Aftermath of an Israeli attack on Gaza on November 17, 2012, the same day as Abdelmalek’s injury.
It was a Saturday. The fourth night of Israel’s ‘Operation Pillar of Defence.’ I’d just finished climbing a mountain and had been cut off from the rest of the world for most of the day. I was feeling happy and alive as I switched my phone on. I checked the first text: “I just heard about your cousin…” I didn’t finish reading it. My mind and heart stopped. My cousin? What the hell had happened to my cousin? Which one? Shaking, I dialed my mother’s number. She took ages to pick up and with every ring, I prayed. First “please don’t let anyone be dead,” and then “please don’t let it be anyone I know.”
My mother picked up. “Mama, what happened?” “Walaykum assalam! What are you talking about?” “I got a text. One of the cousins. What’s going on?” “Oh yeah. Your uncle’s son. He was injured.” “Who? How?” “Jawad’s son. Abdelmalek. Just his leg though.” After asking a few more questions and telling her when I would be home, I hung up.
Just his leg… no one was dead. And it wasn’t anyone I ‘knew’. On the dad’s side of family, 92 (at last count) call my dad’s mother ‘grandma’ – it’s a big family and there are a lot of cousins. I racked my brain trying to remember who Abdelmalek was. I realised I had only ever seen him once, from the roof of my uncle’s house as I watched a wedding zaffeh (exclusively for men). He was sitting on a chair at the back talking to a friend and bouncing a child on his knee. His father died a few decades ago in Egyptian Rafah (a funeral, by the way, my grandmother had to watch through barbed wire because neither she nor his corpse were allowed across the border). Abdelmalek grew up an orphan in a house next door to my grandmother’s in Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza. He is now 26 years old and unmarried. I didn’t know him and I’d never even spoken to him. He probably didn’t know who I was either but at that moment, he was all I could think of. All of a sudden, the events in Gaza had become even more real than they had before. The statistics were now my family. I felt ill.
The next day, I found my dad and asked him for more information. He didn’t know much either, just that his leg was gone and they were arranging to have him sent to Egypt for medical treatment. That’s all I knew for weeks. I tweeted about him a couple of times but soon decided it was useless. Of course it was. The tweets got a lot of attention and wishes for a fast recovery but none of it helped. All I could think of was that thousands of miles away, a member of my family’s life had just been changed drastically. And why? Because of Israel? Because the world’s ‘leaders’ were too cowardly and corrupt to speak out? Because our so called ‘Ummah’ was too busy obsessing over a damn cartoon to do anything about it?
A few days later, Egypt brokered a ceasefire and we were granted with a victory that filled even me with some happiness and optimism for the future.
A few weeks later, after a lot of effort and time spent on trying to convince my mother to let me go, I travelled to Gaza. This was my third and shortest time to visit. With only 10 days and a schedule filled with convoy activities such as distributing aid and seeing family and friends, it was a busy, exhausting but very satisfying trip.
Abdelmalek (Photo: Abrar Agil)
I saw Abdelmalek 4 times in those 10 days. His bedroom now consisted of a bed he spent most of his time in, pushed into a corner with seats all around the rest of the room for his guests and visitors. My dad sat next to his bed and asked him to tell us what happened. I sat next to baba and asked if I could take notes. In a quiet, shy voice, he told us he’d been out with his friend early in the morning. It was around 7am and he and his friend were on their way home on a motorcycle. The road was empty; people were either still asleep or too afraid to leave their homes. They were driving too fast to hear the drone. They didn’t hear the first missile either. It threw him and his friend off the motorcycle. The explosion was loud. “If you can hear it, it means you’re fine. It means you aren’t dead yet.” His friend seemed to be dead (he later found out he was just unconscious). He got up and started to run. The drone ignored his friend and started to follow him. He needed shelter, somewhere to hide. He ran for about 50 metres until he found a small side street with one house a little further down. Only one young boy was outside and Abdelmalek shouted out to him to open the door to the house. The boy came closer, not hearing what he was trying to say. Then the second and third missiles came. Abdelmalek was under a tree when they hit and it absorbed a lot of the impact and temperature from the burning metal. “Alhamdulillah (thank God) for that tree. I would’ve been blown to pieces if it wasn’t there.”
Abdelmalek was still conscious. He looked down and saw his leg was just hanging off him but said at that moment, there was no pain and no blood. Someone in the house nearby called an ambulance which took 15 minutes to arrive. By that time, the pain had started. I asked him to describe the pain and he looked away. “It was bad. Really bad.”
I stopped writing. My father asked if we could see the leg. He moved the blanket aside and I looked. The first thing I noticed was not the missing leg but his other leg. It was covered in shrapnels and was missing one toe on the foot. Then I looked at the other leg. It was gone from his knee down and wrapped in white bandages. He told me had shrapnels everywhere else in his body and his arm was also in a metal brace.
I looked away and picked up my pen. “How do you feel about everything now?” “Alhamdulillah. I’m doing well. God gave me the leg and God took it away. Alhamdulillah.” He shrugged. I felt sad and ashamed. If I’d lost my leg, I would probably think it was the end of the world. But here was Abdelmalek…strong, positive faithful. It confused me…
We visited him a few times after that and I spoke to his mother who told me about how scared she was when she found out something had happened to him. Abdelmalek answered more of my questions. Did he regret ever leaving his house that morning? No. What happened was meant to happen and he was still grateful; “Some guys have had both legs or both arms blown off. What’s happened to me is nothing.” Plans for the future? “I want to get a prosthetic leg fitted, God willing. And I want to go back to work.”
I thanked him and he gave me a polite smile.
His friend is fine. “Not a scratch. He slept through it all!” he laughed. And the little boy turned out to be 10 years old. He was also injured and had to have his spleen removed. Abdelmalek regrets calling out to him.
Abdelmalek is okay now. He still has a lot of pain and experiences what I’ve been told is called ‘Phantom Limb Syndrome’ – the brain still thinks the limb is there so he feels pain in a body part that doesn’t even exist. He’ll be given a mobility scooter soon so he can get around without help. He’s alive and surviving and although I still barely know him, I am in awe of his strength and courage. There aren’t many people I admire or look up to or consider heroes but right now, Abdelmalek, you are definitely one of them.
This post originally appeared on Abrar Agil’s blog.