“This is at the beginning, when they started digging survivors and bodies out of the rubble,” Abu Qusay said, referring to a photo of himself buried up to his shoulders in rubble, his face bloodied. Just a few weeks after being buried alive by the bombing which attacked the building he was in, only a mere scar at his left eyebrow hinted at the ordeal.
Abu Qusay is in his 30s, is the father of six kids between the ages of four and 15, and has worked as a policeman and security guard for 14 years. When the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was alive, Abu Qusay was a bodyguard for wife Suha Arafat.
In recent times, since the election of Hamas, he has continued in his role as security guard, these days accompanying VIPs as well as being the manager of security for international guests.
It was in this capacity that I met Abu Qusay and Hamza, a police officer who looked after internationals who came to Gaza on the Free Gaza Movement boats. Hamza was killed during the first attacks on 27 December 2008.
In one of Gaza’s coastal hotel cafes, Mediterranean seascape in the background and F-16 flying overhead, Abu Qusay related his story. He is a survivor of the first attacks, during which an estimated 60 Israeli warplanes simultaneously targeted approximately 100 police stations, police training academies, civil and governmental offices and other security-related posts throughout the Gaza Strip.
“We had a meeting at the presidential compound. There were about 15 of us and we’d entered the third floor meeting room shortly after 11am. I was sitting two seats away from the manager at the head of the table, with a friend in between us and the other attendees spread around the table. The manager was speaking when the first strikes hit.”
An F-16 flew low overhead, growling loudly. Abu Qusay stiffened, stopped speaking suddenly, resuming after a pause.
“The explosion itself was strange, unlike other bomb blasts. I felt an immense air pressure which pushed me to the ground. Then I heard the explosion of the buildings nearby. It was such a foreign sensation, I didn’t know what was going on.”
“I tried to open my eyes and found that I couldn’t. The air was thick with dust which blinded me. I felt something running down my face. I tried many times to open my eyes but the dust stung them so much that it was impossible for a while. Finally, I was able to keep them open but I still couldn’t see anything. Just a small hole of light. It seemed like I was facing a wall with a tiny break in it.
I felt someone’s foot at my head and told the person to get their shoe away from my face. I was still disoriented, still had no idea what had happened. I tried to push the shoe away but found that my arms were pinned behind me, as if handcuffed. There was still liquid streaming down my face and I realized it was blood.
“I began to hear the screaming and moaning of people around me. Then I heard a woman’s voice, which I recognized as one of my colleagues. Then Hamza’s voice, telling us to be patient.
“I felt the crushing weight moving off of me and then realized I was being pulled out from what had been burying me: concrete blocks and the rubble of our building. I realized that the third floor room where we had been meeting was now on the ground floor. Three floors brought down to ground level.
“I woke up at al-Shifa hospital, realized I’d passed out at the bomb site. Around me, all around me, all I could see were bodies. Corpses and wounded were scattered on the floor of the emergency room. There were so many, too many for the beds. People with legs and arms amputated. People with hideous open wounds.
It was surreal: I had been in a meeting, then was buried under rubble, then was surrounded by so much death. I couldn’t grasp it, couldn’t understand what had happened.
“I forgot myself, I lost myself. I forgot my pain when I saw a child who had been at a school near the Montada. His head was pierced with wounds. I got up, was walking around looking at everyone. I was absorbed by it. Doctors and others were telling me to sit down, stay put. Where are you going, you’re injured? they asked.
“Living in Gaza, we expect anything from Israel. Any attacks. We’ve lived through so many invasions and bombings. But I couldn’t believe this, couldn’t believe the scale of what they had done. And I didn’t even know about the other areas of Gaza at the time.”
More F-16s growled above as Abu Qusay continued his story.
“I used to drive ambulances. I’d learned how because I believe its important to broaden my skills, and I’m always trying to do so. But in all my days of driving ambulances, I’d never seen injuries and dead as horrific as what I saw that day. So many amputations, decapitations even.
“And I keep remembering that child, the one from the school nearby. Were there fighters in the school when Israel bombed nearby? What had that child done? What had any of us working for the government done? Could this ever happen to policemen in America, Canada or England? How can these criminals who would bomb in areas where there are civilians, children coming from school, who kill animals and uproot trees not be recognized as terrorists? They’ve committed massacres against us.”
Abu Qusay is obviously among the lucky, having survived the bombing with limbs intact. Like so many Palestinians in Gaza, though, he lost a number of friends in the attacks. I try to imagine how it would be to lose more than one friend, say 10, or more than one family member, say seven, or like the Samouni family, 48. It’s impossible to imagine.
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities and four months in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing. She is currently based in the Gaza Strip after having arrived with the third Free Gaza Movement boat in November. She has been working with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza, accompanying ambulances while witnessing and documenting the ongoing Israeli air strikes and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.