With foreign press not allowed into Gaza without an Israeli escort and local press constantly targeted and killed, Hossam Madhoun is one of the few authentic voices coming from the frontline of the war. Hell continues in a never-ending war, yet the Palestinian people remain resourceful, remarkable and above all kind.
Mother Courage (Not Bertolt Brecht)
By the wall of the school, the shelter, many sellers lay out their small amount of merchandise on a small, old, wooden table, or a cardboard box, or even on a plastic sheet on the ground. Small quantities of cans of meat, cans of tuna, cans of beans, cigarettes, sugar, rice. Some have quantities worth $200 and others, all their merchandise is worth no more than $30. Trying to make enough profit to feed themselves for a day or two.
Among them a lady, a middle-aged woman with a veil completely covering most of her hair, is busy cooking bread in an oven made of mud. A line of people standing to buy a piece of bread or two or whatever. Calling to her seven or eight-year-old son from time to time to feed the fire under the oven with some bits of wood — a normal scene in Gaza, mainly around the shelter-schools.
I took my place in the line to buy some bread, when a journalist approached the lady asking her for an interview. Without looking at him she said, “You can see that I’m busy.” The journalist was patient and polite. He asked if he could film her as part of the market and life in the shelters. She shrugged with a sense of not caring if he did or didn’t. The reporter made a gesture to the cameraman to start filming.
The journalist: “Have you been doing this for a long time?”
The woman: “Cooking bread? One month.”
Journalist: “You built the mud oven?”
The woman: “No, I bought it from someone who built it but could not work on it. He was too old for this work.”
Journalist: “Are you from here? I mean Nuseirat Camp?”
The woman (while working, putting a piece of dough in the oven, turning it over from time to time using a wooden stick): “No. Not from here.” (To a customer) “I haven’t change for a hundred shekels. Find some change and come back.”
Journalist: “Where did you come from?”
The woman: “From many places since the 12th of October.”
Journalist: “Like where?”
The woman: “From Beit Hanoun. When they started bombing, my eldest son and father-in-law were killed. The bombing was targeting a neighbors’ home. They were all killed.”
She stopped talking and continued her work. The journalist did not rush her. She raised her head again, looked at the journalist for a second, then turned back to the oven and continued talking.
“We moved to my family home in Shati Camp, ‘Beach Camp,’ I was at the market with this little son, when we heard a huge explosion from an air strike. I went home with some vegetables. They bombed a nearby home and my parents and my husband were killed. They were all under the rubble. I recognized my husband from his feet that appeared out of the rubble. He was missing a toe; he lost it in a work accident in Israel two years ago. He used to work in construction. When the accident happened, his boss did not do anything for him, he sent him home and never allowed him to work again. Of course, no compensation. In Israel they don’t register Palestinian workers as a legal workforce, so no one can claim any compensation. They just use us as cheap labor, that’s all. My poor husband did not rest until he died.” (To her little son) “Enough wood, we’re almost finished. (To a customer) “This will cost you four shekels.”
She looked at the journalist. He was still there holding the mic towards her, the cameraman focused on her.
The woman: “So, we moved to Zahra City, to my sister who is married and lives there. They followed us with the bombing. My daughter and my mother in-law were killed. We came here; myself and this little boy, my sister’s son and my injured sister. We are at this school.” She pointed at the school behind her.
Journalist: “How do you manage? Does UNRWA distribute food at the school?”
The woman: “Yes. They come every few days, give each family some cans of food, some biscuits, some soap, food barely enough for one day. Anyway, we are still alive.”
Journalist: “What about water? Hygiene? Toilet?”
The woman: “This is another story. I wake up at four in the morning to join the queue for the toilet. At this time there will be a line of seven to 15 people. If I’m late, I’ll find a line of 50 or 60. I take my injured sister, her daughter, and my little son. We do our business there and go back to sleep again. They distribute mineral water bottles. I don’t use them. I sell them to get some money. Here we are surviving.”
Journalist: “What do other women do?”
The woman: “Other women? Yes, there was a pregnant woman, we helped her to give birth inside the classroom. She was lucky, her delivery went smoothly, she did not need a hospital. We care for each other in our classroom. Not like in other classes, all day you hear screaming, shouting, cursing, disputes. We are lucky. They look after my sister and her two-year-old daughter when I’m out.”
Journalist: “How do you get the wood for your oven?”
The woman: “It was easy in the beginning. I collected bits of wood from the streets, from the nearby olive orchards. Then I started to buy it from wood sellers. It was 1.2 shekels/kilo to begin with and then the price rose, like all prices, now it is three shekels/kilo. Everyone is using fire now as there is no cooking gas or fuel. Scarcity in everything.”
The woman started to clear up, put out the fire, collect the bits of wood which were not burnt yet, and covered the oven with a piece of material. She carried her son and went towards the school. The cameraman followed her with his camera lens until she disappeared inside the school.
Since the start of this brutal massacre and killing of the Gazan people, I was always afraid. The kind of fear that you think you control by caring for your family, by keeping busy, securing their needs, by following up on the work of my colleagues, the counselors and social workers at the shelters, by writing my diaries and sharing them with friends around the world. The kind of fear that you keep in and ignore, although all reasons for fear and panic are there — the random bombing, shelling, shooting, destruction, the number of people killed and injured reaching more than 27,000 killed and more than 54,000 injured. Yet I keep it deep inside.
Since yesterday my feelings are different. My fear is different. Since the Israeli army ordered people in Bureij Camp and part of Nuseirat Camp, where I am displaced, to leave, I don’t feel the same. I could have been killed before, at any minute, by any of these bombardments, yet now I feel it coming towards me and my family.
There are only three of my friends from Gaza City displaced to Bureij and Nuseirat. The three of them are in the areas ordered to evacuate and leave. Yesterday I tried to reach them by mobile. Did not work. I walked to one of them. He was not there. It was too late to walk to the others — one in Bureij and the other in Nuseirat near Bureij, the Salahaldeen Road separating them. Bureij, east of Salahaldeen, borders Israel, and Nuseirat is west of it.
Today I went to Al Awda Hospital. The first message was from my friend and colleague, Mohammed:
I am preparing to leave with my family for Rafah. I am now busy searching for materials to build a tent there in Rafah. I don’t know when we will communicate or meet again. I hope soon.
Stay safe until then,
I don’t know why after reading this message, the feeling of fear came up to the surface and overrode my ability to tolerate it.
I could not stay. I thought about going to Bureij to check on my friend Eyad. Bombing and heavy targeting started last night. I rejected the idea, I felt like a coward.
Then I thought about Maher. He is in Nuseirat. I will go. I walked two kilometers, arrived to find there are no cars in front of his home. It’s a building of three floors. Up until yesterday it was hosting more than 80 people. Maher’s brother, the homeowner, was there, taking things from the house and loading them into a mini-bus. Mattresses, blankets, bread, flour, suitcases, bags …
“What’s up?” I said
“He left yesterday with his family, they all left, myself and my wife are the last.”
“Rafah. We’ve a brother living there, Maher and his family went there. Myself and my wife will go to my daughter’s home in Zawayda.”
There was nothing to be said. The man was busy and rushing to load his stuff.
I said: “Goodbye, be safe.”
Walking back to Al Awda Hospital, holding my mobile the whole way and trying to call Eyad. I tried more than 50 times and all the calls failed.
Suddenly I stopped. I feel something is wrong. I feel dizzy, unable to walk properly. The fear invades me from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. I don’t feel well. I continue walking. Arrived at the hospital, went to the office. I started to collect my stuff; the laptop, the mobile charger, the small battery that I use to light some LED lights. I finished and got ready to leave. Then I sat down again. I don’t want to go home with these feelings, in this condition. I must control myself.
Arriving home, talking to Abeer about what we shall do.
She has a sister in Rafah, a widow with five girls living not far from Alnajjar Hospital, living in a very small house of two rooms with a small living room. Shall we go there? Shall we send some of us so if something happens here we can move more easily and lighter? We are around 22 people. Maybe her mother and sister and her sister’s family can go tomorrow and then we can figure out what to do next.
We do not decide yet. We are still discussing the options when her brother, his wife and three children arrive with their luggage. They were in Nuseirat, not far form the area ordered to evacuate. So he is seeking refuge at his father’s home. Fair enough.
What next? We finished our talk without deciding anything. No safe place in Gaza Strip. People moving from place to place seeking non-existent safety. I am one of them. There is a storm outside, the wind is screaming, heavy rain and the cold is reaching my bones while the bombing is continuing and this time not far at all.
I am afraid. I feel so lonely.
The Third Displacement, to Rafah
Finally, I must decide — my wife Abeer’s brother and his family, Abeer’s female cousins and their daughter arrived at my parents-in-law’s home. A full house of women and children, some of us must move to Rafah, the next destination after Gaza City and Nuseirat. They are all one family. I am the outsider. I decided to take my mother and leave. Abeer decided to stay with her parents and sisters. Now we have to separate. I don’t know how long for. I don’t know if we are going to meet again.
Finding a taxi to Rafah was not easy, I had to walk from Sawarha to Salahaldeen Road where taxis are found, five kilometers walking, in fact almost running. It was 14:40, dark falls in less than three hours. I must be in Rafah before dark. Dark is another fear, another uncertainty.
Found a taxi, asking for lots of money. No choice, I agreed. $100, almost 20 times the normal price. We drove back to Sawarha, I loaded our stuff, two mattresses, two blankets, two bags of clothes. A half full cylinder of cooking gas enough for two weeks.
I did not know even then where to go in Rafah. I called a friend there asking him to find me a place. I know that I am giving him an impossible task. More than one million people displaced to Rafah, a city of less than 100,000 people now hosting ten times the original population.
From Nuseirat taking the sea road, anxious, not comfortable, the Israeli Navy on the horizon, we heard many stories of shelling and killing of people on the sea road. Arriving at Khan Younis, west of Khan Younis, Mawasi area, the area which is mostly uninhabited, agricultural land. We used to drive and spend our weekends there running away from the crowds and noise of the city, Gaza City. It is unbelievable how it has become, thousands and thousands of people on the main road, which became similar to a flea market, selling some food items, second-hand clothes and other stuff. On both sides of the main road, hundreds of tents made from cheap plastic sheets.
Arrived in Rafah, same image, same situation doubled. Crowds everywhere, tents everywhere, small sellers everywhere. People moving all ways, back and forth, huge chaos. Dirt, garbage everywhere, destruction everywhere, bombed houses everywhere. Gray and black are the dominant colors, as if the colors of life have been taken away from Gaza. Trees in the street are all cut, people cut them to use for fire. No green color anymore, even the sky in this season hides its blue color and shows its gray, gloomy color.
Some of my friends who arrived in Rafah earlier are in tents in the streets, tents that don’t prevent the cold or rain, but this was their only option, their only possibility. What will I do with my 83-year-old bedridden mother?
Calling my friend all the way and the connection is not going through. More than 60 times trying until finally it works. He asked me to come to his family house in Rafah. I know already they have no place, no room for any more people. I know they are hosting more than 100 people there.
Arrived at his place and he received me with a big smile.
“Are you lucky or are you lucky?”
“I asked a friend who has good connections to look for an apartment for rent. He is a wealthy businessman but he could not find any place for rent.
“So, what is the news then?”
“He asked me again, ‘Who wants the place?’ and I told him it’s for my friend and his bedridden mother. He decided to host you and your mother in his home.”
“Really?! I don’t want to bother people.”
“Don’t worry, let’s go.”
He took a ride with us, guiding the driver to his friend’s address.
Arrived at a fancy building of three floors, with a side yard with a decorated, wooden roof.
The man was there, waiting for us with a big smile, very friendly and welcoming.
He asked his sons to unload my stuff. They did not let me carry anything. The ground floor had a big living room and one bedroom with a toilet beside it. The man said: “I hope this is ok for you.”
I was speechless. Could not express my feelings of appreciation but kept saying: “Thank you, thank you.”
I put my mother to bed. They brought food and offered for me to take a shower. A shower? Wow. A hot shower. The first time in three months, since then, I have been washing my body using a plastic can with cold water.
My mother was so tired from the journey. She slept.
After the shower I went to the side yard. There were some men around the fire, brewing a pot of tea. We sat, chatted until 8pm. Then we all went to bed. They did not stop asking me if I needed anything, they did not stop saying, “Your mother is our mother, you should not worry about her.”
I slept. My mother slept.
Messages from Gaza Now by Hossam Madhoun appears courtesy of Jonathan Chadwick and Az Theatre, in London.