-year-old. And gave me that look.

I was too sensitive then, and I haven’t changed.

Simone Kaho, at St Francis School in Auckland. “I was too sensitive then, and I haven’t changed.” (Supplied)

About 10 years ago, I became vegan. It was a logical step for me. I’d given up red meat as a 16-year-old, then became a pescatarian at 26. The way I see animals, as intriguing, incredible beings who are worthy of respect and care, is part of who I am. Deciding to become vegan brought me some peace. It’s not enough to change the world, but it freed me from the distress of complicity.

Part of my process in taking the final step from pescatarian to vegan was making myself watch videos from inside abattoirs, slaughterhouses, on dairy farms and in the fishing industry.

I said to myself that if I was going to eat animals, I needed to at least be able to witness what happened to them. So I witnessed the pain and horror that animals and fish endure to become human food. And then I became vegan.

This footage is easy to find, but people don’t want to watch it, and that’s normal. Not everyone, but in my experience, most people, don’t want to see what happens to animals because it would start the same moral journey for them that it did for me.

*

In November, when Gaza was suffering its second month of bombardment, I went to the Verb writers festival in Wellington to give a talk on my latest book of narrative poetry, HEAL! Every facilitator in every session I went to acknowledged the bombing of Gaza. We talked about Gaza between sessions.

One of the organisers said how much the social media footage from Gaza was affecting her. I told her I feared it would become normal to just tune it out, like slaughterhouse videos. Because it’s too distressing. And there’s no obvious and direct step that people can take, like stopping eating animals.

Then the hairs on the back of my neck tingled. I thought she might interpret that comment as me comparing human suffering to animal suffering. I’m not. I’m looking at human empathy: at what point does it become normal to avoid information for fear of what our empathy may ask of us?

But the organiser was fine. She just said: “Oh, damn, I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

*

Early in Israel’s “retaliation”, campaigners in Aotearoa set up ongoing protest actions. I marched and joined WhatsApp messaging campaigns to politicians, although, to me, it felt diffuse and insignificant — virtual tokens from a small island nation with a right-wing government. Like treating PTSD with sessions in the spa pool.

It didn’t ease my anxiety.

Still, I must have hoped that our protests, our dissent, would make a difference. Chanting, boycotting Starbucks, thinking of the people of Gaza, praying for them, witnessing bloody babies in Motaz’s arms, speeding over rubble to a hospital that would be bombed in a couple of months.

It seems vain in retrospect, almost naive, how responsive we were, given how much more was inflicted anyway. Death, loss, indignity, pain, suffering, grief, fear.

I’m thinking of a boy with a bandaged eye who’d just learned that his whole family had been killed, punching the ground in grief. I’m thinking about glassy-eyed fathers, brothers and mothers clutching small body bags without expression.

The young reporters bringing us the footage got thinner, they pointed to white strands appearing in their hair from the stress. Around December, they started asking if the world was going to do anything or if we just wanted to watch.

Bisan Owda social media journalist. @wizard_bisan1 (Screenshot)

I got defensive. I thought defensive thoughts to myself. “Do you know I’ll probably never own a house? Do you know if I get cancer, I’ll probably end up homeless? Do you know that we just elected a government that’s going to make everything harder for the people who already have it hard? Do you know how powerless we are, how helpless?”

But Israel was set to keep killing. It still is. While President Biden, after five months, and three United Nations ceasefire resolutions vetoed, offered the stupefying rebuke that Israel had “gone over the top”.

Is that how world leaders speak about the murder of thousands of children now?

I started feeling an ashen feeling. What’s the point of privilege, I asked myself. Does it just mean we’re not the ones being bombed?

*

I found my way back to journalism 20 years after I’d let the idea go.

My father died in 2015, and I felt the kind of grief that drives deep and furious change. In the years that followed, I went from being a digital professional with an income in the top five percent, and 18 years’ experience working with digital agencies, broadcasters, publishers and major brands from every sector, to retraining at film and TV school.

I still didn’t get reporting. I knew I would be an atypical journalist. But I felt compelled to try and find my voice and use it.

While starting over, I didn’t want to be in the kind of corporate environment where I’d be one of one or two brown faces. So I headed for E-Tangata. I worked there for just over two years, had some pieces republished in the New Zealand Herald, became poorer, then moved to reporting for Tagata Pasifika, on TVNZ, which covers news and current affairs for the Pacific community, staying two years.

The forces that can shape your voice in the media are not as obvious as George Orwell imagined. It can feel more like peer pressure. Sometimes editors haven’t even used words when I’ve pitched ideas for vegan stories or said a vegan-sounding thing in everyday conversation. Just shook their heads and wrinkled their noses.

One time, one said: “I don’t think that’ll resonate.” Another said: “I don’t want to take the red pill, Simone.”

Eventually, I shut up about vegan stories. It’s draining when people are so closed off that just mentioning the word causes eye contact to break, spines to stiffen and chairs to swivel away.

I thought to myself, there’ll be a right time when I have a solid reputation. I’ll be able to cover vegan stories and not feel like Nurse Ratched, the battleaxe in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even though being vegan is a core value for me, and an important response to climate change, I decided that I’d just wait.

Then, in 2023, I disengaged and took up a consulting contract, hoping to pump my earning profile back into mortgage-contender territory.

*

It’s been 176 days since October 7. More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed. More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population is facing starvation. The US diplomatic motions towards a ceasefire drag on week after week. You probably know all this.

I’ve found that many people are having the same trouble as I am. I’ve talked to friends, associates, and random people I meet who say they’ve pulled back from the Gaza coverage. They have a glazed, recalcitrant look in their eyes. I think they saw too much before they stopped watching, and now it has a home somewhere deep inside them and is burrowing into their conscience and sense of self.

My friend who works at Lifeline says most callers talk about their distress over Gaza and their despair about “the world”. A Palestinian man who couldn’t contact his family called. She shook her head and looked at me. “What could I say?” she said. “I just stayed on the line with him.”

This feeling of guilt and helplessness is not just a feeling. It’s a political status, in which people, and “the world” collectively, are undermined. What we decide now, and whether we look away, will set a precedent.

Last month, a young American soldier set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. A friend of mine says it bothers her that the action is being received as a protest and not suicide driven by mental health issues. I agree with her.

But then I looked into coverage of the soldier, Aaron Bushnell, 25, who’d been a cyber-defence specialist in the US Air Force. I hear comments from a conscientious objector friend of his, watch the live stream of his approach to the moment of immolation, and notice the things he says. The things he doesn’t say. His spareness, and focus. He looks and sounds clear and decisive. I don’t watch him burning, but I read that he screamed “Free Palestine” as he burned.

I realise that I’m looking for an action that will feel as effective, as true to who I am as becoming vegan. Action driven by what I feel when I watch coverage from inside Gaza: a feeling of incineration, of urgent helplessness.

I set up a call with activist friends and ask what I’m missing about protest campaigning. For 20 minutes, they discuss whether the inadequate but supportive steps the government has taken — increasing aid to Gaza, labelling Israel’s attacks “out of hand”, and signing a ceasefire request with Canada and Australia — would have happened if there’d been no public outcry. Would the case for providing a special visa for residents with family in Gaza be as clear? We are learning, they say, how to do this — and the politicians are, too. Learning how to respond to genocide, and how to respond to us.

“There is connection to be found in protesting . . . Everyone on the marches says it helps their mental health, to be there, to see and hear other people’s voices.” (Screenshot from aotearoaliberationleague)

More than that, my friends say, there is connection to be found in protesting. Māori protesters acknowledge the connection between the colonial violence in Gaza and in Aotearoa. They say that everyone on the marches says it helps their mental health, to be there, to see and hear other people’s voices. And every protest action is a chance for new and established organisers to meet and network, learn and grow.

Then they ask me: “What would it say to Palestinians in Aotearoa if we didn’t do this?”

So I’ve decided that I’m going to burn some things. The lines I have toed, the times I’ve tried to write about Gaza without centring human empathy, and what I’ve learned from becoming vegan. My helplessness. My acceptance that global leaders and systems can allow genocide.

My voice, my writing, is the most direct and meaningful offering I have. Using it puts me in conversation with other people who urgently want the genocide of Palestinians to stop — some who feel swamped in helplessness, and some who don’t. Using it allows me to stay engaged with the voices of Gaza. It opens a pathway to connect and learn, and this brings me hope.

Perhaps that’s a place to start, for everyone who’s seen enough of the genocide to die inside. To ask: What can I do, that will allow me to face this moment, standing in my humanity, rather than having to turn away?

 

Simone Kaho is a writer, multimedia journalist, and poet who creates work at the intersection of politics, art, and storytelling. She has a master’s in creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters and has published two books of discontinuous narrative poetry, Lucky Punch in 2016, and HEAL! in 2022.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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