In Gaza, you can only dream of living

A crowd of people is overlooked by an armored tank in the background

Israel has repeatedly displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza over the past seven months. Here people have been told to leave Khan Younis for Rafah in January 2024. 

Haitham Imad APA images

My heart pains me greatly. The distressing scenes I’ve witnessed over the past seven months linger in my mind. They haunt me everywhere.

I will share one painful memory with you. One among so many.

It was the beginning of the genocide, one of the frightening days in October, when I had already been displaced for a first time and was staying at my grandmother’s house near al-Shifa hospital.

I went to the hospital one day to buy some personal items since I had left everything behind at home. But I couldn’t bear the sight or the smell. It was awful. There were thousands of people in the hospital corridors, spilling out of the entrances, sleeping on the ground under the sun.

They thought they were finding safety.

In the hospital yard, there were markets, barbers, vendors and the smell of death.

Next to the emergency entrance, there was a tent full of bodies. The sight was terrible and frightening, the bodies were piled up into a small hill.

Suddenly, I noticed my cousins searching among the bodies, terrified. I froze, wondering who they were looking for. We had been displaced together.

“We’re looking for Hani and his family,” one said.

His family? We are looking for more than one body?

Hani, my cousin’s kind-hearted son, lived on the ground floor of their building with his mother, father, wife and young daughters, Fatima and Zainab, who were no older than 4.

My brother told me they had searched all the hospitals and this was their last stop. Suddenly, amid the horror and fear, inside the tent of death, Hani’s brother recognized a piece of a body by its clothing. It was Abeer, Hani’s wife. She was wearing prayer clothes.

I’ll never forget the fear that ran down my spine at that moment, and I’ll never forget Hani’s brother’s face. I felt like the world was ending around me.

They gathered pieces of bodies in one shroud! They found a part of Hani’s body they could identify because it contained his ID card. Of the children there was only one trace: a single foot.

I remember Hani’s wife before the war, sitting with me at a table at a relative’s wedding. She was very beautiful and kind. Abeer didn’t deserve to die like this. No one deserves to die like this.

The hardest part was when we tried to inform Hani’s parents. We had collected what we could of the family in one shroud and buried them. Hani’s siblings then returned home. But none could break the news to their mother, afraid of her shock and grief.

In the end, my mother volunteered to tell her sister. She went, and we followed, our steps heavy. It felt like a nightmare.

Hani had been out of touch for three days, so when we gathered around his mother, she realized something was wrong.

“Hani and Abeer have gone ahead to paradise.”

My mother broke the news. And I’ll never forget the look in Um Hani’s eyes. The shock was too much for her and she passed out.

Abu Hani remained frozen in place.

We tried to wake my aunt. Eventually, she came around, and sat on a chair and just cried. She cried a lot, and we all cried.

Except Hani’s father, who remained frozen, eyes unblinking.

These were the hardest moments I’ve ever experienced, moments of loss, sadness, anger and fear all in one. We cried, and the sounds of explosions were background music to our lament.

My aunt said she wanted to see Hani before the burial, not knowing that we had already buried her son and his family.

What do you want to see, my aunt? There is no body.

Months have passed since you were lost, Hani, and my aunt cries every day, waiting for you to come home.

Corridor of death

On the third day of November, my family and I were forced to leave northern Gaza.

We fled south through what the occupation military claimed to be a passage to safety, but which was really a corridor of death.

My journey along this road with my family, leaving a north that had become famine-stricken and extremely dangerous, was the hardest journey, one surrounded by corpses, burnt cars and bullets.

The occupation military had announced that this was the last chance for the northern residents to leave. We were allowed to travel only from 10 in the morning until two in the afternoon.

We took one bag per person. How could I fit my home, my room and my memories into one bag? I left almost everything behind, but brought a box of paints and a notebook, as I used to be a happy painter before this genocide.

I also took biscuits and juice because I knew a long journey awaited.

We started walking from the Kuwait roundabout – which later would become the site of one of Israel’s many massacres.

Thousands walked with us and terror never left my heart. The tanks and the sounds of explosions alone were a nightmare. We walked so much that my feet swelled. I saw burnt-out cars and bloated corpses. These were the bodies of people with families, dreams and goals. Everyone feared getting close to them. No one buried them.

When we reached about halfway, there were soldiers on either side of the road. They called out to a young woman wearing a hijab. They forced her to strip down to her underwear. They made her sit on the ground and mocked her. Her tears didn’t stop.

After humiliating and ridiculing her, they shot her in the foot and forced her to crawl back onto the road. I can never forget her tears and cries.

An elderly man near us collapsed to the ground, dead from exhaustion and prolonged exposure to the sun. His children tried to collect his body, but the soldier didn’t allow it. They were forced to leave their father’s body on the ground.

We walked and we walked.

We reached the south. First we found a hostel and tried to secure one room for eight people. But the hostel owner found someone capable of paying more in rent. So we had to erect a tent instead for us all.

After the long journey, I needed to use the bathroom. Of course, there was only a shared, filthy bathroom to use.

After several days, I suffered a very painful stomach ache. I couldn’t eat or drink anything and vomited seven times in one day. I was so weak I couldn’t even comb my hair and I slept all day.

I managed to see a doctor who said I had contracted hepatitis A when I used the shared bathroom. It has become a common complaint in Gaza, spreading easily due to the lack of water and hygiene products. It was very, very painful. I remained bedridden for several weeks.

Hepatitis A is of no priority to doctors, who are overwhelmed with critical injuries in overflowing hospitals and emergency rooms.

The pain and agony doesn’t end there. It hasn’t ended yet. I am filled with anguish. Will I live?

Will I write another article?

I write now, and the sounds of explosions never stop. I only dream of living.

Rifqa Hijazi is a student living in Gaza.