Journals of a Blind Rescuer: An Account of War and Survival in the Gaza Strip
Smiling out of exhaustion as I wished a nice weekend to my colleagues and students, I left the American International School of Gaza – AISG, where I work as a Language and Literature teacher, to my apartment that’s located in Al-Shuhada Street; one of which I consider to be the most beautiful street in the Gaza Strip. It was on a lovely Wednesday, followed by a three day vacation, when I set up a plan to meet some friends for a barbeque. Then, time and date was all that mattered once I had that moment of silence as a response to the noises in the street; the waves of an unknown instability? I looked out of the window wondering about the noises and the loud sirens of the ambulances and the firefighting vehicles to see nothing but rushing journalists coming out of a nearby building. That was a sign that I questioned; a sign that curiously urged me to invade the local news websites to investigate what was happening. Few minutes after that curious internet invasion, I could resolve the mysteries behind “time and date” and “the waves of an unknown instability.”
At 04:00 pm on November 14th, 2012, the Israeli Occupation Force (IOF) assassinated the leader of the Islamic Resistance Brigades of Hamas; Ahmed Al Jabari. For that was the spark of the instability coming ahead, I could do nothing but humbly lay down my paralyzed body on the bed, and unintentionally I collapsed into my pillow falling in a pessimistic sleep. Hours later, I woke up on a phone call from my mother, terrified with a voice weakened by worry and anxiety, begging me to leave the apartment in Gaza City and head to Rafah so that I get to be with the family through a hardship that was fully anticipated. I could barely convince her that the first thing I would be doing the other morning is getting myself together and head down to Rafah; a city bordering Egypt with hundreds and hundreds of tunnels that would be on the target list for the Israeli’s warplanes, and then I spent the night seeking foreknowledge for I knew that traveling to Rafah from Gaza City is not going to be a road of roses. In fact, going to Rafah through that time would merely be an innocent attempt to escape death through a road shadowed with death; a time marked by the initiation of Israel’s military operation against Gaza; “Pillar of Cloud.” Strangely, I could sense sudden changes within myself; Deep thinking, strategic planning, wise judgments, calculations, and percentages of surviving. I, all of a sudden, transformed from a normal individual who seeks to normally live a regular life, to an eager survivor who seeks to eagerly survive a war. Defenseless I was in a place that is a little safe and less-targeted by Israeli airstrikes, yet I choose to empower myself with the desire to be with my family in a house not too far away from the borders with Egypt; literally just less than half a mile away from the heavy Israeli airstrikes on the tunnels’ area. Luckily, I could find a bewildered, anxious taxi driver as I walked through the empty streets of what turned to be “the ghost city of Gaza,” and the goal was achieved when I finally made it to my family’s house around 02:00 pm on Thursday November 15th, 2012.
Victorious! Yes, victorious was how I felt when I saw the happy faces of my family members circling me and asking about the difficulties that I might have faced on my way home. Victorious was how I felt when I was hugged through a rainbow of thanks directed to the lord of the skies for bringing me home safely. However, that blast of joy was horribly interrupted by a nearby explosion that shook the house for few seconds. My parents, four brothers, two sisters, three nephews and two nieces were all silenced by the incident for a moment; then, I chose to immediately act and kill the silence saying, “Gazan’s got talent! Even the house is belly dancing!” The whole family started laughing at my silly comment, and the little nephews and nieces started jumping and laughing as I started playing around with them. At that moment, I felt helpless, defeated, and above all, less of a so-called victorious. How could I be victorious if deep down my heart I know that the destructive power of war is right around the corner? How could I be victorious when I know that the most I could do through this war is a bunch of reassuring words that might make my family feel less terrified, worried, or depressed? How could I be victorious when I know that I can’t protect myself in this war so to protect my family? How could I be victorious when I know that Gaza is going to turn into a pool of blood and I won’t be anything but a blind lifeguard? Nothing could stand in the way of that trail of doubtful questions except for an indescribable smile from one of my little nephews who approached me with his arms wide open; as if he was saying, “I understand what you’re going through! Take it easy and hug it out!” I thought of that as an act of innocent courage from a little innocent kid during a time of an unknown destiny; an act that melted my heart and got me into a challenge against my inner feelings. I started thinking, “What should I do, shield them inside and smile unaffected, or let those eyes of mine blink a goodbye to a river by their edges?” And I forgot myself hugging him to the extent that he started pushing himself back; alerting me that he needed to breathe away from my conflicting clashes of thoughts.
What should I be indeed? A worried Gazan who should think of his dear Gazans, the war, the stress, the destruction, the exchange firing of rockets between Israel and Gaza, the materialistic losses, the death toll, the innocent civilians, the airstrikes, and this whole madness? Or should I be a member of a trembling family who should deal with one main concern which is the safety of that family; the safety that I won’t be able to provide except through poor, humble attempts to keep them calm, and therefore feel safe? All of this took me back to the 22 day war in December 2008 – January 2009 when the Israeli army launched “Operation Cast Lead” against Gaza, and I miraculously could survive, escape death, manage to keep the family safe, and above all, receive a good amount of knowledge about the conflict that took place and how to deal with it. Although that military operation caused immeasurable destruction to so many houses, mosques, families, factories, farms, schools, and hospitals in the Gaza strip, it also left behind Gazans who became experts of how to deal with a war. To dodge most of the things that happened through “operation Cast Lead,” I started to think of the least damage I could avoid. I started by opening all the windows and keeping the doors ajar in the house because in the latest war those windows and doors flew off the walls as a result of the pressure caused by the explosions of the airstrikes. Then, I urged my family to evacuate the part of the house that lies by the main street; a precautious evacuation to avoid flying bullets or shrapnel. After that, I had to make sure that my brothers’ and sisters’ curiosity to whether leave the house or look through the windows to see what might be possibly happening outside deterred through comments that would make them less enthusiastic and eventually stable about matters outside the house. Many precautious procedures to satisfy my perplexity of avoiding the unavoidable; procedures that served as an insecure balloon-like fortress, yet made me a bit relieved knowing that my family clutched onto that little feeling of security.
It was still the second day of the unfair war on Gaza, and I was in a state of psychological readiness to receive the shocking outcome of that madness. Alone during the annoyed night of the noises caused by the surveillance drones that were swarming through the dark skies, I followed the numbers of the airstrikes, the numbers of unarmed civilians and children killed, and the numbers of all other losses in both Israel and Gaza. Numbers and numbers all over the news channels, websites, articles, reports, and analyses were all that mattered. That was what the people of Gaza were considered by the media; merely numbers of “collateral damage” through a war they never wished to be emerged. What about the “unilateral damage” of every single unjustified death? Parents who have lost a kid, children who have lost a parent, or a whole family that has lost its right to live a normal life in dignity and peace? It was all but a “collateral damage” for the media, for the international community, for the Arab world, and for the oppressor against the oppressed. It was all but an “inhumane moral conspiracy” to lessen the value of humanity; the value of representing GAZANS as human beings instead of numbers. It was all but “an inferior goal” to be achieved through such an unjust war; a goal of dehumanizing and incriminating the innocents of Gaza. And for Gazans, just like me, it was an undesired road of suspicions. It was a road with major signs on its banks; signs to be memorized so that a Gazan could get a wanderer’s License in a world that licensed Media-blackout, deception, ignorance, injustice, humiliation, displacement, genocide, and discrimination against a group of people who did nothing but crying out for their simple rights. A tiring night of endless thinking I choose to end by checking up on my family one by one and kissing them goodnight as I hoped tomorrow would come and I’d be able to see them alive; a night that its sleeping Lullaby was the sounds of the bombardments caused by the Israeli’s airstrikes and the non-stop noises of the swarm of surveillance drones.
Hearing the echoes of massive explosions caused by the F-16 fighting jets’ airstrikes all over Rafah was the sign that it was a new day of atrocity; it was Friday November 16th, 2012. Through irregularity of every day’s waking up habits, all I cared about was a careful checkup trip among my family members to comfort that anguished, caring soul of mine knowing they are safe, and a thorough scrutiny of the news channels and websites with a doubtful hope that the international community might have intervened with decisions of cease-fire, or decisions that would stop the vivid nightmare of a like-no-other unmerciful war. Disappointed was I to find out that Israel announced reinforcement of troops on the Gaza strip’s 64 mile border belt and the death toll of civilians rose morosely. “What does that escalation mean? Is it possibly a preparation for a long-term war? Is Israel preparing for a ground invasion?” I hoped not as I terrifyingly stepped on that ladder of endless questions.
I’m not a political analyst, nor have I ever wanted to be involved in politics. However, the subconscious system of my mind works in a way that I can’t control or understand at a time of war. This system’s catalyst is the unbearable calamities of the war, and its objective is survival; a mental system I chose to call “an artful adoption” to current and sudden war environment. But in order for this system to work well, a full understanding of the war’s aspects is essential so that a person could form an anticipatory foreknowledge of the events that are yet to come. The complexities associated with the war; if resolved, would make a regular individual a professional expert of military issues and war survival. For example, depending on the experience I gained through the 22 day war of the Israeli military operation “Cast Lead,” and this operation “Pillar of cloud,” I; like many other Gazans, can differentiate by sound the type of warplanes flying in the sky; whether it’s an apache helicopter, an F-16 fighting jet, or an unmanned surveillance drone. Also, measurements of how far the airstrikes are can be calculated depending on the echo of the explosions or the few-second belly dance of the house if you are indoors. And in case you are outdoors, those measurements can be calculated depending on how high the debris would actually fly or fall nearby, and the amount of smoke you can actually see as a result of a certain airstrike’s missile explosion. Apart from this, the one golden rule that you need to strictly follow is that if you go out and leave the so-called safety provided by your own house, there is a big possibility that you might meet your soul reaper. It is true that there were cases where soul reapers would pay visits to some individuals in their houses, but the possibility of meeting them outside of your house is definitely much bigger. Nonetheless, a bright smile on your face is highly recommended.
That is how life in Gaza through times of war is; a mixture of ironies that you; most of the time, never get a change to comprehend. “Easier said than done,” was what first came to my mind as I; out of astonishment, was levitated off my bed around 04:00 am because of an explosion I never experienced before in terms of sound, strength, and effect. It was November 17th, 2012, and with that heavy airstrike I started the day. Back then, I turned on all the lights in the house, and as I was heading back to my room, another rock-and-roll airstrike took place; causing the house to shake, and spreading fear among my family members as they rushed out of their bedrooms. I took them all to what I call “The safe room” for it relies cornered by the end of the house and right next to a neighboring building; and then, that unexpected gathering of the family became an unusual tea-time. We sat together, chitchatted, and exchanged fake smiles of security as if there were no more 18 airstrikes that targeted the tunnel’s area; that’s only less than half a mile away from the house, and turned the whole neighborhood upside down. When my family eventually went back to their sleep despite of the noises of those drones in the sky, I mentally traveled with my thoughts beyond the borders of Gaza heading to the southern parts of Israel; mainly Ber Sheva. I have two friends there who are Israeli-Palestinians as identified by most of the international community, and the 1948 Palestinians as identified by Arabs; or dare I say only identified as such by Palestinians in Palestine and all over the world. Two friends; whom I was so worried about, live there, and most likely they were little affected by the war between Israel and Gaza. Besides, I started to think of the Israeli civilians and the mutual pressure they were going through at this hardship.
As a matter of fact, the Israeli government has all the technologies that would make its army surgically and accurately hit their military targets in Gaza, yet a lot of Gazans including children, women, and elders die on a daily basis because of the Israeli F-16 fighting jets’ and drones’ airstrikes. And Hamas; although it doesn’t have quarter of the militaristic Israeli might, nor does it have tanks, warplanes, and warships, is firing primitive, homemade rockets on Israel in an act of defense; rockets that might be considered to be “fireworks” compared to the least that a missile launched from an Israeli unmanned drone would cause, with little, yet unbearable losses in Israel. Nevertheless, those rockets are fired in retaliation for the killing of innocent Gazans and the unjust life that Israel has brought on the heads of not only Hamas, but also the nearly two million civilians living in the Gaza Strip through an economic siege since 2006. And Israel claims that the Israeli army; in an act of self-defense, fires rockets and launches military operations in Gaza to target the “terrorists” of Hamas Terror Organization, or anyone who tries and defends Gaza for that person is also not less of a “terrorist” according to the Israel dictionary. How can I rival the unrivalled rivals of this fierce rivalry? How can I help an initiation of “agreement” over the “disagreements?” Although it is quite a simple matter of “cause and effect” that could possibly be negotiated, and accordingly it would be achieving peace and harmony in the area, still wars are being launched, and the current one was on its fifth consecutive day. So, how dare I mention “negotiations?” How dare I mention a so-called “process of peace” that has been deferred with ruthless wars and massacres since the 1948 Nakba – catastrophe, for the Palestinians, and for the Israelis since 1967? How dare I dream of stability with my eyes suspiciously open? How dare I speak out on a base of “neutralism” and preach about the need for “Co-existence?” Misapprehend this act of sacrifice that would likely be interpreted as an “act of naivety” or an “act of betrayal,” but my humble interpretation of that would be “a real call for peace;” “a real call of humanity.”
Still, Melancholy could horribly creep through the firm bars of vulnerable hope I established to protect my heart behind, uncertainty’s claws severely lacerated a feeling of comfort I thought I had, and on that hill of injustice, scrambled with adamant, immovable blocks of brutality, the inexorability of the war’s inhumanity reached out to deliver its Death Notes to the uninformed little innocents and the elders of Al-Dalu family. To that family, November 18th, 2012 marked the end of time; it was Al-Dalu Family’s Apocalypse. To many others, including myself, it was a time of questioning the values of a life that’s lifeless. Clutching onto the little faith of smothered humanity within me, I fainted wakefully, and in a demonic sky with free-flowing arrows of unmerciful death and a sun eclipsed by the wings of savagery I carelessly floated. Oppressed freedom, aimless hopes, unfulfilled wishes, suffocated dreams, unachieved goals, unheard screams and voices, pale smiles, undiscovered paths, and above all, lost and terrified souls were all I could see inside that prison-like cloud; a Palestinian cloud that has been waiting for the winds of freedom and justice to blow for more than half a century. Dare anybody have a taste of such a life? That is the Gazan life in Gaza; the contemporary version of T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land.” Except that “April” isn’t the cruelest month,” but in Gaza “November” is. And “fear” isn’t shown to us in “a handful of dust,” but in “a handful of airstrikes”. That’s “The Waste Land” of Gaza being wasted through the opposites of this life’s values; that’s simply “Gaza Wonder Land?”
The war was still in its 6th consecutive day, November 19th, 2012, and all I could do was just counting those days and nights hardly passing. With every minute crawling by, the situation in the Gaza strip kept getting worse, and that feeling of security that I deluded myself and my family with, was increasingly decreasing because of the escalation of the war’s heat. The less than half a mile away tunnels’ area was severely being targeted by the F-16 fighting jets’ airstrikes, and the balcony of the house became a window of terror where my family and I kept running to with every explosion to see how close those “Pillars of smoke” were. Then, I received some shocking news; the American International School of Gaza – AISG partially damaged as a result of an Israeli raid on a nearby police station, the school where I work. In the 22 day war on Gaza in 2008 – 2009, the school was completely destroyed and targeted with heavy shelling as Israel claimed that Military factions in the Gaza Strip made it a site to launch their rockets. Since then, the school has been struggling to complete its educational mission. It was never re-built due to the siege on Gaza and the difficulties of getting any construction materials inside the Gaza strip. Instead, the school’s administration rented three buildings over the past four years and proceeded with its mission to Gazans. And during this war, the mission was again interrupted, and the school had its share of the destructive power of the war machine. The school’s buildings were not but an addition to the so many buildings that were already targeted and demolished in the Gaza Strip; not to forget the death toll that’s increasing with the careless killing of civilians and kids. And all I could do was nothing but overdosing my veins with another unjust shot of sorrow to the already existing sorrows in my heart, and contacting the students to make them feel less hopeless about the matter. That’s how the blind giants of wars all over the world are; thirsty for destruction and blood. And the price for that is the suffering of the innocents.
Another unusual wake-up alarm occurred with a heavier and more intense shelling on the tunnel’s area during the first hours of November 20th, 2012’s morning, another unstoppable wave of fear spread among my family members, and another bundle of fast strategic thinking of tactics and surviving procedures overcame my mind. The sounds of the explosions were deafening, the house’s constant shaking as a result of the thunder-like F-16 fighting jets’ airstrikes was more terrifying and threatening than ever, and the trembling rush of adrenaline was overblown to the extent that everybody’s eyes in the family were overly widened. Everything was all of sudden out of the ordinary, and gasps of shock were rapidly consuming the vulnerability of hope to survive. A Spontaneous volcano of questions erupted and annexed my peace of mind, “Is it the beginning of a ground incursion? Is it the beginning of a nation-wide terror? Will our house be targeted? And if not, is it going to keep my family and me safe?” Many questions that momentarily remained unanswered; yet many necessary answers were needed in this matter of life or death. Majestic was that thought of catching a glimpse of what was happening outside through a nearby window because it was the calm inhaler-dose for that asthmatic horror. The view from the window made it clear that it was just a “regular” escalation of airstrikes; therefore, I went back to my room to conduct the usual web-investigation of today’s situation and tomorrow’s destiny. Good news! Rumors about a ceasefire between the rivals were all over the news, yet the airstrikes, shelling, and killing of civilians all over Gaza were continuous. Optimistically I stayed awake all the night long waiting for that lost needle of truce to be found in the war’s haystack. And the waiting kept on waiting until another terrible incident occurred; an incident that would; most likely negatively, serve as a turning point during this nonesuch fatalistic war. On November 21st, 2012 a bus was bombed in the middle of Tel Aviv, Israel around 12:30 pm. Back then, all I felt is numbness within me and all around me. Motionless I lay in my bed while staring at the ceiling and thinking of the consequences of this bomb attack in the heart of Israel. The more I was thinking, the more I felt that I was lying in front of the fires of the inflammatory war in a mid-summer day. It was a high possibility that the Israeli military operation “Pillar of Cloud” change into “Pillar on Ground.” Thereafter, the worst would happen; a war that could be unimaginable in its ruthlessness, and indescribable in its brutality. At that moment, hopeful patience had its toll, my mind was completely obliterated by a missile of tiredness, and sleeping was better done than thinking of the unthinkable. At that very moment, I slept uninterested in what would happen next and discouraged to survive this psyche deteriorating war. However, I woke up later on amazed at how peacefully I slept; 10 uninterrupted continuous hours of sleep; 10 hours of sleep that felt like a piece of heaven. Yet, I chose to practice what I developed to be a habit through this war; a web-investigation to inspect this ugly war’s updates. Overwhelmingly, it was all over. Headlines all over the news channels and websites mentioned a ceasefire between the rivals that’s effective at 09:00 pm on November 21st,
2012. No more killing, terror, suffering, mourning, or most importantly waiting for death to come. It was a nightmare that finally came to an end with a death toll of 160 Gazans and 1222 wounded; most of them were kids, mothers, wives-to-be, and time-weakened elders. Happy indeed was I that the war is over, yet so terrified because of its unbearable, disastrous madness! Yes, terrified of the times yet to come, terrified of a crazier re-match of the rivals and the intimidating aftermaths of this war.
Ahmed Ferwana is a Language and Literature at the American International School of Gaza