Life under occupation is never easy. You live every day as if it is your last, especially because a sudden airstrike could take your life. Each and every day, you look at the sky and try to imagine it without drones. You go to your university or job while listening to music in a desperate attempt to make the sound of drones less painful to your soul and your ears. At night, you learn to differentiate easily between a star and the light of a jet fighter or a drone. But these are nothing compared to the experience of barbaric aggression (war).
The 2014 war echoes
I lived the most difficult year of my life during the brutal 2014 Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip. The bombing sounds were unbearable. My father tried to allay my fear by saying, “If you hear the sounds of an airstrike, don’t worry because that means it is far away from you and you will not be harmed.” In my mind, I thought, physically, at least. No matter how hard he tried to help me feel better, I could not stop thinking about the people who were not lucky enough to hear that sound. I kept imagining their faces, their last breaths, their last thoughts.
Thursday, July 17, 2014, was a particularly awful day. My family and I came close to death. We had to flee from our house, which is 250 kilometres from the Israeli fence in the eastern Strip. (It is important to note that most people in Gaza are refugees and are separated from their lands by a prison wall and fences, making Gaza the largest open-air prison in the world. Regular and massive Israeli airstrikes and tank shells make life in Gaza especially oppressive.) I put a few clothes in my sister’s school bag and my mother and older brother gave me their laptops to carry. My father handed me my family’s important documents like our national IDs, educational certificates, and land contracts as well as some money.
Decisions to make
The group of 14 consisted of my family of six and my uncle’s family of seven, and my aunt. We gathered at our house arguing, under the sounds of the shells, about what to do. We agreed that it was too risky for fourteen people to flee together so we decided to split up into small groups.
My aunt and I left first. Fifteen minutes later, my two sisters and cousin. After an hour, my brother and two of my cousins. Then after two hours my uncle, his wife, and their son. Unfortunately, my parents and my older brother were stuck at home, and we could not reach them by phone. We were all extremely worried; I felt like my heart was outside my chest and my hands were trembling. I had to swallow my fear because my younger sister was crying and terrified, and I wanted to be strong for her. We spent the day in the street, not knowing what to do, and we were worried sick with worry about my parents. By the end of that day, thank goodness, they managed to flee.
We spent about two and a half hours in the street listening to the bombs, walking without a destination, and praying for the safety of other family members. Even though I am a native of Gaza, during the 2014 war I became the new refugee. I realized that’s how Palestinian refugees felt when they were forced to flee from their homes in 1948.
Attempts to find shelter
My aunt Aisha’, age 70 at that time, has a house in Maghazi Camp, which is next to my village. We wanted to go to her house, but we realized that the area was also in danger since Israeli jet fighters had started bombing it. In fact my aunt’s family had to flee to Deir Al-Balah city, which is located on the western side of my village and is closer to the sea.
One of my mother’s school colleagues was generous enough to let us stay at her son’s apartment for the night. But we could not sleep—we were disoriented, scared, worried, and thought we were going to die at any moment. I felt alienated being away from my home.
Since my mother is a history teacher at UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), she suggested that we spend the night in her school. So in the morning, we thanked my mother’s colleague and we went to the UNRWA school. The first day at the UNRWA school was just AWFUL! There was a tiny room with 14 people in it. For each person, we turned two student desks into a bed to sleep on or under. The 40 long days at the UNRWA shelter were unbearable. There was only one bathroom, and if you needed to use it then you had to wait in line. That means you could not shower or even wash your clothes. I managed to make these days less awful by visiting the school library. Reading books was my way to escape the frightening sounds of Israeli bombings.
A gruesome scene, a truce and a close call
On one of those dreadful days at the school, during the holy month of Ramadan when we were fasting, my sister and I had to go out to buy some bread for iftar (breaking the fast). Suddenly, the mosque near the school was bombed and we were only 20 steps from it. My sister froze in front of me while I tried to hide somewhere safer and shouted her name, “Heba!” But she did not answer. I had to go to her and grab her hand. Afterwards, another airstrike hit the mosque and a young man was badly injured. That is when I saw the most gruesome scene of my life: his hand was severed from his body. Until this day, this image has not left my mind. I am only thankful that my sister did not see him or hear his distressing shout: “Save me!”
During our stay at the UNRWA school, a truce for three hours was announced. We went back home to take baths and get clean clothes. The truce actually lasted only two hours, so while we were at home, the Israeli shelling started again. At that moment, only my sister and I were at home, as the others had gone back to school. So, we brought what we thought we needed and could carry and started to run as fast as we could. While running, a sniper targeted us. We had to lay low, then crawl. After 30 long minutes, we managed to reach Maghazi Camp, and then we made it to the shelter.
One missing, one lost forever
After we reached the school, my mother asked, “Where is Mohammad?”
“I thought he was here with you,” I replied. My mother immediately lost her composure and screamed, “He is not here! Where is he? Where is my son?”
We looked for him for two long days inside the camp, but we could not find him. My parents decided to risk their lives and go back home in hopes of finding him. They looked desperately in every corner and every tree near the house, but they could not find him. We thought he was dead. But on the third day, he appeared. He had been stuck in his friend’s house and he could not go out due to Israel’s massive bombing.
Two days after that incident, Mohammad’s close friend, Hani, was killed in an airstrike. Hani was Mohammad’s colleague at the Islamic University in Gaza. He was a great and earnest young man, only 23 years old when he was killed. Mohammad’s way of expressing his feelings was to lie down in a fetal position and keep silent for a week. All of our attempts to make him feel better were in vain. Since that day, he has called himself “Abu Hani,” the father of Hani. Mohammad wanted to immortalize his friend by naming his future eldest son after him. Everyone now knows him as Abu Hani.
The sad surprise
After the Israeli aggression came to an end, we went back to our neighbourhood and found that our house, and my youngest uncle’s, were completely destroyed while my other uncle’s house was partially damaged. My mother did not allow me to return home immediately because she thought that it might be destroyed and wanted to protect me from such a shock. When she eventually allowed me, I could not find my room. It was shocking for me to realize that we did not have our asbestos roof anymore – the one I had spent most of my night-time hours standing on and imagining the sky beyond it to clear my mind. The door of the guest room had three bullets in it and the washing machine and fridge had sustained damage from many more bullets.
There was a small part of the house that was not completely destroyed and this allowed us to stay there. It was not comfortable or safe to sleep in a bombed-out house that has no doors or windows; nevertheless, we were relieved to be in our own home.
Repercussions from 2014
The 2014 aggression has not only affected me physically but it also psychologically. Even after six years, I am still suffering from insomnia. When I manage to sleep, my nightmares never stop chasing me. I cannot close my eyes without first listening to relaxing music or passages from the holy Quran. Also, my asthma has become more severe than before.
People are always proud to be survivors, but to me, being a survivor is like a curse. I want to live a true life without being afraid that any day could be my last. To accomplish this, the occupation and the apartheid of inequality must end. Our tormenters view us in Gaza, and all Palestinians, as unwanted ghosts on our land. But I will resist by continuing to write and living as a human being with rights and freedom.