Close calls with death

A building beside Shahd Safi’s home after it was bombed by Israel. 

Shahd Safi

It was just before midnight on 10 October. I was in the living room with my family.

We were worried about the explosions we were hearing. Israel’s warplanes were flying above us.

Suddenly, we heard a lot of noise. People were running and yelling.

We could sense that something was wrong.

My mother rushed to open the door. All our neighbors were running out of their homes.

“What’s happening?” my brother asked a neighbor.

“They want to bomb the building,” our neighbor replied. “Get out with your family now!”

Shocked by what he had just been told, my brother shouted, “Our building is going to be bombed.”

My mother was already wearing her jilbab. She had a feeling in her gut that something bad was going to happen.

She and my eldest brother ran to the door.

I wasn’t prepared properly. So I covered myself with a scarf and followed my mother.

I noticed that my youngest sister wasn’t with us, so I rushed back into our home and found her trying to catch Layla, our terrified cat. My sister held Lalya in her arms and followed us.

Everyone in our building evacuated through the backyard. They went into the area behind the building.

Then, we went to our aunt’s house. It was the closest place we could go by foot.

Just a few minutes later, we heard the bombing begin.

And we realized what it feels like when everything you have is gone – except your soul.

I was confused.

Should I feel happy to be alive? Or sad that my laptop, books, clothes and memories have all been bombed?

After another few minutes, we got a phone call. We learned that it wasn’t our building which had been bombed but the one right next to it.

Our building was still affected. All the windows were smashed.

Thank God, nobody had been killed.

Although my family and I had prepared emergency bags, we had left them at home, rushing out with only the clothes on our bodies and the phones in our hands.

No safe place

The next morning, my mother was too scared to return to our building. She decided to go to our grandparents’ house, believing it would be safer there.

But there is no such thing as a safe place in Gaza. When we are under attack, everyone and everything is targeted.

We have no shelters in Gaza except for schools run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), and they have been targeted by Israel previously.

While in our grandparents’ house, we received news that an internet and phone company in Gaza had been bombed. As a result there would be no internet.

Israel has also cut off water and electricity.

The news was devastating. How would we be able to charge our phones? How could we contact people to assure them we are ok and have them assure us they are ok, too?

We thought, too, about our sister who is studying law in Algeria. How could we keep in touch with her?

How would we be able to wash our clothes, take showers, watch the news? How could we adapt and live in this terrible situation?

No choice

We had no other choice but to adapt.

We have tried to consume as little water as possible, buying dry and canned food such as beans and macaroni. We have washed our clothes by hand.

We have taken cold showers, even though the weather was cold.

We have used our phones to light our gloomy nights, charging them at our neighbors’ home which had solar energy.

We have used radios to hear the news and we have depended on internet cards. With them, however, we have very weak connections.

I have barely been able to contact friends. I am a freelance journalist and a teacher of English and Arabic but now that we are under attack, I have stopped working, even though I still have opportunities to work.

Without reliable internet, I have not been able to teach my online classes.

I have been unable to share what’s happening in Gaza through my social media accounts. I have been unable to publish essays I have written about our situation.

I have felt silenced and powerless.

It has hurt to read messages online asking whether I was still alive. That has happened regularly when I accessed the internet every few days.

I was already scared by the thought of being killed by Israel. Everything in Gaza offers a reminder of how you can be killed.

I might be next

Whenever I go online, I’m reminded of my fears.

I was shocked by a Facebook post saying my friend Yousef Dawas was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

He was so kind and fun to be around, a dynamic and ambitious person. Like me.

Learning that he had been killed reminded me that I might be the next to die.

When I logged on to the internet recently, I saw a picture of a shroud covering an entire family killed by Israel. Only pieces of the bodies were retrieved, and one shroud was enough to cover them all.

That was a reminder that my family could suffer the same fate.

Our uncles have noticed our fears, irritability and boredom. To distract us, they have tried to cheer us up with family games.

We have played tennis together inside the house, truth or dare, card games and puzzles. Some of my cousins read novels.

I have tried to study, as I was meant to take exams before the attack. Even though the exams have been postponed, I was hoping that instead of wasting time, I could study and get myself ready.

I study English literature and methods of education and I’m in my last year now. If I’m lucky, I’ll graduate soon.

On the morning of 17 October, I woke up full of energy. I cleaned the living room, where my family and I sleep.

My mother was preparing breakfast. My siblings were playing cards with our cousins.

I took out my book bag and was about to sit and study. But the intense noise of bombardment rattled us.

I thought we were being bombed, as the building was shaking so badly. The windows broke. Everyone was yelling.

My little cousins were crying. I think I ran to the door, where I found my mother and siblings standing with cousins and uncles.

No one knew what to do until my uncle Abed, who had been outside, came in and soothed us, taking us back to the living room. It turned out that a building right next to our grandparents’ home was totally destroyed with its residents inside.

My uncle was very close, but thank God none of my relatives were hurt.

At least 13 martyrs were pulled out from under the rubble. Three people were killed standing near the building.

A few minutes later, we could see the ambulances and civil defense workers coming with a bulldozer. They started digging and pulling dead and torn bodies out from under the rubble.

We could see that clearly through the broken windows. My mother and some cousins started crying heavily.

I also had a strong urge to cry, but I didn’t. I knew what everyone was thinking as I also was thinking the same thing.

We all visualized ourselves being pulled from under the rubble in pieces – like the people who had just been killed. And if it was not us, then somebody dear and close.

What if that happens to us? Where can we be safe?

If my eyes run across the ceiling, I visualize it falling over and shattering my body.

And if I look through the windows, I’m terrified shrapnel will tear into my body. If I escape to the streets, a building might collapse on me.

How do I protect myself?

Shahd Safi is a journalist and teacher in Gaza.