For the last week, as we have all seen the videos of buildings collapsing and explosions across the Gaza strip, a feeling of history repeating itself has really sunk in. I have been glued to Twitter, and I have been messaging people I know in Gaza on WhatsApp to check if everyone is safe. Memories of my visits to Gaza after previous bombardments and invasions came flooding back.
Visiting Gaza is a privilege. Not many internationals get to enter this isolated and besieged strip, where two million people are squeezed into a narrow territory governed by the Palestinian group Hamas.
A trickle of aid workers, journalists and UN staff manage to get permits. I was lucky to be one of the few to get in. Working for Trócaire, overseeing human rights and humanitarian projects in Palestine, I visited after the three intense bombardments in 2009, 2012 and 2014.
The scenes I saw will stay etched into my memory for the rest of my life. Whole neighbourhoods flattened and devastated. Most of what I saw that lay in ruins were clearly civilian targets – residential buildings, hospitals, schools, mosques, factories, an airport.
Yet it’s the human stories that stay with me the most. I interviewed many people who suffered unimaginable loss and trauma. Like Nabil, who showed me the spot in front of his house where most of his family were killed.
Nabil lost an arm in an Israeli airstrike, but he’s lucky to be alive. In total, 12 members of his family, including his wife and four of his children, were killed by this drone strike. They were fleeing their family home for safety during heavy shelling in July 2014. The look in Nabil’s eyes still haunts me.
Rawda is a mother who lost two sons. They were watching the World Cup semi-final in a café in 2014. Eight people were killed when an Israeli airstrike hit this café. I remember Rawda asking me plaintively, “What do these children have to do with anything? 18 and 16 years old, what did they do to deserve this?”.
Then there’s Muhammed, who was driving with his two sons to get supplies during a lull in fighting during the 2009 war. He told me of how an Israeli tank opened fire on their car and he and his two sons were hit by bullets. One of his sons was killed instantly. Israeli troops refused to allow an ambulance to get to them for 20 hours. Muhammed told me how they were trapped beside the car through the night, and his son bled to death in front of him.
Another woman told me of the horror of the moment an airstrike hit her family home while she was breastfeeding her young baby. She recalled her memory of her baby falling from her arms as the blast hit and the poor child was engulfed by flames and died instantly.
These stories are extreme, they are violent and harrowing. Yet they are not a handful of exceptional cases. There are many more I could re-tell. There are thousands of civilians who lost family members in the last three wars.
The people I met wanted to tell their stories, they want the world to know. Despite the horrors and trauma they have experienced, there is an incredible resilience and strength to people in Gaza.