Don’t be afraid: Tahrir’s last words

People stand next to the rubble of a mosque in Jabaliya refugee camp. The mosque was destroyed in a missile strike during Israel's 2008-09 war on Gaza

People gather round the rubble of what was once the Imad Aqel mosque in Jabaliya. Five sisters in an adjacent house died in the Israeli attack that leveled the mosque and much around it. 

Mohammed Salem Reuters

Some things fade with time. Others – often the traumatic stuff – never leaves us.

Ten years ago, Israel launched a major offensive on Gaza.

It was meticulously prepared, down to the detail of ensuring it happened over Christmas, when much of the world’s western media was away.

It happened in spite of a six-month ceasefire agreed earlier in 2008, which had begun to unravel after an Israeli raid into Gaza on 4 November – the same date as a US presidential election.

By the time it was over, the so-called Operation Cast Lead had lasted over three weeks. It left more than 1,400 Palestinians, among them some 1,200 civilians, dead.


Tahrir Balousha was a childhood friend, a neighbor and a schoolmate. Our mothers remain close. We always used to compete in school, vying to see who would get higher grades by the end of the year.

When we started our last year of high school in 2008, I bet her that I would get better grades than her. Tahrir had her sights set higher. She wanted to finish in the top 10 in all of Gaza.

On 27 December 2008, we had our first mock Arabic language exam. We finished around 11am and on my way home, I met Tahrir. We had a short chat about family and the exam and said goodbye.

The explosions came about half an hour later. It was like an earthquake and in minutes, smoke was all around.

It took a moment for me to realize what was happening. But then strikes targeted Jabaliya refugee camp – where I live – and I understood: War had started.

I was still in the street when it all began. I dropped my school bag in an alley and joined some men who volunteered to organize the traffic to help people reach their homes quickly.

It was exactly the way you might imagine doomsday happening: chaos, noise, adrenaline, fear.

It would be two hours before I managed to return home where, luckily, I found my parents and siblings all safe. The family gathered around the radio where they started to announce the names of martyrs and the numbers of those whose fate remained unknown. The presenter urged anyone missing relatives or loved ones to come to hospitals to identify victims.

It turned out the attacks that day targeted mostly government institutions, including dozens of civilian police stations in a violation of international law, as the UN later determined.

More than 225 people were killed on that first day. Among them, and shockingly for me, I knew 10.

I considered myself close to two, both of whom worked with the police. Taysir Wishah was the calm one. Fayiz Abu al-Qumsan always laughed so easily.

Attack on the mosque

During the first few days of Cast Lead, Israeli warplanes targeted the Imad Aqel mosque in the middle of Jabaliya camp. The mosque was devastated, one of what would eventually total 34 mosques to be completely destroyed during the Israeli onslaught.

Samira Balousha, Tahrir’s mother, later told me that she heard nothing at the time.

“We were all asleep. Suddenly I woke up, feeling something heavy on my chest. It was a piece of concrete.”

Tahrir’s house was right next to the Imad Aqel mosque. She lived in a simple concrete structure with an asbestos roof. It housed Tahrir, her parents and nine siblings.

“It was difficult to move,” Samira, now 46, remembered. “But I was able to remove the block from my chest and started looking for my children.”

Anwar, her husband, also survived the strike.

Together, they first found their youngest, Baraa, just two weeks. She was safe.

Neighbors had started to arrive to look for survivors. They found 18-month-old Muhammad, the only son, also alive and well.

Samira never made it into her daughters’ bedroom. “I fainted and they took me to the hospital. All I remember is that their room was full of rubble.”

I saw it on TV. Live. Al-Aqsa TV footage showed rescuers bringing out bodies, one by one. Next to me, my mother named them as they came out.

She knew them well.

The last one to come out was Tahrir.

Five girls were killed in that house that day: Tahrir, 17, Ikram, 14, Samar, 12, Dunia, 7, and Jawaher, 4.

I finally lost it. I went to my room and started to cry. I banged my head against the wall. I was hysterical.

“I will never forget that day,” said Iman, one of the sisters who survived. Iman is now 26 and married with two children. She had been in the room with the rest of her sisters and remembers Tahrir’s last words, after the missile had struck.

“She told us not to be afraid and pray to God for our survival. Then her voice stopped and we started crying.”

I will never stop imagining what Tahrir would have made of herself. She was smart and ambitious and dreamed of making a difference for herself and her family.

Bread rations

On the sixth day of war, 3 January, the Israeli army began its ground invasion. Our house in Jabaliya camp began playing host to several relatives who evacuated their homes.

Eventually, in our 150 square meter house, we were 60 relatives, among them 30 children.

Together, we shared nights without electricity, water or cooking gas. The Israeli planes targeted the telecommunications network and we were cut off from the rest of the world.

At night, the children were scared by the loud explosions. It was cold. We did not have enough blankets to cover us all. I slept in a coat I borrowed from my father.

The days were no less awful. I would not venture far from the house, and go nowhere after dark.

After a week, the food ran out and my father did not have enough money to feed everyone. My mother had to sell some of her gold jewellery to buy food.

Bread was a luxury. Many bakeries or shops were shut or empty. And no one could bake at home, since cooking gas was scarce.

On one day, before sunset, the women in the house kneaded some 200 loaves of bread and asked me to search for a mud oven. I asked around and heard of one at the house of the Abu Taqiya family, about one kilometer away in the western part of the camp.

I put the unbaked bread on a wooden board on my head and walked there, but when I arrived I found another 20 people waiting for their turn to bake. Since they were all immediate neighbors, they agreed to let me go first: I had the furthest to walk home and needed to get back before nightfall.

It was getting dark, before the bread was ready. I put the the tray back on my head, but left it uncovered in case the pilots overhead were looking down. If they could see me, I reasoned, they would see I was only carrying food.

My heart pounded, my pulse quickened and I walked as fast as I could. Above me I could the roar of fighter jets. I felt they were chasing me.

When I made it home, my mother could see the fear in my eyes. She hugged me and I started to cry from sheer relief at being alive.

That fear was felt by everyone in Gaza. Some have much more harrowing stories than mine. Some were wounded and hurt, lost loved ones or their homes.

None of us will forget those dark days and cold nights.

Nor will I ever forget those who didn’t make it, like Tahrir.

I survived. I lost my exam competitor. But I did well enough eventually. Well enough to study journalism and with a mission now to document, faithfully, Israel’s crimes in Gaza.

Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.