The global panic of the coronavirus and being in quarantine here in Gaza make me recall the panic of the Israeli wars on Gaza. I can’t forget what I witnessed in the 2014 war. I had four children at that time. The youngest was Mahmoud—he was a baby less than a year old—and the oldest was Rawa, who was about seven.
Our house is near the southern border with Egypt. There is a long, wide stretch of sand between the houses and the border wall. The Israelis targeted this area all day long with their rockets. Fighter jets flew low over our heads with a deafening and terrifying sound like thunder, and the bombs they dropped broke the windows in most of the nearby houses. Hot air and flashes like lightning came through these broken windows with every explosion, and everything shook—the walls of the house, the furniture and the floor.
With the explosion of each bomb, I my heart raced and hot blood coursed through my chest. I wanted to cry, but my eyes were dry. The children screamed. We hugged them fiercely, frozen in our places with pale faces and desperate spirits. My children urinated on themselves day and night, and I couldn’t blame them. Most of the time we sheltered together in one room, not moving unless we needed to use the bathroom.
I didn’t have the desire to make or eat food. I tried to persuade my children to eat, but they were in a state of shock. I held Mahmoud all the time, and my husband tried to play with Rawa and hugged her most of the time. His sisters did the same with Maram and Rahaf. My parents-in-law did their best to help us distract the children by singing or playing with them.
Sleepless nights passed very slowly. When I did sleep, nightmares crowded my brain. Mahmoud sheltered in my arms all the time and could hardly sleep or stop crying. My daughters were tucked between me and my husband or with another relative, and we comforted them until they could sleep.
One day in the afternoon, we heard a bomb so close it stole our breath away. The Israeli drones had targeted children who were feeding their chickens on the roof of their house. The people of the neighborhood gathered around the targeted house; the parents’ hysterical screaming and crying went right to my heart. The children’s bodies were literally in parts.
We closed the door. The children’s screaming and shouting didn’t stop. I broke down crying and lost my balance. Despite this, I tried to soothe my baby by breastfeeding him, but my mother-in-law told me I should calm down first.
My children didn’t know the meaning of death, the end of one’s life. I didn’t know how to explain what was going on around us.
Then the telephone rang. It was a recorded message: “It’s the Israeli Defense Force. Your area is not safe. You have to leave your house and go to the middle of the city….”
I was shocked and terrified by the disembodied Israeli voice, talking in formal Arabic. I couldn’t breathe and my hands shook, barely able to hold the phone. My husband saw my pale face, took the phone, listened to the rest of the recorded message and hung up with an angry, red face. “It was a fake threat," he told me. “The IDF officer was telling us to go where we would be in even more danger.”
The good in the bad
There were bombs all night. Sleep at that time wasn’t sleep; it was like losing consciousness.
I moved very slowly, trying not to wake the children as I got up to go to the bathroom. My husband wasn’t asleep. He just sat on the sofa. As I entered the room he said, “The Israeli rockets targeted the house by your family.”
These words were like cold water on my face. “My brothers!”
“Hasan is coming here,” my husband said. “Anas will go to his in-law’s house. His wife’s back was injured.”
Ten minutes later, Hasan arrived. He was covere with white dust. I ran to him with my children to hug and welcome him.
He went to the bathroom to clean himself, and as soon as he sat on the sofa, my daughters jumped on his back. He played with them and tickled them to make them laugh. Then Hasan told us what had happened.
“I woke up when a massive explosion shook the house and broke the windows,” he said. “I started to run downstairs when another explosion happened. The fire outside surrounded the house, and the pressure of a blast from outside knocked me down. I stayed a few minutes, stunned, on the floor and then ran downstairs. The dust was everywhere. I screamed to Anas several times until he answered. Glass from a blown-out window had fallen on Anas’s wife’s back while she was sleeping, and his son was injured on his head. Neighbors helped us get outside and gave first-aid to the injured.”
The neighbors who had been targeted were killed. We listened to him with broken hearts, but the children didn’t stop jumping on his back and playing with him.
I was happy he had come to our home, because I had been so worried about him. He didn’t take precautions. Even with war raging, he went to a small café to watch football matches with his equally carefree friends. He took things easily, even the possibility of losing his life.
Hassan stayed with us. He had games on his laptop, and he played with my children even while windows and walls were shaking. He shouted, “Stop making farts! It’s too much!” In the midst of that horrible situation, he was hilarious.
Two days later the Israelis targeted a nearby house that belonged to a trader who did business through a tunnel under the border with Egypt. His house was totally destroyed by several rockets. The explosion was massive and severely shook our house. Many windows broke and dust covered everything. We looked out the door and saw papers flying in the air. Dust and sand covered the street, and people ran toward the explosion while others scurried the other way.
We all felt that it was our end. My children cried and screamed. We hugged them and tried to calm them despite our own gasping and shaking. My parents-in-law ordered my husband to take me and the childrento my uncle’s, which would be safer.
The Israeli army had warned us against using cars, so we walked. My father-in-law couldn’t walk the long distance and my mother-in-law wouldn’t leave him. My sisters-in-law refused to leave their parents. My husband refused too. But my father-in-law ordered him to protect the children. Finally, my husband agreed to go. We hugged each other goodbye, not knowing whether we would meet again or not.
The Israelis also ordered us to walk separately. My husband walked in front of me with two of the children, looking back at us the whole way. I stayed with the other two children and Hasan. The sound of the unseen explosions shook us to the core.
As we walked, Rawa cried, “Mama, we didn’t bring the prize from Japan. Who will take care of it?” I was surprised by her question. She was talking about a bag of toys donated to Gazan children by the Japanese. “We will go back as soon as the war ends and take care of them,” I said.
The children were happy when we arrived at my uncle’s house. They ran inside searching for toys and to play with my cousin, who is one year younger than Rawa. I phoned Anas to come be with us. He refused. “No one can escape from death if it’s Allah’s will.”
We thought we were safe at my uncle’s. But then we saw a black cloud in front of the window. A car in the neighborhood had been bomed, and two people were burned alive inside. We all gathered in a huddle, hugging the children and waiting for what would happen next.
Light after darkness
The days were very long. Distracting the children in that time was so difficult. Sometimes we called my family members in Egypt.
When the end of the war was announced, we felt like we had been given a new life. We congratulated each other on remaining alive without the grief of losing loved ones. But so many others were not so lucky; funerals were held everywhere.
When we returned to our house, the children ran into the arms of their grandparents. It was like coming back from a long trip. Rawa grabbed her toys and said, “They were crying because they missed me.” My brothers returned to their house and repaired it in about a month.
I don’t know what we did to deserve the terror of war. What is our threat to Israeli lives, especially in the face of their tremendous weapons?
Really these memories make my heart ache, because Hasan traveled to Germany after the end of the war to work on building his future and I have no idea when I will see him again. I miss my family in Egypt. Yet even though they aren’t so far away in miles, the blockade prevents me from visiting them. I resist becoming close with friends, because if they manage to get out of Gaza, they may never be able to return. I hate this siege.
Today, it is peaceful, yet the sound of the drones is overhead. There is no war, but the drones make me feel an explosion could happen at any time.
A time to empathize with Gaza?
Now, with COVID-19, people around the world face limitations on their freedom of movement. They cannot go where they want to go, they cannot see their families and friends, and their economies and jobs are suffering. But in this time of uncertainty, perhaps others now can understand what we feel in Gaza every day, with or without the coronavirus.
We understand the panic of people in other countries about the virus. We have lived with this kind of fear even inside our homes. The ever-present threat of wars and is something we can’t escape. And we have no promise of a vaccine that can protect us soon to come.