Away from Gaza, full of fear

Images of destruction in Gaza have horrified all Palestinians no matter where they live. 

Naaman Omar APA images

I was over the moon when I got a travel permit during August.

It meant I could leave Gaza via Erez, the Israeli military checkpoint, head for Jordan and then fly to Ireland. I had been accepted for an MBA course in Dublin.

And so on 30 August, I went through Erez and saw Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank for the first time.

As a Gazan, Israel does not allow me to visit Jerusalem – Palestine’s capital – even to pray at al-Aqsa mosque.

On the plane, I saw the earth from the sky for the first time. It was breathtaking – not as I expected. I used to think it would be scary.

Maybe that is because the sky is associated in our minds with drones and other warplanes in Israel’s arsenal.

After a 30-hour journey I arrived in Dublin.

In Gaza, we have retained our humor despite all the horrors we have witnessed. And so we describe the sound of drones as zanana – comparing it to the buzzing of honey bees.

There was no such noise in Dublin. It felt strange to sleep in a quiet place.

“I have gone to sleep to the sound of Israeli drones for 27 years,” I told my family sarcastically. “I miss it.”

On 7 October, I woke up at 9 AM Dublin time.

As I always do in the morning, I checked the news from Gaza before the news from Ireland. My family and so many of my friends and loved ones are still in Gaza.

I learned that Hamas had launched a surprise attack on Israel.

I called my family quickly. My mother told me they had fled to a relative’s home as they expected Israel would respond.

Painful memories

This triggered painful memories of the past – particularly of how Israel attacked Gaza for more than three weeks in late 2008 and early 2009.

Then, Israel called our neighbors at midnight and ordered them to evacuate their home before attacking it.

Our neighbors started shouting and screaming, telling everyone to evacuate. While we were running about 100 meters from our house, a scary sound of an Israeli warplane filled the air.

There were five of us: my three siblings, my mother (who was barefoot) and myself.

We were shaking. Maybe from the cold or out of fear. Maybe from both.

Then, the warplane dropped a few rockets on our neighbors’ home. The sound was deafening.

We lay down next to a wall. There was rubble all around us and the smoke was suffocating.

We ran to our relatives’ home in al-Bureij refugee camp. It is usually a 15 minute walk from where we lived.

At 7 AM, we came back to our own home. The extent of the damage was heartbreaking.

I still remember how my mother fainted when she saw our home. She had invested everything she had in it.

After a few months of unbearable displacement, we received financial compensation from the UN and repaired our home.

Reduced to rubble

Israel attacked Gaza again in November 2012.

Then Israel used its drones to bomb our house with three missiles. Israel calls such attacks “roof-knocking” – a notice that a bigger attack is imminent.

We evacuated our home. Then Israel bombed our neighbors. Once again.

Israel claims that “roof-knocking” is a “peaceful” way of telling people to evacuate their house. In reality, it is far from “peaceful.”

A lot of people have been killed from Israeli missiles “knocking” on their roofs.

Hours after the bombing of neighbors in 2012, we went to check our own house.

We did not find any house. We found rubble.

We could not even discern the boundary between our house and that of our neighbors.

My phone conversation with my family on 7 October this year reignited old nightmares.

Will my family go through the same unbearable displacement again? Will they be killed just like Israel has killed thousands of others in its wars on Gaza?

I have kept asking myself these questions and many more since then.

Soon after I spoke to my family, Israel began bombarding Gaza.

News from Gaza poured in. It was distressing. Some of my old colleagues and neighbors had been killed.

My family – as they have done every time Israel waged war on Gaza – had taken some clothes, money and milk as they left their home.

And diapers for Yafa, my 16-month-old niece.

She is named after Jaffa, our family’s native city. Israel expelled my grandfather from Jaffa in 1948.

On Saturday 7 October, everyone in Dublin seemed to be enjoying the weekend – except for me and some other Gazans. I withdrew to my room, constantly reading the news, calling my family and friends, checking on them.

I stayed in my room for the next two days. I was gripped by panic and anxiety. I asked my Gazan friends living abroad about their families.

Everyone was affected by what was happening.

Bad news

On Tuesday 10 October, Israel bombed without warning the house of my 67-year-old uncle Darwish Jouda in Nuseirat refugee camp.

More than 20 members of our extended family were in the house. Some had taken shelter there after leaving their own homes.

I was taking a shower when my phone rang. It was my cousin Sondos.

“Ahmed, I have bad news,” he said.

He told me that two children had been killed when my uncle’s house was bombed. Some other people were trapped under the rubble.

My mother and two of my siblings had gone to hospital. They were visiting some of my relatives who had been injured.

I felt intense panic. And I still do not know why my uncle’s home was targeted.

My uncle is a poor man, with diabetes and high blood pressure. He has trouble getting around.

The two children killed were named Maria, 14, and Huthifa, 10. They were my uncle’s grandchildren.

Huthifa’s body is still under the rubble as civil defense workers have not yet been able to retrieve it. In the horrific situation Gaza finds itself in, civil defense workers have to prioritize rescuing people who are still alive.

Once they heard the news of the attack on my uncle’s home, I received many calls from friends. They sent condolences on the loss of the two children.

One friend tried to comfort me by pointing out “just two of your relatives were killed, not all of them.” Tens of families have been wiped out.

Maybe he was right. Maybe I should be grateful to Israel for killing just two of my relatives. Not all of them.

I stepped outside for some fresh air and headed to St. Stephen’s Green – a park in Dublin’s city center.

I was sweating from fear and anxiety, even though it was cold.

I sat on a bench in front of a pond. White ducks approached the visitors, who were feeding them.

Next to me, a woman read a novel. Behind me, a couple hugged each other. Around them, a child ran after his playful brown dog.

Indelible marks

I wiped my tears as I asked myself various questions.

Why don’t we have a peaceful life like all nations? Why can’t we live in peace and freedom – at least like that child’s dog or the ducks in the pond?

I wandered again in the park, and then I sat under a big tree where a girl was playing hide-and-seek with her little sister.

My mother called me on a video call. That is how we always talk to each other.

She showed me Yafa playing with a toy. Suddenly, a massive bombardment occurred.

They started shouting, Yafa started crying.

Yafa rushed to my mother and both hid under the table. The call ended.

Then my mother called me again, reassuring me the bombardment was relatively far away. While talking to her, I heard a plane flying over Dublin.

Without thinking, I tried to escape. All Gazans do that when they hear Israel’s warplanes.

The girl in the park asked me if she could hide behind me as she played with her sister. And she did.

I asked myself why children in Gaza have to hide from Israel’s missiles just to survive. Children around the world hide – or pretend to hide – as part of a game.

A couple of hours later, I went back to my new home in Dublin. I stayed awake all night, checking news about Gaza.

The next morning, my mother told me she was over the moon. She only had to wait for an hour in a queue to buy bread from a bakery, not hours as usual.

Maybe it was because she is a woman and queuing for bread is considered a man’s duty during wars in Gaza.

Later, my older brother, Osama, told me he had to walk 5 kilometers to find a pharmacy to buy diapers, milk and medication for Yafa, his daughter, as all shops were shut down.

Yes, I physically survived the Israeli wars on Gaza but they have left indelible marks. Sounds such as planes, ambulances, the banging of a door or fireworks trigger panic and fear.

I thought it was only me, but a lot of my Gazan friends living abroad share the same feelings.

“Since 7 October, I have been afraid to leave my house at night although I am in Saudi Arabia which is very safe,” my friend Hasan told me. “It is because I have been afraid to do so during wars my whole life in Gaza.”

My heart beats fast every time I hear my phone ring or I get WhatsApp notifications. Over the past two weeks. I have come to associate the ring tones or pinging on my phone with bad news.

In recent days, I have met up with many Gazans in Dublin. When I asked them about their families, there were only four answers:

“I’ve lost someone” or “my house has been bombed” or “my family has evacuated.” The best answer is “my family is safe until now but I don’t know what will happen next.”

Yes, I have left Gaza for Dublin. But my mind and soul will never leave Gaza and it will never leave me.

When night falls, I gaze at the sky, taking deep breaths to ease my anxiety and stress.

In Dublin, the night is relaxing and beautiful. But the night in Gaza is very scary.

We all live under the same sky. But the planes flying above us are not the same.

Ahmed Al-Sammak is an MBA student in Dublin. He previously worked as a journalist in Gaza, where he grew up.