On the floors of genocide: sand, shit, decomposing flesh and odd slippers

Preparing a mass grave in Rafah, southern Gaza. 

Mohammed Talatene DPA via ZUMA Press

Denied access to the world and hemmed in on land by barbed wire and electric fences, the Mediterranean shores used to be the singular place for Palestinians in Gaza to breathe in the majesty of God’s earth.

It’s where families went for fun, where lovers went to deepen their connections, where friends sat in the sand and confided in one another.

It’s where people went to think and contemplate a world so ungenerous to them.

Where they went to dance, smoke shisha and make memories.

But now those shores are torture.

As a coastal region, Gaza’s soil is sandy, even further inland. With nearly 75 percent of her population now living in makeshift tents, sand gets into everything.

It’s in the food, what little of it there is, an unwelcome grit in every bite. It clumps everyone’s hair, all the time.

It gets under the hijab, which women are now forced to wear all the time for lack of privacy. Their scalps constantly itch, and people are increasingly shaving their heads, a particularly painful decision for women and girls, which is yet another detail of this purposeful degradation of a whole society.

The lucky ones who have access to clean water can get a few hours respite before the authority of sand imposes itself again.

Wherever there is sand, there are tiny sand crabs, and more insects will follow as the weather warms.

A friend sent me photos of what she thought was a skin rash on her extremities, hoping I could consult with physicians for her. I recognized right away they were likely bug bites and two doctors confirmed my suspicion.

She swore she had been meticulous about cleaning her sleeping space daily, but the doctors explained such bugs could be too small to see. These microscopic assailants on her skin broke her a little, even though she had already endured the unendurable – indiscriminate bombs and bullets, lack of everything, gruesome scenes of death and dismemberment almost daily, the constant mind-scrambling buzzing of drones, deterioration of family members who need unavailable medications, and the inability to just go home.


The details of an ancient society being reduced to the most elemental primal ambitions is painful to witness. A friend who lived in a beautiful “smart home” apartment with modern amenities, who taught elementary school and ran children’s recreational after-school programs now structures her days around two awful visits to an outdoor toilet shared by hundreds of people.

It’s a putrid hole in the ground topped by a bucket that cuts into the skin. She doesn’t know where it leads but “it doesn’t flush, of course,” she says.

Some people do their business outside the hole on the dirt floor, and so she must walk in shit sometimes. It has four plastic walls, but no ceiling, adding another layer of humiliation when it rains.

The very early morning is the best time to go because the line is shorter. She is careful when she eats or drinks, lest she need to go at the wrong time.

Her 6-year-old daughter is learning to hold it as long as possible. Her older boy can accompany his father at work where there’s a functioning toilet, but all he feels is guilt when he relieves himself, his mother tells me.

I brought her some basic toiletries, and she nearly cried at the touch of skin lotion.

“I keep thinking I’m going to wake up one day and realize this was all just a bad dream,” she says.

Terrible trail

It’s a sentiment I heard many times from different people in different parts of Gaza. The denigration of their lives has been so acute and rapid that the mind can barely comprehend reality.

“I never imagined this could ever be my life,” she says and then pauses, adding, “but I don’t feel I have a right to complain because at least my family is still alive.”

This too is something I heard repeatedly from people in Rafah.

They feel guilty to have survived so far. They feel privileged because they have food, however rancid or inadequate, while their friends, neighbors and other family members are slowly starving in northern and north-middle areas.

These are people who walked for hours with their hands up, mocked and taunted by Israeli soldiers along the way, terrified of looking down or bending to pick something up because that was cause for a sniper’s bullet, a fate many met along the way. Nearly everyone had their belongings looted by soldiers, who littered the road with whatever they didn’t want.

“My kids also saw dead people and human body parts on the side of the road in different states of decomposition. What will those images do in their heads?” she says.

Her 8-year-old son lost his left shibshib (slipper sandals) as they walked that terrible trail, but he had to keep walking with only the remaining one, because looking down or, worse, bending down, could get him killed.

Though he had remained stoic through unimaginable terror, the loss of his shoe is what dismantled his composure. He cried off and on, refusing his mother’s shibshib, until a fellow refugee walking alongside them, hands raised in the same fear, managed to scoot a discarded shibshib along the road toward him.

“Luckily it was the left foot so he had a pair again, even though they were mismatched,” his mother said.

susan abulhawa is a writer and activist. She visited Gaza in February and early March.