How Israel turned a schoolgirl’s world upside down

People on donkeys, walking, in cars

People flee from their homes after Israel resumed targeting Khan Younis on 1 December.

Salam Yasser APA images

There was a strange sound outdoors. I thought it was thunder and lightning.

I was so excited because it seemed winter had begun. I woke up, energetic for school, only to have my mother pour cold water on my day.

“Do not go to school. The war has started.”

My smile vanished.

On 7 October, I was supposed to take a math exam. I had studied hard and was very confident. My friends and I had already planned to eat ice cream after school.

None of this happened. Instead my world turned upside down.

During the first days of the war, Israel cut electricity supplies leaving us with no communication. Immediately, my brother went to purchase essential supplies.

At that point, we still assumed that this war would be the same as previous ones.

Then, two days into the aggression, relatives knocked on our door seeking shelter. They had been at home having lunch when suddenly, without warning, Israel targeted their home.

Those who did not need to go to the hospital came to us.

At 1 am, neighbors gathered and started screaming for us to leave: “You must evacuate the tower because we received a call from an Israeli officer about a threat to the next tower.”

I had been sitting with my sister-in-law at night, drinking coffee and chatting. In the blink of an eye, she and I ran away quickly without any shoes on our feet.

We were so frightened.

A crowd gathered to help evacuate all of us. Children were crying, Mothers clutching their families, and men guided us to a safe place.

We stayed two hours in the street before it became clear that the threat had been a lie and an attempt to frighten us. We returned home, but were unable to sleep.

The bombing was random. The air was filled with the garlic-like smell of white phosphorus.

Everything I cherish

It was my birthday on 13 October. I had planned a party. I wanted to spend it with friends. I had been waiting a long time.

But of course, those plans had long gone out the window.

And to make matters worse, my birthday was on the day Israel ordered us all to leave Gaza City and go south.

In the car, I was sitting next to our neighbors. Before we left, one of the neighbors was saying goodbye to her sister. They hugged each other tightly and did not stop crying.

The scene will forever be engraved on my memory.

I resent the occupation for depriving me of everything I cherish.

As we began to move south, I saw the destruction Israel had wrought up to that point. Once-precious places were now reduced to ashes, mirroring the anguish in my heart. We had already heard reports of Israeli soldiers massacring civilians fleeing south.

We reached Khan Younis in southern Gaza without incident, but it would not last. That very night an Israeli warplane struck a four-story house near where we were staying.

We had to leave again.

All I could think of was the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of Palestine between 1947 and 1949. And it was miserable.

As we walked down the street, we could not find a car to take us south; all of them were full. We stayed on the street for three hours, even though it was – and still is – dangerous to gather outside.

What could we do?

Eventually, a neighbor took us with them, crammed into a car with no extra space.

Never lose hope

We saw a large number of people walking. I feel profound sadness for the pregnant women, older men, disabled children and crying, scared babies.

Parents did not know how to soothe children; they needed someone to soothe them.

We reached a school in Khan Younis run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA). It was full.

An aunt took us into her home, even though it too was full and not in a safe location. During our stay there, Israel targeted a house next to us.

Miraculously, we survived. I will never forget that horrible situation.

We moved on to Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, but had already realized there was no safe haven under Israel’s savagery.

Now we stay in tents on some agricultural land that has also become a target for Israel.

Each night, as I gaze at the moon, I raise my hands in prayer to God, praying for a life free from destruction and Israeli occupation.

The moon continues to revolve sadly. I believe God will not abandon us in this prison. We yearn for a life.

We gather wood to cook. We barely eat.

No one feels our pain. We are completely damaged.

Israel has destroyed our memories. It has destroyed anything that was pleasant in our lives.

But I will bever lose my hope.

God is beside us and around our bodies and souls.

I was a girl with a body. But I’ve lost all sense of myself. I just move around under a cloud of exhaustion.

Exhausted soul, broken heart and shattered body.

I hate the occupation.

Farah Jalal Yousef Al-Hallaq is a schoolgirl from Gaza.