Surviving beneath Gaza’s tempest skies

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Tent in Al-Mawasi refugee camp, Khan Younis, Gaza.
The tent of the writer’s family in Al-Mawasi refugee camp, Khan Younis, Gaza. Photo: Haya Abu Nasser

Here I stand, a resilient soul facing the aftermath of 100 days of war and death. My family and I evacuated for the fourth time 40 days ago, settling in a bare white tent in the Al-Mawasi area in Khan Younis, on the campus of Al-Aqsa University. We fled our home during the summer in thin pajamas, naively assuming this war would be over before the winter cold set in. The university welcomed over 30,000 displaced people, converting its grounds from a site of learning to a refugee camp. It has already lost 4,000 of its students and alumni in this brutal attack.

On a gloomy night I gaze at the sky, observing military aircraft overhead, their constant buzzing a reminder of those who callously take the lives of our children, friends, and relatives. They plunge us into endless grief as they fly over us, rockets and missiles trailing behind like blinking stars, each one a threat to our dreams and our lives.

I concentrate on my breathing, sensing the hard ground beneath me. I am transported away from this terrible moment of war and suffering, and smell the fresh air, recalling the smiles of my friends, the scent of the sea, and the early morning dew as I walked to work wearing my heels and jasmine-scented perfume. I smell the aroma of hot coffee in the morning at the office. I miss even the annoying sounds of my neighbors shouting at their children to wake them up for school. Our familiar neighborhood was destroyed, and our kind neighbors were killed.

The din of the wind against our tent awakens memories of when I sat by the shore on rainy days and wrote about love, life, and hope, as the rustling waves hit the sand. The field of tents, the smell of sewage water, and the cries of babies disrupt my reverie. How can the rest of the world go on with life, forgetting about us? We in the Gaza Strip suffer from hunger and cold, our bones trembling. Will anyone read our stories, to learn about the death and deprivation we suffer? Will they find time to listen to our news or hear our pleas?

A child’s voice interrupts my thoughts. He calls out, “Coffee, coffee, hot coffee and tea,” with a quavering voice. He holds a big jug in one hand and tiny cups in the other, covering his head with a thick cloth, wandering among the tents in the evening dark. It is rare now to smell coffee because of its scarcity and increasing cost. We, the people of Gaza, share a strong friendship with coffee; no one is immune to its influence. We drink coffee without milk or sugar on any occasion—weddings, funerals, and new births. Now the aroma of coffee is saturated with nostalgia for days when my friends and I found hope in literature and music. Today in this freezing camp, this child’s voice is full of sorrow.

Haya Abu Nasser.
Wartime self-portrait. Photo: Haya Abu Nasser

Life unfolds here in a monotonous routine — waking up early with blue lips, kindling the fire for cooking or heating water, and the relentless quest for water, food, and electricity. What used to be simple daily tasks now involve long lines and fulfilling basic needs has turned into a competition. In the early morning, children carry heavy gallon jugs of water for their families. Six families share an outdoor toilet, and the wait can be agonizing as tired people stand in grief. Empathy is now a luxury we can barely afford. Later in the day, it takes hours on a donkey cart to reach the internet hub where we charge our phones so we can reach out to our hungry, isolated kin in the north.

It is painful to remember the life that I lost — my home, my job, and the chance to study for a master’s degree. In the face of this dismal war, I give up those grand aspirations, and long only for fruit, warm baths, clean water, and a bed sheltered by walls. I dream of the fragrance of freshly baked bread, milk, and cinnamon in my mother’s warm kitchen.

Constantly pursuing basics won’t shield you from the imminent threat of death; at any moment, it could strike. Life and death merge when you’re prepared to face it anytime. One night, we hear voices announcing that tanks are approaching the university. Gunfire envelopes us from all directions, instigating panic and chaos. People flee, seeking refuge within the buildings instead of tents. Through the night, we stand, bodies pressed close, shielding each other and the children against the onslaught of bullets and missiles. The noise and fear keep us awake all night. At dawn, we see four people killed by the missiles of the approaching tanks. Astonished and speechless, we evacuate once again, following the familiar steps of survival.

On the road, people tread from Khan Younis to Rafah beneath a hesitant, grey sky, uncertain if the next moment will reunite us with our beloveds in heaven. My young nephew gazes at me and asks, “Where are we going? No safe place remains.” I reply, “I do not know, but survival is our imperative now.” A complex sentence for his young soul to grasp.

Yet, I remain steadfast in the belief that we must survive, navigating through these storms until we witness the blue whale dancing freely in the ocean. The whale will narrate the saga of its species, survivors of extinction, pulsating through undulating waves, weathering tempests. Surrender is not an option; I will persist until I swim in the sunlight beside the blue whale, proclaiming that I also have defeated genocide and myriad tribulations.

Gaza ocean during war.
Gaza ocean at wartime. Photo: Haya Abu Nasser

 

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