A family in Gaza struggles to rebuild following repeated Israeli attacks

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The Abu Sa’ad home in Jahr el Deek. (Photo: Ruqaya Izzidien)

37-year-old Nasr Abu Sa’ad is holding a demonstration with his children outside the United Nations in Gaza with the aim of convincing them to rebuild his home which was shelled five times in July 2010 and another four times this April. Here is his story.

Somewhere in the north-east of Gaza, there is a beautiful patch of land. There are watermelons bursting from the earth on the left and chillies popping out from the right. The fields roll endlessly in parallel symmetry. There’s a church tower to the east and people kissing the ground to the west. It’s the kind of place you would dream of retiring to. It is serene and idyllic. Olive groves become lemon orchards. I simply do not have the words.

Four of the Abu Sa’ad children. (Photo: Ruqaya Izzidien)

At the bottom of the butternut plant garden is a wall. It reaches high into the air, like it is trying to cheat its way into heaven. A few hundred metres in front of the wall lies a shell. This shell once was home to a man called Nasr, his wife and their five children Alaa, Sa’ad, Jabel, Baha and Maysaa.

Eleven months ago Nasr’s wife, Naama stood in front of their home and from a mound, about 500 metres away, a bomb was tossed at her. It was a nail bomb. It shredded both the house and the mother, God rest her soul.

Naama bled out as ambulances were prevented from reaching the house, which is in Jahr el Deek, in the north of the Gaza Strip. Five tank shells were also fired that day. The excuse given was that terrorists were suspected of being in the house.

On April 28, 2011, Nasr’s home was shelled again, four times, destroying the bedroom which held all the keepsakes belonging to Nasr’s wife. The first shell rocketed through the bedroom, where Nasr was resting, leaving behind it more hole than wall.

Damage to the Abu Sa’ad home. (Photo: Ruqaya Izzidien)

“It was dark, the electricity cut as soon as the attack began. I was afraid to move, too scared to even turn on the flashlight on my mobile. I was afraid that they would shell again if they saw any movement. But then I heard children, crying for me to get them out from under the rubble. I went into the corridor and could see Alaa underneath the rubble, but I could only see Maysaa’s hand sticking out”, said Nasr. “It was terrible. I didn’t know where my other children were and feared they had been killed.”

After his wife was killed, Nasr applied for assistance to have his house rebuilt. He told me that the United Nations had explained to him that his house wasn’t damaged enough to warrant being rebuilt. Since it was shelled again in April, Nasr has been attempting again to have his house rebuilt.

On June 19, Nasr and his children will head to the United Nations building in Gaza to stage a protest, hoping to pressurise them into rebuilding his home. Currently they are living in a tent, a few hundred metres away from their skeletal house.

“The only thing that keeps me here,” explained Nasr, “is that this is my home. My brothers and I worked so hard to buy this land. We used to live of the price of a packet of cigarettes in order to save enough money to buy this farm.”

As I sit down with Nasr, his children pop their heads out of a door, grin cheekily and scurry out of sight. The eldest, Baha, is 12 years old and has a sombre face. He doesn’t giggle with the others, but holds on determinedly to his youngest brother. His height barely reaches my elbows but he carries more weight and responsibility than I could ever pretend to understand.

(Photo: Ruqaya Izzidien)

Nasr shows me what remains of his house. He carefully tidies the rubble as we stumbled through, as though he was straightening a pillow. The bedroom, which used to contain all of his wife’s possessions, is utterly destroyed. All that remains, aside from the shards of splintered mirror and unusable furniture, is a dusty Quran. All evidence that she ever existed has been obliterated.

There’s no longer a roof. The staircase is cluttered with unidentifiable pieces of house corpse and the central wall to the house has so many bullet holes that it looks like a sieve. It seems voyeuristic, as though I’m witnessing a vulnerability that is taboo. I reach the upstairs and I’m greeted by half-walls in every direction. This should be a landing, with rooms separated by walls. But I can view the inside of each room simultaneously, through the innumerable rifts in the walls. I see right into the decimated bedroom through a hole taller than me and out to the garden, through another. I am overcome with such a sense of paradox that my brain physically begins to ache. Through the bomb-hole to the outside, I can see red flowers and cucumber plants. I see a freshly-harvested wheat field and a grazing cow. The juxtaposition does not make any sense and I will never, ever be able to reconcile the two images with one another.

As we head outside, Nasr points to the garden path and looks at me. “This is where she was martyred,” he said gently. “She was just standing right here.” The garden is decorated with pink and red flowers, behind which are metal sheets, still bearing the scars from the nail bomb that hit eleven months ago. There are gashes the size of my forearm and the house has such injuries that I never believed existed outside of slasher movies.

“They shoot at us almost every day,” Nasr spoke up. “They were shooting today; at our plants and at the earth.” In the few hours that I was at Jahr el Deek, I heard at least two drones and saw an apache helicopter. Jeeps strutted along the border kicking up dust. And in front of Nasr’s home, a single white sheet is tied atop a wooden stick.

I find myself clumsy with my own limbs, unable to coordinate my thoughts or actions. I am overwhelmed with what feels like a fist in my sternum as I try to process that flag. It is, simply, forcing a family to apologise for having their mother killed.

Nasr walks me back to his olive grove, near the tent where he is living with his children. He spoke again, “There is only one thing that would drive me off my land; my death.”

The while flag flying out the Abu Sa’ad home. (Photo: Ruqaya Izzidien)

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British journalist and cartoonist based in Gaza

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