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Atef Abu Saif: Life and Death in the Gaza Strip, Part I


© A.M. Qattan Foundation

© A.M. Qattan Foundation

Sunday, July 27

For the last two hours we’ve heard nothing but sonic booms and the sound of rockets and mortars. Shells have fallen on our street a few hundred yards from my father-in-law’s house, where my wife and I, and our five kids, are staying, and on the street behind us.

My wife, Hanna, is arguing with the kids over what to buy to celebrate Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. She has forbidden them to go to the grocery store, and she’s adamant that they won’t visit the Internet cafes or the PlayStation shop near my father’s place. They don’t understand the impossibility of shopping at a time of war.

Last night, we all became convinced that the tank fire would soon reach the Jabaliya refugee settlement, where our families live. All night long the tanks fired on the eastern side of the camp. The buildings on our street creaked and lurched, as if about to fall. Everything shifts with each strike. It’s as if you’re an extra in a disaster movie.

I jump to the window. A funeral is passing in the street below. A corpse covered by a blanket is carried on a stretcher on the shoulders of mourners. Some are shouting in anger. The funeral enters the cemetery, and the sound of the mourners fades like a cry in a dream. I count fewer than 20 mourners. During the first intifada (1987-91), when somebody was killed by the Israeli army, the whole camp would turn out to pay its respects. Now there are so many strikes in the middle of the day, so many Israeli drones patrolling the streets, that few mourners are prepared to take the risk.

Last night we all received a recorded message on our cellphones from the Israeli army, warning the people of Jabaliya, Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun that attacks on their homes were likely and advising people to leave. To where? I wondered.

As I do every night, I head down a street that houses one of the United Nations schools that’s acting as a refugee center. I presume this street is safer than the others. The army wouldn’t hesitate to attack one of these schools — they’ve hit several in the last three weeks, most recently in Beit Hanoun. But in mad times, you develop your own logic for survival.

Suddenly, electricity lights up the entire neighborhood. This burst of light can often be a false dawn, but this time it stays. After more than 80 hours, electricity has finally returned. Back home, the family has already decided to stay up tonight, and use the electricity that they’ve all missed so much. Hanna says we shouldn’t watch the news or anything related to the war.

We watch a television drama for 30 minutes or so — Ramadan is the month of drama on Arab television, and Hanna wants to find out what happens to her favorite characters, even though she’s missed most of the series — before the explosions make it impossible to follow the dialogue. I suggest turning over to a local channel to find out what’s happening. Hanna refuses. She says she’s fed up with the sight of corpses and rubble. Finally, she storms into another room.

There’s an influx of newly displaced people coming down the street to the school opposite us. The murmur of their conversations and the cries of their children are audible from my window. They stream past us into the school. These schools are already full, of course. There isn’t room for a single new refugee, let alone hundreds. The man in the United Nations school uses a bullhorn to ask the occupants to try to make room. Ultimately, they have to.

I listen to their stories from my window. The light from missile attacks covers the sky. For a moment the whole neighborhood is illuminated.

We sleep in the corridor of the house, near the stairs. It’s safer there. Once the kids are settled they quickly drop off. Then a bomb strikes nearby and they’re awake again, terrified. Little Jaffa, our youngest, is screaming. But, amazingly, they fall asleep again very quickly afterward.

I lie awake till past 6 a.m., throwing my head down on the pillow in various positions, with no success. The light from bombs comes into the corridor, and stares at me. When I try to close my eyes the light still shines through my eyelids.

Mercifully, it is the sound of Jaffa that wakes me around 10 — the sound of a game she’s playing on my cellphone, a game she plays every morning.

Monday, July 28

Today is Eid. After a month of fasting, Eid is a sigh of relief. The kids get up early, awakened by the hymns and chanting from the minarets of the surrounding mosques, while the sun is still struggling to get out of bed in the east. Normally, at Eid the kids play in the streets, excited by the pocket money from their parents. Eid is what every child waits for all year.

Last night, we all spent about two hours debating what kind of Eid we were going to have. The kids all wanted to celebrate Eid as it should be. This means buying them new clothes, having their hair cut (even if they had it cut just a week before), letting them blow their pocket money on toys and sweets. “It’s Eid!” they insist. “It’s Eid!” That’s their logic. Our argument, Hanna’s and mine, is that there are many children who lost their parents and cannot celebrate Eid this evening, and it would be very upsetting for them to see other children celebrating Eid, while they cannot. What about the displaced people camping in the schools, we say, who don’t have anywhere to live anymore?

Our arguments are falling on deaf ears. I succumb to the pressure and agree to buy them one new piece of clothing each, maybe a haircut. But no sweets, no toys.

Last night, I spent three hours walking through the market. There was a rumor about an extended truce, another 24 hours. Nobody has any real information. The conclusion you come to is that Gazans no longer care if a truce has been declared or not. They will have their own truce on Eid.

Yesterday the market was full of people, mainly buying clothes. A few shops were open selling sweets and chocolates. I could hardly move, it was so packed. I tried to buy the dried, salty fish you’re supposed to have on the morning of Eid. The fish is dried and stuffed with salt months before. You fry it and cook tomatoes in the oil left over from the fish. After a month of fasting you need a salty meal to encourage you to start drinking water again frequently. The key to everything is how you cook the fish. That’s the secret.

We fry the fish this morning, but we have no bread to eat it with. The electricity is out again. Everything in the fridge has to be thrown out: meat, chicken, even vegetables. My father-in-law agrees to set off on his bike to the bakery in the center of the camp. Luckily it’s open, and he returns, after less than one hour in line, laden with warm loaves.

I want to wash death clean off me, I want to remove any sign that it might leave on my body. I use every type of soap and shampoo I can find, all five of them.

I haven’t drunk cold water for three days. The larger supermarkets have their own generators, but they don’t waste the power on cold drinks. My friend Faraj told me that another friend, Wafi, had brought some ice from relatives living in an area that still had electricity. He gave Faraj some. I asked him if he could spare me some for a glass of water.

Quarrels broke out last night in the market. Displaced persons from Beit Hanoun felt that the shops selling sweets and chocolates were being insensitive. Shouts were heard, punches thrown. No one was badly injured. We managed to separate the aggressors on both sides and get them to explain their position on the matter. We kept repeating a common greeting — “Thank God Eid came while you are safe” — to remind them of how lucky they were.

Tuesday, July 29

To see death — to touch it with still-living flesh, to smell its saliva, to feel it in your hands, around you, on every corner of the street. To witness its brutality, its vulgarity, its mercilessness. To watch as bodies are scattered about in piles in front of you, like discarded exam papers at the end of a school term. One leg here, one arm there, an eye, a severed head, fingers, hair, intestines.

We are having lunch. We have barely started, when the sound of the tanks’ mortars thunders through the house. I jump to the window, convinced that the tank is next door. It’s actually 75 yards away. I catch the flash of a second missile just as it lands and watch the first billows of smoke rising above the rooftops. The targeted house is right beside the mosque my father-in-law has just gone to pray in. I run there, forgetting that the shelling is still going on.

When I get there, the mosque, mysteriously, is closed and appears unscathed. Then, along with everyone else on the street, I turn toward the targeted house. The building has been devastated. Men are already busy collecting pieces of meat that have become separated from the bodies lying all around us. I see scattered organs, severed limbs. I have to pick them up. I touch them. We manage to gather five corpses, place them on sheets and carry them to some of the private cars that have arrived to offer help.

An F-16 comes in close again, booming above us, terrifying us all over again. Several women from the surrounding neighborhood have barely been able to drag their children off the street, after the first attack. Another explosion. It seems the F-16 has come back for more. We run like the wind in the fields. There are about a hundred of us. There are women running alongside me as well as men, holding on to their clothes and their head scarves as they run, running as fast as the rest of us. The kids are crying, trying to keep up with their mothers.

I run into my father-in-law at the end of a narrow street. He is trying to call for more ambulances. I use my phone to call my mother-in-law to reassure her that her husband is safe. The network is busy. Finally, ambulances start to arrive. Someone shouts angrily at one of the drivers that they’re too late. The driver replies that there are targets all over Jabaliya: “We can’t respond to every call at the same time!”

We return to the site of the second attack with the ambulance drivers, and once again offer to help them gather remains. One driver seems to be in charge, and explains that we should leave the scene and let his team do their work alone. The narrow street leading to the new bomb site needs to be cleared of people so ambulances can get down it. We move into the main street, but the alleyway is still too narrow for the larger ambulances to fit.

I open the back and side doors of the ambulance, then return to help carry the stretchers, laden with heaps of torn flesh. Everything merges with everything else. I push my stretcher load deep inside the ambulance.

The long black hair of a woman is carried, all in one clump, with part of her head still attached. The hair is matted with blood like the hide of a sheep when it’s just been skinned. The remains of her body are like pieces of broken glass. We carry the remaining stretchers to the ambulance, heave them inside, and then slam the door shut. We hit the side of the ambulance, and it speeds away. On that stretcher there were two corpses merging into one pile of flesh. My whole body was dripping wet.

I return home. Hanna is frightened when she sees the bloodstain on my white pullover. She checks me all over to make sure it isn’t from some unnoticed injury. She makes me remove my pullover and starts to wash it immediately. She doesn’t want to see a trace of death for a moment longer.

Clouds of thick smoke rise above the eastern edge of the camp, pursued by flames. Strange shapes are cast onto the sky, like the shadows of ghosts, hovering above the camp, waiting, watching.

I take a shower. I wash properly for the first time since the start of the war. I wash every part of my body, every inch. I spend longer than I ever have rubbing the foam of the soap into every corner of my body. I want to wash death clean off me. I want to remove any sign that it might leave on my body. I use every type of soap and shampoo I can find, all five of them. Nobody calls or bangs on the door, wanting to use the bathroom, nobody asks me to finish the longest shower of my life. Nobody complains that this shower might use up the last of the water in the tank.

Wednesday, July 30

Beside me now lies a piece of metal: razor-sharp, a single, twisted edge. It belongs to the rocket that struck the United Nations’ Abu Hussein school this morning, a few yards from my father’s house, killing at least 15 people. The shrapnel sits in front of the school’s door. Violent, even in the way it sits there. When I see it, I flinch, as if it’s about to spring back to life. Carefully, I pick it up, study its horrifying shape. It may have killed someone on its journey, before resting here.
The rooms in the front half of the school look as if they’ve imploded. Five houses opposite the school were completely destroyed. In the first room of the school scores of displaced people had been taking shelter — people who had already escaped death back in Beit Lahiya. Without doubt, like all of us last night, they would have been wide-awake. Like the rest of us they would have been sitting there imagining the rocket was about to hit their room. Everyone expects Death, every night. He’s a visitor who observes no rules, respects no codes of behavior.

Water pipes dangle down from the walls like figures on a gallows. The mattresses that people had been sleeping on look like great sponges, dyed deep red, soaked.

In the morning, Hanna tells me there’s a rumor going around that they’ve hit one of the schools. Her worry is that our friends from Beit Hanoun will have been affected. Mostafa, my second son, thinks it was his school that was hit. He wants to come with me to see his classroom, inspect the damage. I refuse, point-blank. He asks if I can take a photo of his classroom so he can see what’s happened to his desk. I agree to this.

As it turns out the attack was not on Mostafa’s school, but on another, a few blocks away. Great hunks of concrete sit scattered around it when I arrive. Dust covers everything and everyone, making the displaced people still inhabiting it look white-haired and ancient. The water tanks that ought to be up on the roof now squat in the street. Water pipes dangle down from the walls like figures on a gallows. The mattresses that people had been sleeping on look like great sponges, dyed deep red, soaked. Each mattress could just as well be another body part. The cooking pot from which these people had been serving their dinner sits exactly as it was, with good food still in it. But no one will eat from it now.

The pair of shoes in the corner, the blackboard, the huge tree in front of the school, the clothes hanging out to dry in the playground, the benches under the tree, the notice board in the school assembly point, the clay pot in the front room, the blankets, the toilets, the broken tiles, the paintings on the walls of every classroom, the kids’ toys — each and every one of these has the imprint of death on it.

Part of my extended family has taken refuge in this school. I remember this fact only in the middle of wandering through the damage. I have two aunts who live in the very north of Beit Lahiya. Their sons and daughters, and their families in turn, had sought refuge in this school. I ask about them. They are not here. I phone my dad and ask if he has news about them. He informs me that my cousin Fathia’s husband and her son were injured and have been hospitalized. The rest of the relatives have returned to their homes near the border.

Many of the donkeys brought by the refugees were killed by the strike. Half a dozen lie in the road in front of the school. Their stomachs and intestines hang from their bellies. A seventh donkey is still alive, though critically injured.

Diab, my childhood friend, lives across the street from this school. I visit him and find him weeping at the loss of his cousins. I knew his cousins; they were our neighbors. With tears still rolling down his cheeks, Diab takes me to see the three ruined houses.

The fig tree in front of the homes is painted white with dust. Branches lie on the ground with fruit still on them, mocking us. Diab leads me through to a small room, where he clears a path through scattered children’s toys and points to the corner, where a 2-year-old boy was found, still alive. A little girl elsewhere in the house shouts happily that the big clock on the wall is still intact. This old clock hangs on the wall at the end of a very long, thin living room. The girl’s happiness is the only positive moment of the entire day.

The rest of the family has been injured. One boy is still hysterical after seeing the flesh of his father and his uncle, mixed together like meat in a butcher’s shop. They have yet to calm him down.

It is now the morning after perhaps the most difficult night of the war. The sky was lit up all night and the shells never stopped. As usual, it was all so close. As usual, we did not know where each rocket fell, exactly. We simply felt their reverberations and guessed where they might be coming from. My head was on the pillow for hours, but sleep never came.

Shells fell around us, closer and closer. Jaffa woke up at one point, when the explosions were closest. That was when they hit the United Nations school. The light in the sky caught her attention, and she said sleepily, “Papa, light!” and pointed to the sky. She did not know that death was carried in that light.

Now morning is here and everything is different. You see death on the faces of the people in the street. You feel it. This piece of metal — this fragment of a rocket in front of me, that has killed more than 15 innocent people — it reminds me of the light that Jaffa pointed to. It tells me Death is still around us, that it is not satisfied yet.

These diary entries were first published in the New York Times Times on 4 August, 2014.

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