Grief to courage: A Palestinian stranded in Egypt as Israel bombs Gaza

Mohammed Kafarna spoke to Al Jazeera over two months of being trapped in Egypt, despairing as friends died, family fled.

Two friends laughing
Amjad al-Athamneh and Mohammed Kafarna [Courtesy of Mohammed Kafarna]

“Hello, I’m Mohammed… of the family Kafarna. I am 24 years old and a law graduate from Al-Azhar University in Gaza. I live in the city of Beit Hanoon, adjacent to the apartheid wall that the Israeli occupation built. I lost 15 people from my family. I lost two friends, we grew up with each other too.”

For most young people, being 24 means entering the workforce, enrolling in grad school or moving cities.

But for Mohammed Kafarna, a Palestinian lawyer marooned in Egypt, 24 means watching helplessly as his family and friends in Gaza are slaughtered.

This is his story as told to Al Jazeera through conversations, messages and voice notes.

October 3 – Cairo, Egypt

At the beginning of October, Mohammed went to Egypt for eye surgery he could not get in Gaza. He was not travelling for pleasure, but wanted to make the most of his journey, writing on social media that he didn’t want to go home before seeing the “beautiful places in Egypt”.

Mohammed wears glasses so he can see. In photos with his university friend Amjad al-Athamneh – who has since been killed in a bombing – his laugh lines reach all the way to their rounded frames.

Mohammed was among hundreds of Palestinians who were in Egypt for medical treatment on October 7. So far, not one has made it back into Gaza.

October 4 – Cairo, Egypt

On October 4, Mohammed joked about taking photos of his travel buddies, saying his friends never took his picture.

“The worst thing in life,” he said playfully. Like many young people, he once delighted in sharing lighthearted pictures of himself on social media.

He could never have predicted the turn his life would take.

October 9 – Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza and Cairo, Egypt

On October 9, Mohammed’s cousin Suhail was transferring money for Mohammed’s surgery when an Israeli air attack targeted the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza.

Suhail was killed at the money exchange.

“We shared everything since childhood. I couldn’t bear the news. I went into shock for three days.”

Mohammed spiralled into a bottomless pit after Suhail’s death, whom he described as a brother. He could not pull himself out of bed.

Cut off from his family in Gaza, Mohammed had not had the surgery yet, and his ability to see took a backseat as he refused to have anyone else meet the same fate as Suhail to transfer money.

October 12 – Beit Hanoun, Gaza and Cairo, Egypt

On October 12, the house belonging to Maryam, Mohammed’s sister, was bombed in Beit Hanoon. Her husband Ali and his entire extended family were killed.

Maryam, who was flung 50 metres (164 feet) by the force of the explosion, and her two daughters survived.

One of Mohammed’s friends got a message to him from Gaza, breaking the news of his brother-in-law’s death. He reassured Mohammed that his sister and nieces were alive – for now.

“After their home was bombed, they were displaced to the south of the Gaza Strip and were targeted again,” said Mohammed, his voice hollow.

Maryam was able to receive several vital surgeries but some of the care she needs will have to wait “due to the lack of medicines and treatment in Gaza”. Her daughter Nihad suffered serious injuries and burns to her face while her daughter Sham’s left hand was fractured.

Hospitals in Gaza are so damaged and out of supplies that they cannot offer care. Several have shut down.

Stranded in Egypt, Mohammed was tormented by his sister and nieces’ suffering. Not only was he watching his family’s pain but he had to confront the possibility that he might become the only one left to remember them.

He wanted the rest of the world to know what hospitals have had to do in Gaza, that some operations were done without anaesthesia because there just isn’t any. So he went online to share atrocities being committed in Gaza.

“We do not want to die and be remembered as if we were just numbers. Each of us has a dream and a future that he was drawing in his imagination.”

His cousin Suhail’s dream was to raise enough money to build his own house.

Palestinians look at the destruction after Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip in Khan Younis
Palestinians look at the destruction after Israeli raids on Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, November 4, 2023 [Fatima Shbair/AP Photo]

October 23 – Cairo, Egypt

“Today I reached out to my mother. I wasn’t able to contact her for five days… she told me they drank the contaminated water.”

His mother cried from hunger on the phone call, and Mohammed felt utterly helpless. How could he keep his family from starving while stuck in Cairo? He appealed on social media for someone in Deir el-Balah to help his family.

“I just need someone to help me,” Mohammed pleaded. “[My family] need gas to be able to make bread…”

Israel’s siege on Gaza forced Palestinians there to ration food and drink noxious water, conditions that have worsened life in what rights groups have for years called an “open-air prison”.

Hopelessness threatened to overwhelm Mohammed. The world had turned its back on thousands of innocents.

“Israel is committing genocide and ethnic cleansing,” Mohammed said. “We must… stop this.”

October 25 – Southern Gaza Strip and Cairo, Egypt

On October 25, Ahmed Musa Shabat, another university friend of Mohammed’s, went to a bakery in southern Gaza hoping to buy bread for his family. They had just fled south from Beit Hanoon.

Victory Bakery fed the whole region, according to Mohammed, and he believes it was targeted, along with the people buying bread. Ahmed and his cousin were killed.

There were attacks even on the southern areas to where the Israeli army told civilians to flee. Those who headed south are still being slaughtered.

“Everything was one shock after another for me,” Mohammed disclosed with some difficulty. The number of deaths he was bombarded with over the past weeks had taken a toll on his mental state.

The same day Ahmed was killed, Mohammed heard that his cousin Muhammad and his young son Bassem had been killed in a bombing. Bassem was beheaded.

“His head is still under the rubble,” said Mohammed.

Father and son
Muhammad and his son Bassem [Courtesy of Mohammed Kafarna]

October 29 – Cairo, Egypt

Mohammed’s tone had grown weary.

Hours earlier, he heard news that most of his friend Ibrahim’s family had been killed. Ibrahim survived but is still in critical condition in an intensive care unit after a near-fatal head injury.

October 30 – Cairo, Egypt

Mohammed still hadn’t gotten the eye surgery but his thoughts were now entirely on his friend Ibrahim, who he still has hope for.

“Pray for Ibrahim,” Mohammed implored. “And let the world know that the massacres have not stopped.”

He wants to use his unforeseen position as a Palestinian in Egypt to raise awareness about the desperate situation in Gaza.

He appealed to the world to expose the human rights violations in Gaza, in Palestine.

“When will you take action to stop the massacres?” Mohammed challenged the international community.

“Your silence kills us more than their missiles.”

November 26 – Southern Gaza Strip and Cairo, Egypt

Mohammed made contact with his mother for the first time in 10 days.

When his family fled their home in early October, they did not know to bring clothes for the arduous month that lay ahead. His young nieces, he said, were shivering in the rain in the displacement camps.

Family photo
Ibrahim’s deceased family [Courtesy of Mohammed Kafarna]

Since he heard about the ceasefire, Mohammed has longed to see his mother and sister, but his mother warned him not to try to cross the border.

“You’d just be a burden on us here,” she told Mohammed. “There is no good water, no electricity, and no food.”

“She told me to stay out and try to find work so that I can help them after the end of this aggression because we’ve seen life after the war before.”

Mohammed recounted his family being without electricity for more than a year, carrying water by hand for more than 10km (6.2 miles) or sleeping in frigid homes without doors and windows.

In Cairo, Egyptian landlords are hostile towards him and many displaced Palestinians who struggle to pay rent, according to Mohammed. He managed to find housing after scouring social media but others were not as lucky.

Even if those in Gaza were able to send money to their relatives abroad, those who fled Israeli air raids have no income. When Mohammed’s family left the house, they brought no more than $150, which “ran out after the seventh day of the war”.

Mohammed sketched out an old dream of his – to complete his law studies at Cairo University, specialising in international humanitarian law.

Palestinian prisoners (wearing grey jumpers) cheer among supporters and relatives after being released from Israeli jails.
Palestinian prisoners in grey sweats among supporters and relatives after being released from Israeli jails in exchange for Israeli captives released by Hamas, in Ramallah, the occupied West Bank on November 26, 2023 [Fadel Senna/AFP]

“This is what I dreamed of since my childhood, to represent my country and my cause in international forums, and to convey to the world the correct narrative of the Palestinian issue.”

Palestinians, Mohammed said, love life and have dreams and ambitions. “They want to live in peace without fighting, killing, displacement.”

But after what he has experienced from afar in recent weeks, Mohammed is losing hope.

“I’ve been disappointed in my childhood dream,” he said.

“I have a feeling that my law degree will be torn up. Why do we study laws and rights if we cannot protect them?” He pleaded hopelessly.

“What is the benefit of adopting laws and agreements if we do not see their effectiveness in Gaza?”

“Do the children of Gaza not deserve security and peace like the rest of the world?”

Source: Al Jazeera