No matter how hard life is, having family support you through the good and the bad gives you the strength to overcome it all. That certainly was true for me.
I come from a family of 11 (parents, four boys and five girls), but only one—my brother Mahmoud—had a full-time job, as a policeman. Still, looking back now, I can only describe my life as truly blessed. It never occurred to me that it could be destroyed in the blink of an eye.
On July 8 of last year, life in Gaza was turned upside down. Israel unleashed its rockets, tanks and human killing machines on a largely civilian population struggling just to put food on their tables due to its strangling blockade.
Injuries and deaths were being reported so quickly we lost count. Most of them were civilians. Yes, we believe in our right to resist Israel’s oppression by any means necessary, but the vast majority of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents are merely trying to make a living with dignity. Yet, Israel told a myth to the world, claiming the large-scale killings were acts of self-defense.
Then on July 24, my family joined the statistics and my life forever changed.
My brothers Mohammed, Mahmoud and I ate breakfast with our family after a long, tiring day at work. It was Ramadan, a month of fasting to commemorate those Muslims who are less fortunate than us and can’t find food to put on their tables, and for this and the previous four years, the three of us had made and sold qatayef, a special dessert commonly eaten during the holy month. Despite the escalating Israeli assault, we had so much fun; everyone was smiling and the kids were playing around us. After three major wars in six years, children in Gaza have learned how to pretend that tanks and F16s are not outside, flying low overhead. Such is our dysfunctional life in Gaza.
Close to midnight, everyone was preparing for sleep. I clearly remember my dad preparing for the al-Fajr (dawn) prayer. My brothers left with their wives and children to go home (I have 20 nieces and nephews!), and my mom came to chat with me in my room. She told me about a poem she had heard and loved, and asked me to listen. It was in the middle of that poem, now etched in my brain forever, that a huge, roaring sound rattled the entire area. I woke my dad and the rest of the family and we all headed downstairs toward the ground floor, thinking it would be the safest place.
In Gaza, no place is safe.
The next thing I remember is waking up in Al-Shifa Hospital (Gaza City). Confused, I asked about mom, dad and the rest of my family. The doctors said they were OK, and the relief of knowing they were safe was all that mattered to me; my pain was nothing compared to that.
Shrapnel had lacerated my entire body, and I had suffered a severe concussion. The doctors took X-rays, cleaned and stitched my wounds and put me to bed for rest. Meanwhile, I got a glimpse or my third brother Mahmoud, who also was there for treatment. Yet we found it in ourselves to laugh; despite everything that had happened, it was fine as long as we were all alive. Half an hour later, Mahmoud was discharged. I would stay alone in the hospital for three long days due to my head trauma.
At noon on the first full day in the hospital, a few of my friends came to visit. I was suffering from a tremendous amount of pain and couldn’t move. Yet I was happy because I felt I had somehow taken a hit for my family, and thus they were still alive. But after a short while, one of my friends broke the news. Despite my uncles’ hesitancy to tell me, they had decided I deserved to know: An airstrike, which had targeted our neighbor's house, had badly damaged my own home, and I had lost five family members: my mom, Jamila; my dad, Ibrahim; my two brothers, Mohammed and Ahmed; and my 4-year-old nephew, Adham. Ten other family members had been wounded.
Everything went black. I jumped out of my bed and begged my friends to take me to Kamal Adwan Hospital, where they said my family’s bodies were being held. I needed to see them before they were buried. I could not have lived with the pain if I had not. Somehow, despite my injuries, I made it there and kissed their heads, hands and cheeks, except for my Mom. I was told it was inappropriate to uncover her in the presence of men, and I believed them. In retrospect, I don’t know how I feel; her physical condition was so bad that perhaps it is best that was not my last memory of her.
I didn’t want to leave their sides, but my friends forced me to take care of myself and took me back to Al-Shifa Hospital.
During those three days in bed, I blamed myself for what happened. I thought that if I hadn't woken up my family members, it would have turned out different. I was so angry that I wasn’t the one who died, instead of them. Why should I live while they suffered and died?
Later, I visited my 13-year-old sister Alaa, who suffered from a skull fracture, brain hemorrhage, internal bleeding and a double fracture in her left leg. She asked me in a trembling voice: "Where is Mom? I want Mom!" I lied to her and said she was just wounded. I left the room, sat on the floor and cried my heart out. I had no choice but to lie. Her condition was serious and such devastating news would break a mountain into pieces, let alone a person.
I also visited my sisters-in-law, who were badly injured and in the same hospital. One of them, a mother of two sons and a daughter, asked about her family. Again, I lied and said they were fine. I concealed the news that we had lost her husband, my brother, and her youngest son.
When I was finally discharged, I returned to my home to see what had become of the place of my youth. Completely shocked at what I saw, I sat down in the middle of the street and sobbed. The house was so damaged that I thought, "If the house is in this condition, my family must have been tortured under this rubble." Entering the house and seeing blood everywhere, I collapsed.
I was put in a car and taken to my sister Elham's house to recover for a few days.
I stayed there for two weeks, then insisted on returning to clean the place up, despite the fact that my injuries had not yet fully healed and the war was still raging.
Have you ever felt as if you were alive and dead at the same time?
That is exactly how I felt—like I had died with my family in the blast, even though I was still breathing.
Only recently have I gotten back on my feet and started to feel again. I am now responsible for three younger sisters, and I also must help my two sisters-in-law raise their children, who have lost their fathers. I must repair the damage inflicted on my house by the explosion. I turned down a four-year master’s and PhD scholarship from the University of South Carolina. I still cannot find a job. The worst part is the fear that I won't be able to live up to my responsibilities.
It is now July 24 once again. A year has gone by and the anniversary of the aggression against Gaza is upon us.
A year has gone by without my family members, who were more important to me than the whole world.
One year later, and I am still in the same spot; it feels like I have not progressed an inch in my effort to overcome the tragedy that hit like a hurricane last year at this exact time.
One year later and again, I am working through Ramadan selling qatayef. It is excruciating to be in the same place, doing an activity I shared with my brother Mohammed last year. In some ways, I am still in disbelief and denial. It’s as if I am living in a loop: one day repeating itself over and over. I have lost track of time, days, months, years.
I try to escape by helping others, mainly by listening to my sisters and sisters-in-law as they vent their own grief. I try to escape by working on the house, changing the way it looks, by repainting, redecorating, refurnishing. Yet there really is no escape from the pain.
Still, I am choosing to look at pain as wreckage from which a flower can still grow. My youngest sister, Alaa, is working hard to become a doctor, and as she attends high school, I am eager for her to become a person whom I know my mom, dad, Mohammed, Ahmed and Adham would be very proud.
Note: One Abu Aitah sibling not present during the 2014 war was Iman, who was attending university in the United States. Read her post about what it was like for her, watching from afar.