A Gaza neighborhood ripped apart

Shujaiya in January 2015.

Ashraf Amra APA images

In Gaza City’s Shujaiya neighborhood, on al-Mansoura Street, a mother and father, six sons and a daughter lived together in one apartment.

The five older sons were married, yet they could not afford their own apartments. They decided to take out a loan and used it to build three stories on top of the ground floor for their families.

All six families crammed into the ground floor apartment during Israel’s offensive in 2014. The father, Yousef Rebhi Jendia, read the Quran out loud to calm everyone’s nerves. But they were forced to leave when the bombing grew closer.

When they left, the streets were empty. The air was filled with dust and smoke as shells rained down. It was difficult to see even a few feet ahead. Suddenly one of them screamed. It was the daughter; she had tripped over the body of a boy from the neighboring Ayyad family and had fallen to the ground next to him.

Destroyed neighborhood

When a friend and I visited the family months later, many houses in the neighborhood were destroyed or badly damaged. Posters with photos and names of the dead were plastered everywhere; next to them were verses from the Quran.

Other walls bore graffiti encouraging people to remain steadfast; some congratulated a newlywed. I thought about the irony of the way that we Palestinians mix our deaths and sorrows with weddings and life.

A complex of six trailers had been placed next to each other for the extended Jendia family, whose home was destroyed by Israel’s bombs. There was no door, only a piece of fabric with a zipper that opened from the inside.

I knocked on the wall of the trailer. Yousef unzipped the curtain and allowed us in. There was a narrow corridor that was in fact the space between two trailers. There Yousef invited us to sit down. There were armchairs, small tables and a bed that was used as a sofa. Above us was a sheet that covered the space between the trailers and provided protection from the sun.

Yousef described what happened on the morning of 20 July 2014, when his family had to flee their home.

“People started to say Allahu akbar [God is great] when they saw the toppled trees and the dead bodies piled on top of each other, or thrown here and there.”

”Did you leave your house because it was demolished?” I asked.

”No, we discovered the demolition of our house when we came back home during a truce. We left because the balcony of our house was hit the night before and it was not safe to stay,” Yousef said.

“How about these caravans; when did you start living in them?” I asked.

“They are from the Ministry of Housing; we received them only in March,” he replied.

I wondered where were they had been living for the six months between the offensive and the arrival of the trailers. What had it been like for them during the harsh cold that hit Gaza last winter?

“We were living in an apartment that we rented in the Zaytoun area [of Gaza City]. Every time it rained we couldn’t leave the apartment since the area was low and the flooding in the streets reached our waists,” Um Muhammad, Yousef’s wife, said.

“My children’s homes were brand new before they were destroyed; now they are in debt to the bank for homes that no longer exist,” she added.

I asked to see the inside of the trailers. When I entered one of them, the first thing I saw was the kitchen. To my right there was a room with piles of children’s clothes. To my left was another room where three of the daughters-in-law were sitting: Maysa, the trailer’s owner, and Islam and Neda, who were visiting.

The trio were sitting on two mattresses; two of them were holding babies who were born soon after the war. All of the women were using notebooks to fan themselves in the heat.

“It was Ramadan when the war started; we were pregnant, tired and afraid,” Islam told me after I sat next to her.

“My father-in-law was afraid that something bad would happen to us and our babies so he decided we should leave. We came downstairs and waited until the shelling and bombing stopped for a little bit; we saw people carrying white flags,” Maysa added.

I asked whether these white flags protected the people who carried them.

“No, nothing made a difference,” was the reply.

Scenes of terror

Outside the trailers, venturing onto al-Mansoura Street, children moved among steel pillars strewn on the ground, collecting the pieces of destroyed houses. When they saw us they ran away.

We kept walking amid the rubble until we reached a destroyed house; its collapsed cement roof was turned on its side with a hopscotch game chalked on its surface.

The children we saw earlier had caught up with us.

“We collect steel to sell it,” one of the boys, leaning on a half-destroyed wall, told me when I asked what they were doing.

He introduced himself as Waseem and pointed at the two other boys, and said they were named Tamer and Bahaa.

Tamer laughed. He pointed at Bahaa and said, “Or he is Omar Khadoura.” Khadoura refers to the color green in Arabic.

“Why Khadoura?” I asked.

Bahaa didn’t want to answer, but Tamer, laughing again, said: “Because he drank a bottle of green ink.”

“Do you live in here? How is your house? Where is it?” I asked Waseem, who seemed the most willing to talk.

Waseem pointed at the destroyed houses behind me and said, “Our house is like that rubble. When we left our home at 6am we found our relatives thrown on the ground. We were running and there was an Apache helicopter firing on us; I remember that one of our relatives told her son to escape, then she and her daughter were hit and died while running in the street.”

“How did this war affect you?” I asked Waseem.

He shrugged and said, “I became more anxious.”

I asked how many of his relatives had died.

“Some women and two men,” he replied.

The other boys started to name others who had been killed.

“There is also Rami and Wael,” Tamer said.

“Oh and remember Ahmed and Mona,” Bahaa chimed in. “And Seba, whose husband and only child died and she lost her legs.”

“I saw pieces of flesh on the ground; we were stepping on people as we ran,” Tamer said in a low voice.

Waseem was looking at his feet, moving them in a nervous way. Then he said, “I still remember these scenes until now and dream of them at night.”

When I asked him if he often woke up at night, he didn’t want to answer. His brother Tamer said their father told Waseem to put the Quran under his pillow so he won’t have these nightmares anymore.

Israeli forces killed dozens of people and wounded many more in Shujaiya on 19 and 20 July 2014. The neighborhood’s residents fled to central Gaza City, leaving behind their homes and loved ones dead or buried alive under the rubble.

Yousef Jendia’s family did not lose anyone. But others were not as lucky. The Ayyad family lost 11 members.

A girl from the Jendia family had stumbled over a boy from the Ayyad family. I wondered if that boy was a relative of Waseem. Maybe he was afraid to be alone in that moment. Maybe he was calling out to his mother or father when he fell. Maybe he died quickly. Maybe he died slowly.

One thing is certain: that boy is no longer alone, for in paradise he has the company of many members of his family.

Enas Fares Ghannam is a writer for the We Are Not Numbers project. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English education from Al-Azhar University and a diploma in translation from the Islamic University of Gaza.