My Children and I are Alone in a Residential Building in Gaza
October 11 2023
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With a voice tinged with both fear and anticipation, my daughter tells me: "I wish we could go back to the time before Sunday, before the new war on Gaza began." I did not share this desire completely, I had mixed and contradictory feelings. This time, I am resolved to stay strong and steadfast. During previous wars on Gaza, I would frequently let out cries of despair, filling the world with wails and sobbing, holding onto the hope for a miracle that might allow me to leave until the situation stabilizes, even if it seemed impossible. But, my connection to this place runs deep. To leave Gaza is akin to a soul being torn from its body.

I've lived in this six-story residential building for over a year now, with each floor housing three compact apartments occupied mostly by young families and newlyweds. As a result, my interactions with my neighbors have been largely formal, limited to brief greetings in the elevator or at the building's entrance.

These days, I've started to feel a need for company and an urgency to ensure that my family and I aren't alone in the building. In the initial days after relocating from southern of the Strip to central Gaza, I was consumed by a sense of alienation that was almost unbearable. A woman in my fifties, I wanted safety and peace of mind, avoiding extensive social interactions. My life narrowed to the practice of a few routines and the conversations with a few individuals. I did however have one friend in this building, an elderly neighbor. She seemed weary of life and showed little interest in anything beyond sharing a cup of bitter coffee with me while she reminisced about old Palestinian customs and lamented how today's younger generation, whom she considered spoiled and indolent, had altered them.

Whenever the sounds of bombs amplify in the distance, I would try to encourage and remind my children that our situation is similar to that of the other families who reside on other floors in the building. While our apartment was nestled in the middle floors, there were those who live on the top floor of the building, on the roof. The roof is also where some residents spend social nights and quality time with loved ones among beds of plants spread across the space. 

The bombing has not stopped.

And now, there is a strange scent permeating the air, reminiscent of pure alcohol. I was unsure of its origin, but it’s causing us to sneeze and cough. After checking Facebook, I suspect it might be the smell of white phosphorus. It descended forcefully, much like rain, as it struck somewhere near my building complex.

In this war, you're constantly learning and experiencing new realities. It dawned on me that, during this aggression, my children and I were the only ones left in this building. We were jolted awake in the middle of the third night of war by a warning of an impending bombing to a neighboring mosque, prompting us to hastily evacuate our flat. As we rushed down the building's stairs, it became clear that we were its sole inhabitants; the other residents had sought refuge with their extended families elsewhere, seeking comfort in each other's company during these harrowing times. No one had informed me.

Families with children had also chosen to return to the homes of grandparents and relatives, especially those who lived on lower floors or the ground floor and did not have to experience the hindrance of long staircases as they escaped. Living on higher floors had proven to be the less favorable choice in these circumstances. To live in a smaller house in the camp, for instance, makes it easier to quickly slip out to the street. Given the absence of shelters and safe havens, the streets had often become the preferred refuge from the bombings. My neighbors cleverly led me to believe they were still in the building, an innocent ruse.

I mistook the stillness behind locked doors and the pervasive silence for fear. No sounds of doors opening, children crying, or even the familiar sound of the neighboring bathroom's water tap, which was adjacent to my window. I had assumed that, like me, everyone was huddled in the middle of their apartments, scrolling news websites on their phones. After the mosque was bombed and reduced to rubble, which we observed from a distance, we returned to our building, taking refuge in the guard's room at the entrance. The guard himself couldn't make it back to his family home in A’zbat Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip. I had naively assumed that one of the residents would inform me if they were leaving. But in reality, much like on Judgement Day, everyone is primarily concerned with their own survival. I forgave them.

On the morning of Wednesday, October 11, I discovered that we had run out of drinking water. With the bombing drawing closer, leaving the building had become dangerous. We were still sheltering in the guard's room. It was then that I thought of my elderly neighbor. She had left for Jabalia camp to visit her daughter the day before the war began. She often mentioned that, given her age, she sometimes forgot to lock her apartment door. I found myself hoping that she hadn't locked it this time.

I hurried up to the fifth floor, out of breath, my daughter's concerned voice trailed after me, worried about the risk of shrapnel from nearby attacks. When I reached my neighbor's apartment, I tentatively turned the handle, and to my immense relief, the door opened. I rushed to the refrigerator, eagerly pulling it open to discover several water bottles inside. She had also filled and left many large bottles atop the kitchen sink. My daughter and I returned downstairs with water bottles in hand. I smiled inwardly as I glanced at the closed doors, wishing their good inhabitants protection. I sat on the floor in the guard's room, with a glimmer of optimism this time. I'm not sure how long this war will last, but I'm hoping that it will finish as abruptly as it began.

This article was translated into English by Islam Khatib. 
About The Author: 

Sama Hassan is a writer from Gaza. 

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