Two years ago, I lived and worked in the West Bank. My time there was certainly a window to understanding the occupation, but one that I could open and shut at my own convenience. Because of that, I never really understood. I could go to the beach in Israel while my Palestinian friends had never seen the sea. I promised myself that I would not go, but one hot summer day got the better of me. The idea of swimming in the turquoise Mediterranean waters was so appealing that I disappeared one Friday to join my Israeli friends in Tel Aviv. I returned to work the next day three shades darker to which my colleague promptly replied without a hint of jealously in his voice, "Go again next weekend, but this time do it for me."
And then there is Gaza. I had been to Gaza once as a student in Egypt seven years prior to moving to the West Bank at a time when settlement expansion was their primary fear. It was just months before the second Intifada, and I remember Yasser Arafat's brother Fadi telling me that things were about to get much worse. He spoke from the terrace room of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in Gaza City that he was running at the time. In between sips of whiskey he would point at the crowded camps beneath us where children were chasing each other in and out of narrow streets and partially shelled buildings and talk about their future. "Children shouldn't have to grow up like this," he sighed, "but Insha'Allah (God willing) it will get better for them after it gets worse."
When I returned to Gaza this March, I visited PRCS again to interview the director, Dr. Bashir Awdad who was describing in detail attacks on his ambulance drivers and the Al Awda Hospital during the war. We walked through the children's ward that had been totally destroyed and I ironically tripped over a box of charred burn salve. At one point, I snuck away to climb the ten flights of stairs to the terrace room where I had that conversation so long ago. Fadi Arafat is dead now, but his words blind-sided me when I finally emerged from the staircase. The space was totally gone, brightly painted walls and ceilings replaced by open sky. I walked across the top of the building in the rubble to the place that we had looked down at the children of Gaza. All of those buildings -- almost an entire block -- were gone.
Minutes later, I was in the back of a PRCS ambulance with a few of their volunteers on the way to spend time with the Samouni family in Zaytoun. Their story is one of the most egregious in this recent military assault, where at least 29 members of their family were killed. Nothing could have prepared me for hearing it first-hand.
We joined them where their house stood six weeks before, and their stories began to fill the space. I could tell they had done this before. I could also tell that their words were raw but they wanted to talk about what had happened to them, especially to international visitors. It was appalling. Sometimes it is so real that I experience it with them in my dreams and at other times I am numb. In any case, this is not about my nightmares. It is about their reality.
The sun started to set and PRCS rushed us out of the area because Zaytoun is near the constantly moving buffer zone, which increases the risk of air strikes despite the ceasefire. (The shape of the buffer zone keeps changing as Israeli authorities unilaterally determine the zone's boundaries.) One of the older women in the family grabbed my hand on the way out and softly asked me to return the next day. I gave her my word.
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The next day I returned to Zaytoun, determined to suck it up and do some good reporting. We walked carefully from shelled house to shelled house, from where more of their stories unfolded. There was the boy who was trapped for days without food and water with his dead mother and siblings, the old man who "couldn't walk because there was a missile in his head", and the son who was buried alive up to his neck. Somewhere in the middle of the story, someone would usually pull out a gruesome photograph to prove that it was real and then pull out another one of that same person smiling and full of life. Children would run in and out, lifting up their shirts to show off their cuts and burns and bullet holes.
This little girl kept gently pulling on my blonde hair and dissolving into laughter. She would take my camera, run out of the room, and return with bunches of ridiculously blurry pictures and more little girls. I decided to take a break and spend some time with the children. I was looking for that line of balance between remembering the dead and celebrating life through the laughter of children.
All of the stories in Gaza obviously were not as heavy as those of the Samounis but they all shared in common a certain weight that comes with living in a fresh war zone.
A few nights later, I wound up in the home of a young Palestinian hip-hop group. Khaled and his crew had ‘the look' of rappers anywhere. They performed their latest song, all the time a proud mother cheerleading in the background. Their music was so enjoyable that it took me a moment to notice the pain under the surface. Lyrics about bombs and blasts, life under siege, and wanting freedom carried over into our conversations that lasted well into the night. "My parents always tell me to get off MySpace and Facebook," he said, "but what can I do? I am trapped here in Gaza and this computer is the only window for me to know what the normal world is like." (Khaled and I have been chatting on Facebook ever since.)
I think of these stories and so many others as I try to understand life in war and occupation and work to keep the window open while watching from the outside.