Waiting to die in Rafah

Palestinians who were forcibly displaced to Rafah by Israeli attacks live in makeshift tents they set up around a cemetery in Rafah, Gaza, 14 February 2024. (Saeed Jaras / APA Images) 

Three months ago, my family and I were forcibly displaced from our home in Khan Younis, southern Gaza. The Israeli attacks on our area were relentless.

I had been preparing to enter law school at al-Azhar University. My goal is to become a lawyer and defend Palestine in international courts.

But my plans were on hold as we took shelter at a girls’ school in Khan Younis. I slept in a classroom with the other men.

We all slept on the cold tile floor, without mattresses. This was hard, especially for older people.

Then, in December, the Israeli army attacked the nearby Hamad City. Our building shook during the explosions.

We were inside the classroom, and it was filled with thick dust and smoke.

We felt like we were suffocating and choking on the air.

The windows had broken in the attacks, and more of this toxic smoke filled the room. We were certain that this was white phosphorus.

I barely had time to think about my own reaction to the smoke, as I was thinking of my sister.

My sister Maryam

When my older sister Maryam was 2, she was diagnosed with asthma. Her respiratory system is especially sensitive to dust and smoke, so my mother has always taken care to shield her from these things.

Maryam is 25 now, but her asthma is still something she deals with daily. Winter is a particularly hard time for her.

When she gets a cold, it is more severe than anything I would experience. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we were terrified of her catching the virus.

We knew that her immune system wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Now, in our room at the school, I saw her suffocating from the toxins in the air. She fainted from the shortness of breath, and we all gathered around her to try and wake her up.

We tossed water on her face and wafted aromatics under her nose. The school nurse came to help, but she also couldn’t wake her up.

We all put masks on to avoid breathing in the smoke. We also dampened pieces of cloth and put them over our mouths.

We went to the hospital. Maryam was still unconscious, and the doctor took her to the emergency room.

The doctor said her oxygen levels were dangerously low and that she also had pneumonia.

He hooked her up to oxygen, and we waited for her to come to.

Fleeing to Rafah

It is hard to describe the pain and suffering I saw in the emergency room. There were the corpses and body parts of martyrs, and those who had survived the Israeli attacks were not faring much better.

Then I saw some clothing that I recognized on one of the bodies. I knew immediately that it was my lifelong friend Baraa Magdy.

Just the day before we had tea together and listened to the news.

I went and kneeled beside his body and kissed his head. I prayed for mercy for his soul.

The nurse found us and told us that Maryam’s condition was improving, that her oxygen levels were returning to normal. She would not regain consciousness until three hours later.

The next morning, we returned back to the shelter, along with an oxygen tank for my sister, and fled for Rafah – Gaza’s southernmost city – as quickly as we could.

We are now in Rafah, but we are not safe here. We live in a tent on the street, and the smoke from the fires that we use to cook and to survive choke the air.

What you see in photos is true. We do indeed sleep in swamps of water.

We wait for the sun to rise so we can feel a little warmer.

Yes, we live in a tent, but this is my homeland.

My sister’s lungs are already destroyed, and though she is strong, I do not know how much more she can take.

We pray that the world will come to our aid before Israel destroys Rafah. I fear that we will all fall as martyrs in this massacre.

Hassan Ahmad Abu Sitta is a writer based in Gaza.


A boy carries an item on his head in the ruins of a building that has been bombed in Gaza

A toxic war