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

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

The anguish in a picture

Israa Mohammed Jamal | 20-11-2019


Fatema (left) and Lian

As my children prepared themselves for school November 12, about to say goodbye, their grandmother and father announced: “There is no school today.” My four school-aged kids shouted a happy “Yay!”  It had been a stressful week due to midterm exams. Without even asking the reason for their reprieve, they went changed to “play” clothes.

But I knew the reason for their escape from school. An Israeli fighter jet dropped a missile on the home of Baha Abu al-Ata, one of the senior leaders of a major political party in Gaza, Islamic Jihad. At 5 a.m., while he and his family were sleeping, Al-Ata and his wife, Asma, were killed and their five children—only feet away—traumatized for life. Two were injured including the youngest daugheter, Lian (10), who suffered burns and a broken leg

I learned about all of this from Facebook, finding photos of Lian and her sister Fatema, with whom she shared a room, in abject tears. They had been awakened by the bomb, with everything in their house turned upside down. They called for their mother, but she didn’t answer. They didn’t know their father had slept at home that night; he often stayed elsewhere, knowing he was a target. But he had secretly come home to surprise Lian on her birthday.

Unfortunately, the birthday gift she received instead was delivered by an Israeli fighter jet that was faster than her father.

The al-Ata house

In a television interview, Lian explained through her tears, “I was at my aunt’s house [the evening before] and my father called and said it was time to come home. He said it was the last night away from home. That tomorrow he’d make a birthday party for me. But I told him I didn’t need a birthday party. I just wanted him to come home. I had saved some money with my aunt and we wanted to make a birthday party for him.” Al-Ata’s birthday is the 25th of November.

In another interview, their neighbor said that after the bomb hit, he found al-Ata’s body in front of  the school across from the family’s house. Asma al-Ata’s body was discovered inside the school. Their bedroom furniture was scattered in the street.

As a mother with children near the same ages, the obvious devastation of Lian and her sister and brothers makes my heart ache. When I saw the photos of them in the afternoon , I could hardly breathe. I forced myself to turn away from Facebook for awhile and busied myself with Asmaa, my youngest daughter.

At 3 years old, Asmaa likes to imitate her older siblings. When she put her underwear on by herself, she laughed and said, “I did it alone; I can do everything alone.” I replied, I said “Yes, you are clever. But let me help you put on your dress.” She refused and tried to do it by herself, not allowing me to help until she failed.

Distracting my youngest dauther Asmaa during the attacks

I was in a hurry because I had other work to do, but I forced myself to slow down, I tickling her until we both laughed. I gave her a big hug, then she ran to show her pink dress to her father. Thank God she had not been orphaned. Nothing can replace a parent’s hug.

The sound of drones had been present day and night. My husband and I scrolled through the news on our smartphones, so our kids wouldn’t see the scenes of destruction in northern Gaza. We live in the south; we heard the bombs, but fortunately they were far off. We did our best to hide our fears from our children as the aggression escalated. We kept the children occuipied with coloring books. The days passed slowly, and the worry inside our minds and hearts were on endless loops.

My own parents, two brothers and a sister live in Egypt, another brother is in Germany and my sister moved to Kuwait. Only two brothers remain in Gaza. We all talk in a messenger group. We were last all together in Gaza 13 years ago, so they have all witnessed wars and intifadas. Thus, whenever anyone heard about another bombing, they sent a message in the group to be sure we were safe.

My mother could hardly sleep; she spent all her time watching news on T.V. One of my brothers who lives in Gaza said his son cried whenever he heard a bomb, running to him for comfort. The other brother in Gaza was about to leave his house, because he heard his neighbor’s home might be targeted, but fortunately that didn’t happen.

Although we lived through a horrible time, those of us in Gaza tried to support each other while reassuring our parents, who are old and can’t bear bad news about us. We tried to crack jokes and made ourselves laugh at every one. But through it all, I knew we had one reason to be thankful: We were all alive and, in our own way, together.

Recently, Pam, the director of We Are Not Numbers, introduced me to a fan of the project from Uruguay. Monica chatted with me many times, trying to distract me and overcome my worries. Monica helps her husband prepare delicious dishes in his restaurant, and she sent me a recipe for apple pie. She shared songs. And she told me about the beautiful view of the river near her house. It relaxed my mind to talk with her, and with my other WANN friends—Allison, Mimi and Pam. Although they are from the other side of the world, I feel their solidarity. Pam changed her Facebook profile photo to use Fatema’s instead. That meant a lot to me, and I wished others had done the same.

Lian said on T.V. that she had wanted to study science with her mother, and now she is forced to do it alone. A few days later, a ceasefire was declared. My children went happily back to school, since by then they missed their friends. Lian and Fatema, however, probably feel they can never be happy again. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, described his country’s hits as “very precise targets, like a surgical operation.” But did Fatema and Lian deserve to die because of their father’s affiliation? Politicians have families like everyone else, and live among their communities. Is it ok to put everyone at risk in order to kill them?

And what about the eight members of the Asawarka family? They were killed in one attack that was later explained away when the Israelis said they “thought it was an empty house.” In another strike, a newborn was found in the arms of her brother. The brother died, while the baby lived.

We want all wars on Gaza to stop. Not just this one. And we all know there will be another one.

Posted: November 20, 2019

Mentor: Pam Bailey

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