‘Baba, this isn’t camping’: On being displaced by Israel’s war on Gaza

A Palestinian man reflects on the pain of displacement in Gaza and trying to make it.

Hussein Owda's children Mahmoud, left, and Lin, right, in the early days of the family's displacement [Courtesy of Hussein Owda]
Hussein Owda's children Mahmoud, left, and Lin, right, in the early days of the family's displacement [Courtesy of Hussein Owda]

Khan Younis, Gaza – To pick up a weak data signal for his phone, Hussein Owda had to stand a bit too close to a group of women and girls waiting in line for their turn to use the communal bathrooms.

The wait for the bathrooms can take hours on some days, Owda tells Al Jazeera over messaging, but the reward is worth it.

The media producer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) had just returned to his agency’s training centre – where he and his family are sheltering – after spending a week in the Nasser Hospital ICU with his father, who had had a serious heart attack.

“I had a horrible week,” Owda said. “You know the horrific situation we are living in and the collapse of health services. After a week at the hospital, I needed to shower and shave, and that became quite the mission.

Hussein Owda with Zein
Hussein Owda with 16-month-old Zein, his youngest child [Courtesy of Hussein Owda]

“I started in the morning and now it’s 3pm. I had to find the water, then light a fire to warm it, then wait my turn in line. But, you know what? It’s worth it. It’s one of those things that we weren’t grateful enough for before this war.”

‘A return to primitive life’

Owda and his family are living among the thousands of people who have fled to Khan Younis from the north and surrounding cities as Israeli aerial bombing and ground operations pushed them into an increasingly shrinking area.

His daughter Lin is eight years old, his son Mahmoud is six, and his youngest is Zein, a little boy of 16 months.

In the Khan Younis Training Centre, families are split up, with women, girls of all ages and younger children sleeping indoors as men and older boys sleep outside.

“Life is pretty basic here,” Owda said. “We’re making wood fires so we can cook, sleeping out in the open, getting around on donkeys. It’s like we’ve gone back in time to a primitive way of life.

The line of women and girls waiting for the bathroom at the Khan Younis Training College [Courtesy of Hussein Owda]
The line of women and girls waiting for the bathroom at UNRWA’s Khan Younis Training Centre [Courtesy of Hussein Owda]

“But in a primitive life, you would expect to have some privacy or even enough space to stretch out on the ground to sleep, but that’s not the case with this primitive life.”

Owda spent nearly two months sleeping in his car, which, he noted wryly, happened to be missing all its windows. For most of those 58 days, he was fine. But once the rains started, he had to scramble to find enough large rubbish bags to cover the gaping sides of the car.

Some moments in this displaced life frustrate him, like having to line up every time he or one of the children needs the bathrooms.

“It’s kind of humiliating and frustrating, yes … but to the point where you may as well laugh about it because there is nothing else you can do.”

Joy and heartbreak

For someone who lost his brand-new apartment on the day he and his family moved in, Owda is keeping in good spirits.

“For the past eight years, I’ve poured my heart and soul into a dream – the dream of building my own apartment within my family’s building,” he said. “My wife and I joyously finalised the kitchen … and we welcomed … a fridge, oven, and washing machine.”

But the family moved in on October 7, 2023, a Saturday. Before the day was out, bombs had fallen on their neighbourhood, al-Karama, and their new home was damaged.

They ran to his in-laws’ home, hopeful that they would be safe there for a while. That was when Owda got his first tragic news: his best friend had been killed by an Israeli bombing, along with his entire family.

By October 13, the family was on the move, heading south. One night as they were on the road, they settled in to sleep as best they could and Owda started talking to his eldest, his daughter Lin.

Adopting a mock-serious voice, he asked her what she thought of the camping trip the family was on, and listened just as seriously as she responded adamantly that this was most definitely not camping.

young boy and girl
Mahmoud listens as his sister Lin tells Hussein Owda how the family was definitely not camping [Courtesy of Hussein Owda]

“Baba, this isn’t camping, absolutely not,” she said from her perch on a table where she and Mahmoud were sitting. as the constant hum of Israeli drones filled the night sky. “Look, there’s no nice forest around us, we don’t have a tent, we don’t have flashlights. This isn’t how it’s done.

“We don’t have a campfire either to give us light or to toast marshmallows on,” she concluded as she lay her head down so her face was level with her father’s face and the phone he was holding to record their conversation so he could rewatch it.

Losing all feeling

At the beginning of their displacement, Owda says, Lin, Mahmoud and Zein were terrified of the sounds of the bombs and the aircraft flying overhead, but now they don’t seem to react as much.

“Actually, nobody really seems to react much, it’s all become normal, what we’re going through. Nobody can think about the future or even what they want to do tomorrow. We’re all in survival mode,” Owda said.

“I used to cry easily,” he continued. “If I saw a sad child or any sort of touching moments, I would cry. But I have not shed a single tear since this war started.

Zein, Hussein Owda's youngest child
Zein, Hussein Owda’s youngest child [Courtesy of Hussein Owda]

“We lost our house, I lost 11 members of my extended family, I live this humiliating life that is the furthest anyone could imagine from what ‘life’ should be.

“But, I suppose if we want to see the glass half full, I should say that I’ve lost 20kg (44lb) with no special diet.”

‘I’m not as hard hit’

Owda’s job is to produce media stories for UNRWA, highlighting the plight of other displaced Palestinians and their suffering in light of the lack of safety, shelter, food, water and healthcare.

As such, he is always talking to others, framing their lives and trying to capture everything they are going through in a few hundred words and some photos. And what he sees has scarred him deeply.

“Look, I don’t have it so bad, you know,” he said. “I still get paid, we can manage. If my kids need fresh fruit, I can afford to pay the insane $30 per apple that is being demanded these days.

“So many people around me who I am talking to have no money. The hunger and desperation here are deep and abject. Imagine someone who works for the government or as a day labourer. Imagine what kind of grinding futility they are living in.”

Source: Al Jazeera