Israel killed my aunt Haleema this week.
Haleema – known as Um Raed – left this world suddenly and was buried swiftly.
No one had the opportunity to say goodbye – not a brother, sister, son, daughter or grandchild. Neither close nor distant relatives could attend her funeral.
With Gaza under bombardment, it was too dangerous to organize any kind of ceremony.
Haleema was my father’s sister but she took care of him – and her other siblings – as if she was their mother. She did so even when their own mother (who died in 2005) was still alive.
Ever since my childhood, I observed the love, respect and appreciation that my dad and my other aunts and uncles had for Haleema.
As the beloved first born child in my immediate family, I was pampered. Haleema was always there to look out for me.
I loved playing football, especially as a goalkeeper.
When one of my uncles would walk from his home to the diwan – a place where men from the same family gather – he would often see me playing ball with other kids.
He used to complain every time and confiscate the ball from us. He would claim that we were disturbing everyone attending the diwan.
Haleema always came to our rescue, defending us and returning the ball so we could play again.
Flying our kites
I remember another incident when our family went to the beach.
We were on vacation. My dad had come back from his work in Israel with a kite. It had bright colors: yellow, red and blue.
I loved that kite. But I also loved the kites I made myself.
I would make them with reeds and pages from notebooks or newspapers. Sometimes I bought colored paper.
I would stick everything together with my own glue (a blend of flour and water).
I made kites for all the kids in our neighborhood.
Those were wonderful days.
Seeing the children as they held the kites I had made filled me with joy. The kids would display their happiness by running around the neighborhood.
I know that I am boasting but my kites were the most beautiful ones that anyone had in our area. They would soar high in the sky, thanks to a secret I had learned from my dad.
The secret was to make the middle string of the kite slightly shorter than the other two.
While other kids would lose their kites after a few days, I would hold onto mine for much longer, sometimes for weeks. I eagerly awaited the times when we would visit the beach.
And I would fly both my own paper kites and the kite my dad gave me alongside each other.
One day on the beach, my uncle took away my kites.
I understand now why he did what he did. He was afraid that I might have an accident.
But I didn’t understand that then. I was very upset and cried a lot.
I still remember how Haleema returned my kites to me and asked me not to cry or get angry. She asked me to show her how my homemade kite would fly higher than the one my father brought from Israel.
Haleema was cheerful with everyone.
Her husband worked as a chef at the Palestinian Authority’s Military Medical Services in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza. Although he didn’t cook much at home, he made the most delicious knafeh in Jabaliya refugee camp.
The knafeh he made became so famous that people would call it Abu Raed’s knafeh as he was known by that name.
Haleema often came up to me on my way to school, with a large piece of knafeh wrapped in a plastic bag.
“I haven’t forgotten you,” she would say. “Take this to school and eat it during the break. I know you love your uncle Abu Raed’s knafeh.”
Haleema’s life was anything but easy.
In 2002, she lost her son Saleh. Aged 21, he was shot by a stray bullet during a wedding celebration.
His death made her spirits fade.
Her other children were determined to keep Saleh’s memory alive.
Haleema’s eldest daughter gave birth to a child after Saleh’s death. She named the child Saleh as a tribute.
Some other children in our extended family were given the name Saleh for the same reason.
Haleema had 16 grandchildren.
She visited the occupied West Bank for medical treatment. That gave her a chance to pray at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
She even went on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
“We’re not leaving”
Haleema lived a full life until it was stolen from her without warning.
I recently called her when the home of her neighbors – the al-Sunwar family – was bombed.
When I suggested that she should move southwards, she said that nearly 46 people were now in her home. She told me that many people had been killed as they were fleeing toward the south and many others were killed in the houses where they had taken shelter.
“You remember what happened to the family of your uncle Ayed when they fled to Deir al-Balah, don’t you?” she said.
Ayed was killed in an Israeli airstrike on Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, along with 13 other members of his extended family.
“Where can we go?” Haleema asked. “Where can we escape? We’re not leaving and not leaving anyone behind. We are a large family. And there is no safe place in the entire Gaza Strip.”
Less than a week after she spoke those words, the Israeli occupation destroyed my aunt’s home and the homes of her neighbors.
My dad knew how devoted I was to Haleema and tried to comfort me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your aunt has been lightly injured. Raed and Ahmad [her sons] are also injured. They are in the hospital now.”
As further reassurance, my dad sent me two pictures of Haleema with a cast on her left arm.
Indeed, I wrote on my Facebook page that my aunt’s injury was minor, though my cousin Ahmad was in a very critical condition with a spinal cord injury.
The next day, one of my other cousins – who lives in Brussels – called me and let me know that Haleema had been martyred.
Hearing that news felt like being struck by lightning. I was in deep shock.
That night, I could not sleep. The pain in my legs was intense the following morning.
I calmed myself a little by noting that God had shown her mercy.
If she had survived, Haleema would have been left with an immeasurable sense of grief. Her daughter and daughter-in-law were killed in the same attack.
So were eight of Haleema’s grandchildren.
Her home – which contained the memories of her lifetime – was flattened.
I am a young man from Gaza, born and raised in Jabaliya refugee camp. I watch with revulsion the scenes from across Gaza, north and south.
Horrific massacres, which can be seen on TV screens around the world.
My aunt was killed in one of those massacres.
She had a big heart. May she rest in peace.
Tamer Ajrami is a student of political science living in Belgium.