Disaster in Gaza’s darkness

All three of Omar Huzeen’s children were killed in a fire on 1 September. 

Ashraf Amra APA images

Every morning for the past two weeks, Omar Huzeen has sat down outside what remains of his home. He thinks constantly about the fire that killed all three of his children.

The three boys had spent 1 September with their grandfather. When they returned to their parents that evening, the family had dinner, after which 2-year-old Muhammad asked for a drink of milk.

There was no milk at home, so Omar went searching for some.

“I put a candle beside the window to light the room and went to see my mother,” said Omar. “But she didn’t have milk at her home and most of the supermarkets were closed due to the lockdown. I finally managed to buy some milk and came home. By the time I returned, our house was on fire.”

Muhammad and his brothers Yusif and Mahmoud – aged 5 and 4 respectively – were trapped in the blaze.

Their mother, Khuloud, had been at home when the fire began. Although she escaped from the house, she was unable to enter her sons’ bedroom.

When Omar returned, he tried to smash the windows and break down the door on the asbestos-roofed house in an attempt to rescue his children.

His neighbors called the civil defense service. With Gaza under a curfew because of a COVID-19 outbreak, it took 45 minutes before the firefighters arrived.

That was too late. When the three boys were brought to al-Aqsa hospital in central Gaza, they were declared dead.

It is believed the fire was started by the candle which Omar had lit.

Growing up with blackouts

Nobody in Nuseirat refugee camp – where the Huzeen family lives – views the fire as an isolated tragedy. It took place at a time when Israel had tightened its siege of Gaza.

The candle had to be lit as the only alternative was darkness. Nuseirat – like other parts of Gaza – had only a few hours of electricity per day in early September.

Israel had caused severe power outages by banning fuel deliveries to Gaza’s sole power station in August. The ban was presented as a response to incendiary balloons that some Palestinians were flying toward southern Israel.

Once again, Israel had decided to violate international law by subjecting everyone in Gaza to collective punishment.

Omar Huzeen bought the candle that probably started the fire on the morning of 1 September.

He needed candles as the batteries on the LED lights in his home kept on being depleted. Without a regular supply of electricity, it was impossible to recharge the batteries sufficiently often.

Omar was trying to provide for his family with very meager resources.

He had previously found work as a farm laborer and on building sites. Yet he had been unemployed for the previous three months.

“Imagine that children all over the world grow up playing with toys and eating delicious food,” Omar said. “My children grew up with electricity blackouts. Yusif thought that power cuts occurred in every country. The children didn’t realize that they were born into a situation where they were deprived of basic rights.”

The boys’ mother, Khuloud, cannot fathom what has happened to her family. She recalled that Yusif was looking forward to starting school.

“His happiness didn’t last long,” Khuloud said. “The schools here have been closed since the coronavirus outbreak. And now Yusif and his two brothers have burned to death.”

Mahmoud, the children’s grandfather, noted that Nuseirat’s residents were “shocked that lighting a candle could lead to death.”

“All countries around the world are developing solar and nuclear energy,” Mahmoud added. “Yet we are struggling to have any electricity.”

Fitting a pattern

It was not the first deadly fire in Nuseirat this year.

In March, a fire engulfed the neighborhood’s market. A total of 22 people lost their lives as a result.

It took place, too, against a backdrop of fuel shortages.

The shortages are widely considered to have been a contributory factor.

The disaster which has afflicted the Huzeen family is eerily reminiscent of an April 2012 fire that broke out in Deir al-Balah – just a few kilometers from Nuseirat.

That fire was similarly attributed to a candle which had been lit because of a power outage. The fire also caused the deaths of three young siblings.

The Gaza-based human rights group Al Mezan has documented a pattern of such incidents. It has calculated that 35 Palestinians, including 28 children, have died under comparable circumstances since 2010.

Al Mezan’s director, Issam Younis, pointed out that power outages have been a regular consequence of Israel’s siege on Gaza. Families in dire poverty are at particular risk when they try to light their homes.

“If the electricity crisis continues, the problems will get worse,” Younis said. “And the number of victims will rise.”

Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.