Out of Gaza but still haunted

Palestinians forcibly displaced to Rafah by Israeli attacks often had to walk for hours to reach the southern city in Gaza, 9 November 2023. (APA Images) 

At 8 am, on 2 December, I was chatting with my friend who lives in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza.

“Listen to the birds chirping in the background,” she said in her voice note. “Ya Salam, what a wonderful morning that doesn’t have the zanana.”

To simply wake up to a tranquil morning, and not hear zanana – the buzz of drones – was enough to please my friend.

Yet today, the war continues. I hope my friend will survive.

Since I left Gaza for Jordan, I have tried to get back to my daily routine. I wake up at 8 am and start my day with a prayer, as my mother taught me.

Once that’s done, I take my medicine, something I am obligated to do since being diagnosed with leukemia. Then, as I step out of the room, I make sure to switch off the lights, just as my father always told me.

I’m away from my family. But I continue to follow their guidance as their presence is always with me.

In Jordan, there are no Israeli drones buzzing overhead or constant bombing. There is no shortage of electricity, food, gas or water.

Life is simple and peaceful. But I am not used to this life.

Even now, outside of Gaza, as I receive treatment for leukemia, the jumble of thoughts in my head continues.

Though I know that at least here, I won’t get bombed.

Under Israeli attack at the hospital

I cannot forget the scenes of horror I experienced with other cancer patients at the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital in Gaza in late October.

After being diagnosed with leukemia, I was transferred to the hospital to receive medical care. The hospital could not administer chemotherapy because its supplies had dwindled.

My lips and nails would turn blue as my hemoglobin levels dropped. I felt severe pain in my bones and I couldn’t climb the stairs.

I could barely walk.

The hospital is located away from densely populated residential areas. It is a typically peaceful place, with open spaces and trees to help patients feel at ease during their recovery.

However, Israel showed no concern or mercy with regard to cancer patients in Gaza.

Israel bombarded the areas around the hospital. The sounds were terrifying and they echoed throughout the hospital.

One night, on 30 October, a piece of shrapnel flew into our ward; the windows blew out and the ceiling was damaged.

We moved to the basement of the hospital and spent a couple of days there as Israel continued to shell the hospital.

The day we tried to evacuate was like doomsday. We all stood in the waiting room, with its huge glass windows.

Israeli snipers were shooting at anyone who tried to leave. They even shot at ambulances.

The outside gate had been bombed. The patients’ prayers and screams still echo my ears.

On 2 November, we finally were able to leave the hospital. Our departure was organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross after days of pleading with Israel to let us leave.

But this journey was not safe. It was a life or death adventure.

Preparing to die

We left in the afternoon. Tanks were everywhere, their weaponry pointing at us.

I prayed the entire way.

I was in the back seat of the car, looking out the window. I saw bombed cars, dead bodies, annihilated buildings and more Israeli tanks.

Along the shoreline, I didn’t see the usual cafes and rest houses. All I could see were the wiped-out shore and more tanks.

The journey was exhausting, but it wasn’t over. I still had to get approval for cancer treatment abroad.

I tried to register with the Palestinian Authority as a cancer patient.

“Since the war started, we have tried to get out some of the severe cancer patients,” the doctor who registered patients told me. “But Israel is refusing to let anyone out. Some of these cancer patients had died already.”

I didn’t lose hope. I wanted to live.

My grandmother and I registered as foreigners in need of evacuation, as we have Ukrainian citizenship.

When registering, I didn’t mention that I had cancer. I thought that my foreign nationality was enough to get me out of Gaza.

But only my grandmother received approval. I was aghast.

“I’m sure I registered my name,” I told the man who was responsible for the registration. “Didn’t I give you my passport number and a copy of it?”

“It seems that the Israeli authorities removed your name from the lists,” he said. “They are the ones controlling who can get out.”

I hung up, certain the cancer would kill me soon.

When I got internet access again, I searched: Does leukemia cause much pain in its end stage?

I read of terrifying symptoms: slow, congested breathing; blue skin; loss of bladder control. At this point, I was sure that I was just waiting to die.

My evacuation south still haunts me

On 6 November, my father’s friend called and told us that I was finally on the evacuation list. It turned out that my father didn’t spare any effort to try to register me again, but this time, he attached my life-saving medical referral.

I was relieved that I would finally travel and receive treatment, and my grandmother and I prepared to head south, to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Everyone warned us to not make the journey.

“They shoot everyone who tries to pass.”

“They will strip you naked and kick you back to your place, or simply kill you.”

“Don’t take any luggage with you; they allow nothing!”

But my health was deteriorating each day. We had to go.

Our driver took us as far as he could go, to al-Kuwaiti roundabout. Our four-hour walk began.

The streets were packed. It would be easy to lose track of those you were with in the crowds, and I saw that parents had attached ropes to their children, to keep them from wandering.

There were bloated decomposing corpses, surely individuals killed by Israel.

I saw bombed-out cars and bullet casings everywhere. I saw body parts.

Feet. Just feet without the rest of the body.

Israeli snipers would fire into the air and around us to get people to walk faster.

As the snipers shot, you could not stop and take cover. If you did so, you would be killed.

You had to keep your hands raised: one with your passport, the other with your phone.

But even obeying these orders was not a guarantee of surviving the journey south.

I can’t believe I survived. With every shot fired, I told myself: “This is it. They will kill me.”

We finally made it to Rafah. Three days later, I left Gaza.

I wish I hadn’t.

What difference does it make?

I wish I had stayed in Gaza, close to my family and my friends.

I wish I could have stayed behind with my father, or my best friend Mohammed Hamo before Israel killed him.

What does it matter that I’m now outside of Gaza? What is the difference between here or there?

Even out of Gaza, I still feel anxious when a plane crosses the sky, thinking it might be one of the F-16s used by Israel that followed me here.

My long and burdensome journey still haunts me.

Khaled El-Hissy is a journalist from Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip. Twitter: @khpalestined