The morning of 27 December 2008 was as any other. My 14-year-old self put on a worn pale-blue school uniform, prepared my heavy bag and ran – late as usual – to catch the bus.
The bus stopped near my home in the Tal al-Hawa area of Gaza City, and there was the normal hubbub. Schoolchildren were crossing the road, young kids were crowding by the bus, hustling to get in.
On the short ride to our UNRWA school, I was chatting to my younger brother Salah, who was 9 at the time, about the cake we’d enjoyed the day before for our older brother Mahmoud’s birthday.
Just as we walked out of the bus the earth literally shook beneath my feet. Unbelievably loud explosions drowned out the screams and cries of those around me. My heart skipped several beats and all I really remember during the confusion was pulling my brother into the bus and down to the floor and holding on to him tightly.
I didn’t know it then, but at that moment – 10 minutes before our usual school assembly and 30 minutes ahead of the Saturday noon start for lessons – Israel had struck dozens of targets around the Gaza Strip in 100 near-simultaneous airstrikes. At least four were in the vicinity of the school.
Children poured out of the school, a human deluge of panicking students and teachers. Our bus driver ordered us back into the bus and tried to rush us all home. But traffic jams paralyzed the unpaved streets and people ran in all different directions.
No one knew where to seek refuge as giant black clouds of smoke smothered the city and obscured the horizon.
Desperately seeking sanctuary
The road home was blocked with rubble. Near the Arafat City government compound – right on our route – which was also the police headquarters, the rubble was mixed with blood and body parts.
Ninety-nine police cadets and officers were killed in those first moments, struck by five missiles as they were doing morning exercises and undergoing a routine inspection in the yard. There was chaos, with people pulling bodies from the rubble, ambulances zipping in and out of traffic, going this way and that, as new emergencies kept coming in.
The bus could not get us all the way back so my brother and I had to walk and run the last bit home. Tal al-Hawa saw several airstrikes on that first day, including on a former Preventive Security headquarters and the al-Asra tower block built – though never completed – to house those who had once been prisoners of Israel.
There was rubble everywhere and when we got to our house, my brother and I were terrified at what we might find. The outer walls were scarred with shrapnel, and inside, the floor was covered in broken windows, chunks of concrete that could have come from our walls or the fallen tower. Nothing and no one stirred inside. Fortunately, no one had been at home.
We asked a neighbor to call our mother, but the phone network seemed to be down. Unable to move and not knowing what else to do, we just sat and stared through the hole in the wall where the front window had been, waiting. Outside, we saw an empty dust-filled space where al-Asra tower had previously loomed.
My mother and four siblings eventually managed to find their way home (my father had passed away seven months earlier). We packed our bags, hoping we might be able to leave Gaza to find sanctuary in a family house in Cairo.
But we soon learned that it was too late. Both Egypt and Israel closed their crossings to Gaza at the moment of first strike and they would remain closed throughout the three weeks of Israel’s brutal offensive. We had nowhere to go.
Fish in a barrel
As the days wore on, the assault intensified. And the more we heard the names of friends and acquaintances broadcast as among the dead, the more this fate seemed certain for us.
We pushed the furniture against the windows and gathered together in the living room. We hugged every night as if for the last time, before we struggled to steal an hour of sleep. Above us, the sky lit up what seemed like every other second with airstrikes and artillery fire.
I regularly had to venture out to bring food home. There was little out there except for ruins and rubble. Israeli “evacuation leaflets” were scattered around, urging us to leave our homes; as if we had anywhere to go.
We were just fish in a barrel at which the Israelis shot without restraint. Hospitals were bombed, UNRWA schools were targeted. Death waited in every corner, and there were constant reports of overcrowded mortuaries where they had run out of freezers to store corpses.
With drones and warplanes in the sky above me and the shadow of death following close behind, I would walk an hour and queue for several more to secure the few loaves of bread that barely kept my family of seven alive.
Every step was taken in fear: I feared the buildings near me might collapse on my head or the cars next to me blow up. I worried that when I returned my home and my family would be no more.
On 3 January, Israeli troops invaded Gaza. As the reports came in, we were horrified at the scorched-earth strategy employed in border areas.
Over the days, they closed in on our neighborhood. Then one night, while listening to the radio, my oldest brother, Ahmad, 20 then, heard an unusual dragging sound. He shushed us and in that instant there was a burst of heavy machine-gun fire and shelling. The tanks had reached us.
We fell to the floor and crawled to the door, heading for the basement, which was also, unusually in Gaza, a garage.
There we sat, seven people in our small car, torn between waiting for rescue or trying to escape. Then the air filled with a garlic-like odor. We already knew it was white phosphorus … bad news travels fast in war.
The phosphorus rained down on the area like hellfire. We covered our faces with wet clothes and shut off the air conditioner, which we had turned on to get some air circulating in the car.
Every second seemed a lifetime. We were scared to make noise. We were scared to sleep. We did not dare move. We whispered and trembled for six hours until silence came with dawn. All this time, the Red Cross couldn’t enter the area. In the morning, a press vehicle evacuated us from the area, but there was no safe place to go. In the end, we decided to stay with relatives.
“If we are to die,” my mother said, “let us be together until the last moment.”
That day, our neighborhood fell. Later, I would hear how, at gunpoint, Israeli soldiers gathered the kids of the area into one apartment and asked them to snitch on members of Hamas in the neighborhood.
A mentally ill neighbor tried to attack a tank with a hammer, but was disarmed, detained, handcuffed and shoved onto the floor of the tank. (The man, Muhammad Ahmad, was taken into custody and not released for a year).
A neighbor was praying alone when a tank shell crashed through his home and put him in a coma. He survived, but still suffers severe migraines. The Red Cross wasn’t allowed to evacuate civilians for two days. Many died.
By then, Israel had almost entirely re-occupied Gaza. Troops had invaded from the north, east and southeast until they almost met in the center of the Gaza Strip. And then the army began to retreat.
On 18 January, it declared a ceasefire and announced that the aim of the war had not been to end Hamas rule in Gaza, but to restore Israel’s “deterrence capacity” after its chastening 2006 assault on Lebanon and Hizballah.
When we went back to our neighborhood, it was almost unrecognizable. Houses were pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holes, buildings had been destroyed by shells. Everything was turned upside down.
Our own home was severely damaged, the furniture destroyed, its wooden doors broken into pieces.
In the weeks and months that followed, people waited anxiously for justice to be served.
We had hoped the much-publicized UN inquiry into the assault would do exactly that. And it might have had we not been betrayed in the end by our own Palestinian Authority, which had kept largely silent during the Israeli onslaught.
We learned that the PA agreed to delay a vote in the UN on the Goldstone report after US pressure and in exchange, reports said – reports I believe – get an Israeli license to allow the Wataniya mobile phone company to operate.
Justice was sold and our people betrayed.
I was only 14 back then. Today, after two further Israeli military onslaughts, the constant fear I first felt in those days has become chronic. Sleep is hard: nightmares and memories prey on my mind. Loved ones are always exposed to danger.
My youngest brother, Yousef, was only a year old back then. He was passed from one person’s shoulder to another’s and survived that onslaught only to live through another two attacks in his short life.
Now, at the age of 10, his most vivid memories are of us hiding in the basement during military assaults, praying in silence, being trapped in darkness and isolated from the world, betrayed by everyone, and left to outwit fate in order to steal just another year of life.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip. He can be followed on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2