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Published: Tue Dec 19 2023
Fadia Haddad Jawdat, Where Oh Where . . . (detail), 2023, acrylic, paper, and debris ©2023 Fadia Haddad Jowdat
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Dispatches from Palestine

In its fifty years AGNI has worked to “bring our readers into the living moment, not as tourists, but as engaged participants.” As we expressed in Against Silence: A Collective Statement toward Peace, we believe that all who bear witness to the ongoing violence in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, including Palestinians under siege and in diaspora as well as Israelis and diaspora Jews intent on peace, need space to speak. AGNI’s Dispatches from Palestine offers a home for such reflections. “Our poets, storytellers, essayists, translators, and artists . . . not only reflect our age, they respond.”

The authors below:

  
Haya Abu Nasser, an NGO fundraising officer and writer from Gaza, Palestine
December 2, 2023, writing from Khan Younis in Gaza
Echoes of Survival: Navigating Tragedy, Hope, and Death’s Dance in Gaza

By the shoreline, the wild winds gently tousled my hair, a tender acknowledgement of nature’s gifts. Clad in a resilient coat, I fixed on the horizon, where the sky and waves danced together endlessly.

The ceasefire beguiled us into trusting the promises of peace and civilian safety. Then the brief truce shattered, hope crumbled, and the sea lost its lustre. No invigorating mist, no whimsical sparrows.

Picture the scene: on pristine white paper, an address revealing how I cheated death twice! Death was once a philosophical quandary, an exquisite debate over coffee in a cosy café. That illusion disintegrated one night as I slept safely in my room, unaware of the impending upheaval. Leaflets from the Israeli military, warning us to evacuate our northern abodes, reached us ten days before the ground operation in the Gaza Strip commenced. Rockets barraged our street, echoes of fire and shouts filled the air. In shock, we left our house, locked the doors, and stole a final glance at our cherished garden and the laughter-filled fountain.

With unsteady legs and hazy eyes, we sought refuge in Al-Nusirate, at my uncle's house. Israeli bombings claimed over thirty lives. Streets were painted red with blood, a grim spectacle of scattered bodies and demolished homes. Our uncle's residence stood partially destroyed, rendering us homeless once again. So we embarked for Khan Younis, further south, seeking sanctuary amid the chaos.

The UNRWA Training Center, once a haven for 30,000 souls, now draped us in desolation. Thin tents shielded us from the elements, yet with the scarcity of food and water, and the pollution, sick children with pale faces suffered from malnutrition, cold, and food poisoning. Here, in this stark reality, I learned that death, an unwavering companion, was a relentless force.

Nights unfolded like chapters of despair, the sky ablaze with missile trails, smoke rising repetitively. The distant sea transformed into a mere shadow of our former dreams—a place where joy and contentment once danced. In the tent, amidst jesting, I bemoaned, “I miss the sea!” A chorus of mockery and despair followed, yet my younger brother, in solemn reflection, whispered, “I miss my room,” plunging us into a silence laden with unspoken grief. The humiliation was unprecedented—scrounging for plastic to shield against rain, fighting for meagre rations of wheat. Our displaced existence forged new routines within the UNRWA warehouse.

After forty-eight days of relentless assault, displacement, and tearful farewells, whispers of a truce circulated, and a flicker of hope ignited News updates. Each name on the death list left us breathless, and we searched for familiar faces. I mourned two friends, their sacrifices shrouded in unknown valour. Amid radio discussions of truce negotiations, I grappled with the incomprehensible reality of my friend’s death. Even now, mentioning him feels like reaching for a phone that will never ring.

I was unable to lay lilacs on my friend’s grave. The memories of our friendship slipped away as our land turned blue, leaving us like sparrows without a nest, yearning for a breeze to alleviate the pain. In this besieged place, hope became my anchor, a steadfast belief in imminent rescue.

The night they announced the truce, after ten days of oscillating emotions in Khan Younis, the world deemed us—the innocent, ensnared in the weight of their decisions—deserving of a brief respite from death. During the truce, I revisited the remnants of my friend’s displaced existence, sharing tales of lost homes, lands, and futures. Each embrace felt like a farewell, moments spent by the sea lamenting our uncertain survival.

I spent many hours by the Sealet, its waves caressing my hands and legs. I witnessed the military naval force harassing fishermen. Despite warnings, they persisted, back and forth, a testament to our collective resilience. “We are surviving!” I declared, envisioning this as the foundation for rebuilding our city.

On the seventh night, as the truce expired, our last hope dissipated. Trapped in internal conflict, we debated whether to follow orders and move to Rafah, fearing a recurrence of past traumas. Tanks surrounded the city, only a mere ten-minute walk away from us, and each missile sound amplified the dread that our turn was imminent. In the hall between Gaza and the sky, we contemplated the short journey, unsure if we’d witness the morning. The smell of gunpowder signaled impending danger. As I pen these words, with tanks closing in and fear enveloping us, we are trapped. We await our fate in this fragile shelter, where death is not a distant companion but an imminent presence.

  
Ali Alalem, PhD student from Gaza at the University of Alabama
December 8, 2023, writing from Alabama
Split Between Two Worlds: Living the War from a Distance

It never occurred to me there would come a day when my mother would have to use a donkey-drawn cart to go on a perilous shopping trip with the ultimate goal of securing a few tuna and beans cans to feed an entire family. Nor have I ever fantasized that my sister, who occupies a senior position at an international organization, would have to build a cooking fire and smell like burned wood for months just to bake a few loaves of bread to slice into quarters and feed eighteen souls trapped in one room. As in ancient times, men hunt for resources outside home, some of them, including my eldest brother and brother-in-law, waiting in a line, sometimes for twelve hours, to get a sack of flour distributed by the United Nations, while the younger lads embark on a strenuous journey to search for water to fill a few bottles. They often come back empty-handed, except for accounts of horrific spectacles of dead bodies or sudden bombings they have encountered on their way.

I heard about these survival skills my family have developed when I chanced to have a blurry video call with them for a few minutes in early December. To see their faces again was a blessing, and to know that they were still breathing brought me relief. But the misery, panic, and impotence in their faces shattered my heart. It was as if they had grown hundreds of years older just in two months. It is not just their displacement from Gaza City to the South that has hurt them but the humiliation and overwhelming feeling of worthlessness that has accompanied it. My soul crumbled when I sensed their surrender to death, especially when my brother said, “We bid farewell to each other before we sleep, expecting not to wake up the next day, and we sleep huddled together so that we could die all together with no one having to grieve another.”

Like them, I am living death, but a different sort of death that I experience solitarily and silently, with no one to huddle with nor bid farewell to. It is that sort of death that I constantly evade by miraculously reconnecting my mind to my body and escaping that fleeting moment of disconnection with place. Having survived five wars in Gaza before moving to the United States, I still have not recovered from the trauma, nor have I forgotten the buzzing of drones, the roar of warplanes, the cacophony of explosions, the wailing of ambulance sirens, and the screams and cries that follow. I am living the current horrors in my mind as if I were there, which causes me at certain moments to subconsciously disconnect with place. The aggression on Gaza coincided the peak of the football season in Alabama, where I reside, and it is customary to hear the roar of four fighter jets that soar above the stadium to signal the start of Alabama game, the start of fun, but for me, it is reminiscent of terror and death. That roar spirals me into a paralyzing bout of latent panic that tasers my perception, and, for a second, I anticipate hearing the subsequent deafening blast and feeling the tremble of the ground. Roars of any kind, sirens and buzzing of any sort, bangs of any magnitude, be they fireworks or the accidental falls of objects, toss me across space and time into Gaza. It is often a few seconds until my eyes perceive the foreign details of my surrounding and convince my mind to return to reality.

It is a reality fraught with guilt that penetrates my soul with each sip of water I drink, knowing that the same is not available for so many people; with each meal that fills my stomach while many have not tasted real food for months; with the warm shower I take while an entire population must line up for hours just to use rest rooms in displacement camps, rest rooms that have become incubators for communicable diseases. It is a reality that makes me dread scrolling through social media due to the fear of coming across posts and photos mourning the slaughter of individuals dear to me—family members, former students, neighbors, relatives, and friends, many of whom I have already lost. It is a reality that splits me into two halves, one that hides a world of sorrow and resentment but must remain composed in front of students who might not even be acquainted with where or what Palestine is, and another that is deeply rooted in Gaza and wishes to fly there in no time to live grievously or die with those with whom my spirit is attached.

It might sound insane to hope for a similar destiny, but living the genocide up close is less painful than being tormented by dissociative feelings that detach me from my surroundings and body with each sound that evokes war memories and past traumas. Living the struggle with them would reconcile the guilt-induced clutter in my head that renders routine comforts as an act of betrayal. It would spare me from putting on a façade and having to act normally while my people are being exterminated and starved to death. It might put an end to my anticipation of mourning posts of my beloved ones, knowing that an equal fate is awaiting me. I prefer to die in a huddle, embraced by hugs rather than to perish from grief in a foreign land.

  
Najlaa Attallah, an architect living in Reykjavíc, Iceland
December 13, 2023
Where should we go, then?
Translated from the Arabic by
Andrew Leber

Every time I speak with my father, mother, or either of my brothers, I naively ask: “Don’t you want to leave?”

Each replies in their own specific way, but all with a slight note of reproach in their voice: “Where should we go, then?”

And sometimes, with a tenderness only I would notice: “Where should we go, then, sister?”

And other times, especially from my little brother (who in reality isn’t so little anymore): “Tell us, where should we go?”

I surround them with suggestions, but they shut down every one with the reality I know all too well. All of Gaza is just a single small neighborhood, and no matter where you go only one thing surrounds you: a thing called death.

Yet I keep on asking the question. Maybe I’m just trying to console myself, or to save face. Here I am, writing, blessed in a way millions aren’t, enjoying what my brothers and the closest people in the world to me—my mother and father—can’t.

Right away, anybody who knows that my roots go back to Gaza must think that fortune has smiled on me, letting me leave there safely. They must think that I’ve been showered with blessings, the kind sought by two million others besieged from every which way by a thing called death.

Here I am, then: living in a country without an army, nor the slightest sign of a military. It’s a country that’s often considered one of the safest in the world. I live here, where my children enjoy luxuries I could never have dreamed of: water pure and sweet, electricity that never goes out, a house always warm. On top of all that, an available supply of food. This country—much as I might have complained about the harshness of the cold, or the shortcomings of its cuisine—now seems like a blessing, a wonder that two million will never experience.

The reality is that I, a princess in the land of snow and ice, am drowning in a sea of crushing guilt, with no way of escaping. The guilt follows me every second of every day. Food has lost its taste, as has life in general.The flavor drains away with every blow that strikes the land of my home city—and everybody atop that land, from children and women to men and the elderly, and above all the mother and father who brought me into this world.

I ask them again at the first brief truce, “Aren’t you thinking about evacuating to the south?”

Didn’t I say I was trying to save face? Yet I must be deluding myself, since I know better than anybody that a “safe place” is an illusion in Gaza. It doesn’t take long before the reply crashes against my fortifications: “Where should we go, then?”

This question, in our colloquial dialect, reflects more clearly than any other word or phrase the feeling nestled inside of us. The words can barely hold back humiliation, our oppression and pain.

This pain lives in the deepest depths of the heart, and it doesn’t lessen with crying or screaming. This pain makes you feel powerless, a powerlessness that seems to kill you yet leaves you standing, a physical being on this ugly earth. You go on living in spite of yourself, as everyone you know dies one after the other. . .

I fall silent for a while. I follow the news headlines and notifications, feeling guilt and shame with every beep or buzz. I can’t help but be selfish while scrolling. I don’t want one of my loved ones to be the next news story. Nor do I want anybody who I know full well has a life, a story, to wind up as a number—I don’t want that for anybody. I don’t know most of them, but I consider everyone in Gaza a loved one.

The more I scroll through the breaking news, the more my heart pounds as it sinks deeper into the earth. Worse than the pounding and the terror is not knowing how to bear all of this pain. How do they continue living, with death passing their door and not knocking, not yet?

It’s as if by asking them this question—if they will stay or evacuate—I am trying to heal the powerlessness that paralyzes me. How can I live my comfortable life when two million don’t have a single square meter where they can be safe?

  
Mohammad Abuajwa, English teacher and fiction writer
January 3, 2024, writing from Deir Al-Balah in Gaza
30 Minutes

In Gaza, a lot can happen in 30 minutes. You can go to the beach and back, you can go buy ice cream and eat it. You can visit your relatives living ten minutes away by car. You can run an important errand. You can restock your fridge. You can even cheat death itself.

On the day I learned this, there were no birds chirping. Only the constant, strident buzzing of a drone overhead. It was enough to pierce walls made of stone and ceilings made of iron and it hadn’t stopped for the last ninety days and nights. I hear it before I close my eyes, in my dreams, and when I wake in the cold morning.

That day, I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. I went to see my family. They are taking refuge at my uncle’s home in Deir Al-Balah, which is a 10-minute walk from my place, my sister’s. On the way, the streets are almost always bustling with people. Merchants haggling, refugees setting up tents or sitting on the side of the road, old men shouting at donkeys pulling carts and causing unnecessary traffic. People are packed so densely that you can barely find ground to stand on, and if you do, it will be filled with cold sludge, two inches deep. The people on the streets come from everywhere, Deir Al-Balah, Gaza City, Jabalia, Beit Lahia, Burij, Musaddar, and Nusirat, so you are bound to find a familiar face or two on every errand you run.

After making my way through the crowd, I finally reached my uncle’s home. It is a thing of beauty, a bright example of what a suburban house in Gaza looks like. A one-story abode in the middle of a spacious piece of land where chickens and children run freely, and since these trying times began, a place that also brings people together. Currently the humble home housed around thirty people. All of them were busy with a task: someone lit the fire and maintained it, others were preparing the food, some were washing their clothes, and others had just left to run some errands in the main city square of Deir Al-Balah, an Arabic name that translates to “The Palm Monastery.”

My parents were fine. They were relaxing in the sun, and I joined them quickly after I arrived. It was relaxing and sleep-inducing. Yet, I didn’t stay for long, for I had an appointment with a friend of mine, Iyad, which I had postponed for far too long.

Having checked on my parents, I made my way back to my sister’s place. I texted my friend that I would be coming. He didn’t reply. So I asked my sister to point me in the direction of a street that would save me from the long trip on a longer road. She said I should take Abu Uraif. I had to say the name a few times in order to memorize it, but then I did.

I walked through the alley-like street, made of cobblestone and wet with rain. I turned right then left through a zig-zag to find a longer path ahead of me, and I could see clearly that it led to where I needed to go.

I exited Abu Uraif, and then quickly found Iyad’s place. Well, it wasn’t really his place. He had left Gaza City with his family just like me and stayed with our mutual friend, Karam, who was kind enough to take them in.

I knocked on the door, and a moment later I was hugging Iyad. Karam was out on an errand. I sat down with Iyad and we waited for Karam to arrive. Five minutes passed. Then a rocket shook the earth.

I was startled. The smoke cloud came from the direction of my sister’s home. We thought it was a warning shot, that a rocket would soon come and uproot the entire building from its foundations. My heart sank. The strong wind carried the smoke towards us and it reeked of gunpowder, cement, and blood, a smell that I have grown too familiar with over the past ninety days.

Iyad and I sat down, calming ourselves after the dark thoughts came and went. Then Karam arrived. He told us that Abu Uraif had been bombed. I tilted my head, not understanding exactly where the bomb had fallen. On an extension of the street? Or did it fall close to it? I didn’t know.

Darkness was rapidly approaching, so I had to take my leave, promising Iyad and Karam that I would come earlier next time. Iyad told me not to take Abu Uraif on my way home. I frowned, then nodded.

I took the long path, away from Abu Uraif and away from the bombing. I walked down the middle of the street. There were no cars and someone on the side of the road said that ten people had been killed. I heard him but when I reached the street’s opening, I found myself drawn to it. I had to see what had happened on the street from whence I came.

I walked by a fire truck, and realized that the reports must be true. I kept walking and then I found it: a two-story home I hadn’t noticed when I walked through the street the first time. The pillars were fine, but the walls were shattered. People had gathered around and others were inside trying to look for survivors. Two journalists were taking eyewitness reports from those who saw the whole thing unfold.

Darkness was thickening. I could see only the front of the house, and I tried to glance at the back but to no avail. A man jumped off his bicycle, and ran right into the house after tossing his ride aside. I figured that this was his house, and that he had been out running an errand of some sort. I looked down, and I understood where the smell of blood came from. The bodies had been taken, but their blood remained on the ground, mixing with dirt and rain water.

Shocked, I made my way back to my sister’s. I looked down at my watch. The time between when my sister had told me about Abu Uraif street and the moment of the bombing was thirty minutes, give or take. My whole destiny was determined when my sister told me about Abu Uraif.

The realization touched me with a cold hand, reminding me to tread more carefully next time, to pay attention to my surroundings, the sounds and movements and everything else. It was as if Death was whispering in my ear, “Today, you cheated me by thirty minutes.”

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Mosab Abu Toha & Friends
January 6, 2024
A Reading for the Edward Said Libraries in Gaza

Over twenty writers—including AGNI contributors Kaveh Akbar, Peter Balakian, Nick Flynn, Fanny Howe, Ha Jin, Eileen Myles, and Lloyd Schwartz—participated in a fundraiser reading for the Edward Said Libraries in Gaza, organized by Brookline Booksmith, AGNI’s founding editor, Askold Melnyczuk, and AGNI’s senior editor, Shuchi Saraswat. Over 2500 people attended the virtual event. As of January 28th, the bookstore has collected nearly $30,000 in donations.

Readings in order of presentation:
  • Askold Melnyczuk read “The Season of Phantasmal Peace” by Derek Walcott
  • Kaveh Akbar read “Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower” by Taha Muhammad Ali
  • Rabih Alameddine read “Travel Tickets” by Samih al-Qasim
  • Carolyn Forché read “Palestine” and “Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish
  • Ammiel Alcalay read unpublished recent translations of poems by Nasser Rabah
  • Hala Alyan read an unnamed and unpublished poem, her own work
  • Peter Balakian read “Fig,” his own work
  • Fatima Bhutto read “I Grant You Refuge” by Hiba Abu Nada
  • Leila Farsakh read extracts from “State of Siege” by Mahmoud Darwish, trans. Fady Joudah
  • Nick Flynn read his distilled version of “Vala, Dream Two” by William Blake
  • John Freeman read “The Three Cypress Trees” by Mourid Barghouti
  • Ru Freeman read “30 Against War” from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, trans. Ursula K. Le Guin; “The Quiet World” by Jeffrey McDaniel; “To Do List,” her own work
  • Damian Gorman read “Stop” and “A Soldier Enters a Silenced Home,” his own work
  • Fanny Howe read from A Wall of Two by Ilona Karmel, trans. Fanny Howe
  • Ha Jin read “Broken Boat,” by Du Fu (also known as Tu Fu), trans. Ha Jin
  • Canisia Lubrin read “A Poem” by Es’kia Mphahlele
  • Eileen Myles read an excerpt from unpublished poem “THEM (Palestinian),” their own work
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen read “Also the House” by Ghassan Zaqtan
  • Lloyd Schwartz read “Fish” by Viktor Neborak and “The Gardener’s Song” or “I’ll Be a Gardener” by Attila Jozsef, both trans. Lloyd Schwartz
  • Bruce Smith read “Shrapnel Looking for Laughter” by Mosab Abu Toha
  • Shuchi Saraswat read an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”
  • Mosab Abu Toha read “What is Home?”, “Younger Than War,” an unpublished poem composed 1/6/2023, and “أحداث معلقة”, all his own work.

  
Mohammad Abuajwa, English teacher and fiction writer
January 12, 2024, writing from Deir Al-Balah in Gaza
Third Time

My family survived three different bombings in three different areas in the Gaza Strip, and none of them was hurt. Thank God. Here’s how it went.

The first escape happened ten days into the ravaging war. I was sitting with my father and our neighbor at our front door in the early morning. We sat in the shade of a wall, away from the warm touch of fresh sun. The cold chill was aggressive. I had brought coffee for my father and our neighbor as they talked about the escalating situation in Gaza. I listened to them, squatting next to my father’s chair, finding joy in their sweet company and humor.

Then a deafening explosion shook the drowsy earth, shook our souls. We huddled against the wall, covering one another with our hands until the explosion echoed to a halt. We thought the bombing was in a nearby block, but that wasn’t the case. The explosion was too powerful. In fact, more powerful than anything we heard and felt before. It was in the house just steps from our own.

Smoke began to spread. We peeked around the corner. Rubble on the ground, men and women screaming. I gathered myself and bolted indoors to find my mother and siblings. They were terrified, but fine. The doors were snapped free from their hinges, the windows were shattered, and chaos shouted violently.

Quickly afterward, we gathered everything we could think of at the time, food, clothes, phones and chargers, which still wasn’t enough as we found out later. That was the day we left for Deir Al-Balah.

Fast forward to nine days later, amidst comfort, warmth, and closeness to other family members in the home of sister Merna, where the second bombing shook our very bones.

Dawn had not even broken. I was half asleep on the couch, wrapped in a thin blanket. People shuffling close to me in the dark were performing Al-Fajr prayer. Then the ground shook, the wood frames of the doors were ripped in half, the windows shattered, and hot smoke burst into the house. Our women and children screamed, and I kicked the covers, shouting the name of God without even thinking. I grabbed my backpack and rushed to the room where Noha, one of my sisters, slept with her husband and children. They were safe, but they were horrified. Everyone was screaming for Merna, the one who took us in after we left our home. My father turned on his flashlight in the smoke and walked to Merna’s room. Part of him had hope, the other part wanted to dig a hole.

The hopeful part was triumphant. Merna emerged out of the slowly dissipating smoke, carrying her year-old child in her arms. My father breathed easy as he got her children out into the open garden, followed by the rest of the house’s occupants.

When the light of dawn broke the cold and unfeeling night, we saw the damage. Just as before, the house next to us had been bombed. Three stories of rock and cement were leveled to the soil beneath the foundations. Merna’s home sustained damage, but at that time, it seemed like nothing. We huddled on the grass, several meters from the bomb site. Someone, and maybe it was me, with my awfully placed sense of humor, said: “Third time’s the charm.”

Time passed, sixty days to be exact. I had to separate from my family because they wanted to stay with my uncle. Thankfully, he was only a ten-minute walk away.

One day, while I was sitting in front of the TV, watching depressing news as I did every day, a headline made me frown. A home in the vicinity of Shuhada Al-Aqsa Hospital had been bombed. My heart jumped a beat. Was it my uncle’s home, near that same hospital?

I shrugged this thought away. How likely was it that I would find out through a headline that my family, my mother, father, and little brother, had been bombed? No, I couldn’t imagine it, but still I sat uneasy for a little. Then my younger sister came in with a phone to her head. The house next to my family had been bombed, again.

I rushed there with my other brother, Arkan. When we saw smoke rising from the direction of my uncle’s house, we started running even faster.

When I burst through the front door, everyone was sitting on their chairs in a circle. “Salam!” I said, and my parents returned my gaze. My little brother, Rayan, who was running after the chickens, dashed to me for a hug. I smiled faintly.

“I guess this means that you are through with bombings,” I said to my parents. “This is the third time, and you’re still alive!”

My mother laughed, my father didn’t reply, and everyone else continued talking.

Not long after, my brother and I left; we did not want to break my sister’s curfew. We walked the darkening but busy streets. Then I had a grim notion that I wanted to believe in so badly. If the third time isn’t always the charm, then my family should be safe. But will the same be true for me when my third time comes?

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Rahaf R. Abuzarifa, writer
January 9, 2024, writing from Cairo, Egypt
In the Shadow of That Night

Having stepped beyond Gaza’s borders, I’m compelled to narrate the haunting tale of a night that unfolded months ago, on the 9th of October, when the war unleashed its relentless fury upon us, marking the day we saw death sixty-four times. Abassan—a once calm, rural haven—was marred by chaos. Amid the shattered glass windows, our collapsed kitchen roof, and the second floor strewn with debris, I sought solace in a hobby of mine—vlogging—to document the challenges we faced. We laughed into the lens, and I asked my family members for their last messages in case we succumbed that night. Survival was uncertain, and laughter merely masked our fear. I wondered if that night was the pinnacle of horror or merely a precursor of more terrifying nights to come.

That night, the relentless “fire belt” bombing spanned six agonizing hours, signaling a plan for complete annihilation. I reflexively covered my little brother’s ears in response to each new airstrike. The sky glowed crimson, the air reeked of gunpowder, and our once-peaceful haven was now enveloped in smoke, which shrouded everything, an ominous specter of devastation that left us disoriented and clueless.

At 4 a.m., it seemed as though the onslaught had ceased. Despite the lull, the fear of losing someone lingered, preventing us from shutting our eyes. My stomach churned, and my heart felt displaced, as if my insides had shifted. I hesitated to even go to the bathroom, paralyzed by a lack of courage.

Suddenly, my mom sprinted to the bathroom sink, succumbing to fear-induced nausea. I went to check on her and was met with an unexpected sight through the bathroom window: a sky of orange hues. A sense of impending doom washed over us. I shouted for everyone to take cover, and in an instant, the entire house quivered from its foundation to its peak; a gust of wind followed, and a resounding blast. Words fall short in conveying the magnitude of that moment.

Sixteen consecutive airstrikes echoed, each one intensifying our confrontation with death. A lingering sense that this might be our final gathering hung in the air. We dialed everyone we knew. Seven more airstrikes followed and an abrupt disconnection of the line extinguished any hope of communication.

I had been filming the night, and I kept the camera rolling, documenting every moment in case the worst happened. My earnest desire was to unveil the inhumane reality we endured, a reality no human should be subjected to. Throughout the night, darkness enveloped us, amplifying our apprehensions—we avoided light for fear of attracting the drones that were buzzing all night, a chilling addition to our already profound fear of losing sight of each other in the obscurity.

At 5:30 a.m., the strikes began again without respite. My cousin called and informed us that as soon as the sun rose, people in the vicinity would evacuate. Despite our reluctance to step into a world rained upon by death, the urgency to move prevailed—we couldn’t stay put, otherwise death would find us.

As we took turns praying Fajr, the idea of venturing out weighed on our minds, especially with the damaged state of our house and the exodus of people all around. While we waited for the sun to rise, we huddled together, covering our ears to shield ourselves from the bombs, sharing stories of my little brother’s bravery during the night, discussing which kinds of simple meals might bring comfort to the frightened children in our midst.

Out of the blue, my cousin called, shouting that the Red Cross would arrive in just fifteen minutes. “Get out and run,” he urged, though outside, bombings continued unabated. Stunned, I asked “How on Earth are we supposed to move?” Dad grappled with the weight of responsibility, gathered his resolve, and encouraged us. “Let’s believe everything will be all right. Everyone, grab your bags, and let’s go now.”

My uncles lived in the same neighborhood but hadn’t yet emerged. As we discussed whether to retrieve them, a nearby explosion thwarted our conversation. In haste, I ushered my younger brother and sister to seek shelter, crouching in the open with our hands behind our necks. I prayed and pleaded for everyone’s safety. Eventually we reached the main street where many people—kids, men, women, and the elderly—were in the process of evacuating.

We called everyone we knew, but we lost service before we were able to reach anyone. It was now six a.m. Picture walking in the early morning after a night without sleep, in a terrifying environment, lugging a heavy backpack and a mini suitcase. They had been packed in case of emergency, and contained a change of clothes, daily necessities, and a book to read—a choice that now seemed impractical. The wheels of our luggage were jammed with shrapnel and the streets were dotted with fires everywhere. It was disheartening to realize this was once my hometown. We walked on aimlessly, unsure of our destination or the whereabouts of anyone we knew.

Mom finally had reception and called a relative with a car, and asked him to meet us at the intersection point of Bani-Suhaila. I wanted to give up, my legs exhausted from two hours of continuous walking. That’s when a child ran past, their leg in a cast. Seeing them propelled me to continue. We passed a bakery selling bread, and we bought some, uncertain if we’d find any later. Finally, we hopped into my relative’s car. I don’t know how it accommodated all seven of us and our luggage, but it did. We decided to head to my grandpa’s friend in Khanyounis, and called them so we wouldn’t arrive unannounced. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach them by phone, but when we arrived, they offered us a warm and welcoming refuge in their house.

We shared their two-room space—my family of seven and their family of six. Deprived of internet, electricity, and water, what kept me going was the realization that our situation, though challenging, was comparatively better than those enduring life in schools and on the streets. Later we received news of the bombing at Rafah border, where aid was intended for Gaza. Uncertainty clouded our thoughts, leaving us clueless about what lay ahead.

I never envisioned that this ordeal would extend to today, but here we are, survivors determined to endure. Our faith in life and the world has been shattered, but in the midst of broken faith, we find strength to rebuild, to forge ahead with the belief that there is a brighter tomorrow waiting beyond the shadows of betrayal.

  
Ru Freeman, writer
February 22, 2024, writing from an undisclosed location
How Far Are You from Gaza?

A few days ago, I shared a series of photographs of Gaza from before the latest bombing and after it. I came across the sequence on the Instagram page of a young filmmaker from Gaza, who uses the handle @Wizard_Bisan1 (for her English-speaking audience), and @Wizard_Bisan2 (for those who speak Arabic). Someone reshared my post on another social media platform. In commenting I almost typed out not only what I felt—my visceral sense of outrage at the fresh destruction of a city that glowed despite the struggle of a 75-year-old occupation and now an almost 18-year continuous siege—but also a further, less noble observation. I wanted to say that I’d never been to Gaza, I had only been to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the West Bank. To Jerusalem and Ramallah and Hebron, to Nablus and Haifa. But not Gaza.

I deleted my comment, understanding it for what it was: a setting down of authority. I had not been to Gaza but I’d been closer than most. I wanted to claim, perhaps, some more pressing validity to my concern. As though Gaza belonged more to me than to others. As though writing about Palestine for decades, as I’ve done, makes me less complicit in the use of my taxes to purchase the bombs that are destroying it before my eyes.

It does not.

The distance between Gaza and New York City is 4,940 nautical miles. But the distance between the indigenous people of Palestine and New Yorkers, or anyone anywhere in the world, is the breadth of an eyelash moving to the beat of our hearts. I did not have to walk the streets of Palestine, I did not have to share fresh-made hummus and falafel with young Palestinian undergraduates, I did not have to watch the feet of Palestinian children stamp the story of their country into the earth with the intricacies of the dabkeh, I did not have to constrict with fury at checkpoints or laugh among Palestinian women and men to understand that they were my friends. I did not need any of it to tell me that they must alternately give thanks for and rebel against family as I do. That they must love some and loathe others as I do. That they must be predisposed to joy and silliness even when, or perhaps precisely when, they are confronted with vilification, exactly as I do.

The barbaric occupation of Palestine has no claim to the pursuit of any kind of justice, but every claim to the perpetuation of a weaponized world whose headquarters include those in the U.S., Germany, and Israel, among others, and all of whom spearhead the production, sale and purchase of weapons of mass destruction. Understanding this required nothing more than looking. All I had to do to know what was happening in Palestine was to arrive in America. For there is no de-linking these two places. There is no de-linking the manufacture of weapons and the narratives that permit the use of those weapons against the innocent.

I arrived in America. My heart broke for Occupied Palestine. For Palestine is America’s legacy. And there is no travel required to know that truth. Kwame Dawes once said, and I paraphrase, that not being able to write from the perspective of someone utterly outside your own demographic or experience is a failure of the imagination. Why then have so few writers spoken publicly and insistently and without equivocation about the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the escalation of violence against Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank? There are some. Viet Thanh Nguyễn comes to mind. Dan Sheehan. Joe Sacco. Paisley Rekdal.

I think now about Rekdal’s book examining appropriation. A quintessentially American practice (and nicely tied to capitalism, as she points out). Which brings us full circle. Appropriation has been the go-to move for so many, within and outside the literary world. The winning play to claim everything from histories and origins and cultural practices to recipes and verbal tics belonging to others, as their own. Appropriation-of is different from identification-with, but the former requires a certain degree of the latter, an admiration or sympathy for, at the very least. Why then has there been no rush until now to identify with the struggle and suffering of Palestinians? Surely, if whiteness can be scrubbed off by a little 23andMe voodoo, the guilt of turning a blind eye to Israel’s brutality by permitting AIPAC’s warping, unquestioningly pro-Israel influence on American elections could be assuaged by a little solidarity with Palestine, yes?

But no. It has taken social media and almost 30,000 Palestinians deaths for us to see what we see today, for what we are—still—glad to see today. People in the streets, at council meetings, around the White House, at every political gathering from Boston to Seattle. People who are being zip-tied and jailed in the streets, and sprayed with a biological weapon developed by the Israeli weapons company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. People, in other words, finally je suis Palestine’ing like their lives depended on it. People realizing, at last, that their lives do.

Because while its citizens are speaking out, people of Palestinian heritage in the United States are being stabbed and murdered in American towns. Because out of eight ivy league universities, two presidents, Harvard’s and UPenn’s, were forced to resign not because they were full of hatred for Jewish people, but because they were deemed too sympathetic to freedom of speech, an association now treated as antithetical to the matter of running a university. Because while 300,000 people surrounded the White House, America’s president approved a further fourteen billion dollars for Israel to continue its massacre in Gaza. Because while the highest court in the world ruled that Israel must, in effect, cease its attacks on Gaza, Israel continues to bomb an area no longer than the drive from Northampton to Springfield, Massachusetts. Because there is now only we the people left to defend our collective humanity, and we are running out of time.

How safe do we consider ourselves to be?

How far is Palestine from you? Open and shut your eyes. Open them again. Listen to your heart.

  
Basel Joudah, writer and translator
February 14, 2024, writing from Deir al Balah in Gaza
How can a person die while he is alive?

A person’s death is not limited to the moment his heart stops. He can live and die every day. A person dies when he does not find a shelter. He was displaced and left his home and money behind him and went to live a miserable life with people he may never have known before. Perhaps he could set up his own tent on land wet with sewage and rainwater, or perhaps his circumstances pushed him to live in one of those schools that later became a shelter for displaced people. Those schools that have always been a symbol of culture, knowledge, and science, now places inhabited by more than 30,000 displaced people, where the deadliest epidemics and diseases and pollution are rampant. They go out in the morning, heading to the sea to wash worn-out clothes or what remains of them as a result of their repeated displacement from one impromptu camp to another.

A person dies, too, when he loses the one he cherishes. His life becomes useless, but he puts his hands together and tells himself to continue his life and move forward. He is very patient, doing everything in his power to stay alive. He immerses himself in a stressful war routine, lighting fires in the morning, making a loaf of bread, trying to get water supposedly safe to drink, following some of the news about an end to the current situation in Gaza, the hope for even a temporary ceasefire.

On the fourteenth of Black October in the year two thousand twenty-three, a day I’ll never forget, we decided to leave our new home in the Tal Al-Hawa area. We had purchased that home on the first of October and spent only a few nights there, filled with terror and fear. We packed up our luggage and gathered important documents. Something inside me whispered faintly that I would never see this house again. But I did not care to listen to that voice, and instead packed up as my father had instructed. How could I carry a whole house, with its new memories, in a backpack? There was no going wherever I wanted.

We left a lot of things mixed with memories in that house, believing that we would return. On the first of December, we learned that our house had been leveled, our things and our memories all turned to rubble. Despair and disappointment overcame me for a moment, and something screamed inside me. I was wondering if I could pull the guitar I loved out from under the rubble. Or the remains of the clothes that some friends had given me for my twenty-first birthday. Or maybe I’d find here in my bag, alongside my ID and driver’s license, all the dear things that I’d forgotten to take on this difficult journey. How will we live after we have lost everything?

I have always believed in the theory of impermanence, which states that things of all kinds do not last, nor do people, and that after distress there is relief. But what happened in Black October was a turning point, something like a nightmare that could not be believed at all. It is as if we had forgotten what life was like before the seventh of October. We had to live with this painful realization and this painful reality. It changed us little by little until we were no longer the same as before, no longer those people struggling for those dreams. Back in October each of us had a plan. One had decided to get his university degree, another to settle in a new house, another was preparing for his new job.

I looked at a map, and the most mysterious idea crept in: how could a land that occupies such a relatively small area be a target of invaders for so long, ever since God created it? Even this land fights to free herself. I love this country. I love everything in it to an indescribable degree.

I later realized that what the Palestinian people have lived through in one hundred and thirty days cannot be described in a few words, or even many. It cannot be described at all. Each of us has his own story to tell from one person to the next. How can someone who’s lived in the shadow of these tragedies remain steadfast and cling to this land? Yet the harder the days become, the more attached he feels, despite the sensation of having no identity, no entity, and no psychological peace. He has become a stranger in his homeland.

follow Basel on Instagram

  
Abdelrahman ElGendy, writer
March 10, 2024, writing from Pittsburgh, by way of Cairo
Removing the Me from the We of Them: A Letter to Fady Joudah

an excerpt from a review of Fady Joudah’s […]

Dear Fady,

[…] haunts me. It has haunted me since I first read it, bending over my desk near midnight, bathed in the amber glow of my lamp, and beside me, a cold, forgotten cup of cinnamon tea.

The collection’s title, […], sets the tone: this is a text designed to disarm and unsettle. To embody the erased, the unsayable. The reader is here to do the labor of listening: Listen to the Palestinian speak. Equally, listen to their silence. Listen when you understand; when you don’t—listen.

I enter your plethora of […] poems, and marvel at how you insist against comfort. The text moves like the dance of a boxer: dodges, feints, then lands square on the chin. You lure your reader, then implicate the self-proclaimed allies, those who showcase their illiteracy-paraded-as-nuance on our screens every day, stripping them down to their barest biases. The war you’re thinking of, I made / you think of, is a red herring. You dismantle the inclination to center this specific instance of a longstanding genocide, an instance that renders Palestinians more identifiable to their and our executioners. Executioners who, as you explain in one of your poems, love you more when you’re dead. And no, you don’t mean only the hands that launch the missiles and rubble the homes. I have watched vultures before, you note, Their committees on carcasses they did not kill.

Then, you strike: I am removing myself from the we of you.

Read ElGendy’s full review of Fady Joudah’s […]

  
Rahaf R. Abuzarifa, writer
March 23, 2024, writing from Egypt
Mahmoud

From the 10th of October until the 24th of November, in the modest home of Abu Islam—a friend of my grandfather’s in Qezan Rashwan—twenty-three souls were bound together in the struggle. My grandfather’s family of six, Abu Islam’s family of ten, and my own family of seven, all navigating each day with dwindling resources of food and water, and without electricity.

Every night at around 10 p.m., the usual sounds of gunfire and buzzing drones filled the air, a grim reminder of the ongoing war. My uncle’s one-year-old daughter’s cries added to the tension. I adjusted to the floor mattresses despite waking up with back pain. How did we get so accustomed to this inhuman situation? A powerful airstrike shook the area nearby, jolting everyone awake. It became routine to stir from sleep multiple times during the night, especially when such disturbances occurred.

When morning broke, everyone rose and gathered in the living room, discussing plans for breakfast, lunch, and the day ahead. For breakfast we often settled on boiled eggs. One time we had some leftover minced meat that Dad brought from our fridge back in Abassan when he went to see my cousin Mahmoud Jamal, allowing us to have Tahini Kofta on the menu for dinner. Grandma, resourceful as ever, had found flour and planned to bake bread to accompany the meal. Meanwhile, Dad ventured downtown to scout for any supplies we might require.

Abassan, my hometown, had been transformed into a military zone. Despite the dangers, some brave individuals risked their lives by sneaking in and out to assess their abandoned homes. These hazardous visits were essential for gathering necessities and vital belongings left behind during the sudden evacuation.

Mahmoud Jamal Abuzarifa, the eldest of my cousins, would make such trips. He faced the heavy responsibility of caring for his family at a young age after his father, my Dad’s brother and my Amo, passed away. Despite this burden, he rose to the occasion with remarkable maturity, becoming the pillar of support not only for his immediate family but for many others.

Driven by a fervent passion for learning, Mahmoud, at twenty-eight years old, embarked on a relentless pursuit of knowledge, undertaking multiple degrees simultaneously and seeming to sprint through life’s challenges. He earned a bachelor’s in journalism and mass communication from the University of Palestine in 2016, followed by another in business administration from Cairo University in 2019. Additionally, he attained diplomas in public relations and media from Al-Aqsa University, and in project management and financing from the Arab College of Applied Sciences. His academic journey reached its zenith with a master’s degree in political science from Al-Aqsa University in 2022.

In addition to his academic pursuits, Mahmoud held influential roles, serving as the deputy director at the Saudi Center for Culture and Heritage, with a focus on supporting projects, aid, and volunteer efforts in Gaza. He was also a dean at the Arab College of Applied Sciences, Abassan Branch. Amid his academic and professional endeavors, Mahmoud found love, marrying Jenan. They welcomed two children into the world, Maha and Jamal.

Mahmoud inherited a legacy of compassion and service from his father. To us, and especially my father, he was more than a relative; he was a trusted friend, always ready to lend a hand whenever called upon, whether by blood relations or distant acquaintances. His unwavering commitment to others never faltered, regardless of distance or circumstances.

One morning at Abu Islam’s, I stepped into the yard to be alone, but the relentless buzzing of drones shattered any hope of peace. Despite the poor internet connection outside, I absorbed as much news as I could, only to be confronted with devastating reports of massacres in Rafah, where eighty lives had been lost the previous day alone.

I headed indoors to check on everyone. Dad was engrossed in a game of Handremi with the kids, trying to pass the time. Suddenly, a phone rang, and we realized it was Dad’s. My aunt’s frantic voice pierced the air, crying out “Mahmoud! He’s been struck in his car!” Despite our attempts to understand more, the poor service hindered our communication. Desperately, we reached out to other family members. After several calls, my cousin, who’d been displaced alongside Mahmoud, finally answered. She informed us that Mahmoud had gone out to fix his car. Soon after, Essam, Mahmoud’s brother-in-law, called and urged Dad to come to the hospital. At the same time, my uncle’s wife’s grandfather, who sought refuge in the same hospital, told her over the phone about Mahmoud’s fate. It was then that the crushing reality reached us: Mahmoud had been martyred. Dad and my uncle rushed to the hospital to bid him a final farewell and lay him to rest.

May you find peace, Mahmoud.

I wondered how Mahmoud’s mother would bear the weight of losing her son, especially after losing her husband last year. And what of Mahmoud’s wife, who had recently given birth to their first son, and has their eight-year-old daughter to care for also? The weight of our family’s bond felt immediately heavier.

I returned to the yard to gather my thoughts and regain my composure. The reality of Mahmoud’s passing shocked me to the core. Upon reconnecting to the internet, I found an outpouring of condolences for Mahmoud on various Facebook pages.

When Dad returned from the hospital, profound distress clouded his features. My uncle, frantic, sought out his daughter, embracing her tightly. His wife pressed him for an explanation, and he recounted the horrific sight of an infant’s body beside Mahmoud, a sight that left him trembling with fear for his own daughter.

Meanwhile, my younger brother clung to Dad’s leg, anxiously inquiring about Mahmoud. With a heavy heart, Dad sank into a chair. “Alhamdulillah . . . he’s no more.”

Dad recounted Mahmoud’s tragic fate. A routine trip to fix his car turned fatal when an airstrike hit a nearby building, unleashing a blast that killed him. May he rest in peace. Dad talked about their conversations just yesterday and the days before, reflecting on Mahmoud’s unwavering openness and his role as the family’s steadfast support.

As evening descended, rumors of a ceasefire offered a glimmer of hope. Yet the indiscriminate violence plaguing our land tempered any optimism.

Dad whispered words heavy with sorrow as he prayed for Mahmoud. Tears ran down his cheeks, and the rest of us mourned quietly, sharing in grief without uttering a word.

Mahmoud was more than a casualty, more than a statistic. He was a man with dreams, a cherished member of our family, now stolen from us. May he find eternal peace, his memory forever cherished and his spirit never forgotten. Rest in peace, Mahmoud.

Mahmoud holding a phone while looking at the camera

Mahmoud

  
Ali Alalem, PhD student from Gaza at the University of Alabama
March 11, 2024, writing from Alabama
Grappling with Life and Death

It has been more than two months since the murder of my brother, Muhammed, who, at thirty years old, was killed by artillery shelling as he, his colleague, and his brother-in-law were filling a small water tank on the rooftop of their building in Deir al-Balah, a city Israel had classified as safe for displaced civilians. It is unusual for me to wake at 5:00 a.m. to check my phone, but on that day, December 31st, I anxiously jumped out of bed to see if I had received any messages from my family. It was as if my subconscious received a signal that a person dear to me was gone. A message from my nephew asked if I knew what had happened to my brother. I immediately realized what he meant, but, to make sure, I replied, “What?” to which he answered, “May his soul rest in peace.” A hand penetrated my chest and squeezed my heart mercilessly.

I rushed to call my mother, faking composure to calm her down, and all that she weepingly said was, “He’s gone to a better place. Pray for him.” It’s a phrase that most Gazans utter just to escape from the brutal reality of loss and death, or perhaps because life has become intolerable and indistinguishable from death. No wonder that my brother’s last post on social media was “We are grappling with life, and we are grappling with death.” Later in the day, a journalist circulated a photo of three dead bodies wearing orange safety vests and covered with blood on a rooftop next to a water tank. I easily recognized the slim body of my brother, his stylish haircut, his elegant clothes. I zoomed in to check if he had lost a limb or flesh. His body was intact, lying tranquilly on the roof, obviously resigned to the premature end of his struggle with life and death.

That documented spectacle not only invades my memory intrusively and constantly but also prompts unanswerable questions. With all the high-tech surveillance drones Israel has deployed in the sky of Gaza, could they not have observed that these three civilians were wearing safety vests and working for a nonprofit water utility, especially given that their huge water truck was marked with a well-known name and logo? Before giving orders to exterminate these three civilians for no reason, did they not know that my brother might be married? Did they not know he would leave a wife and two little children to grieve and struggle for a lifetime? Did they not understand that, with the death of one family member, the whole destiny of a family is altered and doomed? At times, I wonder if it was AI-powered artillery programmed to kill indiscriminately or soldiers instructed to murder whoever and whatever moved.

After the loss of my brother, my family left his in-law’s house and sought other shelter for the third time. They moved to a place with no internet connection and no utilities, a place obviously not safe but where they can at least escape the direct reminders of the killing of my brother. I did not hear from them for two months afterward, but my sister managed to call me a week ago, and said they were still alive but broken. I asked her to send me a group photo, a promise she fulfilled a couple of days after the call. With the scarcity of food and the persistent trauma, they all looked gaunt, undernourished, and pale. It’s shocking that starvation, a traditional weapon of ancient wars, is still being used for mass killing in the twenty-first century. I hear from friends in Gaza that street cats are emaciated and that hungry wild dogs eat decomposing corpses because they can no longer find food scraps in the garbage.

The fate of those, like me, who happen to be abroad, is inseparable from the realities in Gaza. The constant anticipation and worry distract me from my daily functioning and academic progress. I live in a state of loss, helplessness, resentment, injustice, and uncertainty, which keeps me in an abyss of despondency and subverts the many opinions and ideals that have driven my passions. The genocidal damage exceeds any reported data about death toll and economic and property destruction; it permeates the unseen and unquantifiable: our vanished dreams and hopes, the crushed souls, broken hearts, the inescapable horrors engraved in the mind, and the lost humanity.

  
Hassan R. Esdodi, correspondent for Kyodo News Agency, Jerusalem Bureau
April 25, 2024, writing from Rafah City
Shouq’s Story

This war began differently from previous Israeli assaults. In 2014, for example, my family received a call from the IDF to evacuate our neighbourhood in the Torokman Area, east of Gaza City, and to move to another area within the city. This time, however, the IDF attacked first and then issued an impossible order for the entire population of 1.1 million people in Gaza City to head south within twenty-four hours. Israeli aircraft were showering Gaza City with leaflets containing the evacuation orders. Of course, people panicked and began pressing southward by whatever means they could. I called my family and told them to leave my uncle’s house and move to Khan Younis. My mum asked, “What about you, Hassan?” Her voice trembled.

I had no answer for my mum, as I and my colleagues debated whether we should flee south or stay in our offices. If we stayed, we would face life-threatening challenges. Israel had already imposed a total siege on the Gaza Strip, cutting off electricity, food, water, and medical supplies. With 1.1 million people fleeing in chaos toward the south, where would the few of us find food and water? Could we avoid being struck by rockets, bombs, and artillery or shot by IDF soldiers? Israel was also attempting to impose a total media blackout on the Gaza Strip, so five of my colleagues and I decided to defy the evacuation orders and to continue reporting, in whatever ways possible. We knew the purpose of media blackouts: to give the IDF cover for committing massacres.

Hearing news that the IDF was in fact bombing the south, and also bombing the designated evacuation routes, many people from Gaza City refused to leave their homes despite the evacuation orders. In response, IDF jets showered the city, including the area surrounding our office building, with white-phosphorous bombs and they heavily shelled residential buildings. By unlawfully using white-phosphorous bombs and targeting residential buildings without warning, the IDF made it clear that they have no concern for civilian life, contrary to what their air-dropped leaflets claimed. We witnessed these war crimes from our office window on the sixteenth floor, overlooking most of Gaza City. We realized then the significance of our decision to stay. We had to bear witness.

Indeed, staying in Gaza City had dire consequences for us. We could not move freely around the office tower area. Without electricity, the elevators, lights, and water pumps could not function. We had to climb down and up the stairs to get water from the first floor. At night, we used candles, and for meals every day we ate uncooked canned food. To secure drinking water, one of us walked to the Al-Shifa Hospital Complex once a week. I knew we could not last long, by barely surviving in this way. What would we do when we ran out of food and water?

On the 29th of October, Israel targeted two main telecommunication sites in the Gaza Strip, shutting down mobile signals and internet connections. I was completely disconnected from the world and my family. Israel then launched aggressive land, sea, and air attacks on the north of Gaza City, including the immediate perimeter of our office tower. As the Israeli shelling intensified, my colleagues and I decided at 1:00 a.m. to evacuate the office and secure ourselves against the bomb shrapnel that penetrated our office from every side. We descended by candlelight to the front hall but could go no further. A few moments later, rockets directly struck our office. It seemed clear that the IDF was targeting us.

We no longer had cell phone connectivity for contacting Civil Defense or calling ambulances to get us out of the tower. They could not have reached us safely anyway. We slept on the floor until dawn. In the morning we found a gap in the Israeli presence and escaped to Al-Shifa Hospital. After spending a night in the hospital complex, we decided to go south. We had nothing left to do in Gaza City. I collected my gear and found a car heading south to Khan Younis.

I managed to go on reporting. I watched and listened and wrote prolifically. I wrote about the displaced people taking shelter in United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools and hospitals, about refugee families at Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis, who slept on a piece of cardboard for sixteen days until they found a spot in a UNRWA school, and about doctors performing surgeries on kids and stitching injuries without anaesthesia in the corridors of Nasser hospitals. I wrote about the IDF destroying at least six bakeries and killing the workers. I was especially pained that so much of the humanitarian crisis had not yet been reported.

One of the most memorable stories I have written is the miraculous journey of 24-year-old Shouq, who was pregnant with in vitro fertilisation twins. Dealing with multiple evacuations and hardships in the Gaza Strip, Shouq sacrificed, struggled, and persevered to give birth to Rayyan and Reetan, her now month-old twins. I interviewed Shouq and her husband in Rafah after she gave birth.

“I evacuated my house in Gaza City and moved from one place to another four times across the Gaza Strip, seeking safe shelters from the Israeli attacks. I tried to travel to a hospital in the West Bank, but Israel shut down Erez Crossing,” Shouq said.

During the interview, Shouq said she had to evacuate what should have been among the safest places in the Gaza Strip, Al-Shifa Hospital. The IDF had told the hospital administration to evacuate the displaced Gazans and patients. Shouq was very worried, of course, about losing her babies while fleeing from one place to another.

Shouq and her husband walked many kilometres on foot with other displaced Gazans to Nuseirat Camp, in the central part of the Gaza Strip, designated by the IDF as a “Safe Zone.” After a few days, Israel bombed several residential buildings there, showering the house where Shouq stayed with artillery shrapnel. She then moved to Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis, where doctors, displaced Gazans, and wounded and patients with elevated creatine kinase (CK) took shelter. It was not the perfect place as far as hygiene and infectious diseases were concerned, but she would be safe from the Israeli shelling.

Before my interview with Shouq, I had scanned the corridors of the Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis, where most surgeries were performed without anaesthesia and in the corridors. I knew that Shouq’s safety was still in jeopardy, even if bombs were not falling there.

“After having some tests and medical check-ups,” Shouq related, “the doctors told me that I would be having a Cesarean surgery in my eighth month of pregnancy, which meant that I would be having two premature babies. My doctor at Al-Shifa Hospital was besieged and couldn’t attend my surgery. It was a scary moment.”

In preparation, Shouq and her husband decided to buy anaesthetic injections and post-surgery painkillers from outside the hospital. According to Shouq, her husband couldn’t afford to buy the required anaesthesia doses, so she was half awake during her cesarean surgery, enduring unbearable pain. After a complicated surgery, Shouq gave birth to Rayyan, named after a house in heaven, and Reetan, named after her dear friend who was killed by Israeli airstrikes.

“Seeing my babies was such a happy yet terrifying moment. I was relieved that my babies were all right, weighing 1.7 and 1.3 kilos. The 3rd of November was the day they were born and the day I took a sigh of relief. Of course, I was also afraid that I would not be able to provide milk and clothes for my babies. I was not ready at all. My mum was away, and I was alone with these two kids, having no experience in taking care of premature babies.”

Two weeks after Shouq gave birth to Rayyen and Rateen, she walked to her husband’s friend’s house in Khan Younis. According to Shouq, Nasser Hospital could not give her any post-surgery painkillers or keep her babies inside the hospital due to the high risk of infections and the lack of beds.

“Khan Younis was not safe either,” Shouq recalled, “as the Israeli shelling of residential houses around us had not stopped since we arrived. I can never forget the time when the Israeli airstrikes targeted a building near us. As I attempted to run, I couldn’t take one baby and leave the other. I couldn’t carry them both, so I covered them with my body and did not leave. The shelling shrapnel penetrated our room. Thankfully no one was hurt.”

In January 2024, Shouq, Mamdouh, and her two babies evacuated Khan Younis, after Israel ordered people in several residential blocks to leave for Rafah. Shouq had run out of options. She had to take shelter in a camp tent. “I have to double the milk and clothes I buy because I have two babies. Everything had become very expensive, and the prices were still soaring. Getting their milk, and diapers and keeping them safe in a tent had become the main challenge in my life.”

The two premature babies could not have oxygen or regular medical checkups in Rafah hospitals. According to Shouq, the two babies had only had three medical visits since their birth. “I feel sorry for my babies because they have lived through this war when they were inside me and ever since they were born,” Shouq said.

Her story is just one of many such heartbreaking stories I have covered across the Gaza Strip. Most of these stories are about the deaths of family members and the displacement of Gazans. Yet Shouq’s is a story of hope, sacrifice, and an unshakable determination to survive. Rayyan and Reetan mark the rebirth of hope for Palestinians in the war-torn Gaza Strip.

 

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