Friends lost and children orphaned

People carry a bier through a street

Mourners attend the funeral of journalist Yousef Abu Hussein.

Hatem Rawagh APA images

Muhammad, my oldest uncle, died of complications from COVID-19 at 69 on the second day of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip last month.

He was buried on 12 May. It all happened in a rush. All around us were the sounds of war, the booms and bombs, the sirens, an almost audible sense of panic.

A police station and a building near the cemetery in Beit Lahiya where my uncle was laid to rest had been served notice that they were targets for Israel’s military.

Muhammad’s funeral took just 10 minutes.

13 May

One of the friends who phoned me at the end of that day was Taher al-Madhoun.

Taher and I have known each other since school. Al-Madhoun is a large family with a tradition for doctors. Taher had just started a job a month earlier at the intensive care unit of the Indonesian Hospital. A sister and two brothers are studying medicine at Ain Shams University in Egypt.

Taher and I spoke for 30 minutes. He offered his condolences over the death of my uncle and told me he was there if I needed any support. After a while, we began talking about the Israeli aggression.

I remember we were trying to figure out why this started. We both praised the steadfastness of people here across the Gaza Strip. Before we hung up, he said nowhere was safe and that we should both take care.

Four hours later, at 12:30 am on 13 May, we heard news of another Israeli air raid. I know the time, because I was constantly and anxiously looking at my watch.

Twelve locations had been struck in the space of 90 seconds, all in the Zayed complex – a housing project built with Emirati money in an area on the edge of Jabaliya refugee camp where I live.

Five minutes on and more news began to filter through. From residents in the area and journalists who had gone to the scene, I learned that the raids had hit at least seven two-story buildings.

One was Taher’s.

A cousin of mine, Muhammad, who lives in the area, told me people could be heard screaming under the rubble of some of the targeted houses.

Firemen were racing against time to save those still alive under the rubble.

One hour passed. None had been extracted.

Two hours passed. The sound of screaming faded. A distant sound of moaning could still be heard from Taher’s house.

Three hours passed. The firemen had located the source of the sound. It was Taher. When they finally reached him, he was unconscious. He was taken to the nearest ICU.

Taher was the only survivor of the three people inside that house. His father, Abdel Raheem and mother, Halima, were both killed. Nine relatives who would normally have been there were spared, having spent the evening at a brother’s house.

In one of the nearby houses, the entire al-Tanani family was murdered. Four kids, a pregnant mother, and a father were all killed under the rubble.

It’s not clear why the Israelis targeted the bloc. Some say one of the houses there belonged to a leader in the resistance. But that house stood empty. Did the Israeli military really destroy the entire bloc because of one empty house?

It took two days before Taher opened his eyes. I saw him a day before writing this. He told me that his parents had rushed to his side when the strikes started, that he had seen them take their last breaths.

He is not the person I knew. When I saw him he was withdrawn and pale. His thoughts are far away from himself. Before the Israeli assault, he was due to be married. Now, he told me, in the three hours we talked, he wants nothing: no family, no wedding, nothing.

15 May

On the morning of 15 May, on the day Palestinians mark the 1948 Nakba, the north of Gaza was bombed heavily.

Some of the areas most affected were to the east of Jabaliya refugee camp, including Qalibo Hill, where the Israeli military destroyed the mosque.

I have many friends in Qalibo. Some of my former neighbors moved there recently hoping to escape the camp.

Ahmad al-Mansi, 35, moved there with his younger brother Yousef, 26, a traffic police officer. When the bombing started, and they heard screams from the street, they rushed to help. While they were looking for casualties, they were targeted by what health ministry sources later said was a drone. They were both killed immediately along with a third person, Ahmad Sabbah.

I have been shaken to the core several times during this past aggression. This was one of them. Ahmad al-Mansi was different. He worked as an officer in Gaza’s internal security service. He was intellectual and calm.

Two days before he was killed, he had asked his wife, Nesma, to move to her father’s house with their three children, Sarah, 12, Malek, 10, and Hala, 6, to be safer.

Before that, and in the first days of the aggression, Ahmad spent most of his time with his kids. He recorded several videos and uploaded them to YouTube. He wanted to keep his children busy with making videos rather than listening to the constant bombing around them.

Ahmad taught me to give everything to my family. It had to be from the heart, he would say. That must be the priority.

“I don’t know how to live without Ahmad,” said Nesma. “I can’t stop my children from crying. I can’t stop them from asking about their father.”

19 May

As the days wore on, my capacity to feel dimmed. Taher’s fate shook me, Ahmad’s death shocked. But after 12 of my friends had their homes flattened in Israeli raids, bad news became normal news.

Life was borrowed and I fully expected to die.

Sorrow was everywhere and with everyone.

And still.

On the ninth day of the aggression, journalists kept ourselves alert by working – hard and constantly.

My colleague Yousef Abu Hussein, 32, was a presenter with al-Aqsa Radio.

For two consecutive days, Yousef had brought the news, round the clock, a voice in the darkness. Finally overcome with tiredness, he went home to get some sleep.

That morning, his father’s house, where he lived, was bombed. He was killed in his sleep.

His father, Muhammad, 66, remembered how his son had come home, eaten an apple and a banana and gone straight to bed.

“He felt it was his patriotic duty to report the news. In the last days, that’s all he did. Work and sleep.”

Yousef’s brother Nafez was killed in an airstrike in 2005. Nafez had three children when he was killed. Yousef had four, aged from 10 to 5. They are all now the responsibility of their grandfather.

Yousef’s oldest son Salah, 10, led the funeral procession. Headstrong and quick-witted, he has inherited his father’s sharp tongue.

One day, he told me, “I am going to be like my father, a news presenter and reporter.”

Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist based in Gaza.