Deir el-Balah, Gaza Strip – Between her live presentations on TV, Khawla al-Khalidi takes a sip of water, or coffee if it’s available, and searches her phone for updates.
Her husband, Baher, adjusts her hijab, murmuring words of encouragement, then stands beside the camera as al-Khalidi prepares for another live update.
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The 34-year-old journalist, like many of her colleagues, practically lives at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, which has become a makeshift bureau because it is one of the few places where the internet works and the journalists can charge their phones, laptops and other electronics.
“I’ve always loved journalism, and I’ve been in this industry for 11 years,” al-Khalidi said. “I used to produce and present the morning show for Palestine TV, and since this war started, I’ve also been given the opportunity to work for [the Saudi-owned] Al Hadath and Al Arabiya channels as well.”
Al-Khalidi has not stopped working since October 8, a day after Israel began its offensive on the Gaza Strip after unprecedented attacks by Hamas on army bases and towns in southern Israel.
In the midst of war and its constant developments, any stability and daily routines are thrown out the window.
Al-Khalidi had barely worked a day in her usual office before all of the Gaza Strip was threatened with air raids. Her Palestine TV colleagues evacuated, and she began working from home, doing live interviews with various channels over the phone.
One night at nearly midnight during the first week of bombing, she was doing her last phone interview of the day when she noticed Baher signalling her.
The Israelis were going to target their neighbourhood, he told her, and they needed to leave right away.
“We got a message saying we had to evacuate in 20 minutes,” she said. “I ended my phono by telling them that, and then I walked around the house in a daze, not knowing what to pack or take with me.”
Dream home destroyed
The couple and their four children – the eldest is 12 and the youngest five – stayed for about a week at al-Khalidi’s parents’ home in Gaza City. On the second day, al-Khalidi got the news that her beloved home, the one that she and Baher had built together over 10 years, had been destroyed.
“My family tried to play it down at first, saying: ‘Oh, it was just the kitchen that caught fire,’ or that it was partially damaged by shrapnel,” she recalled. “But it was all gone.
“I cried, of course, then calmed down. A couple of days later, I cried again, then pulled myself together. I knew that this is the situation in Gaza now and that everyone is going through the same experience.”
Al-Khalidi’s paintings were hung up by Baher on the walls of their home. It was their dream house, and everything inside from the furniture to the interior decor to what filled the nooks and crannies were all chosen and made lovingly by the husband and wife.
“It didn’t hit me at the beginning that my house was gone,” al-Khalidi said. “I feel it more now, every time we get displaced farther and farther away.
“You realise that it’s not about the money or the decor or the paintings, but it’s about having a private and secure space for you and your family to be around each other.”
The family woke up one morning to the sound of violent bombardment on the street. An Israeli air attack had targeted a house metres away, reducing it to rubble. The windows of al-Khalidi’s parents’ home shattered from the blast, and the journalist decided to leave for al-Maghazi refugee camp in the centre of Gaza to stay with her brother’s in-laws.
Al-Khalidi continued to work. She had her car, and the roads were still not as dangerous or damaged as they are now.
One day, as she was driving to the Rafah border crossing to cover the movement of the second group of patients going to Egypt for treatment, she heard on the radio that the Afaneh family home in al-Maghazi was targeted.
“That house is directly next to the house that my husband and children are in,” she said. “I tried calling my husband and brother, but no one was answering their phones, so naturally, I assumed the worst.”
She turned her car around and drove straight to Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, her heart in her throat.
Baher was at the entrance, immediately reassuring her that everyone was fine, save for a few stitches on her son Karam’s head. The couple then decided it was best to send their children to Rafah to stay with their other grandparents while they remained in Deir el-Balah.
‘My backbone, my wings’
For the past 12 days, the couple would talk to their children six or seven times a day, at any opportunity when the phone lines weren’t down.
“They would tell me every detail of their lives from the lack of water and the little food they had to playing with their cousins and neighbours and what they did with their uncle that day,” al-Khalidi said. “Their main complaint was that they couldn’t shower.”
Every day, she wakes up at dawn with her husband, prays, and then they set off to the hospital about 1km (0.6 miles) away, walking hand in hand. At the hospital grounds, she greets her colleagues, then connects to the internet to gather the information for her first live at 8am for Al Arabiya. She keeps going until her last live at 4pm.
“I report about 18 times a day in front of the camera,” she said. “I’m exhausted by the end of it and like to leave the hospital before it gets dark. My husband and I walk back, and after changing my clothes and a quick bite, I do phone interviews until 10pm.”
She is full of praise for Baher, who is a prosecutor but hasn’t worked since the war began.
“I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I am doing now if it wasn’t for him,” she said, smiling.
“He’s encouraged me from the first day, saying that I have the ability to keep working and to get my message out there, which not every journalist has.”
It also comforts her to be around him, whether simply feeling his presence among the many journalists, patients and displaced people living in the hospital’s courtyard or when he brings her water or coffee or food between her reports. He watches every one of her lives and gives her feedback.
“He’s my backbone, my wings,” al-Khalidi said. “You know the old adage that behind every great man is a great woman? Well, I also believe that behind every great woman is a greater man. I’m blessed to have him.”
The couple went to Rafah to see their children on Monday and realised that it was not safer than other areas because Israeli warplanes and tanks had targeted the city, so they decided to bring the children back to al-Khalidi’s aunt’s house in Deir el-Balah, where the couple had been staying.
“I was so excited to see them again,” she said. “My daughter Rama said she hasn’t hugged me in so long. I thought, ‘You know what, we either die together or live together.'”
‘Palestinian journalists the best in the world’
The biggest challenges that journalists face in doing their jobs during the war are the lack of transportation, the slow and unreliable internet connectivity, and the lack of electricity. Many of the male reporters at the hospital haven’t seen their families in weeks and sleep on mattresses in the courtyard. With winter around the corner, the absence of proper shelters has become a main concern.
“It seems like every day I hear about a colleague whose family members were killed in an attack or of their own deaths,” al-Khalidi said. “This makes me think, ‘Will I be next? Will my family be next?'”
What motivates her to keep working, she says, is the hope that one day she will look into the camera and say: “And now, Palestine has been liberated.”
“For this time, I want to say: ‘The war is over. Go back to your homes,'” she said. “Who said people in Gaza are used to conflict and strife? We’re definitely not made to live in hospitals or be displaced over and over or run from the bombs in the sky.”
She is convinced that what makes Palestinian journalists continue their work while facing such danger and witnessing unspeakable horrors is their belief in Palestinian freedom and self-determination.
“I consider Palestinian journalists to be the best there is in the world, from their bravery, their presentation, their language skills, their experience, their strength,” al-Khalidi said.
“This war has made me appreciate all of life’s little blessings,” she added. “It also strengthened my resolve, and I will definitely build another house, an even better and more beautiful home than the one before.”