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This day is carved in my memory.
As all academics in Gaza, I had given much thought to my students who were suffering all sorts of agonies and worries caused by Israel’s aggression. After 40 days of atrocities caused by heavy bombardment and random artillery shelling, which destroyed thousands of houses and devastated countless families, the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) did everything it could to make use of the three-day temporary ceasefire, which was extended for five days and then for another 24-hour period before it ended at midnight on August 19th, 2014. They decided to resume the classes on Saturday, August 16 that had so crudely interrupted summer semester.
I was unsure what to say to my students in my lecture class. Many agonizing questions occupied my mind, among them: Were all my students and their families safe or were any of them injured or maimed? Would they be mentally able to come to class? Were they still living at home, or displaced in some shelter? How did they feel about resuming class in the midst of such agony and grief? What tragedies had each of my students been through and how much were they comfortable talking about? Overwhelmed by these concerns and well aware of the deep wounds, loss, and hardship every single Palestinian in Gaza has suffered, I was not able to enter the classroom with a big smile on my face as I had always done in the past.
I noticed immediately that about 40% of the students were absent, they could well have lost their father, mother, brother, sister. However, as is custom in Palestine I greeted my class of 40 students with the idiomatic expression used in such circumstances: “Hello and Salam (Peace upon you all), all praise to Allah for your safety and welcome back to IUG.”
In low, sad voice the students replied: “Hello and Salam, all praise to Allah for your safety, Sir.”
I continued speaking, “Today we are not meeting to discuss a particular task or project. We’re here to exchange…”
Before I could finish, a student interrupted me: “We want to exchange our personal experiences of war, Sir.”
Without any hesitation I replied: “Yes, and that’s exactly what we’ll do. I am here to listen to you and for us to share our experiences. Who would like to start?”
One of the best students in class, Naji, began to speak: “I want to talk about three of my peers who are my partners in our graduation project, which we were supposed to submit last month.” Story-telling is part of the healing process that people go through in order to recover from bereavement and grief. I automatically responded “Please go ahead, Naji.”
In a broken voice, struggling to breathe normally, Naji began narrating his own tragedy.
“Before the Israeli attack on July 7th three of my friends and I were working hard to finish our joint graduation project due at the end of July, but we couldn’t. The problem was not getting the work done in time to graduate, but what happened to my partners, to my best friends. Approaching our final exams, we were all confident that we’d pass them all as we had done the past four years. We were keen to finish our graduation project and were looking forward to our new life afterwards. We worked hard, planned and talked about our life after graduation and how we wanted to help our families and build our future.”
Quietly, his eyes became heavy with tears and the words stuck in his throat. A few seconds later, he continued narrating his story of loss.
“It’s a unique tragedy that is different to any of the many tragedies we have learnt of so far. It isn’t a science fiction story, but something real that happened to my three friends at this university.”
Khalid – killed
“Khalid is one of my best friends, and the best of our project team. Khalid can never be forgotten; he has an amazing personality full of fun and life and energy. He is a fantastic and lovable friend and friendly to everyone.
“About two weeks after the attacks had started and during the most extreme atrocities in Shujai’iya on 20 July, I was listening to the news on the radio when I suddenly learned that Khalid had been killed when an Israeli rocket hit his house around midnight. His 55 year old father was buried under the rubble and severely injured his spine. Two days later I learned that his father was fully paralysed. Some of his other family members are still in the hospital and others are staying in the hospital yard used by hundreds of Palestinians families as a makeshift shelter.”
Saber – 2 legs amputated
“My friend Saber, who lives in the neighbourhood of Shijayia, was forced to flee his home with his family due to the random and intensive shelling of hundreds of houses in Shijayia. An Israeli artillery shell hit him as he fled. His two legs had to be amputated above the knees.”
Naji couldn’t finish narrating the tragedy of his friend Saber, because he began to cry. He wiped the tears from his eyes and released an extended sigh. Looking up at the ceiling, in a choked voice he said: “I can’t imagine what has happened to Saber. We used to play football and tennis together and used to go to the library, to the cafeteria, to the beach for a walk, to the sea to swim. We went everywhere on foot. . . . no more . . . no more. . . . I can’t bear to see my best friend without legs while I still have mine. I have not seen him yet, it hurts so much. To see my best friend in such agony, I can’t sleep for the constant nightmares and I can’t visit him.”
His anger rising Naji, started firing off questions; “Why do Israelis commit such unspeakable crimes against thousands of our civilians and families? Why do they massacre hundreds and hundreds of our children? Why do America and Europe support Israel blindly? Why do America and Europe provide Israel with such lethal weaponry to kill thousands of Palestinians? Why do they have the right to self defense but we have no rights at all? Why? Why? Why?!
I tried in vain to answer his questions but Naji cut me off: “I can’t understand! I understand nothing in this silent world of double standards!”
Salman – Displaced
Naji then began speaking of his friend and colleague Slaman from Beit Hanoon, which suffered extensive destruction of hundreds of homes. But this time as he spoke of the tragedy it was in the first person narrative, in Slaman’s voice.
“I will narrate his tragedy as he told it to me.
“At 2 am, while we were sleeping, a drone fired a warning missile on the roof of our 2-storey house of 17 people, my family and my uncle’s. With the help of my 2 teenager sisters, I desperately tried to move my 87-year old grandmother from her bed to her wheelchair. My mother carried my 5-month old brother and my father carried my 3-year old sister. Both fled the house in unprecedented panic. I don’t know how we got my grandmother into her wheelchair and onto the main road. We ran into the street barefoot and in our pyjamas. We ran like madmen down the main street for about 150 meters when we heard a huge explosion. Our home, all our happy memories, our belongings, our savings and all my academic work were destroyed.
“We are living in misery. In seconds we became homeless, like hundreds of thousands of others. We’re at a shelter in one of the UNRWA schools which lacks everything, nothing is sufficient. There’s no privacy, no hygiene, no water, no showers, no clothes. Mostly women and children, about 3000 of us here.”
After learning of these tragedies which happened to three Palestinian university students I know very well, my mind went totally blank. Then I’m reminded of Jane Austen: Ah! There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort. Looking at the sad and pale faces of the other students in class, I saw no-one wanted to utter anything.
The only response to these three true heart-breaking tragedies was SILENCE, which turned into tears of sorrow, at the many passive people and governments in the face of Israel’s frequent and flagrant violations of international law in Palestine. Ironically, deafening SILENCE is to be heard everywhere except from people of conscience.
Upon hearing this real sample of the countless Palestinian tragedies, will SILENCE remain silent?
It is hoped that SILENCE would decide not be silent anymore.
It is hoped that SILENCE’s good, clear conscience would give and honor this eternal benevolent promise:
“I will never be passive or silent any more about Gaza, Palestine and any place in which international human right laws are violated”.
* This article was originally published on Mondoweiss on 26th August 2014.