Once upon a time in the Shujaya neighborhood in Gaza City, on Al-Mansoura Street, there were a mother and father, six sons and a daughter, living together in one apartment. The five older sons were married, yet they could not afford their own rooms. Thus, they decided to take out a loan. They committed to paying the bank part of the money they borrowed every month. The ground-floor apartment was for the father and mother and two younger children, and the older brothers built three stories on top of it for their families. They all lived in their apartments happily, but not ever after.
The 2014 Israeli offensive against Gaza started in July. The bombing was all around. The six families crammed once again onto the ground floor, this time in the corridor,which was the safest place in the building. The father read the Quran aloud to calm everyone down. Finally, they were forced to leave when the bombardment came closer. Following the father's instructions, they waited until the bombing stopped, then at 7 a.m. walked away carefully, heading anywhere safer than Shujaya.
The streets were empty. The air was filled with dust and smoke as shells rained down. It was difficult to see even a few feet ahead as they made their way down the street. Suddenly someone screamed. It was the daughter: she had tripped over the body of a boy from the Ayyad family and had fallen to the ground next to him.
Ten months later I met this family. With a friend, I took a taxi from Al Saraya Crossroads in Gaza City to Shujaya Market, then another one to the Shujaya neighborhood. On the way, I looked at the houses, some of them destroyed and others badly damaged. The posters with photos and names of the dead were everywhere on the street walls; next to them were written verses from the Quran. Other walls had graffiti with words encouraging people to remain steadfast. There also were painted words congratulating someone for getting married. I thought of the irony of the way that we Palestinians mix our deaths and sorrows with weddings and life.
As we were driving, the taxi driver watched us curiously in the rearview mirror, waiting for us to give him instructions on where exactly to drive.
My friend asked him, "Do you know a family whose home was attacked or damaged during the war?"
He leaned back in his seat, feeling he had an important mission to fulfill,and said,"Yes, I know lots of such families."
Then he pointed at half-destroyed buildings, which were surrounded by rubble, "As you can see, all of the people who used to live in these houses are now homeless."
My friend inquired, "And where do they live now?"
He said, "Some of them are in schools, others in tents or caravan trailers."
"Do you know anyone who lives in a trailer?" I asked
He pointed at a complex of trailers before us, saying,"Yes, here they are."
When we left the car, I stepped onto yellow sand; it seemed that some buildings were under construction. To the left I saw a complex of six trailers that had been placed next to each other for one extended family. However, there was no real door. Instead, there was a piece of fabric with a zipper that opened from the inside. So I knocked on the wall of the trailer. A man in his 60s opened the zipper from the inside and allowed us in. His name was Yousef Rebhi Jendia. There was a narrow corridor that was in fact the space between two trailers. In this corridor Yousef invited us to sit down. There were armchairs, small tables and a bed that was used as a sofa. Above us was a sheet that covered the space between the trailers to protect the inhabitants from the sun.
After I introduced myself as a writer from We Are Not Numbers and explained what I was doing, Yousef started to tell us about what happened the morning they had to flee their home.
He said,"People started to say Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest) when they saw the toppled trees and the dead bodies piled on top of each other, or thrown here and there."
''Did you leave your house because it was demolished?" I asked
''No,we discovered the demolition of our house when we came back home during a truce. We left because the balcony of our house was hit the night before and it was not safe to stay." Yousef said.
"How about these caravans; when did you start living in them?" I asked.
"They are from the Ministry of Housing; we received them only in March," Yousef said.
I wondered where were they had been living for the six months between the offensive and the arrival of the trailers. What had it been like for them during the harsh cold that hit Gaza last winter?
"We were living in an apartment that we rented in Azzytoun area. Every time it rained we couldn’t leave the apartment since the area was low and the flooding in the streets reached our waists," Um Muhammad, his wife, said.
Her voice was full of bitterness when she added,''The houses of my children were brand new before they were destroyed; now they are in debt to the bank for homes that no longer exist."
Seeing the sad look in the eyes of Um Mohammed, I felt that I owed it to her to see where and how they were now living, so I asked to see the inside of the trailer. When I entered one of them, the first thing I saw was the kitchen that took up the biggest part of the trailer. To my right there was a room that seemed to be for children to sleep in, since I saw piles of small-sized clothes. To my left was another room where three of the daughters-in-law were sitting: Maysa, the trailer's owner; and Islam and Neda, who were visiting. The three of them were sitting on two mattresses in the room; two of them were holding babies who were born soon after the war. All of the women were using notebooks to fan themselves, since it was very hot inside. I noticed that the TV was sitting on a table that also was used as a cupboard to store their clothes.
"It was Ramadan when the war started; we were pregnant, tired and afraid," Islam told me after I sat next to her.
Maysa added, "My father-in-law was afraid that something bad would happen to us and our babies so he decided we should leave.We came downstairs and waited until the shelling and bombing stopped for a little bit; we saw people carrying white flags."
I asked whether these white flags of surrender had protected the people who carried them, and they said, "No, nothing made a difference."
When I left, I was amazed by the spirit of these people. Despite everything they had been through, they still had the courage to smile, and the patience to continue welcoming people like me and tell their stories.
I continued walking with my friend on Al-Mansoura Street when, in front of me, I saw children moving among steel pillars lying on the ground, collecting the pieces of destroyed houses. When they saw us they ran away.
We kept walking amid the rubble until we reached one destroyed house that made us stop. Before us there was a collapsed cement roof that was turned on its side with a hopscotch game chalked on its surface. I thought of what story this hopscotch could tell me about the children who played on it before the roof tumbled down. Maybe they were playing a game at the very moment when their house was bombed, so they died, leaving their game as a witness that they were here on that day.
All around me was destruction. The houses were completely demolished, with rubble and lots of twisted steel strewn on the ground. I imagined there might be snakes moving undetected in the wreckage. It was a scary place for children. However, the children I had seen two minutes earlier were here.
The three of them, aged around 12, were standing in front of me leaning on a half-destroyed wall.
I asked, "What are you doing here?"
They shrugged their shoulders. Then one handsome boy said casually, "We collect steel to sell it."
When I asked him his name, he said, "I'm Waseem Ayyad," and he pointed at the other boys saying, "And those are Tamer and Bahaa."
Tamer laughed, and pointing at Bahaa said, "Or he is Omar Khadoura (greeny)."
Bahaa felt embarrassed and didn’t want to answer, but Tamer, laughing again, said: "Because he drank a bottle of green ink."
"Do you live in here? How is your house? Where is it?" I asked Waseem, who seemed the most willing to talk.
Waseem pointed at the destroyed houses behind me and said,"Our house is like that rubble. When we left our home at 6 a.m. we found our relatives thrown on the ground. We were running and there was an Apache helicopter firing on us; I remember that one of our relatives told her son to escape, then she and her daughter were hit and died while running in the street."
"How did this war affect you?" I asked Waseem.
He shrugged and said, "I became more anxious."
I asked how many of his relatives had died, and he said, "Some women and two men."
Suddenly the other boys started to name others who had been killed.
"There is also Rami and Wael,”Tamer said.
Then Bahaa reminded him, "Oh and remember Ahmed and Mona. And Seba, whose husband and only child died and she lost her legs.”
I looked at them as Tamer said in a low voice, "I saw pieces of flesh on the ground; we were stepping on people as we ran."
Waseem was looking at his feet, moving them in a nervous way, then said, "I still remember these scenes until now and dream of them at night."
When I asked him if he often woke up at night, he didn’t want to answer. His brother Tamer said their father told Waseem to put the Quran under his pillow so he won’t have these nightmares any more.
On July 20, 2014, Israeli forces launched a violent attack on Shujaya neighborhood, known as the Shujaya Massacre, killing 74 people and injuring more than 220. Among the dead were 17 children, 14 women and four elders. The Israeli warplanes, firing on everyone and everything, forced the people of Shujaya to leave their houses and loved ones, who were either dead or under the rubble. They went to the center of the city, which they hoped would be safer. It was another exodus that recalled the scene of the Palestinians’ first exodus, the Nakba in 1948. The Jendia family and the Ayyad family, some of whose members we met on this journey, were among those who sought shelter in the city. Yousef Jendia’s family was lucky not to lose any of its members, but many other families were entirely wiped out. The Ayyads lost 11 of their close relatives.
After I left the boys, I was reviewing in my mind the conversations from the afternoon. Then I remembered a detail: A girl from the Jendia family had stumbled over a boy from the Ayyad family. I wanted to go back and ask the children about that, but they had already disappeared.
I wondered, maybe that boy was a relative of Waseem’s. Maybe he was screaming before dying. Maybe he was afraid to be alone in that moment. Maybe he was calling his mother or father when he fell. Maybe he died quickly. Maybe he died slowly.
Lots of possibilities raced through my mind, but there was one thing I was certain of: That boy was not alone, for in paradise he has the company of many members of his family.
Mentor: Nancy Kricorian
Posted October 13, 2015