‘We will spare no effort to bring them all out alive’


Destroyed buildings in Maghazi Camp, Gaza Strip.
The remains of several buildings in the Maghazi Camp neighborhood where Mahmoud Al-shaar and his family lived. The rubble from their apartment building is not depicted here; it was removed to build the temporary seaport. Photo by Said Alsaloul


On Nov. 6, 2023, a father in Maghazi Camp, located in the middle of the Gaza Strip, looked at his wristwatch: 5:00 p.m.

His wife, Eman, was urging him to leave for shopping before sunset. His infant son, Ali, lying in his wife’s lap, was crying desperately for milk. His daughter, Rahaf, looked at him with pleading eyes. When would he take her for the long-awaited picnic he had promised?

A young man standing in front a window through which can be seen a bombed building.
The writer, inside his partially-destroyed home, in the moments after the neighboring apartment building was bombed. Photo: Said Alsaloul

Everyone was hungry, and all they had to eat were a few crumbs.

For the 37-year-old Mahmoud Al-shaar, though, there was more to consider. With what would he pay for the few, pitiful items he could find out in the devastation-littered street? He imagined himself begging for the money to pay the ever-increasing prices of everything.

His heart was penetrated by his children’s innocent expectations of their father. He would do anything to sweeten the bitterness they were enduring in this war-ravaged land, yet what could he do? All his precious daughter wanted was to be with her friends again, playing hide-and-seek and hopscotch. The father wanted by any means to sweeten the bitter, murky atmosphere of the war for his children. However, airstrikes against residential and non-residential sites had never ceased dropping for almost a month.

He must go, but as he left, he promised Rahaf a small gift when he returned.

Huge clouds of dust rolling towards him

Going out into the desolation that had been wrought by Israel’s unceasing airstrikes — on residential and nonresidential buildings alike — was a chore that discouraged him, but he had to do it, so he headed for the market. Only a few seconds elapsed when he heard a thunderous, terrifying whirlwind of a missile dropping and then exploding behind him. Turning to look, he was frozen with horror. The four-story apartment building he had just left was collapsing and huge clouds of dust were rolling towards him.

He fell to the ground screaming, “Rahaf! Ali! Eman!” But then, roused by the unbearable thought of them all inside, he picked himself up and ran into the roiling black fog and toward the flames rising from the destruction. Getting near, his heart broke as he knew there was nothing he could do, and he stumbled backwards. Tears flooded his eyes, and he staggered away in disbelief.

Mahmoud worked to gather himself, to take in what had just happened, to think what he could possibly do. His wife and children were inside that building that was now pancaked to the ground. Weren’t they waiting for him to bring them food? He could not absorb what had just happened.

The scope of damage was wide-ranging, with several neighborhood houses significantly damaged or destroyed. Within minutes, Mahmoud was surrounded by people from nearby buildings coming into the street to see where the damage was and to help search for survivors. Some, seeing the anguish on his face, moved to comfort him, though he was hypnotized and unable to interact with them.

At the same time, other neighbors began attacking the devastation to begin searching for any possible survivors. The Civil Defense chief, arriving at the scene and trying to determine his course of action, found the stunned Mahmoud and gently persuaded him to help by pointing to where his family was when the bomb hit. Trembling, Mahmoud indicated the approximate place in the rubble. The chief, unsatisfied with Mahmoud’s vagueness, said calmly, “We will spare no effort to bring them all out alive, but please be more precise.”

Mahmoud, in despair, explained that his apartment was on the ground floor, and the glimmer of hope he’d felt a moment before disappeared. The Civil Defense crew was deflated, too, as no one in their right mind could imagine finding someone still breathing at the bottom of that pile of rubble. Nevertheless, they got to work, with few tools and their bare hands. The huge slabs of concrete were unmovable, and it was slow going.

“I hear something!”

By 9:00 p.m., a hole about a meter wide had been made in the rubble, penetrating just a layer and a half of the collapsed building. There had been no sign of life, yet they worked on. When the Civil Defense center called, directing the crew to another house bombardment, they felt it was necessary to face reality — how could anyone still be alive at the bottom of this pile? It was not worth losing other lives if they could be saved when this mission seemed hopeless.

Destroyed building in Gaza.
The building as seen from the writer’s own half-shattered house moments after the nearby bombardment. Photo: Said Al Saloul

Mahmoud, though, wasn’t giving up. He could not bear to stop searching for his wife and children even if they were dead, so he jumped down into the hole shouting, “Rahaf! My sweetheart! Ali! Eman! Are you hearing me? Rahaf! Don’t go. I brought you some sweets!” The crew, hearing these desperate words, were unwilling to give up, either. It was decided half of them would stay at this site and the other half would go to the new one.

By this time darkness had set in and a generator was running nearby to power a work light. Similarly, the workers’ strength was beginning to run out, and their determination was waning, as there had not been one sign of life coming from the hole. Mahmoud saw no more reason to hope that he would see his dear ones again. His friends moved close to console him, uttering words of resignation. “It was God’s will. We must all accept it with satisfaction. May God grant them paradise.”

Suddenly, from the top of the 12-meter-high pile, one of the workers yelled, “I hear something!” Everyone’s attention shifted and some clambered up to listen at the hole. “It is muffled, but it sounds like someone is trying hard to speak! It sounds like a young girl.” Someone else yelled, “QUIET!” Another worker in a different location yelled to Mahmoud, “Come and listen! You won’t believe your ears! It sounds like a young girl!”

Climbing and lifted up the pile by workers and friends, Mahmoud reached the spot where it seemed the voice could be heard. He shouted into the space, “Rahaf! Rahaf, are you hearing me, my beloved?” There was a tiny, distant voice. The father’s heart took flight. “It is my sweet daughter! She is alive!”

Re-energized, the workers pushed on, trying for a better access to the small voice. Mahmoud shouted down again, “Rahaf, are you hearing me?” Delayed, and almost inaudibly, her voice came back: “Yes, Dad. we are here.”

“Is your mother and brother with you?” he asked eagerly. No response. “Rahaf, is Ali with you?” shouted the father. Confusing silence. After five seconds the answer came. “Yes, dad.” It seemed blatantly obvious that she was hearing but did not have the power to respond.

“Mahmoud, don’t strain them,” requested the leader. “They are barely breathing. Let’s carry on the mission.”

Time and hope running out

The digging, the repositioning, the tension went on, with occasional shouts to the mother and children below. No one wanted to give up, but they were exhausted. Every minute a new idea was suggested, another person yelled into the hole, intermittently a new sound was heard. They weren’t giving up, but their efforts were not yielding the prize they were seeking.

Man covered in dust after his home was damaged in an Israeli airstrike.
The writer in his own half-destroyed home, showing what daily life under Israeli bombardment is like for residents of the Gaza Strip. Photo: Said Al Saloul

At 1:00 in the morning, after eight long hours of effort, the rescuers had to stop digging for a few minutes as the electric generator had run out of gas and needed to be refilled. They lay down on their backs side by side atop the bombed building, gazing at the full moon. For a few brief minutes, peaceful calm claimed their imaginations, but it was soon offended by the orange gleam of a falling missile in the night sky. The toxic smell of bombs exploding elsewhere, the dreadful sound of people dying, the horror of mounting flames in many places around them  — the unclottable wounds since Oct. 7 continued to bleed.

The men got back to work after the brief break, continuing their careful and exacting labors. They actually dug their way down to the bottom, but there was no way to get through to what was probably just a narrow slot where the treasured ones were possibly, but not certainly, still alive. They were running out of reasons to keep working, yet their humanity fed hope that it would not be in vain.

“Sir, you have to hear that sound,” one of the crew appealed to the chief: a gasping sound of someone out of oxygen. Mercifully, Mahmoud was there to live the darkest moment of his life. “We need to work harder, guys. We are almost there,” he shouted, though there was no longer any clue of their position. The sweat-drenched men knew going deeper could tragically cost more lives, due to a potential collapse of the rubble.

Just before dawn, the Civil Defense crew acknowledged that there was no longer any point in working on. They promised Mahmoud they’d come back in two hours with heavy equipment and fresh workers. And they did.

In the early morning, a big bulldozer arrived and began dragging away the pieces of concrete. It was shocking when, as the slabs were moved, the corpse of a young girl rolled out of the rubble. The father turned away, unable to witness the still body of his precious Rahaf. But he quickly turned back to lift her into his arms, weeping bitterly. Eventually, they pulled out Ali, the two-year-old baby, dead on the lap of his mother, Eman.

This is a true story witnessed by me, and there are dozens more to be narrated from Gaza to stain the occupier’s face forever. Rahaf Alshaar, Ali, and their mother, Eman, died in cold blood, leaving Mahmoud stripped of hope for a happy life. They did not deserve to die. — Said Alsaloul

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