During a brief ceasefire, Gazans return to the places they knew as home, only to be met with the stench of death and sight of destruction
“You either give me the bodies of my two brothers so I can bury them, or tell me they’re alive, so I can hug them” screams a mother in her mid-forties as she searches for her two brothers in Shejaiya, east of Gaza city during an12-hour humanitarian ceasefire.
She’s not alone in her desperate search for loved ones — the search takes hours amidst the clinging smell of death and burnt flesh that fills the ruins and rubble of what were recently family homes. During the ceasefire, 155 bodies have been found across Gaza strip on Saturday, deaths which resulted from the last Israeli bombings.
Ahmed Al-Hassan, 32, is one among many at Shejaiya neighbourhood searching for lost relatives. He is searching for uncles he lost contact with over two weeks ago.
Al-Hassan was here a month ago, but nothing he sees looks anything like what he remembers before Israel’s missiles started falling.
“I can’t tell which part used to be the street and which the house was,” he says while carefully stepping through the huge pile of rubble, to see if he can find anyone, dead or alive.
Rescue teams are using masks, but nonetheless the smell is very strong. Ambulance emergency crews have been shot at, as Israel had barred them from entering this area. Seven medics have been killed, while many others were injured. Some are among the bodies still lying here days later and others were carried to the hospital morgues in bags as body parts collected from the street where they were struck by Israeli missiles.
Al-Hassan continues treading slowly through what’s left of homes destroyed by Israel’s F16’s, drones or tank shells and mortars, “This is a tragedy of the century, and the world is letting Israel get away with it” he says, while removing a destroyed copy of the Holy Quran from the ruins of the houses.
“See, even holy sites and mosques are bombed… here look, this is where I used to pray when visiting my grandmother, I recognize this” he adds, his eyes tired and his face covered in dust as he keeps searching through the destruction for anything else he recognizes.
He is able to identify a mosaic piece from the mosque.
He can’t find the stone pillar in the middle of his uncles’ home, the tiny garden in its entrance, nor or the silver-colored door he remembers from childhood. Only two things remain; ruins of demolished homes and smell of death that goes with it. He continues the search for the corpses, in line with the Islamic tradition that requires the dead to be buried quickly as a way of honouring them. That part is shared with believers in the Jewish faith too.
“But they won’t allow Gaza that human and spiritual dignity” says Al-Hassan. “God created human beings to be treated equally with dignity. But in Gaza, even our dead lose their dignity and respect, humiliated by the Israeli occupiers” he adds.
Still confused and trying to visualize the plan of the house mentally, and link it with the rubble around him, he says, “I think that was where my children used to be. It was full of love and beautiful memories”.
Al-Hassan will have to adapt to the new reality—but he is saddened every time the rescue teams shout out that they have found more bodies, some of whom he recognizes as his grandmother's neighbours. The smells around Al Hassan get stronger.
Key to ruins
When the humanitarian ceasefire was announced, Haider Abu Hussein, 34, took the key to his house with him, as he left the park where he had taken shelter to go and find clothes for his children. But he could not find the house.
“We had to make holes in the walls of our home so as to escape through them and get to the side street” he says, explaining the miracle of how he is still alive when so many of his neighbours are dead and buried under the rubble. His face becomes tense as he smells the dead bodies around.
Abu Hussein’s family had to split up: some to the park and others to the UNRWA school or to relatives. He is one of 170,000 people forced to flee their homes by Israel’s strikes. A baby in the park cries for food breast and the need to be in clean clothes, but Abu Hussein can’t offer anything —as all his house's contents have been destroyed and burned.
Walking along Nazaz Street in Gaza City, people know the 12-hour ceasefire is crucial in finding relatives and grabbing as many supplies as they can to take before Israel attacks again.
The ceasefire has exposed the extent of the destruction wrought by Israel’s 19-day offensive. The heaviest bombardment being here in Shejaiya, when Israeli strikes killed and wounded hundreds.
As ambulance and rescue teams continue their recovery work, friends, neighbours, and colleagues of the victims use this 12 hour window to look for who they can find. Over 150 bodies found, bringing the Gaza death toll to 1,015.
When Abu Hussein gets to what he thinks was his home, he stands in shock.
He says this this is a man-made Israeli hurricane. He received no warning call or “roof knock’ from Israel before the bombing. It just came.
Now, dead bodies are under the building and health officials are calling for top-priority clean up, so as to avoid making a humanitarian crisis and human catastrophe become worse.
However, for Abu Hussein there is not much left, not an ID he can use to prove he once lived here once.
This is the immediate reality he cannot change — his legacy is a home reduced to rubble and his family homeless. Many others around him have to face the same horror and deal with it in the best way they can.
“There are the mattresses my children used to sleep on”, say a neighbor of Abu Hussein.
“But every time we Palestinians are killed, we pick up ourselves, under Israel’s occupation and carry on as best we can. This time, our resistance is stronger and we have to rely on it, instead of relying on lame world leaders”.
Many people are crying around him, while others collapse after seeing bodies pulled gently out of the rubble, pulverized beyond recognition.
A neighbour of Abu Hussien says: “homes can be rebuilt, if Israel allows construction materials through to Gaza”. He doesn’t expect this to happen.
“If we could turn the bones of our bodies into bridges to our freedom, we would do that to escape this ominous Israeli siege”.