By Eman Alhaj Ali, The New Arab, 14 February 2024

After Israeli airstrikes destroyed her family home, Eman Alhaj Ali reflects on the generations of lives, dreams and memories shattered by Israel's war.

 

"Your entire home was obliterated!” exclaimed one of our neighbours with a tremor in his voice, his eyes wide with shock.

I refused to accept the grim proclamation. “Don’t believe that at all! Nothing has happened to it,” I retorted, clinging desperately to the fragile hope that our cherished home remained unscathed.

The thought of losing the sanctuary where I had experienced some of life’s purest joys, surrounded by the laughter and love of my cherished family, was incomprehensible. It was as though a vital fragment of my very essence had been wrenched away, leaving behind a profound emptiness.

Situated in a perilous region deemed ‘military territory’ by the Israeli army, our home stood on the brink of uncertainty. For three months of Israel’s indiscriminate war on Gaza, which has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, we stayed in our home. But as the bombs drew near, we made the difficult decision to leave.

Israel’s relentless bombardment has forced almost 2 million people to flee our homes. More than 300,000 homes have been destroyed, about 70% of all the houses in Gaza, in what can only be described as domicide.

As we packed our things and reluctantly departed from Maghazi in central Gaza on that fateful 8th January, bound for Rafah, a sense of foreboding gnawed at me.


Life in Rafah


Our life in Rafah epitomises the harsh realities of displacement amidst conflict. The decision to take refuge in this unforgiving terrain, particularly within the confines of makeshift tents, was a bitter yet unavoidable choice.

It has been just over a month, but the passage of time feels distorted, as if we have weathered the trials of three long years.

Each passing day brings with it a mounting sense of adversity, shrouding our existence in a veil of monotony and desolation. Unlike the comforting rhythms of life back home, our new reality is characterised by an eerie sameness, punctuated only by fresh waves of anguish and torment.

The spectre of the ongoing Israeli assault on our neighbourhood, with its indiscriminate violence and unfathomable devastation, loomed large. But most of our time and energy is devoted to the endless grind of survival.

For 131 days, Israel has blocked life-saving humanitarian aid, food, water, and energy from Gaza, cutting off our means of survival. For those of us that survive the bombs, dehydration, starvation and illness await.

The arrival of the water truck each morning offered a brief respite from the pervasive despair that gripped our hearts. But the water proved to be a noxious concoction teeming with contaminants and filth.

In a desperate bid to maintain a semblance of connectivity with the outside world, we scoured the vicinity for a makeshift charging station, relying on the intermittent availability of solar panels to power our phones.

With a heavy heart, my father bid us farewell, his voice tinged with resignation as he embarked on his daily pilgrimage to the public market in search of sustenance, solemnly promising to bring back whatever provisions he could find for us.

Day after day, my father returned with meagre offerings, a testament to his unwavering commitment to provide for his family amidst dire circumstances. Yet, despite his valiant efforts, our meals remained a monotonous affair, a repetitive cycle of canned goods that offered little in the way of nourishment and sustenance.

Today, the staples of our diet are cheese, peas, and luncheon meats.

Back home, our meals were a vibrant tapestry of nourishment, rich in the essential vitamins and nutrients that sustained our bodies and fueled our spirits. Fresh vegetables and fruits, bursting with flavour, graced our tables.

Our culinary traditions, steeped in simplicity and wholesomeness, revolved around the timeless staples of thyme and olives, their earthy flavours infusing our dishes with a sense of tradition and heritage.

Each meal was a celebration of the land and its abundance, a testament to the deep connection between food and culture that permeated every aspect of our lives.

Now, our once plentiful feasts have dwindled to mere shadows of their former glory. The simple joys of fresh produce have become a luxury beyond reach, as we struggle to procure the basic necessities that sustain life.

Gone are the days when milk and eggs were plentiful, their absence keenly felt as we watch our younger siblings grow without the essential nutrients they need to thrive.

But we cling to the hope that one day our family will once again gather around our dining table, and our plates will overflow with the nourishment our bodies crave. Until then, we persevere, drawing strength from the memories of meals gone by and the knowledge that better days lie ahead.

Our new reality is one of constant scarcity and deprivation. Each item - blankets, beds, tent covers - comes at a steep price, stretching our already strained resources to their limits and leaving us teetering on the brink of destitution.

In bygone days, my bedroom was a sanctuary of comfort and warmth, cocooning me in its embrace during the bitter chill of winter and offering respite from the sweltering heat of summer.

Nestled within the confines of my family home, I revelled in the luxury of space, with ample rooms to roam and explore, each corner imbued with memories of joy and laughter.

My bedroom, adorned with an array of blankets and mattresses, was a haven of tranquillity where I would retreat after a long day, sinking into the soft embrace of my bed as I drifted off to sleep. The familiar scent of home lingered in the air, lulling me into a peaceful slumber.

But alas, those days of comfort and abundance are but distant memories now, as the harsh realities of displacement have stripped us of our comforts, with nothing but the flimsy fabric of our tent to shield us from the unforgiving elements.

No longer do I rest my weary bones on a soft mattress; instead, I lie on the cold, damp ground, my body aching with every movement, robbed of the restorative sleep it so desperately craves.

Gone are the plush blankets that once enveloped me in warmth; now, I shiver in the biting cold of winter nights, the chill seeping into my bones until I can scarcely feel my limbs.

As the days wear on, the confines of our tents seem to shrink around us, suffocating us in a claustrophobic embrace. Fear gripped our hearts as we watched the relentless onslaught of rain, each droplet threatening to breach the flimsy barrier of our shelter. The cacophony of thunderclaps reverberated through the air, punctuated by the ominous crackle of lightning strikes, as nature’s fury unleashed upon us.

The relentless downpour had transformed the landscape into a sodden wasteland, engulfing neighbouring tents in a deluge of water. In a cruel display of irony, the very element we had once prayed for now compounded our suffering, as if to mock our prayers for abundance.

A cycle of extreme temperatures has exacted a heavy toll on our frail bodies, leaving us ravaged by illness and exhaustion. The sweltering heat of the day gives way to bone-chilling cold at night, while our throats burn from infection and our chests constrict with each laboured breath.

Yet, even amidst the harshness of our circumstances, there lingers a flicker of hope – a glimmer of resilience that refuses to be extinguished. We cling to the belief that one day, we will once again find solace and comfort within the walls of our beloved family home.

Until then, we endure, drawing strength from the memories of warmth and comfort that sustain us through the darkest of nights.


An unfathomable loss


The news arrived like a bolt from the blue, shattering the fragile remnants of hope that had sustained us. The solemn whispers of our neighbours bore the weight of irrefutable truth: the Israeli occupation had confirmed the devastation that befell our cherished home.

A wave of anguish swept through our hearts as the reality of our loss sunk in.

For over two decades, my family home has stood as a steadfast monument to generations past and present, a sanctuary steeped in cherished memories and enduring love. It is a place where the echoes of laughter and the whispers of stories passed down through the ages intertwine, weaving a tapestry of shared history and boundless affection.

This family home bore witness to the lives lived within its walls – from the laughter of childhood to the quiet moments of contemplation. It has been a steadfast companion, nurturing the dreams and aspirations of those who call it home.

I can still vividly recall the joyous occasion of my high school graduation, my family’s pride shining as brightly as the Palestine sun. The days spent in the embrace of my father’s arms as we harvested olives from our ancestral groves. The evenings gathered around the kitchen table, savouring traditional dishes like Musakhan and freshly baked manaqeesh.

As I reflect on the countless moments that have unfolded within these sacred walls, I am filled with gratitude for the love and warmth. It is a place where time stands still. The spirit of this home will endure, a beacon of light guiding us through life’s journey, forever etched in my mind and heart.

When we learned that our home had been bombed, my father resolved to confront the wreckage firsthand. He wanted to visit our ravaged home, to bear witness to its destruction.

A chorus of voices rose in protest, pleading with my father to reconsider his perilous journey. As the Israeli army continued its deadly invasion, shooting to kill anything in its way, the journey to Maghazi meant the possibility of never returning.

Despite the impassioned pleas of my family, I resolved to accompany my father, driven by a sense of duty as the eldest sibling and a desperate need for closure.

With heavy hearts and faltering steps, we embarked on our journey, a solemn pilgrimage through the scarred landscape of our homeland.

Upon reaching Deir al-Balah, we were greeted by a scene of utter desolation. We were overcome by the sheer magnitude of our community's destruction. The once bustling streets had been reduced to rubble and debris, devoid of any signs of life. Towering buildings lay crumbled, their skeletal frames a stark reminder of the indiscriminate violence of Israel’s war.

Gone were the familiar faces that once populated these streets, their absence a haunting echo of lives interrupted and dreams shattered.

The weight of sorrow and loss hung heavy in our hearts. Yet, amidst the devastation that surrounded us, there was a flicker of resilience. For even in the face of unfathomable loss, we remained steadfast in our determination to rebuild and reclaim what had been lost.

Walking through the familiar streets of our neighbourhood, a sense of dread gripped our hearts as we approached the remnants of what was once our cherished home. But the inferno that had engulfed our building rendered it unrecognisable amidst the charred ruins.

Standing before the skeletal remains of our multi-story home, everything we knew was gone. The ground level, once bustling with life, now lay eerily silent.

Gone were the familiar sights and sounds that once filled these hallowed halls. Where once there stood windows and doors there remained only holes.The once vibrant colours that adorned our living room had been replaced by a blanket of charred debris, suffocating the memories that once thrived within these walls.

As we ventured further into the depths of our former sanctuary, the weight of our loss became unbearable. The echoes of laughter and joy that once reverberated within these walls were now drowned out by the deafening silence of destruction. The remnants of our belongings lay scattered amidst the ashes, a haunting reminder of the life we once knew.

In my bedroom, where every corner held a cherished memory, there remained only emptiness. The shelves that once held a treasure trove of books now stood barren, their contents reduced to ash. The window that once framed a picturesque view now offered only a bleak panorama of devastation.

The reality of our loss became more acute, until it threatened to consume us entirely.

Standing in the wreckage of my existence, I realised that I had lost more than just a home — I had lost a piece of myself. With my hopes dashed and my dreams reduced to ash, all that remained was the overwhelming sense of emptiness.

And so, I could do nothing but wait, trapped in a nightmare from which there seemed to be no escape, while the world continued to turn, oblivious and indifferent to the devastation we have been forced to endure.


Author


Eman Alhaj Ali is a Gazan-based journalist, writer, and translator from Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp


Disclaimer


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or that of CEMAS.

 

 

 

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