Although exam time is stressful for all students, teachers and families in Gaza, during the last month of 2008 I was completely ready to dedicate myself to studying. I was enthusiastic about succeeding and striving to be first in my class. For a break, on the day before exams began, I went to the seaport with my sisters. It was rainy, but still the weather refreshed our minds and souls. The waves were somewhat quiet and the gulls flew above. It was a special day away to enjoy a change of scene, helping me to be more relaxed for my first exam.
The next day exams began in schools across the Gaza Strip. Students were ready to get their tests over with and welcome the holiday. At dawn, I woke up as usual and went to my school enthusiastically. Like on most days, I met my friends and we sat chatting in the school's amphitheater. We were excited to be completing the first semester of 10th grade. I had just taken my first Arabic language final; the Arabic language course was my favorite. My friends and I reviewed some of the test questions, making jokes and having a fun time. We were in a good mood and optimistic about succeeding in the rest of the exams. I felt a sense of excitement when I reached the school’s gate with my two friends, but it turned into the gate of despair.
It was 11:30 a.m. on December 27, 2008—the moment that Israel launched its airstrikes on Gaza, in which more than 80 F-16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters targeted our territory. I didn’t know where they were striking because there was no chance to think or guess; all I could do was put my hands over my ears to muffle the sound of the jets, missiles and explosions. I also heard students shouting and screaming. I felt as if Gaza was being wracked by an earthquake that turned our world upside down.
Suddenly, when I heard the third bombing, I felt as if my heart had broken. I sensed my brother Fares, a policeman, was in danger but had no idea what was going on or where. Instinctively, I prayed for him.
After the series of explosions around the Gaza Strip, everyone around me was in shock by what had happened. Fortunately, one of my four sisters was at her university and she came to my school on her way home so we could be together. I dared not ask questions about the violent “voices” we had heard because neither of us had the strength to ask or answer.
While we were walking home, we heard on a car radio that Israeli bombs had hit the Hamas headquarters, government offices and police stations. I could not bear to imagine what that meant; I willed myself to a kind of deafness, to avoid hearing more. But I kept asking myself, “How is Fares?”
I was busy reading peoples’ faces; most were in a state of shock and did not understand anything. After walking for 15 minutes, we finally reached our home. We lived in a flat in a tower overlooking the sea that we’d just bought; we had only lived there for two months. We discovered our house full of dust and some windows were broken since there had been air strikes on a police headquarters nearby. It was horrible to see a building that had always been so strong, powerful and proud-looking be reduced to a large heap of stones. It was then I realized that what I had heard before on the news made sense, that all the police stations had been targeted by the Israeli Air Force. Fares was working that day at another police station in Aljawazat Arafat City in western Gaza.
Adding insult to injury, there was an immediate electricity shortage since cables and wires had been damaged in the bombardment. Neither could I use my cell phone. Gaza fell into a blackness that killed our spirits. No one could imagine or understand what had happened. I called my two brothers several times, but there was no connection. My parents were not in Gaza at the time, having left for a visit to the United Arab Emirates as they often did.
Eventually, my married sister called to tell us that two of our relatives who worked at the same station as Fares had been killed. Then we heard from other people, and on our battery-powered radio, that Tawfik Jaber, head of the Palestinian Police Force, had been killed. Tawfik was a close friend of my brother’s. Fares was a major in the Palestinian police and head of the Military Explosives Engineering Administration. Knowing this, I became more frightened. But I still couldn’t imagine my brother would be killed. Of course, I accepted we would all die sooner or later, but Fares would not die at that moment.
Then, my brother Mohammed called unexpectedly to tell us Fares had been wounded. I was the one who talked to him. I was so happy to hear Mohammed’s voice and felt certain he would report good news about himself and Fares. But his voice was quaking: “Noura, Fares is injured and he is at Al-Shifa Hospital. He was hit in the head. Pray for your brother.” I replied, “But Fares is good; it’s not him! He is not a martyr, praise to God!! He’s hit in the head, but he will recover soon. Please, let me speak to him. I want to hear his voice. Can he speak now? Tell him we are waiting for him. Oh, God, Fares is not killed!!!” In spite of all my rapid questions, Mohammed just repeated: “Pray for him.”
It turns out that my brother had walked away from his building twice, evacuating the policemen who worked there. He also rescued one of his wounded employees, and sadly this person also later died. My brother Fares had gone to his jeep, talking to one of our relatives who called to make certain he had left the area, when he collapsed on the ground. A very small piece of shrapnel from a missile had struck the back of his head.
As we waited for news, everything around me turned gray as I thought, “Am I in a dream or is this real? How will our lives be without Fares? No, he will come back!” Trying to distance myself from those thoughts, I sat alone crying and praying. I did not talk to anyone at all, and I did not drink even a sip of water for the rest of that day.
Meanwhile, our parents were far away in another county. We learned later that they were frantic as they heard the news from Gaza. However, the entrances to Gaza were closed and they would never have a chance to see Fares again. It wasn’t until the following January 29 that they were able to return home.
In the evening, an air raid targeted Al-Shifa Mosque, located near the hospital. All of the hospital windows broke as a result of the violent bombardment of the mosque. Since it was winter, biting cold air entered the intensive care unit where my brother lay.
Alone in my room, I saw a vision. Fares was dressed in his police uniform and standing, while hundreds of people saluted him. I could not bear it, so I asked, “When is it my turn to greet you?” Fares looked at me with grieved eyes and a sad smile and disappeared. Then I woke up, and did not tell anyone about it.
At 8:30 a.m. the next day, on December, 28, 2008, we received the terrible news that Fares was gone. I stood in my place crying without moving. What I had been dreading had alas come true. I could not do anything else but cry.
After a while, someone knocked on our door. It was my two brothers—one was alive and the other was carried by our uncles upon their shoulders. It was my first time to see men crying.
Then I approached Fares’ body and asked, “When is my turn?” What I thought was just a dream had become real. I touched his hair and kissed his head, then I left because I could not bear it anymore. Then the men carried him away again. Fares was like a groom, prince or king flying above to the sky, and his soul was hugging us.
Fares was buried in my grandpa’s grave because the cemeteries already were very full. However, it felt right; Grandpa had loved Fares so much and now he would cuddle Fares forever.
It has been seven years since my brother’s death. It feels like centuries. It has been a long time to live without him. Day in and day out, Fares still lives in each of us.
In English, “Fares” means a knight who is of noble birth and trained to fight, especially on horseback. My brother Fares was indeed the knight of Gaza and always will be.
Mentor: Najwa Saad
Posted November 1, 2015