World / February 7, 2024

“The List of My Lost Beloveds Grows Unbearably Long”: Another Month In Gaza

More excerpts from the diaries of writer Atef Abu Saif.

Atef Abu Saif
Children in Rafah.

Rafah, December 4, 2023.

(Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images)

For the last few months, The Nation has been running excerpts from the Gaza diaries of Atef Abu Saif, a writer and the minister of culture in the Palestinian Authority. Today, we are publishing the second-to-last batch of entries. In these excerpts, which span from December 6 to December 29, 2023, Saif is adjusting to life in the sprawling tent city that has sprung up in Rafah, worrying about his family in the north of Gaza, and trying to get through each passing day.

Wednesday, December 6

My brother Ibrahim’s kids want sweets. They spent an hour yesterday crying and begging him to “go to the grocery” and buy chocolates, biscuits, sweets. Ibrahim didn’t know what to say. First, he told them the grocery was closed. Strictly speaking, this was a lie, as there is no grocery in this new city of tents we call home. But they continued to nag, so he decided to accompany them on a walk around the camp, searching for a grocery that he knew they wouldn’t find. “No one sells sweets here,” he explained eventually. “OK, never mind sweets,” one of them said. “Let’s just get something. Anything. It doesn’t matter.” “There’s nothing to be bought,” their father replied.

Thursday, December 7

During yesterday’s tank assault on Jabalia Camp, my father-in-law’s house was hit. All the walls of the house were brought down. Hanna cried to me over the phone as she lamented her childhood memories. I did not share this news with them—that their house was gone. Some news shouldn’t be shared.

Last night, the news informed us of a “ring of fire” around our neighborhood in Jabalia. I started to panic about my dad. It was only this morning that we finally succeeded in contacting him. He sounded stable, though worried. “The only thing you need to do right now is keep safe,” I said to him. “The tanks are at the western end of our street,” he replied.

Friday, December 8

I’ve had to move my father-and mother-in-law from the European Hospital in Khan Younis due to lack of space. We had to wait until 6:30 pm before the Red Crescent could spare one of their ambulances. Traveling in the evening is risky, of course. Once the ambulance was there, we had to move quickly, lest the area fell under tank attack. As fast as we could, we lifted my mother-in-law in her wheelchair and set her down in the ambulance, then we had to run back for her mattress and blankets. We made good time.

This morning, my sister Halima arrived for a visit. Her husband Ismael spent a couple of hours with us last night. He shared with us how his current abode was the eighth place he’d moved to since the first week of the war.

We hear from Ammar al-Ghoul, a friend still in Jabalia, that practically everyone has had to move into schools, after almost complete annihilation of residential buildings by tanks. I ask about my dad, and my friend tells me that he has moved to the schools also.

The images the Israeli army released yesterday of the prisoners captured in the north of the Strip are humiliating and barbaric. Men are shown with their hands tied, stripped down to their underwear—effectively naked in winter weather—and forced to sit on the ground, hands tied, blindfolded. Hundreds of men are depicted in this disgusting position. I looked carefully through the photos, hoping not to see my dad among them.

Saturday, December 9

Today, Hanna rang me to tell me, happily, that my niece Wissam in the hospital in Port Said took her first shower since her accident. Since the war started, the few showers I took at the start were all hurried affairs. This morning, I discovered there was a bathroom at the Red Crescent office with some hot water. When no one was looking I stole into it, undressed, and filled my bottle with the hot water from the tap, poured it over myself. I repeated the process six times.

Today is the 36th anniversary of the outbreak of the First Intifada. I was 14 years old at the time. It was a remarkable day. The intifada started in our camp, on our doorstep. The very first martyr in the intifada, Hatim Sissi, was my neighbor. I was just 10 meters away from him when he was shot. During that intifada, I was injured three times, was in and out of jail for several months, but also managed to study hard at high school, pass my final exams with flying colors, and get into university. I lost some of my closest childhood friends, but not as much as I am losing right now.

A boy has written on a concrete pillar the names of his family members who are still under the rubble. “My dad, my mother, my brother Ahmad, my sister Lila,” the writing reads. I couldn’t hold back my tears.

Sunday, December 10

It’s the third month of the war, that’s all I can tell you. Nothing really matters anymore, except that the war carries on and we must make it to the end of each day. Many people talk openly about not wanting to carry on.

This morning, a building in the Nadi area of Jabalia was hit and scores of persons were killed. The people in Jabalia camp had to make a mass grave to bury the dozens of corpses scattered around the alleys. On stones, taken from the rubble, they wrote the names of those buried, and when they couldn’t find a stone, they used bits of cardboard.

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My grandmother, Eisha, tells me that, two days ago, Jaffa Mosque near the place she is staying in Deir a-Balah was hit. This makes two “Jaffa Mosques” to be destroyed—the one in Jabalia was bombed while I was there, and now this one in Deir a-Balah is gone too.

My daughter Yaffa is always proud to see so many things sharing her name—supermarkets, venues, driving schools, libraries, bookstores, schools, even hairdressers! She would laugh and say, “It’s all Yaffa Yaffa Yaffa! They all love my name!” In two weeks, it will be her birthday. She keeps asking by text: “Are you going to attend my birthday?” I say, “Yes, yes” without knowing if it’s true or not.

Monday, December 11

I went over to my father-in-law’s tent. He was happy with the place. “My new house!” he announced. My mother-in-law didn’t say a word.

I finally found somewhere to have a haircut. I had to set out very early to get to the place as they all become overwhelmed with customers by mid-morning. I told the barber to leave my beard, saying I’ll shave it when the war is over. The barber laughed, “So you’re growing it down to your knees then?”

Tuesday, December 12

My dad has had to move to a school near the Old Railway area, following the orders of Israeli soldiers. He tells me that only when the tanks clear out of an area do people leave the school and try to collect and bury all the corpses in the streets.

Yousef, the brother of my friend Mohamad Diab, was among those men in the photo of the hundreds of naked Palestinians in north Gaza that spread through the media last week. He had relocated to a school near his house. The army entered the school in the middle of the night after blowing up its front gate—a standard practice for this occupation; they don’t wait to knock. The officer then ordered all men aged between 15 and 55 to stand to one side. Then they were ordered to undress, in front of all the others, but told they could keep their underwear on. The officer and his assistants walked up and down and picked out dozens and dozens of men for arrest. Their selection was just on what they looked like without their clothes. Then they asked the rest of the half-naked men to walk toward Nasser Junction, near Tal Azzatar. I was relieved to hear that my dad hadn’t been subjected to this. He would not have made it.

When the sun rose, the semi-naked men were told they could move to the schools near the Old Railway area. Meanwhile, back at the school, the women and children were told to flee and, soon afterward, the army set about destroying everything inside, including setting fire to school textbooks and stationery.

My body is growing weaker. Hanna suggests that I buy some multivitamin tablets. It’s an absurd suggestion at a time like this; anything that isn’t an absolute basic necessity is unthinkable when people are dying all around us. “But this is basic,” she snaps at me angrily, “It’s your health!”

Wednesday, December 13

What we’ve been dreading happened. It rained all night long. Water entered hundreds of the tents. Fortunately, our tents were OK.

“What happens when full-scale storms come?” my son Yasser asked. “The tents might fly away.” I laughed. “Then we will fly our tent like Aladdin flew his carpet. We will visit all the countries and cities we ever dreamed of.” He smiled and said, “And I can go to Ramallah and see my mom.”

Thursday, December 14

It has now been five days since I’ve heard anything about my father. If he is held in a school with everyone and not able to leave, he will start to panic. On top of this, when the family home was destroyed, his only remaining medication was what he had in his pocket.

Last night, the drone wouldn’t let us sleep, hovering loudly over all the tents. Our body clocks seem to be governed by the drone: If it sleeps, we sleep; if it works, we lie awake listening to it, waiting for it to finish its mission—observing us, killing as many of us as its operator demands. I can’t help but think about these young killers behind their screens somewhere beyond the Gaza border like they’re back at home on their PlayStations.

Yesterday, I saw the images from Jabalia Cemetery. Israeli tanks had driven over the graves, exposing and systematically disinterring bodies in huge numbers—some freshly buried, some in the ground for up to 70 years. No eternal sleep for Gazans, it seems.

Friday, December 15

Last night, I went to see my friend Sohail Mousa near the center of Rafah, accompanied by my friend Abd-Raouf Barbakh. When we arrived, exhausted, at Sohail’s place, he was toasting the coffee beans on the fire. Homemade coffee—the height of luxury! Sohail, an engineer who just retired from the Municipality a month before the war, looked sad when our conversation moved to the state of Rafah right now. “Even the question of where to put all the rubble will be difficult. We may have to recycle it, somehow, as we have nowhere to put it.”

On my way to the Red Crescent office in Khirbat a-Adas, this morning, I meet one of my aunt Mariam’s sons. He was one of the many Palestinians working in Israel when the war broke out who were automatically arrested by Israeli police, tortured, and then sent to Gaza. Aunt Mariam has moved from her place in Saftawi to Nazla town, I learn. One of her sons has lost a leg. In every house, there are losses like this.

It is the 70th day of the war. What a number!

Saturday, December 16

This morning I chance upon a young mother sitting in front of her tent teaching her son the alphabet. This was supposed to be his first year at school.

With a dry tree branch, the woman draws out the figures of each letter in the sand. “Alef” (A), “Ba” (B) “Tha” (Th). Then she takes her son’s tiny hand in hers and guides him in drawing out his first letter. He is happy to see his handwriting in the sand. She smiles too. A little gust of wind picks up and blows the surface of the sand away. The letters disappear and the child becomes forlorn that his great achievement should be erased. The woman smiles and says, “Let’s try again.” Once more, holding his hand in hers, she begins to write out the letters. Once more, he’s happy with himself.

Last night, I went to see Faraj. His wife, Mazal confided that she no longer thinks about the war. Her mind is too occupied with daily challenges. “Sometimes I even forget there’s a war still going on,” she said. “I even forget our previous life.”

Today another journalist was killed by the Israeli Army. An Al Jazeera cameraman, Samer Abu Dakka was killed in Farhat School in Khan Younis. He was left bleeding for five hours, after a drone strike on the school, without being provided with any first aid. I knew Abu Dakka. We met many times.

God, please end this horror. The fact that it is going on is killing us.

Sunday, December 17

Gaza has been abandoned. I remember the day the Red Cross evacuated its office in Gaza City, in the second week of the war. The rest of the UN organizations did likewise. They all escaped and abandoned the city. Now, the civilians in Gaza and the north are subject to massacres every day. Only civilians, like my dad, are there, and hundreds of them are being taken hostage by the Israelis. People are bleeding to death with treatable wounds. Who cares? No one, it seems.

More attacks last night. One, we learn later, was in the Jonaina neighborhood of Rafah. This morning, I passed by the targeted area. A boy who survived it has written on a concrete pillar the names of his family members who are still under the rubble. “My dad, my mother, my brother Ahmad, my sister Lila,” the writing reads. I couldn’t hold back my tears.

I thought of a happy image from the day: the sight of little girls and boys playing on a swing near the tents. The swing flying high, and their joyful squeals getting louder than even the drones. Their laughter mixed with fear was the perfect antidote: we love life in spite of death, it said.

Monday, December 18

Five women were lamenting their situation. The whole thing is like a dream, the youngest of them said. “One minute I was having dinner with my husband and kids. The next minute our house has been struck by a missile.” I see the tears welling in her eyes. She asks her daughter if she misses her grandmother. The little girl smiles and says, “A lot.” She whispers to her: “Today we’re going to see her!”

I deduce that she lives near Kamal Edwan Hospital, north of Jabalia camp. The army is reported to be burying wounded people alive along with the dead in that area right now. The killing in Jabalia just gets worse and worse. If you dare walk the streets, you’re likely to be picked off by snipers, by young kids in battle clothes having fun, enjoying themselves behind a wall of US-funded military equipment. You wonder what their society has done to them to make this so easy for them.

My friend Haytham calls me from Jabalia. He tells me he is staying near my dad and my brother Khaleel in the camp’s UNRWA Welfare Centre. My dad is struggling without his medication. He doesn’t have his inhaler anymore. I ask Haytham if he can try and get a new one from a pharmacy. But all pharmacies are closed. He tells me that my dad was struggling to breathe a lot last night and that he and Khaleel spent two hours trying to help him. He needed fresh air.

Tuesday, December 19

I forget to wash my face each morning. I don’t remember the last time I brushed my teeth. Ten days might pass without my taking a shower. I even decided to write myself a note and put it in my pocket with my ID card, saying, “Take a shower today.” It wasn’t a reminder to take one but a reminder to try harder to find a place where I can. The other day, Abu Riad, the driver, quietly prepared a bucket full of hot water in the toilets of the Red Crescent office, gave me a bottle of shampoo, and told me in a strict voice: “Today you shower, Doctor.” “But I don’t have a towel,” I replied. “No matter, do it and stay wet.”

Wednesday, December 20

Yesterday, my friend Mohammed Abu Saida and three of his sons were killed by a missile. The four of them were headed to a water station to fill their gallon bottles. They had gone without water in the house for many days. Before they got to taste it again, the drone’s missile sliced them to pieces. The last time I saw Mohammed was three months before the war began. He had invited me round to eat desserts he’d prepared himself. We were supposed to arrange another meeting. He asked me over the phone: “Do you miss my sweets?”

On the bus to the town center, a young man is happy with himself for having purchased a little bottle of Pepsi. He announces to the other passengers: “Since I was in elementary school, I have dreamed of this moment!” He is exaggerating, of course. He paid five shekels for it when its original price was more like one. He says he was ready to pay 10 for it. An older passenger mutters, “We may as well eat each other.”

Saja, Ibrahim’s daughter, has been asking a lot recently for a cat to look after. Her father knows he won’t be able to fulfill this wish, as pets aren’t exactly something that’s on sale right now. He tells her he’ll ask a friend if there’s anywhere selling them. The 10-year-old squeals with delight. “I’m going to take it back home,” she says. “There isn’t a home to go back to anymore,” I tell her. She needs to know this. “But you can take it wherever you go.”

I think of the cat Bilal used to take care of, after being left alone on the roof of his neighbor’s house. I wonder if it’s still alive.

Thursday, December 21

Last night was so cold. I couldn’t sleep.

My most memorable and painful experience of the cold was 32 years ago when I was in the Israeli jail. I was 18 at the time–December 1991. I had not finished my first semester at Birzeit University and I had just been transferred from a jail in Gaza to one in the Negev Desert. It was so cold and windy. Since then I have always hated the winter. I think I have developed a phobia even to the idea of the cold. It paralyzes me.

Yasser asked me again this morning about going home. “We are home,” I said impatiently, knowing that he meant Ramallah. “Soon,” I added, knowing privately that this “soon” might be a day away or a month or more.

News has come in that Wissam has been moved to a hospital in Ismailia. “When we go to Cairo, we can stop by on our way,” he says.

Friday, December 22

I thought of a happy image from the day: the sight of little girls and boys playing on a swing near the tents. The swing flying high, and their joyful squeals getting louder than even the drones. Their laughter mixed with fear was the perfect antidote: We love life in spite of death, it said. Other boys and girls were sitting on the ground and, though cold, drew out games on the sand. Others played hide and seek between the tents. Nothing, it seems, can prevent a child from being a child.

On the road to Rafah, someone had written on the walls of a school: “If I were president, I would make the sound of your laugh the national anthem.” I felt I somehow knew the sound of the laughter when I read the words.

Saturday, December 23

Yesterday, I lost two of my oldest and dearest friends, the brothers Mohammed and Ahmad Khila. They are both the uncles of Maher, my sister Eisha’s husband. Since I was a toddler, they have been in my life.

Mohammed sent two of his sons to receive an education in Germany, where they still live. One of these sons, Khalil, messaged me on Facebook: “Your old friend has died,” he said. “He was poor but kind.” Ahmad, meanwhile, was the “fruit of the neighborhood.” Whenever I visited, he would be the first person I’d ask after: we’d spend hours catching up.

When we left Jabalia for the south, both of them were still refusing to move. The morning we left, Ahmad was busy helping his older brother Shawki—Eisha’s father-in-law—get into the car that would take them to the crossing near Gaza Wadi. I was waiting for the car to drive them and then come back to take me. “Are you not tempted to leave?” I asked him. “It’s still safe here,” came his reply. Maybe he knew this wasn’t true, even then.

Ahmad, Mohammed, and their sister Huda were all killed along with their families. So far, 30 bodies have been pulled from the rubble. The list of my lost beloveds grows unbearably long. My past is being systematically erased by this war.

Today is my daughter Yaffa’s birthday. I didn’t meet my promise to make it back in time to celebrate it with her in Ramallah. I miss Yaffa so much. I miss her smile. I miss her hugs.

I phone her before she sets out for school. Her voice sounds happy. I tell her how sorry I am, and that for her next birthday we will throw a huge party. It hurts when you feel incapable of making your child happy. When we first started talking about this birthday, my plan was that we’d all come to Gaza and have a big party with her aunt Huda and her cousins, Wissam and Widdad. Now there is no Aunt Huda, there is no Gaza even.

“Happy birthday, Yaffa,” I say. “I saw what you wrote on Facebook,” she replies. I wrote: I miss Yaffa. Who doesn’t miss Yaffa? Either the girl or her namesake, the city, Jaffa, that my whole family was displaced from. But today, it’s the girl.

Sunday, December 24

An old Bedouin woman entered the Red Crescent office yesterday, asking for aid. “If nothing else, give me a blanket to cover my body with at night,” she wailed.

Every day I hear stories like these. A young man came in soon after, asking for Pampers for his newborn child. “I do not have anything for my baby,” he cried. “Even my wife isn’t getting enough to eat so now she’s unable to produce milk.” No one knew what to say.

I go to visit my great-aunt Nour in her tent. “Does this all remind you of your life in the tent after the Nakba?” I ask her. She replies by telling me some stories from those days. I think of her life, a history sandwiched between two displacements. Her childhood in one tent. Her 80s in another. She told me, “Listen, I never liked my tent. No one likes their tent. Line it with the finest rugs, and best furniture, and they’ll still hate it.”

I thought of Baba Noel and the Christian Palestinians in Gaza. Baba Noel will not visit Gaza this year. He wouldn’t risk it. He’d be shot in the head the moment he landed.

Monday, December 25

Last night, a massacre was committed by air strikes on Maghazi Refugee Camp resulting in the death of 75 people. Another “ring of fire” rained down on Bureij Camp. The total death toll over both attacks was 95. The images of children torn to pieces while lying in their beds, the videos of the survivors screaming fill up our phones. No one can explain why kids should be killed asleep in their beds. Nothing can protect us from the barbarity of this genocide.

Emad, a relative who stayed in Jabalia and can get a signal from certain areas of the camp, tells me over the phone that he saw my father this morning. “He is OK,” he says. By “OK,” he means still alive. On my way back to the new camp, passing al-Quds Open University, I notice everyone is looking up at the sky. I needed to know what they were looking at. A drone was hovering lower than normal, for once clearly visible. It was playing a loud automated recording, in Arabic, talking about an imminent attack. Presumably it means the street I’m walking on. The irony of surviving all I’ve witnessed for 79 days and then being killed on the 80th suddenly hits me. I quicken my pace.

The list of my lost beloveds grows unbearably long. My past is being systematically erased by this war.

Tuesday, December 26

Maison, the manager of Jaffa Cultural Centre in Khan Younis, asks if I know any children who need clothes. Maison now works on humanitarian aid, and is involved in distributing food and clothes to the displaced. Two weeks ago she cooperated with the ministry on a program for psychological support for the displaced. She and her team started putting on entertainment and kids’ games in the shelter schools, as well as showing films. Now she is busy with different work, receiving aid and food and distributing it to the needy. In times like these, there are priorities. People need food and clothes. They need to be helped in other ways, of course. But more basic needs come first.

I arrive back at the camp with two pieces of wood for my mother-in-law—to put under her mattress, and lift it off the sand a little, so that she doesn’t feel so cold. “Now you have a bed!” I declare. My father-in-law smiles: “This is no bed. This is a throne!” I can see the love in his eyes. For more than 50 years, they’ve been married. They started their lives together in a refugee camp, and now, in their 70s, they’re continuing it. Widdad, my mother-in-law, was born in Al Majdal [now called Askalan] about 14 miles north of Gaza in 1948 and was carried by her mother to a tent before celebrating her first birthday. If her mother were to see her baby girl now, still in a tent, 75 years later… what would she think!

Wednesday, December 27

We don’t have any wood this morning. No wood means no food. I try to stop thinking about our one meal of the day, which I usually prepare in the evening, as who knows if we’ll get one today.

Despite the fact that gas has been allowed to be brought into Gaza as part of the international aid, the amount is not enough and the way it’s distributed completely unfair. Priority is being given to the inhabitants of Rafah, not the displaced. Much of the aid that comes into the Strip is meant to be distributed freely, but somehow it ends up at the souk for sale.

I meet Mohammed Hawajri and Dinna Matter, two of the most prominent young artists in the Gaza Strip. The two of them left Buraij just yesterday, as the tanks moved towards their buildings. They left their joint studio that holds all their paintings. In his more recent work, Mohammed’s works depict animals in different poses, always moving, always being watched carefully by an onlooking human. Dinna, by contrast, portrays Palestinian women in traditional dress. Mohammed runs the Eltika Gallery in Rimal which was destroyed by the Israeli army in the first month of the war. Scores of paintings by different artists were lost. Neither of them can think about the future with any certainty.

Thursday, December 28

Abu Riad, our driver, tells me a horror story from last night. He was driving some volunteers when suddenly he realized he was in the middle of a tank attack. Abu Riad saw shells explode right in front of his car, which is a medical services vehicle emblazoned with the Red Crescent insignia. He would later learn 29 people were killed.

As we drive towards Rafah, a car passes in the other direction. The driver evidently knows Abu Riad. “The country needs you, Abu Riad!” the man shouted. “The country is gone, habibi!” Abu Riad shouts back. It is his comrade from prison 30 years ago, he explains to me.

Tents have become a highly lucrative business. Many businessmen are renting patches of land and fixing tents on them, which they then rent to displaced people. Instead of renting a flat or a house, you rent a tent. It’s common to see workers busy pitching tents out of wood and nylon and getting them ready to let. And the tents are now creeping toward the sea.

Friday, December 29

Last night we decided to celebrate Yasser’s birthday. It’s actually the day after, but yesterday everyone was so eager to make the boy happy, so we did it then. I cooked him a big meal, to which everyone in the neighboring tents was invited. A fire was set with a wide pot, into which I mixed tomatoes with eggs. It was a mission finding eggs in the souk, and very expensive. Then Ibrahim bought 12 cans of popcorn and we heated them all in one pot. A popcorn party was thrown for Yasser. It’s his 16th. What wishes can we make for him other than he survives this war, and it ends soon?

Yesterday, we also welcomed new arrivals from the wider family. Three of us had to sleep on the bare ground so that the newcomers, especially the women, could sleep last night—including the birthday boy, Yasser. I smiled and told him, “This is a perfect end to a birthday party: to sleep with our heads on the ground. Saints, in the early days of Islam, did not mind resting their heads on their shoes at the end of each day.” He smiled and said he was not going to put his shoes under his head. “What about my jacket,” I offered. Yasser should have his last dream of his 15th year with his head cushioned by a jacket.

In the Red Crescent office, Bothina Soboh, manager of an NGO providing aid in Rafah, complains that no one would help her to get toilet facilities installed for women in the ever-spreading tent city. Women queue for hours outside extremely dirty toilets, with no water and no sanitary towels. Bothina complains that the needs of women are being overlooked. “Women’s stuff,” she says, mocking the way others might want to diminish that. These products aren’t available in the markets and women might feel shy or embarrassed to ask for them. “But they still need them. Life is not just about flour and rice,” she concluded. “It’s about dignity.”

Last night was another of those terrible nights. The sky lit up many times before dawn. At first, I couldn’t sleep for the noise, but then I played the game of adaptation I have developed over the last 83 days. Just think of this cacophony as completely normal, like the sound of a vacuum cleaner or a car outside in the street, beeping its horn. Accept it as if you are so used to it you can no longer live without it.

Imagine how boring life would be if everything were silent and still! Imagine how disturbing it would be to not have something bothering you in the background. Imagine that vacuum. That silence. No one can live without noise.

Atef Abu Saif

Atef Abu Saif is the minister of culture for the Palestinian Authority.

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