On January 18, the first day that Israel stopped most of the bombing all over Gaza (navy shelling continues to this moment), after learning that my friend’s father was alive in eastern Jabaliya, I went on to Attatra, the northwest region, which had been cut off since Israeli troops invaded. As expected, the destruction was great, the death toll high and still unknown. People streamed in both directions: going to see how their homes had fared or leaving from the wreckage and bringing as many surviving possessions as possible.
“This is our main road,” Yusef said dryly, gesturing at the undulating pavement and sand that served the towns in this region. “There should be houses here. Now there is nothing,” he added, seemingly more to himself than to me.
I’d noticed the road right off: torn through the centre, ripped up by a bulldozer’s claw or a tank’s tools, a theme that re-surfaced on various main streets. There were the horse or donkey carts, piled as high as possible with mattresses, blankets, clothing, and furniture, trying to maneuver on these newly-rutted, overcrowded streets, or around earth plowed into peaks.
I’d met my friend Yusef at the main crossroad. He’d come from Gaza city much earlier, to confirm that his own house was devastated: “There is nothing left. They gutted it. I took two pairs of pants, that’s all,” he said. “I was expecting it. There’s no house the Israeli soldiers didn’t enter, damage or destroy. We couldn’t get here to see it until today,” he had told me, Israeli troops’ fire and shelling preventing all from entering, wounded from leaving, ambulances from arriving. This point must be mentioned again and again.
We came to Anis, another Ramattan media employee, standing in front of his destroyed home. “It was hit in the first days of the land invasion,” he said. “F-16. We had evacuated, thank God. When the shelling started, I was crying. I just wanted to get my kids out of here,” he confessed. “Anyway, thank God none were killed. My mother, father, and children, we’re all okay,” he said.
“But nothing is left,” he added. “Walla ishi,”–nothing at all.
I looked down the road and commented on the sea, on what a beautiful area it had been and had the potential to become anew. “It was an oasis,” he’d agreed. “People loved to come here, it was quiet, relaxing.” We left Anis, continued up the track with ravages on either side and straight ahead. Past another 8m deep crater.
On to Salateen street, walking toward the school were young children were found burnt and partially eaten by dogs. As we walked, Alberto recognized the area as a place we’d come in the beginning of the land invasion, during the night when in darkness people were streaming from their homes, fleeing, running from the tank shelling. That was the same night the American school was bombed, the same night the medics I was with drove along an eerie 2am track, looking for the school and casualties.
We come across a weeping grandmother, some belongings piled on her head, walking in the road, away from her home. I couldn’t tell what was inside the parcel, but she looked exhausted. Not from the weight of the load, but from the weight of knowing her husband wouldn’t evacuate, wouldn’t run from his home this time. My friend Mohammed hugged her, kissed her on both cheeks, spoke words to her telling her to be strong, it was horrible, but be strong, ya grandmother. He called a taxi over, the one we’d hired to get out there, and put her in it, saving her the walk to wherever she was going. “That’s my grandmother,” he said, referring to his own grandmother down in Khosar, east of Khan Younis, who he could not get to and was very worried about. The road south was shut down by an Israeli presence; ambulances taking patients to Rafah needed “special coordination” if they were to drive on it. Mohammed could only try the phone lines over and over.
We walked on, looking for the school which we would learn had been used as a temporary prison and interrogation centre.