Ever since 1948 Palestinians have been refugees and, in some cases, evacuees. Both words are replete with suffering.
During October, Israel circulated a message, telling people in northern Gaza (including Gaza City) that they must move southwards. Our lives would be in danger if we stayed in the north, Israel warned.
My family, along with thousands of other families, decided to stay. It was hell.
On the last night we spent in our home, it sounded like Israel was wiping out one neighborhood after another.
We did not know exactly what was going on.
All we could see were red and blue lights in the dark sky. All we could hear were explosions.
At 3 AM, there was a huge explosion. The sound of glass shattering could be heard everywhere.
Everyone around us seemed to be screaming.
Before I had any idea what was happening, I was covered in dust and debris.
Amid the screams and the sirens of ambulances, I managed to catch a low voice calling me.
It was my mom.
She was alive.
Massacre and miracle
Israel subjected our neighbors to a massacre.
Our home was mostly destroyed.
There was no longer any roof above our heads.
The walls almost collapsed.
It was a miracle that I could see all of my family.
The five of us spent the rest of that night sitting beside each other on bunk beds. We all sat on the bottom bunk and treated the top bed as a ceiling.
When it got bright, we knew that we had to quit our home. Maybe, we would go to southern Gaza.
I had never left Gaza City before. Now I had to.
Each one of us maintained a poker face.
I sang a local song, which roughly translates like this: “We will return. Oh homeland, we will return. We left as a small family. But we will come back in our millions.”
My biggest fear was that I would now see Gaza City as being a time in my life. A time when I was young and went to school.
Just like my grandparents talked about the old days, I would reminisce about the happy memories I had made. I would ignore the fact that living in Gaza means trying to behave as if things are “normal” for certain periods and then being under attack yet again.
A visceral belief that we will return is not enough.
My aunt was forced from her home during the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
She was from Bir al-Saba, now the city called Beersheba. She believed she would return there.
When Israel ordered her to evacuate in October 2023, she refused. Aged 86, my aunt was killed when Israel fired a missile on her home.
Many other members of her extended family, including her son, were also killed.
They committed no crime, unless staying in Gaza City is itself a crime.
My immediate family went to Khan Younis, a city in southern Gaza.
People moving southwards have a maximum of two choices.
The first is to take shelter in schools run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) and just hope that Israel won’t target UN buildings.
It means waiting in long queues to use the bathroom. It means adapting to the inevitable tension between evacuees, all of them stressed.
The second choice is to stay in the home of a relative or a friend.
Despite what had happened to us, we considered ourselves very lucky to know some people in Khan Younis, with whom we can live.
Our “luck” nonetheless has to be qualified.
Even though Israel had told us to move southwards for our “safety,” Israel is also bombing the southern half of Gaza.
Israel is still committing massacres of civilians here. Israel tries to excuse such massacres by claiming that one member of a family which has been obliterated was a member of Hamas.
The only difference is that in northern Gaza, the explosions were non-stop. Though there is a great deal of bombing in the south, it is not quite as constant.
Although we have smartphones – which are hard to charge – it feels like we have gone back by 150 years. There is no power, not enough water to drink, no food to eat.
Many people are ill.
Even kittens in the streets are having difficulty moving and seem close to death.
To put bread on the table, my siblings and I have to queue for at least four hours.
Sometimes, the bakery runs out of flour just before I finally make it to the top of the queue. When that happens,I do not get any bread.
The nearest bakery to us was targeted by Israel recently. The bakery was wiped out and many people queuing for bread were killed and injured.
Getting clean water is even harder. Desalination plants need power and Israel has cut off the power lines to Gaza.
A very small number of plants are still operating, using solar energy.
We have to walk a long way to find one of those plants. We queue so that we can fill some containers with water, then carry them back to where we are now living.
A few weeks ago, some water tankers were supplying clean water to people in our area.
Abed was one of the suppliers who helped us out. That was before Israel fired a missile at him, while he was on his way to supply our neighbors with water.
When I went to the supermarket recently, there was no food. The only things left were hot drinks.
Basic necessities are nowhere to be found. I heard someone enquire in a store, “How much is the salt?”
The person behind the counter replied in a sarcastic tone: “What salt? If you mean the white powder we add to food, I do not have any.”
At most, people are having one meal a day. That meal can consist of things like biscuits and dates.
Food is no longer tasty.
My little sister Sondos, 4, wants to stop eating boring food.
She wants to eat chips again. She wants to have a full belly.
Until recently, she was calling the war a “horrible vacation.” Now she has learned the word “truce.”
Every day she wants to know when a truce will be called.
Israel has made us hungry and thirsty.
Israel is killing us.
We are on the border between life and death. And it feels that we are getting nearer and nearer to death.
Eman Hillis is a writer from Gaza.