Stories of despair and displacement from a Khan Younis sanctuary

Tents crowd a courtyard

Some 40,000 people have sought sanctuary at the UNRWA facility in Khan Younis.

Mahmoud Nasser

No one much feels like talking.

Out of the more than 1 million people who have fled their homes in north and central Gaza to escape the unrelenting and indiscriminate bombardment by the Israeli military there, some 40,000 have found shelter in Khan Younis at a now former vocational training center run by the UN’s Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA.

Most are reluctant to speak.

Death and displacement have become their reality. They have no desire to recount the horrors that led them here, or remember the many they have already lost.

But their faces tell their own story. Lined and worry-worn, tear-streaked and tired, they are the faces of trauma, of a people reeling from collective disaster

In this camp there is a true equality of misery. Rich or poor, old or young, all line up in the mornings to take advantage of what is no more than an hour or two worth of water supply.

Dejected and dirty, everyone seems confused and bewildered. Twenty-two days into the war, no one seems able to grasp the calamity of it all, and no one knows what will happen to them.

Some did speak and below are the stories of six of the 40,000 people now living in temporary shelter or tents in Khan Younis, displaced, dehumanized and reliant on the trickle of aid that is all the world seems able or willing to muster for them.

A man poses with two boys

Abu Omar alongside his two children on 25 October.

Mahmoud Nasser

Abu Omar

Abu Omar, 36, was injured in the knee during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. The former construction worker lost his job as a result.

He also lost both his father and grandmother in that 2014 war, and as soon as this war broke out, his old fears and grief resurfaced.

His home was in al-Shujaiya, site of a massacre in another of Israel’s previous assaults on Gaza in 2008-09.

Its proximity to the boundary with Israel meant he was alert to the fighting right from the morning of 7 October.

Still, he said, “we had no clue it was going to turn out the way that it did.” Typically, he added, “a couple of days and it’s over.”

He left his home as soon as the Israeli military warned residents to do so a few days later.

“I had not gone more than 500 meters,” he said, “when the house was obliterated.”

With nowhere to go, he headed south. On his way, he witnessed the massacre on Salah al-Din street of some 70 people fleeing the north on 13 October.

He finally made it to Khan Younis, lucky to be alive, and traumatized by the torn flesh and charred dead bodies he had seen on his way.

“A house I can rebuild. I can’t replace my father. I can’t replace my grandmother. I can’t replace my people.”

Children running

Kids run after a car distributing food aid.

Mahmoud Nasser


Nabil Shaheen is 55. He is a former police officer with the Palestinian Authority. His home was completely obliterated in a bombing near a mosque in the Beach camp in Gaza City. He also owned an apartment in the Mukhabarat area of the city.

That was also leveled to the ground.

Two entire families of Nabil’s relatives were wiped out in their own homes in Tal El-Zaatar. As far as he knows, their bodies still lie under the rubble, decaying and decomposing.

He left for the south early and found shelter in this Khan Younis UN facility. “When I first arrived, it was empty. Now there is no space to even eat. There is no sanitation, no clean water. It’s a tragedy”.

The grounds are packed with tents. There is no space and no privacy. Room is made wherever and however it can.

“We are a total of 12 here,” Nabil said. “When I sleep, I sleep on a table.”

A man carries a large contained

An early riser carries a container filled with scarce water.

Mahmoud Nasser


Nabil’s mother, whom everyone simply calls sitti – grandmother – is with him.

Like Nabil she too saw her home in the Beach camp destroyed in the Israeli bombardment.

The 82-year-old has just one wish: end the war.

“People sleep on top of each other. There is no place to move,” she said. “I sleep on the ground. As long as I have lived, I’ve never slept on the ground before.”

Where is the Arab world, she wondered. Where is the diplomacy and pressure on Israel to end this brutality?

“What did we do to deserve this,” she asked.

“Why are you doing this to us?”

A man sits on a chair

Zuhair al-Shaweesh.

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Zuhair al-Shaweesh, 60, is a mukhtar from Beit Hanoun in the north. His is an honorable position in his community, usually bespeaking of a respected elder, whose duty it is to solve and mediate conflicts between and within families.

Zuhair said he and his family had evacuated in the early hours of the first days of the war.

“We first fled towards al-Karama. But we had to evacuate again that same night, as everyone there panicked and started leaving.”

“Lost and stranded” the family eventually wound their way to Khan Younis where there is safety of sorts.

“Things are difficult here. But at least I won’t have a roof collapse on my family’s head.”

He has never, he said, seen anything like this aggression.

“This war has spared no one, ” he said. “I’ve lost friends, two of my cousins, and the entire al-Zaneen family, all of them relatives.”

He said he was just thankful to be alive with his close family by his side.

Some people find shade behind a sheet

People are shletering where they can, here seeking some shade and privacy.

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Abu Muhammad

Abu Muhammad, 37, is an Arabic-language school teacher. Or was. His life, like everyone else’s, is in ruins.

He left his home in the Karama area near Beit Hanoun in the north when the Israeli military warned residents to flee south immediately. At first, he merely picked up some bags and went to a relative’s house nearby, thinking he would be able to go back the next day.

But that same day, he returned to find his house in total ruin. That night, his cousin was killed returning from Isha – nighttime – prayers at a mosque near Al-Karama.

He is grieving. He picked up and left the north to end up at this UNRWA camp in Khan Younis. Everything that was once a pleasant part of life has gone, he said.

“Everything is a struggle. Bread lines go on forever. My child goes to sleep hungry every night. There is no water. The washroom lines are tragic.”

Now he only dreams of the simple things. To lay on a mattress. To reach for a working fridge. To drink clean water.

A girl sits on a pavement stone

Bisan Afana

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Bisan Afana, 12, woke up on 7 October to the sounds of escalation, but believing it would all be over in a few days.

Even at her age, the pattern of Israel’s bombardments of Gaza is deeply imprinted.

But this time was different. When a bomb struck the nearby home of her best friend in the Tel al-Zaatar area of Gaza City, her mother and sister were wounded by the debris.

Maysi Shaheen was not so lucky. She and her whole family were killed in the strike, Bisan said, on the 5th day of the war.

“I couldn’t believe it. Maysi was like my sister. It feels like I lost a part of myself.”

She also lives with the knowledge that what “happened to her, could very well happen to me” at any time.

She and her family packed up what they could and headed south, after hearing about the Khan Younis shelter.

On the way, they got lost. It was evening. It was dark. Bisan remembers being scared and the other children crying out of fear.

But a local resident took in the family, and directed them to the UNRWA facility the next day.

They’ve been there since. They even found one of Bisan’s aunts there, also sheltering.

“We hugged and we cried,” Bisan remembers. “We were happy. We were still alive.”

“We are still alive.”

Men stand behind clothes lines

Clothes drying on 24 October. 

Mahmoud Nasser

Mahmoud Nasser is a Gaza-based photographer and writer.