In Gaza, some street vendors pull their wheeled carts to the border with Israel during the weekly Great Return March protests. They need income for their families, and they risk their lives to earn it. Hussein Abu Oweida, 41, from the al Shaaf neighborhood east of Gaza City, was among these adventurous vendors; in fact, he was known as “the Barrad seller”—after the slushy, lemon-flavored drink he sold on hot days.
Unfortunately, his adventurous nature took his soul into heaven. On May 14, 2018, an Israeli sniper shot Hussein in the back.
Hussein was a father of four children, the eldest of whom is 14 and the youngest eight. For 18 years, he had sold cold drinks in neighborhood markets and outside of mosques and schools. On that day, Hussein woke up early and had breakfast with his children and his wife, Sawsan. The children left for school, and Hussein prepared his cart for a day of vending.
Gazans suffer high rates of poverty (80%) and unemployment (50%) due to the Israeli blockade—which severely limits travel in and out, as well as exports and imports. Before the blockade began 12 years ago, Hussein earned 30-50 shekels ($8-$14) each day, hardly enough even then. Since the blockade took hold, however, no matter how hard he worked, often under the full glare of the sun, he earned an average of just 20 shekels ($5.50) a day. Nevertheless, despite his own poverty and the vulnerability of his family, he was a very generous man, sometimes giving cold drinks for free to thirsty people who could not pay and to children who lived nearby.
When the Great Return March launched on March 30 of that year, Hussein began pulling his cart to the eastern Gazan-Israeli border every Friday. When the summer holiday began, bringing more people out, he served the protesters every day, boosting his earnings to 30 shekels a day.
“I tried to convince him to reverse his decision to sell at the border, but my attempts were in vain," Sawsan recalls. “He told me there was no other vendor of cold drinks willing to go close to the border, and the protesters needed something cold to quench their thirst in such very hot weather. And the extra money he could earn was so needed for our children.”
Hussein was very affectionate with his children, she remembers. “He often brought candies and chips home for them. In spite of being exhausted from his tough work, he always spent an hour with playing with the kids after dinner. They each got a hug and a kiss before they went to sleep.”
On the morning of May 14, just before leaving home for the border, Hussein hugged Sawsan particularly hard. “A few hours later, his brother knocked on the door, hardly able to speak, and told me of Hussein’s injury. He had been selling just 500 meters (a third of a mile) from the border. It was a such a shock!” Sawsan recalls. “We rushed to al-Shifa Hospital, the central hospital in Gaza, and found him in the emergency section. He was lying on the bed, unable to walk or even move his limbs.”
Sawsan kissed each part of his body and kneeled on the ground to thank God for saving her husband's life, in the hope he would walk again.
Dr. Majed al-Daddah, a general surgeon at the hospital, explained that the Israeli rubber-coated steel bullet had completely severed the spinal cord, rendering Hussein paralyzed. Bullet left fragments lodged near his liver and lungs.
Gaza's health system suffers from a severe lack of medical supplies due to the 12 years of blockade. Hussein and Sawsan appealed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the West Bank, to help him obtain a medical exit permit, so he could travel out for more advanced treatment. Hussein had begun to feel warmth in his lower limbs, offering a glimmer of hope.
“Our appeal, however, went to waste; Abbas never replied, despite an outcry of support on social media,” Sawsan says bitterly. Abbas is waging a harsh campaign to oust Hamas, the government of Gaza. And the people pay a price. Hussein died on May 26, 2018, 12 days after his injury.
"His soul was taken up into heaven to be in peace and prosperity, but we do not know whether we will be safe without him," Sawsan concluded, tears trickling down her cheeks like rain.