Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

A Gazan childhood

Salah Mattar | 15-11-2020

A former IDF commander in the West Bank once said: “When the kid is sitting there in the base…nobody is thinking of him as a kid, you know—if there is someone blindfolded and handcuffed, he's probably done something really bad. It's OK to slap him, it's OK to spit on him, it's OK to kick him sometimes. It doesn't really matter.”

Childhood should be a golden period, a naive time of life when dreams can flourish unimpeded by reality. For me, it was a time when I believed with conviction that I would become a professional footballer (soccer player) and open a studio with my friends Ismael, Sami, Hashem, Emad to record Islamic nasheed—songs sung a cappella, with no instruments, except maybe a daf (drum). That is, until the Israeli war on Gaza in 2009 made me grow up, in just a few days, and my dream was blown away.

School, after the bombing

That changed on January 6, 2009. I was 12 years old and playing football with my friends near our U.N. school—al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp. For a few seconds, I felt as if time had stopped. It was only when I regained my focus that I became aware of the black cloud surrounding me and blood seemingly everywhere. I neither believed nor understood what had happened. I would only learn later that four Israeli shells had been fired into our midst in the space of two minutes, killing 40 and injuring 143.

Panicked, I ran to my house. After collecting myself, all I wanted to do was return to find out what had happened to my friends. Naturally, my mother did not want to let me leave. But I she could not stop me. When I made it back to the football field, I saw their bodies: Thirteen of my friends had been killed, including my best buddies Ismael, Sami, Emad, Bashar and Mohammed. My little community of friends had been taken from me. I went into a sort of shock. I couldn't speak.

Ismael and I had spent so much time together as boys. We attended classes together, went to the market for our families together and even prayed together at the mosque. Ismael was intelligent, very loving and so giving. He tirelessly explained to me the many lessons I could not understand at school.

Hashem's father, grandmother and cousins, all killed

The only other survivor among us was Hashem. But sometimes he feels guilty about that. He lost 15 family members, including his father and a brother, on that wretched day when his house was struck. They were killed while they were eating lunch in their courtyard.

I felt so alone after that wretched day. I had almost no one left to play football or to go to school with. I still wonder what sort of men they would have been if they were had been given the chance to live. Of course, they were sometimes troublemakers, like most young boys our age. But they were also smart and loving. We stood by one another, because we knew this is how to survive.

I recall a fellow student who came from a lower economic background than the rest of us schoolboys. He wasn’t able to buy snacks at school, unlike the rest of us. Knowing this, we all agreed to collect some money to help him. We put the money in his bag and left an anonymous message: "Be strong, we are with you. Your friends." It was easy to notice how much it warmed his heart. We did this again and again until there were no more boys who needed help.

Today, I am 22 and despite that trauma and those that have followed, life persists. I actively chose to not give up, a task that was not easy. Despite the tragedy then, and the daily tragedy of Gaza, I majored in English language and literature at the Islamic University. When I was a freshman, I contemplated writing the story about what had turned my life upside down. But I couldn’t find a platform on which to publish it. Then, I joined the We Are Not Numbers (WANN) family and I found the courage and time to share my story—one that is familiar to so many of us who have grown up in Gaza.

I want to see an end one day to the barbaric practices of the Israeli occupation. I want to travel without restrictions. I want to return to the land from which my grandparents were expelled in 1948. More than that, though, I want us to grieve memories—distant recollections, instead of daily occurrences in which the buzzing of drones is the soundtrack of our lives and stories of lost family members and friends are only a few years or weeks old.

I want to live. I want to live safely. I want to pursue dreams. I no longer want my identity as a Palestinian in Gaza to be considered a crime.

Posted: November 15, 2020

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