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We Wait Each Night for Death to Knock at the Door by Atef Abu Saif


Second post from our September guest blogger, Gazan author Atef Abu Saif.

© A.M. Qattan Foundation

© A.M. Qattan Foundation


Thursday, 24, July

The worst thing is when you realise you no longer understand what’s going on. Throughout the night, the tanks, drones, F16s and warships haven’t let up for a single minute. The explosions are constant, always sounding like they’re just next door. Sometimes you’re convinced that they’re in your very room, that you’ve finally been hit. Then you realise, another miss. My mobile has run out of battery, so I’m unable to listen to the news. Instead I lie in the dark and guess what’s going on, make up my own analysis.

In time, you start to distinguish between the different types of attack. By far the easiest distinction you learn to make is between an air attack, a tank attack, and an attack from the sea. The shells coming in from the sea are the largest in size, and the boom they make much deeper than anything else you hear. It’s an all-engulfing, all-encompassing kind of sound: you feel like the ground itself is being swallowed up. Tank rockets, by comparison, give off a much hollower sound. Their explosions leave more of an echo in the air, but you don’t feel it so much from beneath. Thirdly, a rocket dropped from an F16 produces an unmistakable, brilliant white light, as well as a long reverberation. A bomb from an F16 makes the whole street dance a little, sway for a good thirty seconds or so. You feel you might need to have to jump out of the window any minute, to escape the collapse. Different to all these, though, is the rocket you get from a drone. This rocket seems to have more personality — it projects a sharp yellow light up into the sky. A few seconds before a drone strike, a bright light spreads over the sky, as if the rocket is telling us: it’s dinner time, time to feast.

These are just impressions, of course. But impressions are what enable you to process the strange array of details you’re given. None of the attributes I’m assigning to these rockets may be true. In reality, I might be exaggerating the differences or imagining them completely. But when you sit each night in your living room waiting for death to not knock at your door, or send you a text message, telling you ‘death’s coming in one minute’s time’, when look for your future in a forest of darkness and see only the giant tree of the unknown, when you are unable to answer the one question your kids need an answer to (‘When is it is going to end, Dad?’), when you struggle to summon the strength you need each day, just to get through that day… in these situations, which are, of course, all the same situation, what else can you do, but form ‘impressions’.

Tonight we spend the whole night, until 5am, surrounded by this orchestra of explosion, trying to make sense of it. At 5:30am my father-in-law comes in from the mosque and shares the news he’s picked up from the people attending the dawn prayer. Six members of the Abu Eitta Family were killed while sleeping, just two hours ago. They had sought safety on the ground floor of the building, thinking that the physics of F16 rocket would agree with their logic. With no warning the rocket converted them into fragments. Elsewhere tanks are now approaching Jabaliya, our district, from the east, a region known as Ezbit Abdrabouh.

The war has divided the Strip into portions, separate courses, if you like, and the Lord of War is eating them one course at a time, savouring each one. When the invasion started three weeks ago, back when it was just air strikes, Ashijaia Quarter became the first course, with more than 120 killed and some 700 injured (a number that changes daily, of course, as more bodies are uncovered, more survivors pulled out of the rubble). After that, the Lord of War moved towards Beit Hanoon, then he ate his fill of Shijaia, then he decided he fancied a different piece of the Gaza-cake. The same sort of massacre took place each time, the same sort of mass exodus, only with different human individuals. Three days ago the focus shifted to Khoza’a, near Khan Younis. Thousands were displaced. Yesterday some 50 people were killed in Khoza’a alone.

Last night the tanks approached Ezbit Abdrabouh, which is just one kilometre from where we’re staying. Tank shells fell around us all day long. Most of the people have already left their homes over there. In the 2008/9 war, a famous massacre was committed in Ezbit Abdrabouh, it has since been acknowledged in the UN’s Goldstone Report. Everything was destroyed. Not a single house survived the destruction. Corpses remained under the rumble for a week.

The night before last, an F16 rocket struck two streets behind us. War teaches you how to adapt to its logic but it doesn’t share its biggest secret, of course: how to survive it. For instance, whenever there’s a war on you have to leave your windows half open, so the pressure from the blasts doesn’t blow them out. To be even safer, you should cover every pane of the window with adhesive tape, so that when it does break, the shards don’t fly indoors, or fall on people in the street below. It goes without saying you should never sleep anywhere near a window. The best place to sleep, people say, is near the stairs, preferably under them. The shell that fell two nights ago landed 150 metres away. The first thing you do in the seconds afterwards, once you’ve checked on your loved ones, is inspect the damage. Usually it’s just windows and doors. This shell, it turned out, landed smack in the middle of the Jabaliya cemetery. The dead do not fight wars, by and large, they’re too busy being dead, but on this occasion they were forced to participate in the suffering of the living. The next morning dirty, grey bones lay scattered about the broken gravestones. At the moment of impact, these old corpses must have flown upwards, into the air. I think about this moment. I wonder what might have happened to the spirits of these corpses in that split-second of flight, what they must have made of the living occupants of Gaza, sitting patiently in their living rooms, praying for survival.

Yesterday most of the talk in the street was about this miracle of survival. When everything is destroyed and everyone else is dead, you become a miracle you don’t quite understand. Everyone is talking about the five-month-old girl who survived a massacre that took everyone else in her family. This tiny baby was lying in a cradle. The masonry fell in a pyramid shape around her, protecting her. She made it by sheer chance. Yesterday, six days after the attack on Al Shijaia, rescue workers found a man still alive under the concrete – six days! Another little girl who survived, while her mother and brothers perished, was asked by a local TV presenter where her family was. ‘They’ve gone to be martyrs,’ she replied. She thinks that being a martyr is somewhere you go for a while, like a holiday. She went on to explain that she’s waiting for them to come back from ‘martyrdom’.

Some people will inevitably call these the miracles of Ramadan. It is believed that in Ramadan there is one particular night, within the last 10 days of the month, that is holier than all the others. It is the night that Gabriel conveyed the Koran to Mohammed. So I can hear my mother-in-law already: insisting all these incidents are the miracles of that night.

This Ramadan is different though. The spirit of the month has not once been felt. The sense of communion is gone, the fasting feels hollow. All the little details of the month have disappeared under the cacophony of war. The beautiful strains of the Musaharatti (the man who wakes us just before dawn for the sohor, the first meal) – he will play his drum as elegantly as always, singing the verses that call each and every member of the neighbourhood by name (including the children), but his songs won’t sound the same this year. My daughter, Jaffa, won’t enjoy hearing her name on the Musaharatti’s wake-up list.

I’ve just returned from the souk. It doesn’t look much like a souk this morning. Only a few shops and stalls are open, a few uninspiring vegetables. The cucumbers are pale, the tomatoes dry, the potatoes small and slightly putrid; the radishes have long since lost their lustre. I spent half an hour trying to find something good in all this. Most of the farmers have abandoned their fields. The vegetables left unpicked. The farmers are now all in the UNRWA school turned refugee centres, along with everyone else. The fields are empty. Only when someone is prepared to sneak back, to risk never coming back, will new produce reach the souk. The prices have risen on every stall, in some cases by as much as 1000%. Then I see something I don’t expect: a handful of young mothers are dragging their kids, unwillingly, into a clothes shop, as if it’s the start of a new school year. Many of the displaced people now living in the schools-turned-camps brought nothing with them, so after ten days into wearing the same dirty clothes, the women have decided to take action: their kids will have new clothes. Life must go on.

This diary entry was first published in the Sunday Times on 27 July, 2014.

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