It was a few minutes past eleven. I woke up “early” to start preparing for my school exams that were due to start in a couple of weeks. It was a lovely morning, warm and sunny. The December sunlight filtered through the curtained windows and so beautifully decorated the carpeted floor.
Everything was completely normal, except that the sky seemed clearer than usual with the absence of the Israeli unmanned drones that would fly and buzz in the sky above. No abnormal signs, no reason to worry, and not a single harbinger of an impending war.
My mom was away for the weekly shopping. My sisters, who had been halfway through their day, were back home from school and were already seated before the television, watching cartoons. I made myself a cup of tea and, as is my habit, started to count the pages I had to finish studying that day. Very soon, I was immersed in my book.
A little while later, and all of a sudden, all hell broke loose. I can’t even remember how it all started. It just happened. There was no beginning, and there was no end.
The bombs rained down from every direction. I felt the floor beneath my feet shake so terribly. The entire building shook back and forth with every falling bomb. It seemed as if all the bombs had been dropped in my neighborhood, just next to where I lived.
The bombing was so horrendously ear-piercing. My heart skipped many a beat. Wide-eyed and petrified, my sisters stood transfixed next to me, tightly clutching my arms. I wanted to calm them down, but not until I calmed down myself first. Not until I could get myself to think clearly, and not until I could understand what was happening in the first place.
This is probably how it began. But this is one simple and detached account of one who was sipping his tea and enjoying the sunlight at his home when this all happened. For many others it was the end.
When I later watched the videos of the first locations to be targeted with the first bombs, I saw numerous bodies lay lifelessly on the ground, many repulsively disfigured — defaced, limbs chopped, torn apart, yet many, thankfully, were in complete shape — but still they were bereft of life.
Horror and agony in the streets
While I was on the rooftop disinterestedly trying to film a few scenes of the aftermath of each of the bombings that would not cease for twenty-two days, mothers, not far from where I stood, were grievously bewailing the deaths of their sons; daughters were sobbing in agony over the loss of their fathers; little children were scared stiff and crying out in horror. Some were running scared for their lives in the streets, and others were lying beneath the rubble, powerless and surrounded by the dead bodies of their siblings.
Typical of all wars, electricity was soon cut off and water was no longer in abundance. Cooking gas and bread became scarce. Basic needs became like priceless luxuries. Dreams, ambitions and hopes were shattered and lost, only to be replaced by survival which becomes everyone’s ultimate goal in war times.
The thought of dying alone
I joined crowds of people queuing up at six in the morning to buy a bag of bread. I saw others in front of oil shops fighting and pushing one another to buy a small amount of kerosene heating oil.
I stayed amongst crowds of people for hours on end in the gas station, hopelessly trying to get our cylinder half-filled with gas — filling a gas cylinder entirely at that time was an unthinkable wish. I developed a daily ritual of testing the amount of water inside our water tank by knocking its sides while leaning my ears against them. I spontaneously joined in the joyous celebrations when the electricity came back on.
I had grown an arcane love for the dark and an unusual appreciation of time. I cherished company and abhorred being alone like never before, for nothing scared me back then as much as the thought of dying alone.
Personal stories behind shocking statistics of death
Nothing yet had made me more dejected than how I became engrossed with following ever-changing statistics. The humanness of the victims was unthinkingly reduced in my mind to mere numbers which were drastically, and always more shockingly, on the rise.
The memory of the first statistics of more than eighty persons killed in the first wave of bombings has been engraved in my mind forever. As I look back on it now, I believe it was an extremely helpful, though selfish, tactic unconsciously devised to help me through the day in my right mind by getting around the insufferable pain of knowing the personal stories behind every one of these numbers.
Nonetheless, every now and then, a few stories would jump out from behind the numbers, and everyone would inevitably listen to them, many against their will, and perhaps soon, they would start to narrate them in a casual manner.
Only this explains the comment by the uncle of a Kashimiri friend in London on the way I spoke of bombings when he asked me about life in Gaza.
He wondered at how casually I talked of bombings as though they were a common thing that didn’t worry me. I told him a common story about little children in Gaza who would be playing in the streets when some bombing hit the nearby area. Their reaction would be to either totally ignore the bombing and carry on playing, or they would stop their game, cheer loudly and clap their hands, as if bombing were reason for one to be happy.
After three years, the 22 days are still engraved
Now it has been three years, and I’m still capable of evoking every minute detail of the twenty-two days which have become an experience I recall with feelings of sadness, anger, pain and a little bit of confusing pride, the reason for which I cannot understand.
The thunderous bombings, the creepy gunfire, the hovering Apache helicopters always sending a chill down the spine. The glass shattering, our neighbor’s wailing, mourners chanting “La Ilaha Illa Allah” (there is no God but God). The smell of kerosene heating oil stuck in my nose, the unnerving hums of our kerosene stove. The large, intricate clouds from the white phosphorus bombs, spreading through the sky like spider webs. My spite toward our neighbors’ generators, the fragile short periods of silence, the gloomy faces filling the green or blue condolence tents. The endless statements of the Ministry of Health’s spokesman.
These and a whole host of other memories form a rare experience. Perhaps it is that we survived that lies behind that odd sense of pride.
This post originally appeared on Mohammed Suliman’s blog for Electronic Intifada.