Phoning my in-laws in Gaza

Palestinian children queue for drinking water in the al-Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, 10 January 2009. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

We haven’t been able to get hold of my sister-in-law for a couple of days. It’s nerve wracking. Soul destroying. I find myself doing horrifying mental arithmetic. I don’t know why, I can’t seem to help it. The UN stated on Thursday that 758 people had been killed. That’s one person for each 2,000 in Gaza. What are the odds that one of them might be Nareman, or one of her family?

I shouldn’t think like that. Nareman always amazes and humbles me with her resilience. Last time we spoke the first thing she said was “how’s the pregnancy going?” She’s living in the midst of bombs and artillery fire, and she’s concerned about my pregnancy! Her teenage daughter told me about the classes she is missing for tawjihi — the general secondary school examination — and how she needs those classes to get good grades to go to university. I wonder how many A-Level students here in the UK would be concerned about missing school if they were in her shoes.

Their windows were blown in a few days ago. They didn’t even tell us, we found out from someone else and called Nareman to ask her. She said she hadn’t mentioned it because she didn’t want to worry us. In the middle of the night the house next to theirs was bombed. The force of the blast blew the whole window, frame and all, onto the girls’ bed. All the windows in the house blew in and a huge crack appeared in the wall nearest to the explosion. Afraid that the house might collapse, they ran barefoot over the rubble 500 meters to a friend’s house. In the morning their house was still standing, so they moved back in, but now they all sleep on the ground floor. The house has three flats over three floors, housing Nareman’s mother-in-law, three of her sons, and their three families. They are all huddling in one room to sleep now, sleeping fully dressed in case they need to escape again, and huddling together for warmth in a house with no windows.

When we spoke, they had some rice, salt and sugar. They had run out of canned food, and they can’t leave the house, even if there were any shops open to go to. Every day or so one of the older boys runs to the neighboring mosque to fetch water. It’s a heart-stopping round trip for all the family. It’s an impossible choice: to stay in the house with young kids and Nareman’s elderly mother-in-law, with no water to wash or drink with or to cook the rice, the only food they have left, or to wait for a lull in the artillery fire and the bombing, and allow one of the boys to run out.

I’ve never even met them face to face although we talk regularly on the phone. Since I married Nareman’s brother we have not been able to get in to Gaza, and she has not been able to leave, so we have never seen each other. She lives with her husband and their eight kids. The youngest will be one year old next week. I pray that they will be in a situation to be able to celebrate by then. I wonder how many kids have had birthdays, how many women have given birth, happy events that can’t be celebrated under these atrocious conditions. I think of all the Christians in Gaza who celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on 7 January — there was no celebrating this year.

I try to get some work done, and at the same time I’ve got one eye on the news. I see sickening reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, a group who are usually very reserved, this time they are speaking out about not being able to get access to injured people for four days and about finding young children lying next to their dead mothers. That’s in the Zeitoun area of Gaza City, where Nareman lives. I see reports of 10,000 people made homeless in an already overpopulated and imprisoned war zone, as part of an Israeli army “clearance” of a 600 meter strip of housing near the border with Egypt. Thats far away from where Nareman lives, which is scant comfort when it just means that its someone else’s family who is made homeless, or who is caught in the carpet bombing. I receive an email that says figures have reached 850 dead and 3,800 injured, shattering statistics, and I can’t stop myself doing the math again — one in 1,765 killed; one in 400 injured.

My husband managed to get hold of his sister today in a short and crackly phone call. She is fine, they are all fine, thank God. They have rice still, and they’ve managed to get some candles. We’ll phone again tomorrow. I pray that soon we’ll be able to have normal conversations again — what did you do at school today? How was work? What are you making for dinner? I dream of being able to ask these ordinary questions. How many more days do we have to keep making that nerve-wracking phone call, and wondering who those statistics represent?

Xen Hasan is Scottish and lives in Manchester, England. She works for the Manchester -ased Olive Cooperative organizing study tours of Palestine and Israel.

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