It was a typical Gaza summer day: hot and humid. The war was still raging on, and I was filled with an overwhelming sense of sadness and despair.
I decided to go to the town of Beit Hanoun which lies at the northern end of the Gaza Strip to interview survivors of Israel’s bombardment of a United Nations school on 24 July. Sixteen civilians who had sought shelter there were killed in that attack; scores were left wounded.
When I arrived, the school was empty. Evidence of the attack was everywhere. Blood stains on the floor and walls, destroyed desks, shredded clothes and remains of shoes thrown all over the courtyard.
An entire classroom was scorched on the first floor. Another one on the upper floor was, too.
The air smelled of death and burnt flesh.
Scorched chairs, kitchen utensils, mattresses and children’s clothes lay scattered everywhere.
I was too terrified to walk in case I stepped on human remains. I was told that five members of the al-Shinberi family were killed when an Israeli shell landed in the middle of the classroom they occupied, blowing them to charred pieces beyond recognition.
I talked to a group of people whom I found gathered at the school gate. They showed me around the building and courtyard where the shells landed.
They told me that the survivors were moved to another UN school in Jabaliya refugee camp.
Jabaliya Boys School had become a shelter for almost 3,000 displaced persons. By the time we got there, a temporary ceasefire had been announced and most of the families had gone back to their neighborhoods to see what was left of their homes and what belongings could be salvaged from the rubble.
Three generations in one room
The only family from the Beit Hanoun school that was still there was the Abu Odeh family. They counted around 30 people, representing three generations of the family along with their in-laws, all living in one classroom.
In a vain attempt to make the place more home-like, they used the desks as dining tables, put up a mirror in one corner and hung bed sheets from clotheslines to create a semblance of privacy.
Their patriarch, Jamal Abu Odeh — or Abu Nidal as he preferred to be called — spoke of the horrors his clan had gone through since the start of the war. He described in a deeply saddened voice of how they fled from their four-story building that was instantly destroyed by an Israeli aerial bombardment, of how they managed to make their way to the school with bombs and missiles exploding all around them, and of the horrors they lived through during the shelling of the school.
His wife Widad was injured by shrapnel in her arm and his cousin Awad was killed.
In the middle of our conversation, Abu Nidal introduced me to Rasha, his daughter-in-law.
Rasha was pregnant. In fact, she was past her due date.
I was struck by how pale and obviously undernourished she was and asked her how she felt. With a wan smile that barely concealed her physical weakness, she kept assuring me that she was fine.
Rasha told me about the day of the attack on the Beit Hanoun school. She was terrified that she would have a miscarriage when she started running away as fast as she could to escape from Israel’s shelling.
In the middle of describing the horror of that night, she suddenly started talking about the beautiful new house her husband had built. The couple already had five children.
“We moved to the house only nine months ago … it was so beautiful and neat,” she said. The girls’ rooms had the cartoon character Dora the Explorer on their walls. The boys’ rooms were decorated with posters of racing cars.
“Can you believe that each of us had his own bed then?” she asked. “We barely feel human here with 30 of us crammed into this space.”
“I prepared everything for the baby: new clothes, a new cot and new curtains with pictures of that famous bear printed on them,” she said, referring to Winnie the Pooh.
“I went to check on our house during the first ceasefire at the beginning of the war, but it was all gone,” she said. “Nothing left. Absolutely nothing. I tried in vain to get some of the baby’s stuff from under the rubble.”
“I just wonder what we have done to deserve this misery. Why on earth will my new baby be born in a refugee shelter? My children didn’t even enjoy our new house … this is so unjust.”
Despite all she and her family had gone through, Rasha said she had a lot of dreams to fulfill for her children. She wanted to ensure they had a good education.
I left the Jabaliya school and hurried home before the bombardment resumed after the relative calm of that day. A couple days later, Rasha came to my mind. I had promised her that I would call to check if she had given birth.
On 24 August — two days before Israel’s offensive against Gaza ended — I called Abu Nidal. He told me that Rasha was on her way to the hospital after being almost three weeks overdue.
I asked him to call me once he had news. He called five hours later to tell me that she had given birth to a boy after having to undergo a cesarean section.
She had complications and was placed in the intensive care unit after going into a coma following a major internal bleeding. He told me she was given eight units of blood but the doctors were not optimistic about her chances of survival.
The old man went on to tell me that Rasha’s baby was healthy and doing well. A tiny bit of cheer in an otherwise gloomy situation.
My heart was crushed. I blamed both the siege Israel had imposed on Gaza and its latest offensive for everything that had happened to that poor woman.
The seven-year blockade choked the normal supply of medicines and equipment to Gaza’s hospitals, and prevented local doctors from traveling to attend training sessions abroad.
Rasha’s fate was at the mercy of a potentially deadly combination of anemia, malnutrition and a deteriorating health care system.
I didn’t sleep that night thinking of Rasha and praying to any power that might be out there that she would survive this ordeal — just as she survived the school attack.
The next morning, I called the family as soon as I woke up. They sounded deeply worried and saddened because Rasha’s situation had become more critical.
Later, Abu Nidal called to inform me that the hospital had discharged the baby to the UN shelter. Rasha was still in intensive care.
At 3pm, Abu Nidal called again to tell me that Rasha’s heart had stopped beating. He also said that her last request before going into a coma was to name the baby Rakan, after my own son, Rakan. That was heart-wrenching for me.
Abu Nidal passed the phone to Rasha’s mother. I tried to comfort her. But I couldn’t stop crying.
Rasha was a victim of apartheid. Her hometown, Beit Hanoun, is just 15 kilometers away from present-day Israel. If she was a Jewish Israeli, the likelihood of her dying after giving birth would have been so much smaller.
Robert Piper, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the occupied West Bank and Gaza, recently stated that maternal mortality rates in Gaza may have almost doubled between 2014 and 2015. By contrast, the number of deaths in childbirth in Israel has decreased by around 11 percent since 2000.
My heart goes out to little Rakan. I now live in Canada. Despite being far away from Gaza, I frequently find myself thinking about him and his mother.
Born as a refugee and orphan at a time of great suffering and despair, Rakan will never enjoy the warm love and tender care of a doting mother. I just hope and pray that he and my own Rakan will be part of the first Palestinian generation in nearly a century to finally live normal and peaceful lives.
Images courtesy of Adeem Abu-Middain.
Adeem Abu-Middain is a freelance journalist living in Canada, who worked as a field researcher with Human Rights Watch during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza.