It was January 14, 2009. He was on duty when the telephone rang. The residents of Gaza City’s Al-Maqqousi Tower were besieged in the building by Israeli forces, and they were desperate for someone to get them out. My brother was responsible for Jabalya firehouse, but the appeal came from a different area. He had to make a choice whether to save lives or sit behind his desk and wait for news of the people killed. He chose to go.
Mohammed, my brother, was raised without his mother, who died when he was 9. He was now 28. Humorous, outgoing… he was also sometimes a pain in the ass. But he was certainly human. He had one head, two legs, two arms—and a wife. She was the love of his life. Before they were married, he used to call her in the middle of the night (or whenever no one was watching), and as a result my father was forced to pay a huge phone bill at the end of the month.
He married when he was 20 and she was 15, but they never had a child. The worst feeling that tore at Mohammad’s heart was when he saw the child of a man and woman who married at the same time he did. Before he joined the civil defense team, he worked as a tailor, spending his money on clothes and cigarettes, staying out all night with his wife or his “cool” friends. My father was often cruel toward my brother, who actually was often a rather naughty boy. Mohammed never had a good relationship with my father.
Then he got a civil defense job, and lots of things changed.
On that fateful night during the war dubbed Operation Cast Lead by Israel, Mohammad received the call and decided to go along with his crew, after not being able to contact the closest firehouse. Most of the telecommunication lines in the Gaza Strip were down. The 14-story building in the northwestern Gaza governorate had been bombarded. Mohammad drove the fire truck and rushed into the building wearing his new silver firefighting suit. The crew extinguished a fire on the seventh floor, then hurried to rescue the people on the 11th floor. A man and his wife were lying on the cement, but by the time they got there, the two were dead. Mohammad and two of his coworkers, Hossam and Bahaa, covered them and tried to move their bodies.
“Suddenly, the electricity went out,” Mohammad recalled. “I didn’t understand what happened. I wondered for some time if I was alive or dead. I remembered my father. I didn’t want my life to end with us as enemies. I wanted to live another day to please him. I tried to stand, but I couldn’t. I understood that I had an injury to my leg. After awhile, I heard a paramedic shouting, asking if anyone was still alive. I called to him, so he rushed up and carried me. I insisted he should bring a stretcher, but he didn’t listen. I was annoyed. My leg was hitting the wall, so I reached down and held it in place. Two stories down, he brought me the stretcher. After that, the paramedics came and took me to the ambulance.”
Angels in white. He forgot he was injured. He thought he was in heaven, yet he was wrong. He was in the emergency room of Al-Shifa Hospital. The angels were doctors. And the red fruit and the wine he imagined were the blood of his friends and himself.
Mohammad soon realized they had amputated his right leg and it felt as if his life was over. He couldn’t be the person he used to be. The attack launched by the Israeli warships injured three of the crew as well as a cameraman. Hossam Al-Kholi, the father of a boy and a girl, lost his right leg. Bahaa Al-Tlouli lost both legs. Mohammad had to accept the fact that he was now a disabled man; people would look at him with pity in their eyes, and then mouth nicely shaped words. He simply didn’t like it. He didn’t want this life.
I remember the look on our elder sister’s face when she sat beside him in the hospital, touching his hair and hoping for him to recover. The one thing that could make Mohammad smile was his cat. My brother loved cats, and he asked for his cat to be brought to the hospital. Tamtam visited him several times.
Because of the lack of medications plus the huge number of wounded people arriving at the hospital, Mohammad didn’t get the care his condition required, and he was given the opportunity to be transferred to an Egyptian hospital. During Operation Cast Lead, the Rafah border was still open for wounded Palestinians. So, he spent four months there. They gave him an artificial limb as a gift before he returned. I never see him wearing it. He uses his crutches instead.
When he returned home, Mohammad asked himself over and over why the Israelis didn’t just kill him and get it over with. But then he remembered that moment when he carried his leg in his hand. He wasn’t sorry for his attempt to save peoples’ lives.
My brother decided that no matter what the Israelis did to him, he’d continue to live as Mohammad. He wanted to return to his work at the civil defense department, but they didn't consider him competent because of his injury.. There was nothing wrong with his mind, yet they wouldn’t let him return.
Mohammad was soon granted an opportunity to enroll in a six-month course in sofa design. He seized the opportunity. He was determined to eliminate the word “disabled” from his life. Using his expertise in tailoring, he began to create his own sofas at his small house. Everyone liked his work. For the first time in his life, my father was proud of Mohammed. It appears that the only thing my father really wanted from his son was to be a dreamer, a believer and an achiever. Mohammad now works with a big furniture company in Gaza. Indeed, Mohammad has another dream of setting up a company of his own.
Despite his injury and the ordeal he survived, Mohammad is still human.
And yes, he has one head, one leg and two arms.