Three days of war
This article was originally published in Palestine in America’s second annual print issue. Buy a copy here
A few days after the Israeli occupation of Gaza, we heard loudspeakers mounted on the cars announcing the lifting of the curfew for two hours: from 2 to 4 p.m. The sound of the war was still in my ears—the explosions, the low flying jets, the rattling machine guns. That day, we were able to leave the shelter beneath the house. It was a small room with no windows and the door was surrounded by piled up sandbags which I helped fill before the war started. In the shelter during the war, we huddled up together. Every time my mother heard the whistle of an incoming mortar bomb, she surrounded me and my brother, Maher, in her arms. My brother was so shocked that he slept most of the time. He was completely knocked out from fear. When I was able to leave the shelter in an attempt to get up to the house, a low flying jet flew over us. I was so terrified that I dropped and hugged the ground. Israeli snipers were mounted on the rooftops of the taller buildings. Occasionally we would hear gunshots.
There wasn’t any running water or electricity in the house. We had filled tanks of water in expectation of the war. For a few weeks, we could only sponge bathe ourselves. At night, we used candles and kerosene lamps. Our windows had been painted blue to prevent the light from filtering out.
My mother was busy in the kitchen so I was able to escape her watchful eyes and walk out into the garden. Promptly, at 2 p.m., I started hearing people walking in the streets and talking. My sister and her husband left to return to their home. More and more people were pouring out into the streets. They came out to check on their loved ones: their families, friends and neighbors. They were also looking for food, wherever they could find it. Only a few stores were open and it didn’t take them long to run out of everything. I pushed myself to walk outside the gate of the garden. I was afraid to step onto the street. I felt that there was a chance that something could happen to me and I would not come back home. But I was worried about my friends. I wanted to see if they were okay.
I started to walk in the direction of my friend’s house when I came across a woman dressed in traditional Palestinian clothing riding a donkey and carrying a white flag in her hand. I assumed that she thought she might not be able to return home within the window of the two hour lifting of the curfew. She was coming from the direction of a refugee camp which was not too far from where we lived. A short distance further down the street, a few people were gathered around looking at something.. I overheard someone walking by say that there was a dead person lying on the street. The woman dropped down from her donkey and ran towards them screaming and weeping. She threw herself on top of her son’s body, hugging and kissing it. I realized that she had found her son. I had never seen a dead body in my life. Even though I was terrified, my curiosity pushed me closer. I looked at his face. His eyes were empty as they stared off into the sky. His mouth hung open. I could smell the rotting flesh. I didn’t know whether to scream or cry. I felt something I’ve never felt before, a terrifying combination of emotions. Overwhelmed by fear and insecurity, I broke down and sobbed. I ran back home, stormed into my room and locked the door behind me. From the time I left my home to when I ran back, it was no longer than fifteen minutes. But those fifteen minutes might as well have been years. I felt as if I became an adult during that span of time.
In my room, I laid down on my bed and cried myself to sleep. Eventually, my mother knocked on the door to check up on me.
She could tell that I had been crying and asked, “Why are your eyes so red? Why did you cry?”
So I told her what happened. She became angry at me and said, “never go out again. This is war.”
The next day, a car with speakers announced the lifting of the curfews again from 2 to 4. Once again, at two o’clock, I could hear people going out into the streets. I was tempted again to go out because I still wanted to check up on my friends. Staying around the house and doing nothing was also becoming very boring. This was during the summer holidays when I normally went out every day to play with my friends.
So I walked out again. I was watching for my mother and I knew she was busy doing the laundry by hand. She would be busy for at least a couple of hours. This time, I was able to reach the home of my friend Kamal. We decided to go to the place where all the neighborhood kids used to gather. It was an empty lot filled with small piles of sand. It became the playground for the children of the neighborhood.
We used to have fun rolling down the sand dunes. As we walked towards the sand dunes, Kamal pulled my hand and shouted, “Let’s run, let’s go. Let’s get away from here.” He sounded terrified.
I replied, “why?”
He pointed toward a pile of sand and said’ “look there.”
I got closer. I could see human hands sticking out from the sand. The flesh was half eaten by stray animals. Immediately, I could smell the strong scent of rotting flesh. I looked around the sand dunes and I could see even more of these piles. They were shallow graves. Our playground had been made a temporary burial ground for the dead where many of the people who had been killed in the neighborhood had been buried.
We looked at each other in shock, then we ran off. We did not cry, we just ran. We didn’t say goodbye as we ran home. The idea of playing just evaporated. All I wanted to do was sit in my room and lock the door. I just laid down on my bed and stared at the ceiling. That’s when I realized what the explosions had done.
On the third day, the loudspeakers announced the lift for another two hours. I did not intend to leave my house this time. I walked out into the garden, standing at the gate, watching people walk by and listening to their conversations. Their conversations were primarily about where the bombs fell in the neighborhood and who was injured or killed. I overheard the family of my friend, Rafiq, being mentioned several times. I dared myself to ask one of the neighbors walking by my house about my friend. He was a teenager and he told me that my friend’s house was hit by a mortar and that a number of people were killed. I found myself instinctively walking towards my friend’s home. I was worried about him being hurt or possibly killed.
As soon as I turned the corner where Rafiq’s house was, I could see that a part of their house was destroyed. Walls were completely collapsed in a pile of rubble. However, the rest of the house was still standing as if it was never touched by anything. I ran towards the house. I saw my friend standing outside the garden gate. He numbly stared off into the air.
As I arrived, he immediately said, “my father and my oldest brother were killed.” He didn’t seem to immediately process the gravity of the situation. He was still shocked and dazed.
He described to me the immensity of the explosion and the destruction of the house. He told me that he was hiding under the chair when it happened. The whole house shook. The sound was deafening and there was so much dust that he couldn’t even breathe. He tried to scream but everyone else in the house was also screaming so no one could hear him. He said for hours he could not move as everything turned silent. He could have been knocked unconscious.
He kept repeating, “everything is gone… everything is gone.” Then he told me that his father and brother were buried across the street. He even insisted that he show me where they were. We walked across the street to the empty lot where they were buried in shallow graves. We could see the contours of their bodies in the sand. He was reluctant to move away, as if he always wanted to be around his father and brother.
He pointed to one grave, said, “this is my father.” He pointed to the other and said, “this is my brother.”
I wanted to leave because I had no idea how to react to the situation. There was no way I could have comforted him but I felt that he needed me around. There was only uncomfortable silence. We searched a bit in the rubble of the house, looking for something to salvage. It was mostly dirt, ash and broken glass. Rafiq found a torn up pillow. He laid it out and placed it on top of a cement brick. He put his head on the pillow and immediately dozed off. I took that opportunity to leave.
A couple of days later I remember he told me that tomorrow they were going to move the bodies. He invited me to be there, so I went.
Rafiq and I stood at the side of the road while some men dug up the bodies. We held each other very closely. The stench of the bodies was unbearable. We couldn’t wait for the men to take them away. I could see them carrying the decomposing bodies, wrapped in sheets, placing them on top of a piece of wood as they carried them off to the cemetery. We both broke down and cried. It is engraved in my memory.
Later on, I found out a few men were hiding in the basement of their house. One of the men carried a gun and tried to shoot out at a passing tank. The tank the shot at them multiple times and killed all the men in the basement, including my friend’s father and brother.
After that, I felt a certain responsibility towards Rafiq, even if it wasn’t always fun to be around him since he was always in a daze. I tried my best to engage him by inviting him to play games that I invented. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I stuck by him well into our college years. Even as an adult, I could see that he never shook the feeling that he had lost everything.