Hello? Is this Israel calling?

If Israel calls to tell me they will bomb my house, what should I take with me as I run for my life?

Over 200,000 Palestinians have been displaced in Gaza since the start of the Israeli assault [Reuters]

They say that a person’s life passes in front of his eyes when he is about to die. It was different for me. My whole life passed in front of my eyes while I was standing in front of a ringing phone. Is it the call? Is it our turn? 

Since the start of the Israeli offensive, anyone in Gaza at any time can receive a call from the Israelis telling them that they must leave their house because it will be bombed in less than five minutes. That is, if they are lucky! Those who are not lucky do not receive a warning and get killed.

Seconds turned into years. I gathered every bit of strength I had in my body and picked up the phone. It was my aunt from outside Gaza checking on us after she heard that a location near our home was bombed. It is funny the amount of knowledge our beloved ones outside Gaza have. They’ve put their lives on hold to follow the war on TV and the internet. They know the names of streets, of buildings, of martyrs.

“Was it that close?” she asked me.

“No,” I answered.

“But you sound as if you have seen a ghost?”

“It is ok, aunt. It is just that a bad thought passed through my mind before I picked up the phone.”

I sat by myself and started thinking seriously: What if it really happens? How would I react? What should I do? Unconsciously, I started breathing heavily, with anxiety.

The first person who came to my mind was my mom. How could she, an old, overweight woman, suffering from heart and blood pressure problems, run down from the fourth floor and reach the street in time?

My thoughts wandered further. What should I take with me? Of course my certificates, passport and ID. While I was getting my certificates out of the drawer, I saw my university bachelor’s degree certificate. I still remember how proud I was when I got home that day holding my certificate. I studied for years in order to get it.

I looked around and  saw a portrait of me hanging on the wall. It was given to me by my students who gave me a wonderful surprise party for my birthday. I remember promising them that this portrait will hang in my room and it will never go down.

Should I take those letters and pictures or should I leave them to be buried under a house that history will forget?

Shujayea: Massacre at Dawn

Hours passed and I was moving from one memory to another. Which item should I take, or in other words, which memory in this house is more important than the other? Which part of ziad, of my soul, should I take?

A sentence that I heard the day before hit me. I was watching footage from the massacre in Al Shujayea. Some 60,000 people left their houses and ran for their lives. While people were running in the street, a man said: “It is the same as the Nakba in 1948.”

It has been the fate of Palestinians in the past 66 years to evacuate their homes constantly, leaving behind their property, their land, their history. Will Shujayea people ever be able to go back to their homes? Or will they be left with only memories of what they called home?

I talked once to a woman who still had the key to the house she left during the Nakba. I was thinking to myself, “Is she serious? Does she think that even if she were to return, she would be able to open the front door with the same key?” I did not know back then that the key was all she had to remember her house by; it was the soul of a home lost forever.

Now, it is my turn to decide which item would be my “key” to keep for years as a memento of what I called home.

They say that when you are running from Israeli bombs, you are in panic and you only think of your own safety. What if this happens to me, what if while running out, I see one of our neighbours’ children, who play all the time in the hall between our apartments, lying on the ground and in need of help? Will I be so afraid that I will leave these angels behind?

I was overwhelmed by all these thoughts. I got dizzy. It could have been the Ramadan fast. Muslims wait for Ramadan from one year to the next to do their best to be closer to God, to visit each other and to help the needy ones. Our Ramadan passed under shelling and bombing, and in constant prayer that we and our loved ones be safe.

I was so overwhelmed by everything that was going on in my head that I forgot the main reason behind these terrible thoughts, the main reason that made me think that the phone call might be “the one”. It was the sad story I had just heard about my friend.

She got married two years ago to a very nice guy, and as any newlywed couple, they did not have their own house, so they lived with his family. Both of them worked really hard to save up for a house. I remember how excited she was about her new home. She used to tell me about every little detail: the tiles, the furniture, the colours, the walls. I used to tell her that it is just a home, not a castle, but her answer would always be “But it is not any home, it is my home. In this home I will write the story of my life with my husband and children.”

After two years, the house was ready for them to move in. She was the happiest person in the whole world; her voice changed, her face did too. She was ready to start her life in the new home. This happened two weeks before the war.

When the Israelis started bombing us, they left their home for a safer place. During the last ceasefire she went back only to find out that her house was levelled to the ground.

“The only thing that survived was my son’s toy,” she said in a broken voice.

What hurts me the most is that Gaza’s story is always told in terms of numbers: “50 people died, 100 buildings were destroyed”. These people had names, stories, dreams, families, ambitions, futures and most importantly – history. These buildings were people’s homes, they were places of safety and security, of hard work and relaxation, of memories and family histories.

Will we live to see the day when the sanctity of Palestinian homes and lives is respected?

Ziad Bakri is a Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip. He is a translator, blogger and teacher. He blogs at: ziadbgaza.blogspot.com/

Follow him on Twitter: @ZiadBGaza