Cast Lead, the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, ended 3 years ago yesterday. Above, a schoolboy in Gaza meets an international delegation in June '09. (He is not the subject of this article.)
At night I could not get to sleep. My body was trembling all over and no matter what I did to try to calm myself, I could not stop this trembling. I know now that baba was terribly worried about me, but then I was so lost in a gripping, paralyzing fear that everything and everyone seemed far away even when they were standing in the same room as I. I was in a jar with thick, distorting glass around me. Every time a bomb exploded, something in my head would go “pop” and all the people and things in our flat around me disappeared. Then I would be ‘awake’ again, watching baba’s and mama’s faces to look for some sign of relief in their eyes, but it wasn’t there, so the fear kept hold of me. I remember almost nothing about what I did to make the time pass during those days.
Salwa, my little sister, kept crying and crying. Mama would take her in her arms and hold her, but mama was afraid, too, and tears kept rolling down her cheeks. Baba couldn’t make mama stop crying and he was upset because he said she was making it worse for us. Mama would try to stop crying by burying her face in Salwa’s hair and closing her eyes --like she were trying to find a place to hide. I could not go near mama when she was crying; I was afraid if I got too close, the sum of our fears would cause a bomb to explode right over our building.
My big brother, Ali, tried to be like baba but I knew he was really afraid by the way he watched baba for cues. One morning, I saw him crying when I woke up. Baba took him into the bathroom. They talked for a long time but I could not hear what they were saying. Ali looked away from us when they finally came out. Later that morning, mama took the sheet off Ali’s bed and I saw, through the light from the window, a circle of pale yellow pee in the middle of the white cloth. I pretended not to notice, but it made me blush for Ali, who was 12 and wanted to be just like baba. I never said anything about this even much later when we teased and tormented each other in play; or even when I was really angry with him for acting like one of the men and ignoring me when my aunts and uncles and cousins came over and things were OK again.
All the windows were broken in our flat by the fourth day of the attack, and it was so cold that my fingers didn’t move as fast as they should. I was supposed to write out my homework to keep my mind busy, but I could not get my hands to work or my head to think. We had to double or triple our socks because there were still tiny glass fragments we could not see on the floors, even though we swept them clean every day for something to do.
In the day, at least we could see inside the flat and there would be fewer explosions than when it grew dark, but we could not go outside and didn’t want to. The lights were out most of the time and we mostly ate cold food. Only baba would go outside during the day. He kept on working day after day. He said it was his duty because he had to let people outside Gaza know what was happening to us. I didn’t know how he could do this, but baba never lied to me. I wondered if he could tell someone to make the bombings stop. He needed to tell them that there were lots and lots of people here, trapped, without enough food and right in the path of the bombs. If he could tell enough people outside Gaza, maybe they could make the airplanes stop flying and bombing every night.
I wanted to ask baba who he was talking to, but I was afraid. He looked tired and I know he was hungry. He would bring home food whenever he came back, but mostly he gave it to us. He would be calm and silent and come sit next to me on my bed. When baba was home with us I could come out of my jar a little and, for some seconds, I’d imagine we were back when everything was “normal”. I could smell the familiar smells from our kitchen and think of mama cooking when we came home from school. We would drop our school bags at the door and take off our boots. Baba would be home soon and we would eat and talk about our days and read or study for our exams. On days when the tanks and jeeps came into Gaza we would not go outside but we could watch kids’ shows on TV if the generator was working and baba and mama thought that would help us forget about the soldiers and whether they would come all the way to our neighborhood with their guns.
It was many nights before I could talk to baba about the day he ran across the city to get me from school, the first day of the killings. I was just leaving the school when a huge explosion sounded. It was just meters from where I and my classmates outside had begun to scatter in different directions to go our separate ways home. The police station was just across the street and that’s where the biggest explosion happened. I remember the smoke and flames and the yelling of men and fire engines. We were so scared and didn’t know what to do because the teachers were screaming at us to do different things. Some of them were yelling at us to come back inside, but kids from the afternoon shift were already arriving, and some of them turned and began to run away, back to their homes before they even got inside.
Outside, people were running and shouting in all different directions. I was frozen in one spot and I don’t know if I’d have moved from that spot if I hadn’t seen baba running toward me and calling my name. It was a long way from our flat. I learned later that he’d got into a taxi as soon as he heard the explosion and told the driver to go as fast as he could. The driver wanted to help but he would not drive so close to the police station, so baba had to run the rest of the way. When I saw him I forgot everything except his big arms hugging me and saying my name and “you’re OK.” He kept saying, “you’re going to be fine, now. I’m here with you.” I didn’t cry. I just ran with him until we could get another taxi to take us home. That night the trembling in my body began and would not stop. I slept but did not sleep; I spoke but did not talk. The skies over Gaza were gray and cold. Salwa was home already with mama, and Ali had run home by himself because his school was so close to us. We were together as night fell over Gaza, and the earth shook and blazed angrily around us for the next three weeks.
On the Fifth night, baba came and sat beside me. He kept taking my hands and trying to still the trembling. It was then I told him of the arms and legs that had blown up over the police station near my school; of the bloodied pieces of flesh I saw land on the ground around me. My throat got so tight that I could not tell him more until he held me close and told me it was horrible, what I saw; and that it was OK to cry. I want to forget all this now, but I can’t. Whenever I hear an explosion now I freeze up for a minute, practically forgetting to breathe. I re-live those first, deadly minutes each time, and then the rest blows over me like a gust of cold wind off the sea. I remember Salwa’s shaky, tearful voice when the bombs were so close they shook our building. “Mama, are they going to kill us, too?”
I guess everyone asked that question then. Would it be us next? Would they kill us, too?
We have moved since then, to another part of the city; to a new home and a place without the nightmare memories. It helps us forget, though explosions still make me freeze with fear. I know it is not over yet though I try to focus on school and friends. Every day I expect the explosions will start again.
Jennifer Loewenstein, associate director of the University of Wisconsin's Middle East Studies Program, is in frequent contact with friends in Gaza. This story is based on conversations with a friend about his family's experience under assault. All names were changed for reasons of privacy. Loewenstein urges readers to read other testimonies at Palestinian Center for Human Rights website.