GAZA CITY, Palestine: It’s a world away from the glitz and glamour of “Baywatch,” but in time of war Gaza’s most devoted lifeguard is passionate about keeping the beach a little bit safer.
“I only love two things in my life: rescue work and people,” said Mohammad Bar, 21, dressed in black trunks and a white municipality T-shirt as he scans the horizon from his watchtower.
“I have lots of good memories with the sea. It is my whole life, it is my friend, my brother, my family, it is everything for me.”
Armed with a whistle and flippers at the ready, he keeps a stern gaze on the horizon as groups of youngsters dive in and out of the waves, soaking themselves in the frothy surf.
More than 2,140 Palestinians were killed during 50 days of violence in Gaza that finally ended on Tuesday when a long-term truce came into force.
Hopefully, beach life will quickly return to normal, but during the seven-week war, Bar still turned up for work each day during temporary cease-fires, the only lifeguard to do so.
“Baywatch” – the hit U.S. show that captivated millions with busty blondes in tight red bathing suits that Bar has never seen – is written on the only buoy hanging up in his rickety wooden tower.
He would love a jet ski, he says, but Israel’s eight-year blockade on Gaza and a lack of cash have put paid to that.
“The sea is the only place in Gaza where people can breathe. We are in a big prison,” he said, speaking before the truce agreement allowed partial opening of border crossings.
In the distance a boy does backflips in the sand. Heavily veiled women sit on white plastic chairs next to a beach umbrella, chatting.
A hawker walks up and down selling rubber rings. Some young men lead horses into the water, for a bath and cooling off in the late afternoon sun before galloping away across the sand.
Bar has not been paid his salary of 190 euros ($255) for three months because Hamas has run out of cash, cut off by the regime in Egypt who have destroyed cross-border tunnels for smuggling in money.
“In a normal situation there should be seven guards but now I’m the only one on the beach,” he told AFP from his rickety perch.
“They don’t come because of the security situation. The war has swallowed up the summer and people are scared,” he said.
On average, he pulls people to safety three to five times a week. His last rescue was just a few days ago.
“I was on my motorbike on the road when I saw a group of people drowning. If I hadn’t been coming then by chance, I wouldn’t have seen them and they would have died.”
He became a lifeguard when he was 16 after watching his neighbor, Nasser, drown in the sea. He decided it would never happen again.
But there was nothing Bar could do to stop the war.
His home in Zeitoun in southeastern Gaza City was destroyed in the fighting and he is staying at an uncle’s house.
He says two of his friends, both civilians, were killed and that he’s grown out his bushy beard as a mark of respect for their loss.
He also canceled the swimming lessons he used to give three mornings a week from 6 a.m.
Underneath his tower, a small group of women sit in the shade, sharing a pot of hot, sweet tea and wondering if and when peace will ever return for good to Gaza.
The black cloaks that envelop their bodies are covered in grains of sand.
Aisha al-Zahar, 21, who has two children and whose husband lives in Sweden, comes from Shujaiyeh, the neighborhood that has seen some of the worst losses and says her house was completely destroyed.
“I’m very nervous, depressed and bored, so I’m trying to have a bit of fun here,” she said, pulling her toddler onto her lap.
But Aisha will not let her child in the dirty sea, and her sister left her kids at home because she didn’t think it was safe for them to come out.
“We’ve been talking about how scared my kids are. They’re following the news every minute, asking if the cease-fire will continue, will the fighting resume,” she said.
“They wake up screaming in the night.”