Diary of a war
Published Thursday 29/11/2012 (updated) 09/03/2013 23:59
Ahmed Ferwana is a teacher at the American International School in
Smiling from exhaustion as I wished my colleagues and students a good weekend, I left the American International School in Gaza, where I teach language and literature, to my apartment on al-Shuhada Street -- which I consider the most beautiful road in the Gaza Strip.
It was a lovely Wednesday, followed by a three-day vacation, and I made a plan to meet some friends for a barbeque.
Suddenly, I heard noises in the street. I looked out the window, curious about the loud ambulance sirens and firetrucks, to see journalists rushing out of a nearby building. I checked local news websites to investigate what was happening. A few minutes later, the mystery was solved.
At 4 p.m. on Nov. 14, Israeli forces assassinated the leader of the al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas, Ahmed al-Jaabari. Foreseeing the coming instability, I could do nothing but humbly lay my paralyzed body on the bed, and unintentionally I collapsed into my pillow falling in a pessimistic sleep.
Hours later, I woke to a phone call from my terrified mother, her voice weakened by worry and anxiety, begging me to leave my apartment in Gaza City and head to Rafah so I could be with the family through the anticipated hardship.
I told her that first thing in the morning I would get myself together and head down to Rafah, a city bordering Egypt with hundreds and hundreds of tunnels sure to be on the target list of Israel’s warplanes.
I spent the night planning, for I knew that traveling to Rafah from Gaza City would not be a road of roses. In fact, going to Rafah at that time would be an innocent attempt to escape death on a road shadowed with death; a time marked by the initiation of Israel’s military operation against Gaza: "Pillar of Cloud."
I sensed sudden changes within myself; deep thinking, strategic planning, wise judgments, calculating percentages of survival. All of a sudden, I transformed from a regular individual seeking a normal life to an eager survivor trying to stay alive in a war.
I was in a neighborhood that is relatively safer and less-targeted by Israeli airstrikes, yet I was empowered by the desire to be with my family in a house close to the borders with Egypt -- less than half a mile from heavy Israeli airstrikes on the tunnels.
Luckily, I found a bewildered, anxious taxi driver as I walked through the empty streets of Gaza City, a ghost town, and I finally made it to my family’s house around 2 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15.
Victorious! Yes, victorious was how I felt seeing the happy faces of my family members circling me and asking about any difficulties I faced on my way home. Victorious was how I felt when I was hugged through a rainbow of thanks directed to the lord of the skies for bringing me home safely.
That blast of joy was horribly interrupted by a nearby explosion that shook the house for a few seconds. My parents, four brothers, two sisters, three nephews and two nieces were all silenced for a moment; then, I chose to act quickly and kill the silence, saying, “Gazan’s got talent! Even the house is belly dancing!”
The whole family started laughing at my silly comment, and my little nephews and nieces started jumping and laughing as I played around with them.
At that moment, I felt helpless, defeated, and above all, less victorious.
How could I be victorious if deep down in my heart I know the destructive power of war is right around the corner? How could I be victorious when I know the most I could do in this war is say a bunch of reassuring words that might make my family less terrified, worried, or depressed? How could I be victorious when I knew that I can’t protect myself in this war let alone protect my family? How could I be victorious when I knew Gaza was going to turn into a pool of blood and I’d be nothing but a blind lifeguard?
Nothing could stand in the way of that trail of questions except an indescribable smile from one of my little nephews who approached me with his arms wide open; as if he was saying, "I understand what you’re going through! Take it easy and hug it out!"
I thought of that as an act of innocent courage from a little kid during a time of unknown destiny; an act that melted my heart and made me challenge my inner feelings. I started thinking, "What should I do, shield them inside and smile unaffected, or let those eyes of mine blink a goodbye to a river by their edges?"
And I forgot myself hugging him until he started pushing himself back -- alerting me that he needed to breathe away from my conflicted thoughts.
What should I be indeed?
A worried Gazan who should think of his dear Gazans, the war, the stress, the destruction, the exchange of rockets between Israel and Gaza, the material losses, the death toll, the innocent civilians, the airstrikes, and this whole madness?
Or should I be a member of a trembling family who must deal with one main concern -- the safety of that family; the safety that I won’t be able to provide except through weak attempts to keep them calm, and feeling safe?
All of this took me back to the 22-day war against Gaza launched in December 2008, "Operation Cast Lead" -- when I miraculously could survive, escape death, keep the family safe, and above all, learn a lot about how to deal with war.
Although that military operation caused immeasurable destruction to so many houses, mosques, families, factories, farms, schools, and hospitals in the Gaza Strip, it also left behind Gazans who became experts at dealing with war.
I began to think about what damage I could avoid. I started by opening all the windows and keeping the doors ajar in the house because in the last war those windows and doors flew off the walls from the pressure caused by the explosions of the airstrikes.
Then, I urged my family to evacuate the part of the house facing the main street -- a precaution to avoid flying bullets or shrapnel. After that, I made sure to deter my brothers' and sisters' curiosity about leaving the house or looking through the windows to see what was happening outside.
These precautions served as an insecure balloon-like fortress, yet it was a small relief knowing that my family clutched onto that little feeling of security.
It was still the second day of the unjust war on Gaza, and I was psychologically ready for the shock and madness. Alone during the night disturbed by the noise of surveillance drones swarming through the dark skies, I followed the numbers of the airstrikes, the numbers of unarmed civilians and children killed, and the numbers of all other losses in both Israel and Gaza.
All over the news channels, websites, articles, reports, and analyses, numbers were all that mattered. That was what the people of Gaza were considered by the media; merely numbers of "collateral damage" in a war they never wished to be immersed in.
What about the "unilateral damage" of every single unjustified death? Parents who have lost a kid, children who have lost a parent, or a whole family that has lost its right to live in dignity and peace?
It was all "collateral damage" for the media, for the international community, for the Arab world, and for the oppressor against the oppressed. It was an "inhumane moral conspiracy" to lessen the value of humanity; the value of representing Gazans as human beings instead of numbers. It was an "inferior goal" to be achieved through such an unjust war; a goal of dehumanizing and incriminating the innocents of Gaza.
And for Gazans, just like me, it was an undesired road of suspicions. It was a road with major signs on its banks; signs to be memorized so that a Gazan could get a wanderer’s license in a world that licensed media-blackout, deception, ignorance, injustice, humiliation, displacement, genocide, and discrimination against a group of people who did nothing but cry out for their simple rights.
I chose to end a tiring night of endless thinking by checking up on my family one by one and kissing them good night as I hoped tomorrow would come and I’d be able to see them alive; a night whose lullaby was the sounds of bombardments caused by Israeli airstrikes and the non-stop noise of the swarming surveillance drones.
Hearing the echoes of massive explosions caused by F-16 fighter jets bombing Rafah was the sign that it was a new day of atrocity. It was Friday, Nov. 16. Waking, all I cared about was a careful checkup trip among my family members to comfort my anguished soul by knowing they are safe.
Next, thorough scrutiny of news channels and websites with a doubtful hope that the international community might have intervened with decisions of ceasefire, or decisions that would stop the vivid nightmare of an unmerciful war.
I was disappointed to find out that Israel announced a reinforcement of troops on the Gaza Strip’s border and the civilian death toll had risen morosely. "What does that escalation mean? Is it possibly a preparation for a long-term war? Is Israel preparing for a ground invasion?" I hoped not as I terrifyingly stepped on that ladder of endless questions.
I’m not a political analyst, nor have I ever wanted to be involved in politics. However, the subconscious system of my mind works in a way that I can't control or understand at a time of war. This system's catalyst is the unbearable calamities of war, and its objective is survival; a mental system I chose to call "an artful adoption" to the current and sudden war environment.
But in order for this system to work well, a full understanding of the war's aspects is essential to anticipate the events that are yet to come.
The complexities associated with war, if resolved, make a regular individual an expert in military issues and war survival.
For example, from my experience surviving "Operation Cast Lead," I -- like many other Gazans -- can differentiate by sound the type of warplanes flying in the sky, whether it’s an Apache helicopter, an F-16 fighter jet or an unmanned surveillance drone.
Also, the distance of an airstrike can be calculated from the echo of the explosions or the belly-dance of the house if you are indoors.
And if you are outdoors, these measurements can be calculated by how high the debris flies and falls and the volume of smoke you can see.
The golden rule you must follow strictly is that if you go out and leave the so-called safety of your own home, there is a high possibility you will meet your maker.
It is true that there were cases of soul reapers paying visits to people in their homes, but the possibility of meeting them outside your house is far higher. Nonetheless, a bright smile on your face is highly recommended.
That is how life in Gaza is through times of war: a mixture of ironies that, most of the time, you never get a chance to comprehend.
At around 4 a.m., I was levitated, astonished, off my bed because of an explosion whose sound, strength, and effect I had never experienced before.
It was Nov. 17 and with that heavy airstrike I started the day. I turned on all the lights in the house, and as I headed back to my room, another rock-and-roll airstrike took place -- causing the house to shake, and spreading fear among my family members as they rushed out of their bedrooms.
I took them all to what I call "the safe room" in a corner of the house and next to a neighboring building, and then, that unexpected family gathering became an unusual tea-time. We sat together, chitchatted, and exchanged fake smiles of security as if there weren't 18 more airstrikes nearby that turned the whole neighborhood upside down.
When my family eventually went back to sleep, despite the noises of drones in the sky, I mentally traveled in my thoughts beyond the borders of Gaza to the southern parts of Israel; mainly Beersheva.
I have two friends there who are Palestinian-Israelis, as most of the international community identifies them, or 1948 Palestinians -- as Arabs, or dare I say only Palestinians, call them.
I was so worried about my friends, although most likely they were little affected by the war. Also, I started to think of Israeli civilians and the mutual pressure and hardship they were going through.
As a matter of fact, the Israeli government has the technology to surgically and accurately hit its military targets in Gaza, yet a lot of Gazans -- including children, women, and elders -- die on a regular basis in Israeli airstrikes.
And Hamas -- although it doesn’t have a quarter of Israel’s military might, nor tanks, warplanes nor warships -- is firing primitive, homemade rockets on Israel in an act of defense; rockets that might be considered fireworks compared to Israeli missiles, with few, yet unbearable losses in Israel.
Nevertheless, these rockets are fired in retaliation for the killing of innocent Gazans and the unjust life that Israel has brought on the heads of not only Hamas, but also the nearly 2 million civilians living in the Gaza Strip through an economic siege since 2006.
And Israel claims that its army, in an act of self-defense, fires missiles and launches military operations in Gaza to target the "terrorists" of the Hamas Terror Organization -- or anyone who tries to defend Gaza, for that person is also no less of a "terrorist" according to the Israeli dictionary.
How can I rival this fierce rivalry? How can I help initiate an agreement over the disagreements?
Although it is quite a simple matter of "cause and effect" that could possibly be negotiated, and accordingly achieve peace and harmony in the area, wars are still being launched, and the current one was on its fifth consecutive day.
So, how dare I mention "negotiations?" How dare I mention a so-called "peace-process" that has been deferred with ruthless wars and massacres since the 1948 Nakba for the Palestinians, and for the Israelis since 1967?
How dare I dream of stability with my eyes suspiciously open? How dare I speak out on a basis of "neutrality" and preach about the need for "co-existence?"
This act of sacrifice that would likely be misapprehended as an act of naivety, or betrayal, but my humble interpretation would be a real call for peace, a call of humanity.
Melancholy could still creep horribly through the firm bars of vulnerable hope I established to protect my heart behind.
Uncertainty's claws severely lacerated a feeling of comfort I thought I had, and on that hill of injustice, scrambled with adamant, immovable blocks of brutality, the inexorability of the war's inhumanity reached out to deliver its death notes to the uninformed little innocents and the elders of the al-Dalou family.
To that family, Nov. 18 marked the end of time. It was the al-Dalou family’s apocalypse.
To many others, including myself, it was a time of questioning the values of a life that's lifeless.
Clutching onto the little faith of smothered humanity within me, I fainted wakefully, and in a demonic sky with free-flowing arrows of unmerciful death and a sun eclipsed by the wings of savagery I carelessly floated.
Oppressed freedom, aimless hopes, unfulfilled wishes, suffocated dreams, unachieved goals, unheard screams and voices, pale smiles, undiscovered paths, and above all, lost and terrified souls were all I could see inside that prison-like cloud; a Palestinian cloud that has been waiting for the winds of freedom and justice to blow for more than half a century.
Dare anybody have a taste of such a life? That is the Gazan life in Gaza; the contemporary version of T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land. Except that April isn’t the cruelest month: in Gaza, November is. And fear isn’t shown to us in "a handful of dust," but in "a handful of airstrikes."
That's The Waste Land of Gaza being wasted through the opposites of this life’s values.
The war entered its sixth day, Nov. 19, and all I could do was count the passing days and nights. With every minute crawling by, the situation in Gaza kept getting worse, and that feeling of security that I deluded myself and my family with was fading as the war's heat escalated.
The tunnels area, less than half a mile from my home, was being heavily hit by F-16 fighter jets, and the balcony of my house became a window of terror my family and I kept running to with every explosion to see how close those "Pillars of Smoke" were.
Then, I received some shocking news. The American International School in Gaza, where I teach, was partially damaged in an Israeli raid on a nearby police station. In the 22-day war of 2008-2009, the school was completely destroyed by heavy shelling as Israel claimed military factions used it as a rocket-launching site. Since then, the school has struggled to perform its educational mission. It was never rebuilt because of the siege on Gaza and the difficulties of getting any construction materials into the Gaza Strip.
Instead, the school’s administration rented three buildings over the past four years and proceeded with its mission to Gazans. And during this war, the mission was again interrupted, and the school had its share of the destructive power of the war machine.
The school's buildings were just an addition to the many buildings already targeted and demolished in the Gaza Strip -- not to forget the death toll that was increasing with the careless killing of civilians and kids. And all I could do was overdose my veins with another unjust shot of sorrow to the existing sorrows in my heart, and contact my students to make them feel less hopeless about the matter.
That's how the blind giants of wars all over the world are: thirsty for destruction and blood. And the price for that is the suffering of the innocents.
Another unusual wake-up alarm came with heavier and more intense shelling on the tunnel areas during the first hours of Nov. 20. Another unstoppable wave of fear spread among my family members, and another bundle of fast, strategic tactics and survival procedures overcame my mind.
The sounds of the explosions were deafening, the house constantly shaking with thunder-like airstrikes from F-16 fighter jets. It was more terrifying and threatening than ever and the eyes of everybody in the family widened with the trembling rush of adrenaline.
Gasps of shock were rapidly consuming the vulnerability of hope to survive. A spontaneous volcano of questions erupted and annexed my peace of mind: "Is it the beginning of a ground incursion? Is it the beginning of a nationwide terror? Will our house be targeted? And if not, is it going to keep my family and me safe?"
I needed answers in this matter of life or death.
Majestic was the thought of catching a glimpse of what was happening outside through a nearby window because it was the calm inhaler-dose for that asthmatic horror.
The view from the window made it clear that it was just a "regular" escalation of airstrikes, and I went back to my room to conduct the usual Web investigation of today's situation and tomorrow's destiny.
Good news! Rumors of a ceasefire were all over the news, yet the airstrikes, shelling, and killing of civilians all over Gaza were continuous.
Optimistically, I stayed awake all night long waiting for that lost needle of truce to be found in the war’s haystack.
And the waiting continued until another terrible incident occurred -- an incident that would likely serve as a turning point during this fatalistic war.
On Nov. 21, a bus was bombed in the middle of Tel Aviv shortly after noon. All I felt was numbness within me and all around me. Motionless, I lay in my bed while staring at the ceiling and thinking of the consequences of this bomb attack in the heart of Israel.
The more I thought, the more I felt I was lying in front of the fires of the inflammatory war. There was a high possibility that the Israeli military operation "Pillar of Cloud" would change into "Pillar on Ground."
The worst would happen; a war that could be unimaginable in its ruthlessness, and indescribable in its brutality.
At that moment, hopeful patience had its toll; my mind was completely obliterated by a missile of tiredness, and sleeping was better than thinking the unthinkable.
At that very moment, I slept uninterested in what would happen next and discouraged to survive this psyche-deteriorating war.
I woke up later amazed at how peacefully I slept; 10 uninterrupted continuous hours of sleep; 10 hours of sleep that felt like a piece of heaven. Yet, I chose to practice what developed into a habit through this war: a Web investigation to inspect this ugly war's updates.
Overwhelmingly, it was all over.
Headlines all over the news channels and websites announced a ceasefire effective at 9 p.m.
No more killing, terror, suffering, mourning, or waiting for death to come.
It was a nightmare that finally came to an end with a death toll of over 170 Gazans and 1,222 wounded; most of them were kids, mothers, wives-to-be, and time-weakened elders.
Happy indeed was I that the war was over, yet terrified because of its unbearable, disastrous madness. Yes, terrified of the times yet to come, terrified of a crazier rematch of the rivals and the intimidating aftermaths of this war.
Ahmed Ferwana is a language and literature teacher at the American International School in Gaza.