Cover artwork by Giovanni Berton.
The ravaged homes, scattered pillars, broken roofs, and cracked walls – how can I witness lifeless houses while others lean on the pulse of their existence? How can I withstand the recurring narrative of children’s lives cut short and their dreams ruthlessly extinguished?
A scene I’ve experienced time and time again! My childhood unfolded day by day as I witnessed and lived through these scenes. I could feel them, smell the acrid gunpowder, the choking dust, and the remnants of Israeli explosives. Every year, in the years I recall, were marked by the torments of Israeli offensives on the Gaza Strip. We tasted the bitterness, faced the darkness, felt the terror, lived with perpetual apprehension, believing each breath could be our last, all while believing we were safe in our homes..!!
I have witnessed the offensives of 2008-2009, 2012, 2014, 2019, 2020, and 2021-2022, and the offensive in May this year (2023). But now, in October, fate has cast me under the shadow of anxiety and exile. How can I ignore that I can no longer bear the horrors that lie in wait! It’s war that shatters the bones of loved ones, swallows them whole, takes its time to chew them up, devours them bit by bit, leaves them bleeding, and finds satisfaction in the sight of blood splattered on the walls.!!
The raven and the night… Here comes the night
The raven/missile crawls with a snake’s hiss, striking the earth forcefully, causing the house’s pillars to tremble. It moans/staggers in surprise, and its pillars shatter, finding itself suspended in mid-air. In mere seconds, it plummets from the sky to crash down, a deafening sound intensifies and thunder roars. It descends upon its inhabitants, enveloping them as flesh melts with its breath, and its dust becomes a raging sandstorm, a thick dust … eyes wiped out, and another house falls/another tower falls/another heart falls.
The night is akin to a harrowing nightmare in the lives of Gazans, carrying nothing but death, destruction, and the sound of explosions that shake their once safe walls. It’s nothing more than the cries of children unable to speak, and it’s just a black darkness, like a dark tunnel that wounds their bodies and covers their faces with the blood of neighbors, perhaps drowning them in the blood of loved ones. So, the night is nothing but a whirlwind of body parts that invade their chests, where a hand may stick to someone else’s face or foot. The night is nothing but sorrow and tragedy that consume the young and old, devouring them at its leisure. The night is nothing but departure and loss, with flocks of warplanes occupying the sky. And what is your night, oh Gaza, like any night for a city that carries its own shroud and moves on.
Exile and war rage within the heart
I’m talking about a war that boils in the soul and body. You hear every missile explosion and startle. You chase the news and the never-ending glowing screen. The war is in your heart, and the bleeding intensifies to the point where even the strongest painkillers fail to relieve your pain in exile. You are a stranger in a foreign land, but your heart is soaked in pains, both old and new. You know very well the meaning of breaking news, and you’re intimately familiar with the aftershocks of missile strikes. You’re acutely familiar with the deafening silence that follows a devastating explosion and the ringing in your ears that lingers. You’ve come to recognize that this violent sound is a stark reminder of your survival, for the martyrs no longer hear such sounds as they ascend and vanish swiftly. You’re acutely aware of the panic that follows the deadly silence and the involuntary scream that escapes your lips, echoing in every direction, while your child is right in front of you. You run, desperately searching for them, one minute after the intense bombardment and nearby explosions. You hear voices that seem like the Day of Judgment, hundreds of voices, and everyone shouts as footsteps rush towards the stricken house. The cries grow louder, asking, “Whose home? Whose home?
Help … help! The house is full of people; there are displaced families, and the house is full of children. You know those voices and desperate cries very well, and the sound of the ambulance approaching from a distance. You’re reciting prayers, gathering your senses and running. But why are you running in panic? You don’t know. You don’t know if they’re naked, barefoot, or in a state of shock. Who are they? Which family? Questions hang in the air like the last gasp of breath before death. Your heart races on the path to knowledge. Who and whose house is it? Your details narrow, and your life passes as if it never existed before your eyes. You can’t remember when you used to smile. Who are you, and what are you doing on this land? Who is your family? That’s the state of those carried on the ambulance stretcher, confused, looking left and right, not yet comprehending because they didn’t hear the explosive sound. They gesture with their hand behind them, having lost the ability to speak.
You know very well it’s the greatest panic, the bewildered looks, the panting breaths, and the heartbeats that grow louder, trying to mask the sound of your own breath. Then suddenly, you realize that it’s your dear and friendly neighbors next door, and their little children who you used to glimpse as they played in the morning through your window. You know very well what comes after the bombardment and explosions. You know that some of them might survive, and some may have been crushed along with the broken walls of their homes. You know that there are hands and feet reaching out to greet you without the presence of their souls. You know that some feet will remain laid on the ground without anyone recognizing them. You know very well that the family portrait has also been killed with them, and the little dove nest has dissolved amidst the rubble and shattered stones. You know very well that the dust and smoke will linger in your chest for a long time, and your face becomes as pale as the pallor of death. Yet, you remain alive, for otherwise, you wouldn’t have felt all of this.
Wishes drenched in blood
You know very well why the people of Gaza long for martyrdom as one piece. Death wishes may vary, but they converge within a shroud that conceals ones bodies. This desire is unique to Gaza, as other wishes have faded away. No funerals, no final farewell kisses, no sorrow, no tears, no mourning tents, despite the open graves. Only silence, astonishment, and anticipation..!!
You know very well, from the dozens of aggressions you’ve experienced before, that a minute in Gaza means life or death, a resilient house or a crumbling one, just one minute. Sixty seconds that Gazans count second by second. Hair turns gray in these moments. How about sixteen days of war..!!
Were you ever in Gaza and witnessed life under bombardment? There’s so much to tell you about. Life under bombardment makes you quick to ignite, with anger and vitality combined. To keep your sanity there, you must consider every minute of life as a gift from God and realize that the timing of your martyrdom is just a matter of time. An unanswered question lingers in your mind: from which direction will the missile come? Will I feel the explosion’s searing heat, or will my beautiful house’s walls collapse onto my chest without pity, simply because I own them? Do these walls embrace their owners and shield them from the violent bombardment to ensure they come to no harm, like a lover protecting their beloved? Are houses martyrs and do they enter heaven like martyrs? Do they cry for their mothers and fathers, or are they orphaned? Does my beautiful house, once a dream come true, cradle me to the point of death? Why don’t the people of Gaza live out in the open under the rain and sun so their homes won’t embrace them to their doom? Why should Gazans endure this torrent of pain throughout their lives and those of their children? Why do Gazans bring children into the world, only for war to consume them and lay their dismembered bodies before the world? Above all, my mother never told me that I would witness what they have seen and lived through when they were expelled from their lands. She didn’t tell me that they devour children, and their blood is fresh. They choose the young, the infants, the little angels who have yet to learn the savagery of Israeli occupation??!
Have you ever been to Gaza and heard or experienced what its people endure? If you’ve never lived even one day under bombardment, you’re fortunate, for you’ve been spared the madness. No heart can bear what those living under relentless bombing and terror go through. Describing the hours of their day would risk losing one’s sanity because it would entail acknowledging the ongoing genocide. Gazans fervently pray in hopes of extinguishing the rage in their hearts, and a pressing question preoccupies their thoughts: Does the world bear witness to our ongoing slaughter, recognizing that we are being taken from this world every passing minute? Have the cards been laid bare to the point of condoning the shedding of blood by nations that have long championed human rights?!!
Indeed, war in exile is bitter, but it never resembles enduring airstrikes throughout your day, where your breath fades, and your moments are overpowered by the deafening explosions that spare no respite, leaving only a suppressed and precarious life..!!
Hedaya Saleh Shamun is a Palestinian journalist and writer from the Gaza Strip whose work also appears on the Arabic feminist news outlet Nawa