Some days in Gaza, if you are in an area where you don’t hear the drones hovering, spying, menacing…nor the Israeli gunboats harassing or injuring fishermen by shelling and shooting live ammunition…nor see Israeli soldiers shooting at farmers and civilians in the region along Gaza’s borders to Israel… nor see the manufactured, grinding poverty…nor see the remnants of buildings… nor see the remnants of limbs and lives…nor see the fatigue etched deeply into the faces of those all around….some days, if you stay in a café or under the covers, or miraculously miss all of these signs… you can relax a bit.
I catch myself -with a whiff of coffee brewing or sea air or falafels cooking or a friend’s smile or a stranger’s smile -renewing my appreciation of being in Gaza, despite all of the tragedies here. It’s the persistent refusal to die out, and the stubborn quick wit and ability to render a mundane incident amusing, and it’s the graciousness that supersedes deserved bitterness, and it’s the tender and unaffected love for children, including neighbours’ and strangers’ kids, that amaze and snap me out of wallowing in despair about the avoidable tragedies here.
But some days are harder than others. While I did lose friends in Israel’s war on Gaza, and the worst of it did not happen to me -I’ve not lost a child, a parent, a home, a livelihood; I’ve not lived imprisoned and cut off from the outside world, for years…-I internalize a lot of what I hear and see.
Today began with a re-visit to the Al Bateran families off Zarka street, an impoverished Gaza district I’ve become familiar with in the last weeks.
Hamsa was bathing his horse when a friend and I arrived. His horse, he said, was fantastic, and he was finding work with it. I was thrilled to see the love he doted on the horse, and the pride in his stance, though to be fair he was a proud man when he had only his bike to work with.
Iman, Hamsa’s petite wife, was home, resting, near the end of her pregnancy. We looked again at their simple home: a room, a sub-par toilet which belches noxious fumes and which serves also as the bath room. Hamsa’s immediate dream is to move the toilet outside and keep the current stall as a shower room. “I want my son to have a healthy environment,” he’d told me before. He and Iman already know the baby will be a boy, and have chosen Ali, the name of Hamsa’s father, as his name. Their second project would be to build an actual kitchen room in place of the shelves and firepit outside which currently serve for food preparation.
Hamsa was leaving in a while to work, but we stopped into his mother’s home adjacent to his own one-room cement block home. We drank tea, drone whining above us, and spoke of her youngest daughter, Sara, and a newly-developed behaviour problem. Sara has begun to stutter, and is quick to get frustrated and angry, something that apparently has only come about in the last few days. I asked if it was an effect of the war on Gaza, but Hamsa’s mother didn’t really know.
She spoke of her own problems with depression, said that the anti-depressant medication a doctor had prescribed did nothing for her, so she gave it up. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as anyone living in such conditions, let alone under siege and repeated Israeli invasions and ‘operations’ (carnage), would be depressed. But every time I’d visited, she’d greeted me with such enthusiasm, such a smile, such a welcome, that I wouldn’t have known the pain she harbours.
On other people’s faces the pain is obvious. Fudall al Bateran is the father of 4 girls, one of whom was matyred on January 15th. My colleague was at Al Quds hospital when Haniin was shot point-blank in the face and abdomen by Israeli snipers. Her father was shot in the leg and stomach. Another daughter, Yasmiin, witnessed it and has since spiraled into depression, not concentrating at school and understandably listless in life.
Fudall’s shoulders, eyes, lined face show his sorrow. Sitting next to a poster of his murdered nine year old, he spoke of Haniin, and his troubled eldest daughter, Yasmiin, whose epilepsy had been ‘weak’ but has become severe since seeing her sister killed.
Aside from an initial sad smile and kisses when I arrived, Fudall’s wife had been sitting silently, morosely grief-stricken, making gestures from time to time to add to something her husband said.
“She stopped speaking a few days ago. One night I thought she’d gone to bed. A few hours later, I went to bed and found her sitting in the hall, like this,” he explained, making a sad grimace similar to that which she wore. “‘What’s wrong? I asked her, but she couldn’t say anything. The next morning she still wasn’t speaking. I told her ‘speak, speak, you must get on with life. Everyone has had a tragedy, we must continue to live,’ but she wouldn’t speak. Sometimes in her sleep I hear her praying out loud to Allah, but otherwise she’s completely mute.” As he spoke, silent tear flowed down her cheeks. Fudall’s grief is already apparent and raw enough, yet he somehow tries to coax his wife, and himself, to continue with life.
Saud, the uncle of Amar al Bateran -the first man I’d met from the al Bateran families -was home, so we stopped in to visit he and his wife Fathiya. We spoke of Saud’s mental illness and the medications he needs. One in particular isn’t available in Gaza, but is apparently critical for alleviating some of his schizophrenia. He has a magnetic and warming smile, and is contritely apologetic for his behaviour when his illness gets bad.
Fathiya is very supportive, and has stayed by Saud in his worst times, when he isn’t himself. But she’s also afraid, and wants him to have his medication, to have the best chance at not lapsing into violent behaviour.
From the troubled Zarka street area, we went to visit the Zaitoun district, where I owed visits to the orphaned Mousa Samouni and his younger siblings, and to Amer and Shireen al Helo and their kids, all of whom lost parents and siblings to Israeli sniper fire and shelling.
Before reaching Mousa’s house, we came across Helmé Samouni, whose wife was killed in the horrific targeted bombing which murdered nearly 50 family members herded into and trapped within one building.
In our first encounter, Helmé had gone through the painful repetition of his wife and infant’s and parents murders, and of the terror the neighbourhood endured as Israel bombed home after home, concurrently sniping residents dead. He’d pulled out his wife’s photo, and that of his slaughtered baby son, and shared his sorrow, wondering how it came to be that after finally marrying and beginning a family they were brutally ripped from him.
Helmé smiled and greeted us warmly, though I’ve long since realized that too many layers of pain are buried beneath those smiles of welcoming.
Standing near Helmé, determinedly buttoning his jacket, five year old Ahmed bears very visible traces of his injuries during the Israeli attacks. His nose bulges with tubes and stitches, and on his left thigh is a saucer-sized indentation of warped and scarred skin. Ahmed’s father, Saleh, stood near the boy and, after being introduced, withdrew a passport-photo sized picture of his daughter Azza, a gorgeous two and a half year old, killed along with the other Samounis in the Israeli shelling of their house-prison.
Words have no meaning in these circumstances, and although I intone the phrases equivalent to ‘God bless their soul’, it’s the tormented’s strength and the necessity to move on that make it possible for parents to return photos to their pockets and focus on immediate worries like food and clothing for surviving family.
I had a donation to pass along to Mousa and siblings, so we continued to their ravished home, passing the demolished mosque and neighouring blown-out house. Mousa wasn’t home, but two of his 7 younger siblings were, held in the arms of cousins whose own homes were flattened. They greeted me, urging me to visit their wreckage, hear their stories.
I was pressed for time and still wanted to see Shireen and Amer, the al Helos whose father and infant daughter were shot dead in front of them.
Amer wasn’t home but Shireen, who breastfed her dying daughter in a last effort at consolation and comfort, was home and came downstairs quickly. Since first meeting her, she has keenly extended invitation after invitation. Amer likewise has said how important the visits are, though when they are alone again the pain returns in full force.
After days like today, of which there have been many, with impossible sorrows overflowing from encounter after encounter after encounter, it’s hard to imagine another day, more terrorized testimonies, new faces to add to the roster of victims of Israel’s wars. But they are there, and I will hear more of them, beyond my capacity to internalize
*Islam, 5 years old, parents killed in Israel’s attacks on Gaza.
*Israh, nearly 3 years old, parents killed in Israel’s attacks on Gaza.