“I still remember the sound of the bombs,” says Farah Baker softly.
If that name sounds familiar, it may be because the 17-year-old from the Gaza Strip helped document the devastation wrought by Israel’s assault on the region last summer.
Under her Twitter name, Guess what , the then 16-year-old student offered the world a glimpse into the death and destruction she witnessed – 140 characters at a time.
Her posts went viral.
— Farah Baker (@Farah_Gazan) July 21, 2014
“I was amazed by the overwhelmingly positive response to my tweets,” she says now, a year after the 50-day war started. “My followers jumped from 800 to 200,000 in a matter of weeks.”
“I discovered that people started following me because they too wanted to know the truth.”
“I didn’t focus on the politics,” she explains. “I just wrote about my life during the war.”
And that meant relaying a visceral sense of what it felt like to live in constant fear of death.
“Civilians were targeted and we all felt that we could die at any minute,” she says.
“I still remember … the explosions and the blaring ambulance sirens. I remember everything,” she continues.
— Farah Baker (@Farah_Gazan) July 25, 2014
I might die tonight
“We were under attack …. I wanted the world to know what was happening in Gaza.”
Baker believed the Western media was siding with Israel and offering an “unfair’ portrayal of what was going on during a war that left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead and more than half-a-million displaced.
So she put her Twitter account and family’s electricity generator to good use.
As near constant power cuts limited the ability of Gazans to communicate with the outside world, Baker made it her mission to keep that connection alive.
During the course of the war she tweeted about how the constant sounds of the bombs were affecting her and posted videos showing the constant bombardment around her area.
In one of her most memorable tweets she wrote: ” This is my area, I can’t stop crying. I might die tonight.”
— Farah Baker (@Farah_Gazan) July 29, 2014
And, Baker says, that brought her to Israel’s attention. She says she was threatened by some Israelis on Twitter many times. “[They would say] we will find you and bomb you. You have to stop what you are doing,” she explains.
But, she says, the threats did not discourage her – or her parents. Baker’s surgeon father and doctor mother supported their daughter, despite the dangers.
The scariest day
The teenager, who recently graduated from a Catholic school in the Gaza Strip and hopes one day to become a lawyer, has lived through three wars. But she says the last was most definitely the “scariest”.
And she remembers the scariest day of her scariest war as though it were yesterday.
It was July 28 and the shelling around Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, close to Baker’s family home, was relentless.
“The shelling wouldn’t stop,” she remembers. “I thought the house was going to fall down.”
“That day I was sure I was going to die. When I woke up in the morning, I was amazed that I was alive.”
I COULD SURVIVE LAST NIGHT!! I AM ALIVE!! Alhamdulillah #Gaza
— Farah Baker (@Farah_Gazan) July 29, 2014
The July 28 attack on Shifa hospital, where nearly 2,000 people were sheltering, was condemned by the international medical organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF). There were no casualties.
As well as tweeting their reality to the world, Baker had to comfort and reassure her two younger siblings.
— Farah Baker (@Farah_Gazan) July 23, 2014
“My youngest sister is only seven and has experienced three wars,” she says. “When the shelling was at its worst I kept telling her that we will be okay, [that] the bombing will stop and she will enjoy the summer vacation.”
Trapped in Gaza
But even when there is not a war to stop Baker and her siblings from enjoying their summer, they have the now familiar siege of the Strip with which to contend. Israel enforced a blockade of the territory in 2006, after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, and tightened it a year later when Hamas consolidated its control over Gaza.
There is only one way for the residents to leave: via the Rafah crossing into Egypt. And, since the beginning of 2015, Egypt has opened the Rafah land crossing for just five days.
So what would a summer vacation look like for Baker?
“I wish I could book a ticket and travel anytime,” she reflects, before adding: “I want to be able to order a book via Amazon. I dream of many things.”
But she has only ever been able to leave the Strip once. She was nine years old.
“I travelled to Egypt and Dubai when I was little,” she recalls. “When I saw a plane in Egypt for the first time, I thought it was an Israeli warplane and I was very scared.”
But the fear soon turned to awe at the world beyond the confines of her home.
“I was amazed back then with the fact that there were no power cuts,” she remembers. “In Gaza extended power cuts are the norm.”
“It was amazing; we could travel wherever we wanted and we could go wherever we wanted. That is the life I dream of,” she adds.
But, for now, she would feel content at just knowing another war will not break out at any moment.
“I just want to feel safe instead of living under the constant fear of the possibility of another war,” she says.
But should one break out, she knows she has an online family of people around the world wishing her well and following her every update. Those friends, she says, supported her during the “darkest time of [last summer’s] war”.
— Farah Baker (@Farah_Gazan) July 28, 2014
“In the scariest times, when the fighting was intense and I was feeling frightened and sad, they used to encourage me and tell me that I was doing a good job and should keep it up.”
“I hope one day to be able to thank them and do something to support them the same way they supported me,” Baker says.
‘The Fault in Our Stars’
For now, when she is not on social media telling the world about her life under siege, Baker is busy studying, listening to music and playing video games.
“I like listening to Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars,” she says. “When I see my friends we like to hang out, watch films and enjoy walks by the sea.”
Then she chuckles and explains that she loves the films Grown Ups and the Hangover. “Of course it’s censored in Gaza,” she adds.
Another film favourite is The Fault in Our Stars. She now has the book – thanks to her mum who was able to bring it across the Rafah crossing, on one of the rare occasions it was open. Perhaps she will read it this summer.
So, surely Baker looks forward to a day when she might be able to leave the Gaza Strip?
Not so, she says.
“I don’t want to leave my friends and family here. Why should I leave them to suffer here?” she asks. “I am just like them.”
“We are trapped. If a war breaks out no one can escape. We are trapped here with nowhere to go.”
And while she is adamant that she will not forget, or forgive, she is looking forward to the future.
“I want to experience freedom for the first time,” she says. “And leave the haunting memories of the war behind me.”