2:30 AM in Gaza

Palestinians search for survivors in a two-storey building that was brought down by an Israeli strike in Gaza City, 15 July 2006. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

July 2006

My wife tapped me on the shoulder, saying, “Wake up and take Mohammad. I’ve fed him and changed his diapers, but he won’t go to sleep. I’m too tired to hold him.”

Somehow, I caught all of that despite the fact that I haven’t had three hours of sleep. I opened my eyes slowly. My wife had the light on her side of the bed on. It was dim, but enough to annoy my sleep-hungry eyes. But we were lucky to have electricity, a rare commodity since the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza power station 10 days earlier.

My three-week-old son was in his bed, starting to wind up for a bout of crying. Lying on his stomach, he was raising his head and turning it left and right. His fists were clenched to the baby towel under his head. And he started to paddle with his legs. His face contorted into the crying look briefly before his lips parted, and he let go.

How life has changed since Mohammad’s arrival! Gone are the nights of long comfortable sleep. New emotions and motions have been released. I am a father after a few years of blessed marriage to a wonderful woman. She is a new mother still trying to overcome the trauma of labor, scissors, and stitches without anesthesia. Although renowned for her iron will and determination, which I adore, she is becoming more anxious now. Whenever Mohammad cries, she rushes to his side to feed him.

So, she must have been very tired to wake me up to take Mohammad. I didn’t complain.

I glanced at the clock on the dresser across the room. It was 2:30 in Gaza. And it was uncharacteristically calm. There were no shells flying over the house and heading to alleged rocket launch sites in the north or east of the Gaza Strip. Israeli gunboats fire from the Mediterranean at the east and north of the Strip. Or that’s how I think it is. There is usually the bang of firing the shell, and then the zoom of the shell traveling over head. And occasionally, we hear the explosion of the shell. If the explosion is audible, the Israelis are hitting closer to our homes than usual.

I got up and took Mohammad out of his bed. I put his head on my shoulder, and started to pat his back. Then I moved back to my side of the bed, and lay back. I decided to try and go back to sleep while putting my son to sleep as well. It worked once before. So maybe I wouldn’t lose all my sleep after all.

Mohammad stopped crying as I put him stomach down on my chest. I recited some verses of the Quran in a soft voice and gently patted him on the back. He calmed down, and lay his head quietly on my chest. His face was calm. And so, there was a chance that he might go to sleep.

My wife turned her back to us, and went to sleep, without turning off the light.

Suddenly, the room shook violently, and I heard the deafening sound of what I thought was a sonic boom. The curtains blew wildly as if a storm was raging outside. My first thought was to look at Mohammad. His eyes were wide open; but thank God, he didn’t jump or cry. My wife jumped up shaking; and her hand extended to cover Mohammad’s ears.

Then a second deafening sound came; and the room shook a second time. My wife was still shaking; but her hands didn’t leave Mohammad’s ears. My son’s eyes were wide open. He didn’t cry or shake.

“What happened?” asked my wife.

I replied, “Sonic booms over the house.”

Israeli fighter jets conducted low-altitude flights over Gaza, breaking the sound barrier and causing extremely loud and violent sonic booms. The sound was worse than actual bombardment!

I heard a voice in the street say, “They hit the school!”

Then I realized that it wasn’t a sonic boom, but bombardment.

I stayed in bed, patting Mohammad on the back, with my wife still shaking. And after a few minutes, I sat up, with Mohammad still close to my chest.

The voices in the street started to get louder.

I handed Mohammad to my wife, and went to the window. I saw people walking across the street, to the houses east of mine. Their numbers were increasing, and even cars started to arrive at the scene.

I put on the “Jalabeya,” grabbed my mobile, and went out to see for myself.

I headed in the direction where I saw others heading. People were saying, “They destroyed Abu Selmeia’s house … They leveled the house.” But I didn’t picture what they were talking about. This was my first experience in assessing the immediate aftermath of bombardment damage. The smell in the air stank of dust. It was a strange smell.

Then I reached the scene, which was a football field’s length from my house. I saw a one-story house badly damaged, with walls torn out, concrete pillars bent, no windows, and no doors. Debris and rubble covered the street opposite the house. Only later I learned that what I saw had been a three-storey house prior to the bombardment. Two stories were leveled, their ceilings lying flat upon each other and the pillars of the ground floor gone.

There were many people around the house. And there were many more in the destroyed structure itself, working to clear the rubble. Later I learned that these people had saved lives, and pulled out victims from under the destruction.

I decided to stay away from the house, and walked around it. There was a clear lot of land behind the house; and I made my way there. There were fewer people in the clearing. So, I stood there and looked at the destruction.

Somewhere along the line, I picked up voices saying that there was a whole family in the house.

Tears filled my eyes as I thought, “Who would cause such destruction on a whole family? Who would drop bombs on a house fully knowing that children and women would be killed?” I still cannot find answers to these questions.

I grabbed one of the people in the chaotic scene, “Whose house was it?” He looked at me briefly before replying, “Abu Selmeia house. Nabil Abu Selmeia.”

Abu Selmeia was a neighbor. But I didn’t recall his face. I tried to remember.

I was brought back with a loud, “Allah Akbar … there is half a body under the tree.” I glanced in the direction of the sound. I saw a one-legged bottom half of a human body, clothed and covered with grey dust.

That was the first time my eyes fell on such a dreadful spectacle.

“Allah Akbar, there is a foot under this tree.” My eyes followed my ears and saw a young man bending over to pick up a cut-off foot in a shoe.

“Allah Akbar, there is a headless child under this tree.” The voice came from behind me. I turned back to see another young man picking up a small body. I didn’t wait to see if it was headless or not.

I didn’t wait to know what the full body count was. “I don’t want to step on any remains,” I thought to myself. So, I put my eyes to the ground under my feet and retraced my steps outside of the clearing.

There were hundreds of people gathered now. Ambulances and fire trucks started to arrive. There were too many helping hands already.

I walked slowly to my house, my eyes filling with tears. “Who would cause such destruction on a whole family? Who would drop bombs on a house fully knowing that children and women would be killed?” The questions burned more after the sight of the torn bodies; but still no answers.

The next day, I learned that the father, mother, five daughters, and two sons were killed. Some of the kids were in their pre-school years.

At home, I went back to the bedroom. My wife was sitting on the bed breastfeeding Mohammad. She told me that her legs were still shaking. She was worried that because of her shock no milk would come out for Mohammad. I patted her shoulder, and falsely reassured her that there was no relation between her shock and Mohammad’s milk.

I looked at Mohammad, and my eyes filled with tears again.

Malek Shubair is a Palestinian from Gaza. He works as a translator in a local NGO.

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