In the early mornings on my way to college, I used to see Yaser Alaklouk on his way to work, wearing his work clothes and carrying a spade or shovel in his hand. We walked together to the end of the road, talking about my university studies and his work, my parents and his kids. At the end of the street, both of us would go our own ways, wishing each other good luck, as we do in Gaza.
Yaser’s difficult life was reflected in the way he looked. Since his graduation from high school, he had labored as a farmhand or construction worker—wherever and whenever he could get a job. At the age of 34, he looked more like 55; white hairs sprouted amidst his black hair, wrinkles etched deep grooves in his face.
About five months ago, one of our neighbors stopped me and said, "Yaser is in the hospital in very bad condition." I was so shocked I was speechless. Yaser, I learned, had been shot while participating in the Great Return March. His left leg had been shattered by one of those exploding bullets we’d been hearing about that struck fear into our hearts.
The news spread rapidly across our neighborhood on Abd Alkareem Alaklouk Street in Deir ah-Balah, located in the middle of the Gaza Strip. Everyone began praying for him. His relatives, neighbors and friends crowded into the hospital, all wanting to show their support for him and his family.
Yaser lay in the hospital for three weeks until he was released. I thought the worst was over, but I was wrong. His neighbors told me they were awakened every night to the sound of him screaming in pain. I knew I had to visit him. He was so glad to see me, and to share his story.
Yaser, his wife and four kids (ages 5-15) had participated in the protest east of the al-Bureij refugee camp every Friday since it began March 30. Al-Bureij, which also is in the middle area of Gaza, is one of the five areas that “hosts” the Great Return March. Every time I went to the march, I’d see Yaser either on the bus that transports people to the protest or at the event itself.
He told me that all he really wanted in life is to provide a decent living for his family and watch his kids grow up safely. He hoped that if the Great Return March persisted, Israel might be forced to ease up on its blockade of Gaza.
Yaser and his eldest son used to sit on a small hill near the front line of the protest, watching young men hurl rocks at the soldiers and children wave flags. His wife and his other three kids didn’t want to risk being shot, so they stayed in the women's tent, behind a tall sand hill.
April 27, the fifth Friday of the march, was no different from any other “protest Friday.” Protesters who had been shot on previous days showed up in splints and on crutches. Haggling vendors were there too; they never missed a single Friday, happy with the prospect of earning extra money by selling ice cream, cans of soda and nuts. Music blasted from speakers, playing the same patriotic songs. They never got old, although the people had heard them a million times.
The moment life changed
That Friday ended differently, however. Yaser was sitting on a sand dune, dreaming of returning to his family’s historic homeland.
Then, an explosion ripped the air, sounding very close. At first, Yaser thought it was the sound of a tear gas bomb. "I tried to stand up, but I couldn't. I looked down at my legs and saw that the left one was a mass of blood and torn flesh…" Yaser told me, recalling the shock.
He had been shot by a type of bullet that explodes inside the body. His leg bones were shattered and most of the flesh was pulverized.
The other protesters around Yaser carried him to a nearby ambulance on standby. He arrived at a local hospital in Deir al-Balah, but was quickly transferred to the intensive care unit at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the largest medical complex in Gaza.
Yaser needed 36 units of blood units, or about 14.5 liters of blood. He now has had two surgeries and has another to go. Fortunately, he escaped amputation, but will never be able to walk normally again..
Yaser struggled to hide his pain and depression, but his eyes told me everything as he told me he now depends on humanitarian aid to live. He no longer can work. And that is not what Yaser, or any other man, wants for himself and his family.
"Do you regret going to the march?" I asked. "No! Never." He answered in a clear, strong voice. "Why would I regret it? I didn't do anything wrong. And I still go to the march every Friday."