In Gaza, an Indonesian Volunteer Has Become an Unlikely War Reporter

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In Gaza, an Indonesian Volunteer Has Become an Unlikely War Reporter

Fikri Rofiul Haq, 24, who came to Gaza with an Indonesian charity, has remained behind in order to bear witness to the ongoing war.

In Gaza, an Indonesian Volunteer Has Become an Unlikely War Reporter

From left: Fikri Rofiul Haq, Reza Aldilla Kurniawan, and Farid Zanzabil Al Ayubi standing in front of the Indonesia Hospital in Beit Lahia, Gaza, before the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

Credit: MER-C

Like many 24-year-olds, Indonesian Fikri Rofiul Haq says that he spends his days thinking about “content creation.”

He imagines the engaging photographs he will take and post online, and the short videos he will film. He thinks about how he will speak directly to the camera as if he’s doing a live TV report, and edit the footage together with background scenes of the stories he wants to tell.

When he lies in bed at night, he thinks about which of his stories will have the most impact, and which will get the most engagement.

But Haq is no social media influencer, at least not in the traditional sense.

Instead, he is a humanitarian volunteer with an Indonesian charity, the Medical Emergency Rescue Committee (MER-C), and is based in Khan Younis in South Gaza.

Since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas on October 7, Haq’s life has transformed dramatically, and he has become something of an uneasy reporter of his own story, documenting the atrocities of the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip against a backdrop of terror.

“I think about content constantly and summoning up the courage to make it takes time,” Haq says from the government school where he is sheltering, along with 1,200 displaced citizens in Khan Younis.

“Especially when drones and fighter jets fly by.”

When Haq is not making content, which MER-C posts on its myriad social media channels, he tries to enjoy rare moments of quiet and spend time on hobbies like memorizing the Quran.

“I also talk with the families here, especially the small children,” he says. “There are children of all ages and there are so many of them. Sometimes they are the ones who give me strength.”

“When we hear the sounds of bombs and gunshots, they always say ‘Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid’,” he adds. “They are so strong and powerful. They are extraordinary.”

Journey to Gaza

Haq’s journey to Gaza began innocuously enough.

Along with two other MER-C volunteers, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Islamic University of Gaza where he was studying religion and education before the war broke out, while also helping MER-C with humanitarian initiatives in the Gaza Strip.

When the war erupted, Haq, along with 22-year-old Farid Zanzabil Al Ayubi and 30-year-old Reza Aldilla Kurniawan, turned their attention to working as MER-C volunteers full time.

MER-C, which was established in 1999, has provided humanitarian support in countries all over the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, the Philippines, and Thailand, in addition to having offices all over Indonesia.

In 2011, MER-C collected donations from Indonesian citizens and humanitarian organizations to build the Indonesia Hospital in Beit Lahia, North Gaza, and the hospital was officially inaugurated in 2016 by Indonesia’s then-Vice President Jusuf Kalla as a gift to Palestine from the Indonesian people.

Indonesia has long had a close relationship with Palestine, which was one of the first countries to recognize Indonesian independence from the Dutch back in 1945, and the majority of Indonesians support the Palestinian cause. There are no formal diplomatic ties between Israel and Indonesia, and no Israeli embassy in the country, although the first Palestinian embassy in Jakarta opened in 1990.

Since the start of the war, there have been widespread rallies and demonstrations across Indonesia, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, as well as calls to boycott products and businesses with perceived Israeli ties such as Starbucks and McDonald’s.

When the war broke out, Haq, Al Ayubi, and Kurniawan were based at the Indonesia Hospital, where they would shelter in the basement when the bombs started to drop and the tanks moved closer.

Finally, the situation came to a head on November 20, when Israeli troops stormed the hospital and ordered all patients, medical staff, and displaced families sheltering there to evacuate to the south of the Gaza Strip.

Haq communicates with The Diplomat, and the rest of the world outside Gaza, by sending voice notes through WhatsApp explaining his situation.

Sometimes, he sends text messages instead, with updates from the ground or disparate thoughts on a number of topics.

He misses strawberries, he says, because it should be strawberry season now in the Gaza Strip. He also misses the rain because the winter season has been chaotic this year and the weather has been “random.” He is eating local food like hummus, a word he struggles to pronounce, then adds with a laugh that he is also eating French fries. He talks about one day going to England, because he has heard that the United Kingdom has mosques and a growing Muslim population.

Before the war, he says, the three MER-C volunteers were studying at university and working, but they also hoped to find partners and get married.

Again, he laughs as he says this.

Talk of Evacuation 

Once Haq, Al Ayubi, and Kurniawan evacuated to the government school in Khan Younis, Haq says they had a serious conversation about the future.

They had previously been offered the opportunity to be evacuated from Gaza by the Indonesian Foreign Ministry at the start of the conflict, but had turned it down.

This time, Haq says, they considered it more deeply and each man made a decision. Al Ayubi decided to leave Gaza, while Haq and Kurniawan elected to stay.

Speaking in a televised address late in the evening on December 9, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, formally announced that Al Ayubi had been successfully evacuated through the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, after a “long and complex” operation by an Indonesian evacuation team.

Haq tells The Diplomat that he decided to stay behind in Khan Younis as he felt that he still had important work to do in Gaza.

“The choice to evacuate came down to our individual voices. We didn’t try to change each other’s minds,” he says. “Our mission is still to help the people here and to keep running the MER-C humanitarian programs.”

“I feel scared of course, I’m really not that brave. I just leave everything up to God.”

Haq also says, however, that saying goodbye to Al Ayubi had been more difficult than he had anticipated.

“I just told him, ‘Take care on the road and I hope you get back to Indonesia quickly, send my regards to everyone there’,” he says.

“It was really sad, but I’m the kind of person who can’t shed tears in public. If you watch videos of me talking to the camera or to the media, I never look sad or like I’m crying.”

Haq says that the tears only fall when he is alone, particularly when he remembers some of the more difficult moments he has witnessed in Gaza.

“What makes me sad is sometimes remembering the moments when children lost their mothers, or mothers lost their children. Or when families had to collect the pieces of their loved ones who had been bombed using cardboard boxes or sacks.  Sometimes I don’t even have the strength to document it. Or I’ll make a video but I can’t bring myself to watch it.”

Hometown Blues 

Haq is originally from Cileungsi in Bogor in West Java, and tells The Diplomat that his family has been supportive of his decision to stay in Gaza, although his mother and younger siblings wish he would come back to Indonesia.

When Haq thinks about his hometown, he remembers the weather and how it sometimes felt so stiflingly hot that he could no longer stand it.

He prefers cold weather and, now that it is winter in the Gaza Strip, he has been spending his time trying to source jackets and blankets for the children at the school.

“Before the war, my favorite hobby was swimming,” he said. “I would swim during both seasons in the Gaza Strip, summer and winter. Even in January or February, I would go swimming in the sea, while my friends just sat on the beach and had a picnic.”

The rains have finally come to the Gaza Strip this year after months of absence, although this has also meant that Haq has had to pivot his content creation to capture the changing of the seasons.

“I’ve been interviewed several times about the diseases that are affecting people now that it is winter. I just confirm and add information about how disease is now plaguing the Gaza Strip,” he said.

In addition to disease, cold weather and dwindling food supplies, attacks by Israeli forces continue every day.

Unlike the Indonesia Hospital in Beit Lahia, there is no basement at the government school Haq is sheltering in, and he has little choice but to stay in his room when he hears the sound of bombings.

“For the past three days, we have been able to hear the ground attacks from the school,” he says.

Previously, Israeli forces had ordered citizens to evacuate from the north of the Gaza Strip to the south, only to launch bomb attacks and ground offensives in the places citizens had been directed to evacuate to.

On the ground in Khan Younis, Haq, ever keen to provide updates on the latest developments, says that the Israeli forces seem to be moving through the city under the cover of darkness.

“The sounds of the attacks reverberate from sunset until dawn,” he says.

“The sound of gunfire and steel tanks feels like it is getting closer every day.”