Despite a long night of bombing, I was woken up early this morning at 7:30 by voices coming through the window of my room: newly displaced people taking refuge in the UNRWA school across the street. In the last two weeks, thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes on the coastal side of Beit Lahia and Beit Hanoun to avoid being killed by a shell from a tank or a warship. They have brought with them little but their desire to survive and have travelled toward the neighborhood I have lived in all my life, Jabalia. Jabalia is itself a refugee camp, established after the 1948 Nakba when thousands were forced to leave their villages and towns across the country that was Palestine.
Already the most densely populated camp in the Gaza Strip, Jabalia is now receiving a new wave of refugees after 66 years. Some people have suggested this “camp” identity will never go away – characterized by the same scenes, same details, same broken dreams, same fears, same cries, same shouts. It’s never going to transform into something else even if, architecturally, it isn’t the sea of tents it began life as, or the shantytown of the ‘60s and ‘70s. There may have been developments and investments in the ‘90s, but the camp remains a camp; the streets are as narrow as a couple of feet wide in places and the residents are still refugees, whether old or new.
I can hear that the school across the street is now full of people. All the schools of Jabalia camp have become camps themselves. How ironic – this new influx of vulnerable people.
A sense of uncertainty dominates life here. The newly displaced refugees have no idea what they will do in the next few hours, realizing that nothing is certain and that what they plan to do is 100 percent not going to happen. From my window, which overlooks the school, I can see old women throwing their tiredness down on the little steps in front of the playground, their children clinging to them, many of them crying; old men looking nervously up to the sky where drones are still hovering, making a noise they will not forget through all the years they have left. The UNRWA man is trying to organize everything in this chaos.
A night of terror
Last night was a terrible chapter in the history of Gaza – especially for the eastern part of Beit Hanoun. Tanks moved in from the border toward the residential areas, destroying everything in their way, erasing every building, every school, every orchard. No one knew whether the next shell would fall on their heads, whether they would be reduced to another number in the news. You think about what it means to disappear from the world, to evaporate like a drop of water, leaving no sign of your existence, and the thought drives you mad.
A shell killed a family of six people three days ago — cousins of my neighbor Eyad. They were sitting around their food waiting for the prayer to break their fast. The four children were killed instantly and the parents were mortally injured. Eyad, who has spoken with a lisp all his life, tells me that one of the dead girls vanished completely; they found no sign of her body. No bones, no arm, no leg. Nothing that might suggest it belonged to her, that a little girl of nine years existed in this place just few seconds before. Apparently the rocket hit her body directly.
In two hours, the newcomers are settled in the classrooms and in the tents set up in front of the school. The UNRWA man issues his instructions through his megaphone, explaining that everyone needs to follow his orders. The sound of his voice echoes in my head as I try to go back to sleep. You have to sleep when you can in this war, since most nights you will not sleep a wink. You have to gather sleep up, as much as you possibly can, and store it, as they say in Arabic, ‘behind the eyes’.
Images fly through my head; memories are jostling for position with old songs, old ambitions and hopes. I cannot always distinguish what is a memory and what is hope. My boy, Yasser, is trying to move slowly across the room without making any noise. I see him walking on tiptoe. He doesn’t want to wake me up. Smiling, I follow his footsteps. He takes the charger and his iPad. I realize at this moment that the electricity is now back on after a 15-hour power cut. My kids are adapting to this war – they fight eagerly every time the power comes on to charge their iPads so they can enjoy playing on them when it shuts off again. They have their own ideas about how to waste their time during the day.
The elusive truce
The first question I ask when I open my eyes is, “When is the truce?” Everybody is asking the same question. After 16 days of attacks you wish, even harder than at the start, that this is all just a nightmare. Many times I have closed my eyes and thought, “What if I were just sleeping and everything I saw was a dream?” I shake my head and look around. Everything looks real: the tree in the school yard moves in the wind; the sun shines; the lady next door is sitting in front of her house with other old ladies of the neighborhood; everything looks normal. No sign that this is a dream, a nightmare.
Yesterday more than 100 people were killed in Beit Hanoun and Shuja’iyya. I spend the evening with my friends Faraj, Abu Aseel and Wafi, at Faraj’s place in Jabalia Camp, smoking nargilah [a water pipe] as I do most nights. Faraj keeps turning the dial on the radio, searching the news, trying to find an announcement that might calm him down. The voice on the radio announces that the total number of people killed during the last two weeks is 567. He starts to break this number down according to where they lived, according to their age, their gender, the method of attack, etc. A few hours ago a shell decapitated three children. They were carried to the hospital headless. The radio reporter continues his presentation of the situation. The number of people injured has reached over 3,300. Some 670 houses were destroyed and more than 2,000 were damaged.
Everything is turned into numbers. The stories are hidden, disguised, lost behind these numbers. Human beings, souls, bodies – all are converted into numbers. While watching the breaking news feed along the bottom of the screen, you can’t help but follow these numbers being updated every minute. Before you can take another breath, the death toll changes. Newcomers are added to the list.
In the first two hours of this attack, they gave the victims’ names and kept them on the screen. Now the victims are just listed as numbers. The names are gone. From time to time, the total figure leaps suddenly – a meteoric leap – and then the news carries on. One of the most frequent questions you hear in the streets is “How many martyrs do we have now?”
Imagine it. Imagine what it is like to be converted into a number. That you are not “Atef Abu Saif.” You are “Victim No. 568.” You are merely a digit in a much larger number, one that just keeps on growing. Your entire life is reduced to a number. In a crowd of other numbers, the importance of every number disappears, because what is important is the Big Number. Every time the number increases, the unwritten exclamation mark that accompanies it grows bigger, and the unheard screams that accompany each one grow louder. Journalists like catastrophes. They like numbers, statistics, data. They like the sight of tears and emotions in front of the camera.
The voracious appetite of the media
Destruction is a rich meal for the camera. The lens does not observe the fast of Ramadan, it devours and devours. It is constantly eating new images. Gaza is consummately professional in the production of new material — cooking up new TV food, so tasty and delicious for a carefree audience.
Other signs of normal life — of love, of joy, of quiet resilience, of humanity — do not make it to press.
When a human being is made into number, his or her story disappears. Every number is a tale; every martyr is a tale, a life lost. Or rather, part of that life is lost; the rest tells another tale. The tale after. When a father is killed, or a mother, there are children left behind who are not heroes or supermen, but humans, with little but sadness and sorrow to steer them through life. They are children who lost fathers or mothers. There is a tale that is lost and a tale that has yet to begin.
The four children who the gunships tore to pieces while playing football on the beach were not the number “FOUR.” They were four stories, four lives. The Kawareh family – from Khan Younis, whom the drone decided to prevent from enjoying a meal on the roof of their small building under the moonlight – they were not just “SIX.” They were six infinitely rich, infinitely unknowable stories that came to a stop when a dumb missile fell from a drone and tore their bodies apart. Six novels that Mahfouz, Dickens or Márquez could not have written satisfactorily. Novels that would have needed a miracle-worker, a genius, to find the structure and poetry they deserved. Instead, they are tales that have cascaded into the news as numbers. Moments of lust, onslaughts of pain, days of happiness and dreams that were postponed. Looks, glances, feelings, secrets… Every number is a world in itself.
I do not want to be a number, to be a piece in the news, a name mentioned by a beautiful TV presenter waiting impatiently to finish reading boring news from Gaza. I do not want to be a small number in a large one, a part of the data. I do not want to be an image among thousands of images that activists and sympathizers share and post on their Facebook wall or Twitter accounts, rained down on with likes and comments.
My other neighbor, Ahmad, did not want to be a number when he was killed trying to save his family in the al-Nada Towers. None of the killed or injured wanted it. And nobody will ever ask to hear the stories behind these numbers, either. Nobody will uncover the beauty of the lives they led – the beauty that vanishes with every attack, disappears behind this thick, ugly curtain of counting.
Excerpted from Atef Abu Saif's first English nonficiton book, "The Drone Eats With Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire" (Comma Press, 2015).