How long did my best friend suffer under the rubble?

Khaled El-Hissy, left, and his friend Mohammed Hamo, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike. (Photo courtesy of Khaled El-Hissy) 

The last time I spoke to Mohammed Hamo was on 15 November.

Mohammed is now dead, killed by Israel. He remains under the rubble of northern Gaza’s al-Sabra neighborhood.

His body and his family members’ bodies are trapped in a basement, the concrete of six floors heaped upon them, unmovable.

On 16 November I was diagnosed with cancer after undergoing a bone marrow biopsy. I sent Mohammed a WhatsApp message complaining about the pain of the biopsy.

But the message didn’t go through. I assumed that Mohammed had no internet.

I wasn’t worried that much. No one in Gaza has a reliable internet connection.

“He will have the internet after a day or two,” I thought. I texted him everyday, hoping he would reply once the internet became available.

But my messages went unanswered; they will never be answered.

On the morning of 24 November, I received a message from one of Mohammed’s relatives to let me know that Mohammed had been killed when Israel bombed the house where he had been sheltering.

I didn’t believe him. I held out hope that he would be alive, even if under the rubble.

I went insane. I called Mohammed internationally from my Jordanian card about 30 times.

There was no signal.

I kept calling, but with every unanswered call, my hope of Mohammed being alive faded.

Reality was sinking in.

“Mohammed, habibi,” I cried. “Please, answer the phone and don’t leave me!”

Habibi is a term of endearment and intones an immediate bond. It establishes a familial connection, similar to brother in English.

Mohammed was more than a friend. He was a brother.

I will always call Mohammed “habibi.”

Maybe he wasn’t in the house

I called Mohammed’s father Abu al-Abd, hoping he would answer and relieve my angst. But Abu al-Abd didn’t answer.

Then I read that Abu al-Abd’s body was retrieved from under the rubble. He had not survived the collapse of the building.

One of my friends said that the house had been bombed four days prior, but that there hadn’t yet been media coverage of it.

My friend said that there was no way Mohammed was alive. There was no way that he could have survived five days under the rubble.

“I’m sure he’s alive,” I told my friend. “Maybe he wasn’t in the house. Maybe his father sent him somewhere to buy food when the house was bombed!”

I don’t know why I refused to believe that Mohammed was dead. Perhaps it was because I had cancer and didn’t want to jeopardize my mental health.

The hematologists told me to keep calm and not compound my stress, as I needed a strong mind to conquer leukemia.

But how could I? I lost Mohammed.

I couldn’t even say goodbye to him. Mohammed was my best friend.

He was the kindest person I ever met.

Now he is gone.

The bad habit of smoking

When Israel kills someone, it kills everyone who loves him.

The only thing left is our memories and pictures.

Mohammed and I took many pictures together. But now I hesitate to even open my photo gallery on my phone.

A single picture of Mohammed and I in happier days sets my tears flowing.

I don’t ever remember Mohammed being sad. He always had that notable laugh.

At restaurants, Mohammed would hurry to pay first. Although I would refuse, he would insist: “It’s my treat.”

We spent endless hours at his house, sharing meals and studying for exams.

At their home, I would be warmly welcomed by Abu al-Abd. Mohammed inherited his father’s wide grin, funny laugh and pure soul.

Abu al-Abd would sit with us and advise us on how to study and to focus on our goals. If he knew that one of our friends smoked, he would launch a campaign to get him to drop the habit.

“If you buy an expensive and beautiful shirt,” Abu al-Abd asked us, “would you ever burn it with a cigarette?”

“No, of course not,” we answered.

“That is what a smoker does to his lungs,” he said. “He is given these very worthy organs, but chooses to burn and destroy them instead with cigarettes.”

When the night came, Abu al-Abd would refuse to let me go home.

“Spend the night in our house,” he would say. “It’s too late to go home.”

You were right, Abu al-Abd, it is too late to go home. Israel has left no homes standing in Gaza.

Our last chat

In our last chat, Mohammed promised that, when the war ends, he would come to visit me wherever I was being treated.

I will be waiting forever.

I don’t know when to commemorate Mohammed’s death because I don’t know what day, exactly, he died.

I will never know how long he suffered under the rubble or when he took his last breath.

Mohammed loved Palestine. He always defended our cause; that is why he learned to write feature stories, to capture the suffering of his people.

A feature he wrote for The Electronic Intifada, “Gaza photographer captured and tortured by Israel,” described how Hatim Abu Sharia was captured and tortured by Israel while covering the Great March of Return.

I refuse to believe that Mohammed has died. Mohammed will never die.

He is alive within my memory.

He inspired me with his big hopes and smile. He taught me to strive for my goals and to be patient and tolerant.

Mohammed will never die because his spirit is within me.

Rest in peace, dear Mohammed and Abu al-Abd.

Khaled El-Hissy is a journalist from Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip.