A distress call from my brother

People gather around a charging station for cell phones, portable power supplies and car batteries connected to a fuel-based electric generator at al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip, 11 December 2023. (Omar Ashtawy / APA Images) 

I’ve always asked myself: What is the toughest thing a human can face?

I’ve lost best friends and family members, and even this was not as tough as what I’m about to relate.

I felt as if I was a ghost. I heard my brother addressing me, but I couldn’t move.

I could only listen to his voice.

My brother Emad’s voice note arrived at 3:04 pm on 19 November.

He was saying goodbye. He was sure that Israel would kill him any second.

“Salam, Khaled. How are you?” he asked. “I hope everything is fine with you. Surely, things are better on your end, at least you got out of Gaza, even if for treatment.”

My brother Emad is 25 years old. At the beginning of November, he had refused to head toward southern Gaza.

He was still in Jabaliya, north of Gaza, with my grandparents. They had no internet, no news, no radio: nothing.

“We don’t know where the occupation forces have reached and what they are doing,” Emad said with a deep sigh.

He started counting the number of people who had all sheltered at our grandparent’s house. There were 26 people.

Everyone had fled there from the farthest north.

But the occupation forces were close to Jabaliya. They had already reached (and destroyed) the Sheikh Radwan area, which is close to my grandparent’s home.

“Our area, al-Nazla, still has people,” Emad said. “I don’t know how many. I don’t know if they will stay or not. I don’t know if the occupation forces will leave us or not. I just don’t know.”

Israeli bombardments

The situation was tragic. My family was willing to go south, but the situation was unclear due to the communications blackout.

They didn’t know if they would be able to find a car or if they had to go through checkpoints. They didn’t know if there were so-called safe corridors or if they were allowed to carry luggage.

In the background of my brother’s voice note, I heard the firing of artillery shells.

He continued to speak to me: “Yesterday, the artillery shells reached our street, and the whole neighborhood was fleeing and escaping empty-handed, carrying nothing, not even bags. I don’t know where they were going. I don’t know.”

He said that “white phosphorus is observed here and there, shells are falling, and shrapnel is scattered everywhere. Some shells reached grandpa’s house already.”

The shelling intensified in the background of his message.

“Here is one shell that has fallen very close,” he said. “Only God knows where it has fallen.”

“So, let me be clear, Khaled,” he said, “I’m living my last days. I wanted to send you my regards and let you hear my voice. Perhaps these might be the last words you would hear from me.”

Emad was quiet for about two minutes. I could hear him quietly sobbing.

He said he was looking for a car to get him and his wife to the safe corridor, but it was difficult.

“Those who have cars are either hesitant to venture out or they have already evacuated.”

Another shell interrupted his message, but he continued to speak.

Everyone had told Emad that he wouldn’t be able to make it south, but he was determined to try.

“If, God willing, we manage to cross this checkpoint safely, I hope that the situation in the south will be better. Perhaps there will be some form of communication. At least, I hope to talk to you, Khaled, and deliver this message.”

A dangerous journey to the south

Emad made it farther south, to Abu Iskander in Gaza City. He continued to tell me about his journey there.

“I arrived there around 2:05 pm,” he said, “when the occupation forces started bombing the area. People scattered everywhere in the streets, and the shells started hitting the ground, exploding in the air, falling on cars, on people, on buildings, everywhere.”

He said he believed that the shells exploding in the air emitted white phosphorus. This was the first time he felt like he was in a war zone.

The shells came from all directions, and there was no pause, not even a minute, so he could escape the area.

“I ran for 10 minutes without stopping,” he said. “The streets were full of shrapnel, with holes releasing gas. I don’t know how I got out alive. But Israel kept shelling again for about a whole hour. White phosphorus covered the entire neighborhood, making it hard to see anything and causing suffocation.”

Take care of our mother

My brother never thought of leaving Gaza. His situation was calm and stable.

He was married and had a job. He had a home and bought a TV in installments, which he was trying to pay off.

“I don’t know if this message will reach you,” he said. “But I’m sharing all that’s on my mind because it might be the last time we talk.”

“Whether we stay alive or God takes us to Him, pray for us and take care of yourself. Take care of our family: our father, mother, and three sisters. You might remain the only son for them, so take care of them, especially mama. OK, Khaled habibi?”

The voice note ended. I received the note on 19 November.

I didn’t hear from my brother again until 8 December, when he finally made it to Egypt.

Israel didn’t permit my father Muhammad to accompany them out of Gaza. He is still in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city.

We hope to see him soon, alive.

My other 26 family members, including my grandparents, my uncle and three aunts, are still in Jabaliya.

We lost communication with them two weeks ago. I am not sure if they are safe.

But I hope they are still alive.

Khaled El-Hissy is a journalist from Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip. Twitter: @khpalestined