I was waiting for my turn to be bombed

Gaza Diaries

Five weeks ago I sat in my family’s house in Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza and the sound bombs were louder that night than any from the previous week and a half. It was the tenth day in the 11-day escalation between Israel and Gaza. I urgently felt the need to write. I did not believe and did not see a scenario of how I would survive this time. So I started at the beginning when violence broke out on May 10, 2021, and I drafted diaries for each day after. 

Almost two weeks later and after a ceasefire was declared, I went back to my notebook and added new entries. The end result is an essay of short sections that reflects my fragmented reality. 

May 10, 2021

Night has fallen on Gaza and with that I felt all of us, all 2 million of us living in the besieged coastal strip, prepare to say goodbye to our beloveds. The evening, in Gaza, ushers in the wrath of Israeli forces who seem to see us as the terrorists or potential terrorists who must be killed. 

Sometime later in May

After a few days, and more importantly, after three major wars in Gaza, I have learned the procedure. It goes like this: the airstrikes begin in the north, then move west towards Gaza City, then the south. On May 16, three residential towers in Gaza City were struck in Israeli airstrikes killing 42 including 10 children. It is known as the al-Wehda Street massacre, but I know al-Wehda Street, not for deadly strikes where no one was warned or told to vacate the building while they slept, but because it’s where one of my best friends lives. 

This road has been bombed before and every time I find myself fraught with anxiety. Like most of us here, I am waiting for my turn to be bombed. Al-Wehda Street means the situation is now north of me. In my mind, I paint a path of where and when airstrikes will hit next. Probably close to my area. After, the tides will turn against the south.

Sometime in June 

Inevitably I revisit the geographical sequence of Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire in Gaza. By land, firing from across the buffer zone from tanks; by air, firing from jets; and by sea, firing from gunboats afloat in the Mediterranean Sea. Recognizing this progression is intertwined with dark humor. I see memes on social media. Warn the middle, the north is under attack. Warn the south the middle is up. 

May 16, 2021

This is my worst night. 

More than 30 airstrikes on a road approaching farmland shook my house as though it were dancing, and a clumsy dancer at that. I feel vibrations. I see the furniture jiggle. 

Zahra Shaikha. (Photo courtesy of the author)

I’ve learned how to adapt. I recognize that certain rooms, like my bedroom, which is in the eastern part of the house, are closer to the eastern border with Israel than the rooms on the opposite side of the house. It is from the east where the artillery fire is most punishing. 

I stand in the living room. My 34-year-old sister Amal, who lives in the al-Maghazi refugee camp also in the middle of Gaza, was on the phone with me. The sky was full of falling missiles. We heard the horrifying sounds together. There is some comfort in experiencing this with someone else, even over the phone. We both hear blasts, we both are afraid, and we both try to comfort one and another. 

It was only when the crippling sounds of bombardments stopped, that Amal hung up. I exhaled for a second, but before I could calm my breath, I heard screams from the street. Then someone banged on our front door and shouted “Get out of the house! Get out of the house!” 

“They,” the person shrieked of the Israeli military, “threatened to bomb a house in the neighborhood!” This means a phone call was made to someone’s cell phone from a blocked number and the caller, usually speaking Arabic with a slight Hebrew accent, explains the house or building they are in is about to get targeted. Warning calls don’t always happen, but when they do, everyone in the vicinity runs. Blasts from an F16 can level a high-rise and the rubble from such a hit can cause neighboring houses to fall and shrapnel to fly down the block. 

I crossed paths with a neighbor who was holding her two children as she sprinted downward past me. She looked terrified. She usually wears a headscarf and I noticed she didn’t have one on. She was just running. Now I was terrified.

I quickly thought of the easiest thing a Muslim woman in Gaza could throw on to run for her life. I put on my prayer clothes and slippers. I grabbed my emergency backpack, something that most of us in Gaza have prepared. I rushed out the front door of the apartment, fled down a flight of stairs, heading to the exterior door to the street. Before I exited, I realized my father wasn’t following me. I went back up to the apartment and in the stairwell, I crossed paths with a neighbor who was holding her two children as she sprinted downward past me. She looked terrified. She usually wears a headscarf and I noticed she didn’t have one on. She was just running. Now I was terrified. 

I reached my father and together we darted outside. I was hyperventilating, not from the running but from fear. Somewhere in this, I managed to send a tearful voice memo to a friend, uttering a fateful set of words that everyone in Gaza knows: “We are evacuating.” Such a message is often a person’s last sentence. 

By this point, it was 2:00 a.m. It seemed as though the entire neighborhood was in the streets. I saw families, mothers, and fathers holding their children close frantically looking left and right and trying to figure out which house was the one about to get bombed. That’s the thing about a warning message. Sometimes it’s too chaotic to know if you’re running away from danger or towards it.

My own family and I ended up staying at a neighbor’s home. Hanan, my three-year-old niece sat on my lap. I tried to comfort her by saying the only words I could muster out of my mouth: “don’t be afraid, sweetheart.” I knew that this wasn’t even possible. Of course she was afraid. I don’t really know how much time elapsed, but approximately 20 minutes later we ended up returning to our house, only to find out that there was no impending airstrike in our neighborhood. A rumor had taken hold and panic ensued. 

That’s the thing about this war, all of us were targets and none of us were targets. At any time, at any place, anyone can get bombed because bombings happen all across Gaza. In urban and suburban areas, it doesn’t matter. We don’t know what’s going to be hit. There’s no one telling us what’s real and what’s not, if we’re safe from bombs, or not—because ultimately we’re not safe.

Al-Aqsa Avenue in Gaza City's Dahduh neighborhood, heavily damaged following Israeli airstrikes on May 17, 2021. (Photo: Osama Baba/APA Images)
Al-Aqsa Avenue in Gaza City’s Dahduh neighborhood, heavily damaged following Israeli airstrikes on May 17, 2021. (Photo: Osama Baba/APA Images)

Later in June 2021

It would break my heart when one of my friends sends me this message on Whatsapp: “They threatened to bomb a house in our neighborhood.” The only thing I could do would be to remain active in the chat with them until they’d give the assurance: “We are safe.” Except safety is ephemeral in Gaza. I’d know that their message really meant: “we weren’t killed by the bombs that just fell, but we could be killed by the bombs that will fall

What’s more, Gaza has been under an Egyptian and Israeli siege since 2007, which today means, we don’t have access to clean piped water, regular electricity, basic medications, simple products you’d find in the markets of nearly every country in the world. We go without so much. 

When I look back at the evenings of May 16 and 17, I think my heart shattered. But every day there is a reason here for your heart to break. When I see a shelled building from a decade ago or four weeks ago, every place that I see that was bombed is an example of memories and people erased. When they bombed the al-Shoruq building on al-Rimal Street, my favorite and Gaza’s most vital street, several shops were destroyed. Many memories vanished into the air. In my mind, I saw smoke escape to the sky. Gray dust that once was little comforts and pleasures that we were afforded in this torrid open-air prison floated past the birds to the sun. 

I can’t count how many times my dearest friend Shoruq and I shopped on al-Rimal Street for special occasions. Even just a few days just before the start of this escalation we were picking up presents for the upcoming Eid holiday that falls at the end of Ramadan. That day we each bought the other a gift. We were safe, frolicking in the sun, holding hands, and enjoying the last days of the Ramadan vibe. 

I recall how on days I felt down and blue, my sister Amal would take my nephew Feras and me for lunch in the Capital Mall. The gesture signaled, “don’t be sad about anything. I am here for you and with you, in joy.” Capital Mall is now mutilated from shrapnel that was spat out of the nearby al-Shoruq Tower when it was hit in an Israeli airstrike. When al-Rimal Street was targeted, it sundered my soul. 

May 18, 2021

I thought I was going to die. 

If I don’t survive, here is to my friends and the sweet people in my life.

To Sereen, the bride. She married last October and this word is special because it is what I still call her. It is a thing between us. She is the first friendship I made at university. That was about 6 years ago. Six years of you in my heart, 

To Shoruq, my sunrise, my partner in crime, in success, and in travel. To Anas, the creative graphic designer who teased me whenever Susan Abulhawa (one of my favorite Palestinian writers) texted him. To Mohammed, the tech nerd who had enough patience to explain technical stuff to me. And too many more names that I don’t have the ability or the time to thank. I am proud of you all and thank you for being part of my life. 

June 2021

I want to know if the new memories I will make in my adulthood will bear the same traumas as my childhood and adolescence. 

Zahra Shaikha
Zahra Shaikha is a writer and digital marketer. She has a BA in English Language and Literature. Music, reading, and writing are her refuge.

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