What it’s like in Gaza as residents seek safety during Israel airstrikes

(Video: The Washington Post)

Israeli bombardments have decimated large parts of Gaza, displacing around a million people and leaving many with impossible decisions: to stay and risk death, or leave everything they’ve ever known behind with little assurance they will find safety.

The narrow, densely populated enclave, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas, is under Israeli siege; power, food and water is running low.

Through text messages, voice notes and phone calls, four families shared the hard decisions they have been forced to make. These are their accounts.

‘We have no time to breathe’

A medical worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, works at Gaza’s largest hospital. As he walks the halls of al-Shifa Hospital, he passes the hundreds of families who have taken refuge there. He hasn’t seen his family since Oct. 5 and says he sleeps only three hours a night.

Video taken by a doctor at Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital shows hallways filled with families taking refuge from Israel’s bombardment. (Video: The Washington Post)

There are thousands of people hiding here. Half of the injuries are among people under 15 years old. There’s no medicine.

There are people sleeping on the ground, between corridors and roads, in the garden and under the stairwell. Anywhere they can rest.

We had 18 amputation cases in 24 hours.

You get someone injured and he would be the only survivor from the entire family. Or you treat a child that’s been under rubble for more than 40 hours.

We have no time to breathe.

The most important thing is my family, may god protect them.

I talk to my family every once in a while. My wife is at an UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] school and there’s no internet, so we can only speak when she has access to a phone line. Four days ago, she told me that they put the women in one room and the men outside in a courtyard. There was bombing near the school, she told me, and a piece of shrapnel struck a young man in the head in the middle of the school. He died on the spot.

The last time I slept properly was Oct. 5, I was on shift the next day. It’s also the last time I saw my wife, and my kids. The last time I slept in my house. And my bed. And my mattress. And my pillow.

I have no idea what happened to my house, but the entire area was bombed. Our colleague yesterday went to his house found it crumbled like biscuits. We say, “Ok, we didn’t die.” But what comes after? If the war ends and I want to go back, there’s no home.

‘We’ve stopped bathing to conserve water. And we only eat one meal a day.’

Mohammed Ahmed Abu Rukbeh is a human rights researcher. He has been trying to find a safe place for his family to shelter from Israeli airstrikes. He says his children are so traumatized by the constant sounds of bombs, they can barely walk.

At dawn on Tuesday, October 11th, Israeli warplanes launched a “fire belt” over al-Sika Road east of our home. The reddish glow of the missiles resembled lightning over our neighborhood. By 6 a.m., the airstrikes were moving closer, and I decided to take my children to my father-in-law’s house in Abu Qamar.

We passed ambulances and stretchers along our walk. I saw Civil Defense forces collecting pieces of a woman’s body. My youngest son, Karam, was so horrified by the wreckage of the bombs that I had to carry him the rest of the way.

Eventually, we arrived to my father-in-law’s home, only to learn that the Haifa Mosque next door was scheduled to be bombed.

Next, we walked to my brother Sayed’s house and found it full of my siblings’ families. I decided that we would stay, even though we didn’t fit: My family just needed to stay alive. Screams erupted across the street: Israeli forces had notified the neighbors that their home would be bombed.

I stood helpless, not knowing where to go. I found myself walking to an UNRWA school near Abu Rashid’s pool in the middle of Jabalya camp, but there wasn’t enough space for our big family there.

I sat in the courtyard for about two hours, feeling lost. I thought about returning to my home in Tal el-Zaatar and facing death, or remaining in the streets and pleading for shelter.

After four attempts, I found my family a place to rest with my sister on the north side of Gaza City. We are safe, but everyone is unwell. My children’s complexions have turned yellow. We’ve stopped bathing to conserve water. And we only eat one meal a day — sandwiches, as long as our supplies last.

‘My family worried about staying at home without enough food or power’

Wafa Ulliyan, who lives in Toronto, has dozens of relatives in Gaza. She has been communicating with them when possible. Their frantic messages offer a window into the agonizing decisions Gazan families are facing as they decide whether to risk death and stay in their homes in the north where Israel has issued clear orders to evacuate, or leave behind everything they know and go south, where the Israeli military is also striking. Every morning she wakes up, afraid to see what texts she will read.

My Mom, my brother, my sisters, my husband’s whole family — everyone is there.

When Israel started bombing Gaza and dropping leaflets in the north, my family began debating where to go. Over 30 members of my extended family live in Gaza City. My mother, my brother and my sisters Abeer and Sana live down south in Rafah.

Up north, my family worried about staying at home without enough food or power. They also worried about finding at least three taxi drivers who would be willing to drive them south.

Before Jamal and the others arrived from Gaza City, my mom’s neighbor in Rafah received notice of a bombing. Mom wanted to stay home and host our family members from up north, but my sister Samar, who lives in Turkey, pleaded with her to leave.

The Ulliyan family’s journey

The Ulliyan family’s journey

That night, my sister Abeer’s house in Rafah was damaged in an Israeli airstrike.

The windows and doors were blown off from the shock.

Furniture and glass were scattered everywhere.

My family is sheltering in Rafah now, despite the damage, but the wait is unbearable. My family keeps messaging to say, “If you don’t hear back from us, forgive us.”

‘We decided it would be better to die at home’

Basel al-Sourani is an international human rights lawyer. His family and a neighbor are the only ones left in their southern Gaza neighborhood. They sleep on mattresses in the hallway, but nowhere really feels safe. He’s lost faith in the his work and feels betrayed by the world.

Video taken by Basel al-Sourani on Oct. 14 shows the road to Khan Younis, Gaza, as families flee Israel’s bombardment. (Video: The Washington Post)

We already tried evacuating south to Khan Younis on Saturday, but the scenes were horrifying. Airstrikes, crowds, no power. Smoke and explosions less than 400 meters away.

After two days, we returned home. We decided it would be better to die at home than become refugees in Sinai.

Basel al-Sourani and his family tried evacuating to Khan Younis, Gaza, on Oct. 14, but airstrikes, crowds and a lack of power forced them to return home. (Video: The Washington Post)

Now we are completely alone in Tal al-Hawa, except for one neighbor. We have a well for water and two batteries that I purchased for $600 from a man in Shujeiyah today. He delivered the batteries by car — you know, people have to go on with their work despite the risks. The majority of Gazans live beneath the poverty line, so they rely on daily income to feed their families, and things are becoming more and more expensive here.

I’ve moved all of our furniture away from the windows so that the glass doesn’t fall on us in case of an airstrike. And our mattresses are lined up in the corridor because the bombing is worst at night.


18 miles

each way


18 miles

each way

I have no idea what to do. It’s just so exhausting mentally.

My friend Ahmed has just texted to ask if we will host his son.

I’m not sure what to tell him. I’m not sure if he will be safe. Nowhere in Gaza is safe right now.

What is the value of international law if states are not enforcing it or respecting it?

If I stay alive, I’m quitting.

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