Al-Sudaniya, Gaza Strip — As soon as the communication networks went down on Friday, Mohamed said he “knew something was wrong”.
“But we didn’t know what was about to happen.”
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For the 36 hours that followed, Mohamed and 21 others in his al-Qotati family — immediate and extended relatives — huddled together, screaming out loud with every Israeli shell that landed nearby in their northern Gaza district of al-Sudaniya, but otherwise staying still.
As bombs fell, the sudden absence of communications tools paralysed rescue teams. Inside homes, the tension mounted.
Mohamed gathered everyone in his family in the same room and asked them to stay below the windows, for fear of flying glass from Israeli explosions.
Amal, 30, Mohamed’s oldest sister, said she had never known more fear. “We had no electricity at the house and our (flashlights) had barely been lighting,” she recalled.
“The heavy explosions shook the ground beneath us and lit the room as if it was midday,” Amal said. “At one point, we felt that it was a matter of seconds before an artillery bomb hit one of our walls, or worse, an air strike.”
Mohamed said that it wasn’t being bombed that scared him so much, as that he would be unable to call for help.
“We all kept trying to switch our phones off and on, hoping that the network service would work again. But it unfortunately did not,” he said. “And that is what seemed the worst of it all.”
Beyond the explosions, all that could be heard was the roar of the Israeli F-16 fighter jets overhead.
Everything, from the intensity of the bombardment to the communication networks being cut off, pointed to a ground invasion in the north of Gaza, the family said.
It was the same for the al-Shanti family, living in a two-bedroom apartment in the Jabalia refugee camp along with 36 other people, whose walls shook every time an explosion hit nearby.
“No matter how hard we all tried to put on masks of strength, the [sound of] warplanes” cut through efforts at staying calm, 22-year-old Malak said. “We all kept screaming and praying that we stay safe. It was hell,” she recalled.
Malak says an air strike hit 100 metres from her father’s apartment, shaking the floor underneath their feet and enveloping the room with black smoke.
“It was one of the moments when you feel your time has finished and that it is your turn to die,” Malak said, her voice and eyelids trembling.
Smoke filled the room, choking the family and the others who had crammed into the tiny apartment. Worried the children might gag on the acrid fumes, Malak’s mother soaked a towel, hoping the water might act as a mask and keep the worst of the fumes out.
“Everyone used the same towel, it was all that we had as a protection from the smell of explosives, until my father took off his shirt and helped the other kids in the room breathe normally,” Malak remembered.
The family kept the towel by their side, continuing to use it until it was dry.
All the while, rumours of Israel’s intention to invade the Gaza Strip through the north spread like wildfire. Nobody knew what was happening. In the absence of definite information, stories swirled of the Israeli army moving noiselessly from house to house, killing the inhabitants in silence.
The family’s instinct to run for their lives was only stymied by their fear of the bombardment outside.
“It was coming from every corner and the air raids fell continuously to the extent that we had nowhere to escape to,” said Malak, “The entire north of Gaza was under fire. We had nowhere to go.”
“They were the longest nights since Israel began its war in Gaza.”