Gaza diary, part 28: ‘I look at old pictures and I don’t recognise myself’ | Israel-Hamas war

Friday 24 November

9am Ahmad, the middle son of the host family we are staying with, is one of the most helpful people I know. He collected some money from friends and got a big tank of drinking water to take to where displaced families are located. He chooses an area that has two schools full of evacuees. According to Ahmad, water is delivered to the schools, but some of them have more than 10,000 people inside. So no amount of water is enough.

The bottleneck was not getting the money; in fact, the money was the easiest part. For almost a week, he had been trying to reach the water provider but couldn’t. Even though the communication companies are working again, the service is very weak. If you need to call someone, you will have to dial them hundreds of times to have a chance of getting through.

I wonder about the lady chosen to record the message: “The mobile number you have dialled cannot be reached at the moment”. Was she happy to be the voice of the company? Did she know that millions of Gazans cry after hearing her voice for the 50th time; some of them even throw their mobiles aside in despair because they cannot reach their loved ones.

I wish she could say: “I am sorry you cannot reach the person you are dialling. I hope you will be able to get to them soon. You are worried, and I know that.”

Eventually Ahmad went to the house of the water provider and waited, on two consecutive days, to catch him.

I ask Ahmad if I can accompany him and he agrees. We meet the man. He drives a small truck with the water tank on it.

The water provider tells me that at 5 o’clock every morning, he goes to the sanitation station – the one that has drinking water – and waits for three to four hours for his turn. Then he comes back to start delivering the water. He said people think he does not want to help, but he is doing his best.

He tells me he is an excellent dabka dancer and says: “Check TikTok for videos of weddings in the area and you will see me dancing dabka. We love life, but we don’t have the chance to live it.”

9.30am We reach the street where the schools are. The plan is to park outside in the street so people from the school and nearby homes can come and fill water. I am sitting in the seat next to the window. The situation is miserable.

I see many people holding their water containers and either standing in line to pay for them to be filled or on their way to go to a faraway place to fill them for free. When they see us arrive, they do not expect us to be stopping in their area because usually the tank will be booked for a residential place.

Through the window of the truck I tell people holding the water containers: “We are here to fill your water gallons for free.”

A line at least 100 metres long of people waiting with yellow jerry cans
A queue for water in Rafah. The jerry cans to collect water from the mobile tanks have become among most precious items for displaced people. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty

Suddenly, people start running towards the truck. The driver can’t even move. Ahmad has to get out to ask them to give us space to park properly. People are screaming to others inside the schools: “Come out and bring your gallons. There is free drinking water. Quickly!” And everyone runs.

In minutes, a very long line of men, women and children has formed, all with their water containers – names written on them to avoid losing them. If everything I had seen was not another reminder of how privileged I am, this is. Because for me, losing a water container is not a big deal; but for them, that simple item is critical.

But many people bring buckets, empty cleaning detergent containers, shampoo bottles and even plastic jars used for spices. A man helps the water provider organise the line.

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Ahmad tells me that he wants to go inside one of the schools to check on his friend and his family that have evacuated there. I go with him. The school is no longer an educational entity; it is literally a camp. Tents are everywhere.

There are “boundaries” using carton, cloths and shop signs. Inside one of the classes, there are several sections, one of them is separated by some clothes used as curtains. A paper sign hangs, saying: “There are women inside. Please give a warning before you move the curtains.”

A man is sleeping on a mattress in what used to be the playground. He is not in a tent or anything. A guy approaches him and tells him about the water truck outside. He asks: “So, how much is water today?” When he learns it is free, he runs barefoot to secure a spot in the line.

A while later, we go outside to check on the progress. A girl, about 15 years old, wearing prayer clothes, gets out of the line after filling the jug she has. She can’t even wait to use something to put the water in. She takes off the lid and drinks the water. She closes her eyes to enjoy it. She puts the lid back and goes back towards the school with a big smile on her face.

10pm I receive photos from two amazing people. Both photos are of me with friends at a spot by Gaza beach next to a sign saying “I love Gaza.”

I look at the beautiful pictures. That is the Gaza I remember, the one full of hope and beauty – not the one of women, children and men waiting in line to get a gallon of water. I look at the pictures and I don’t recognise myself any more.

I really miss Gaza.

A small girl kneels on the sand at the water's edge as older children stand in the water or on a rock
Palestinian children play on the beach at Deir al-Balah during the temporary truce in Gaza. Photograph: Reuters

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