I got out of Gaza. But I’m still trapped by the war

I left my family in Shuja’iya, crossed an Israeli army checkpoint, and spent weeks in a tent in Rafah in order to leave the Strip. The decision still haunts me.

A sense of anxiety and anger crept into my heart when I left the Gaza Strip earlier this month. Even now, here in Cairo, my conscience still wrestles inside me: how could I leave my mother, father, and siblings amid such suffering? How could I leave them to bear the burden of war alone, while I flee to safety, trying to save myself from the shards of destruction?

It was a difficult decision to make, transcending the limits of pain and sorrow. I wasn’t just leaving behind a piece of land, but leaving behind my roots, my identity, and my loved ones. But in that moment of choice, the necessity of survival overcame everything else, even if it meant shedding parts of myself.

I worry that my decision could become a permanent burden on my soul if any harm were to come to my family while I am gone. But as I look back, I find myself still overwhelmed by the need for liberation, to rebuild myself, and to mend my psychological wounds. Perhaps my journey wasn’t just an attempt to escape, but a desperate attempt to fix what remains of me, to save what could be saved; my last chance to build a new life away from the sounds of war. I knew I wouldn’t be able to help those around me if I couldn’t help myself first.

Israel’s war on Gaza has lasted over six months, stealing our lives with every passing day. Six months of killing, hunger, fear, displacement, and homelessness. Six months that have stripped us of everything, and destroyed our future. War is mentally exhausting and physically draining. It is the worst thing in existence. A life in war is unlike any other life; you are internally shattered, yet you must hold yourself together, because it’s not the time to fall apart or wonder why it is all happening. You cannot allow the war to waste the sacrifices and efforts you made for years to build your future. The responsibilities we must carry are massive.

“One member of this family must survive after the war, so that our name doesn’t get wiped off the population registry,” my father said, hiding his tears, when I told him I was considering leaving Gaza. I suddenly wished I hadn’t said anything. I felt so selfish. I couldn’t finish the conversation, so I went outside to walk among the rubble of northern Gaza. My heart couldn’t bear to hear my family urging me to leave and save myself.

As I walked through the destroyed streets of Shuja’iya, the air was filled with smoke from the fires people had lit for cooking, due to the lack of gas. I looked at peoples’ tired faces, their dirty clothes and long beards, seeing how the war had destroyed everything in them. I heard the cries of people waiting in the queue for water.

I couldn’t shake the voices inside my head: “Get out, Mahmoud. This place is not mine anymore.” Why do I have to wake up early every day to stand in line for some water, instead of proudly going to my workplace with my old car? I want to pursue a decent life, but such a life has been ripped away from us. No matter how harsh life may be outside of Gaza, right now, it is certainly better than in Gaza. At least on the outside, I can feel like a human being.
Soldiers showing off their power

As the clock struck 8 a.m. on March 9, I prepared myself for the long walk from the north of the Strip to the south, in my quest to leave Gaza through the Rafah Crossing. The looming obstacle of navigating my way through Israeli army checkpoints weighed on my mind. With a heavy heart, I bid my family farewell, grappling with the lingering doubts over my decision. Why embark on this perilous journey? The answer eluded me, obscured by the bleak reality that lay before me, but I set out all the same.

The sight of Israeli flags fluttering in the distance was foreboding, filling me with a sense of helplessness. As I approached the military checkpoint, where other Palestinians were also gathering, a surge of fear and anger coursed through my veins. Images of the atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers flashed before my eyes. The stories I had heard, whispered in hushed tones among my people, filled my mind with dread. Tales of senseless violence and inhumanity, of families torn apart, and of lives shattered by the occupier’s merciless hand.

The mere thought of passing in front of those who had inflicted such suffering upon us gnawed at me, with fear threatening to consume me whole. And yet there was also a grim determination that burned within me, driving me to confront the dangers that lay ahead. For in the north, there was little hope to be found in the wreckage of war, only the ever-present threat of more death and destruction on the horizon.

As I approached the soldiers and their tanks, I raised my ID card in my right hand and a white flag in my left, standing silently, praying for safe passage. One of the soldiers called out: “Only five people passing at a time. The others must wait for them to pass, then another five. Do you understand?”

When it was my turn, the soldier stared at me as I stood alone, without a family. He took out a cigarette. I could feel the weight of his gaze upon me, a silent sign of the power he held over my fate. Would he show mercy, or would he unleash his brutality, as he had done to so many others before?

“Tell me your full name,” the soldier ordered, while he sat on his tank. I said my name. He waited for a moment, then ordered me to walk forward and not to look back. It felt like my greatest moment: I survived.

I continued walking on foot for about a kilometer and a half. Along the road, I watched a group of Israeli soldiers, laughing and eating chips. A military jeep approached Palestinians trying to walk by, then swerved quickly to scare them, showing off their power over their victims.
The weight of the Nakba

After four hours of walking, I finally reached the city of Rafah. I was greeted by a stark reality that contrasted sharply with the images I had in mind. Contrary to the Israeli army’s assurances of plentiful food and safety in the south, life here was extremely challenging. I was shocked to see the landscape dominated by tens of thousands of tents housing displaced people, stretching far into the horizon. Every inch was overcrowded, with no respite or personal space to be found.

The scenes in Rafah echoed painful memories of the 1948 Nakba, a living testament to the stories passed down by my grandfather. The weight of history bore down upon me, a reminder that we as Palestinians have been forced to suffer across our generations.

Living in Rafah meant being immersed in the constant hustle and bustle of a densely populated city, now home to over 1.5 million people, all grappling with the harsh realities of our existence. Every soul was engaged in a silent competition for survival amid the cramped confines of makeshift shelters, where having three meters of space around your tent was a luxury afforded to very few.

I camped out on the edge of the Egyptian border. Each morning brought a sharp reminder of my displacement as I gazed at the barbed wire encircling the area; it felt like waking up in a vast prison. Nights were bitterly cold, and the rain only exacerbated the dire conditions. I struggled to keep the rainwater from seeping into my flimsy tent, while the hot sun made daytime unbearable.

With no means of acquiring additional clothing and nowhere else to seek respite, my situation felt increasingly dire. Even the communal shelters were overcrowded, leaving me with no choice but to share a tiny tent with a friend.

Days stretched into weeks as I awaited news of my permitted departure, each passing moment laden with fear and discomfort. For 33 agonizing days, I was not even able to take a shower to refresh my exhausted body. As the days dragged on, my anxiety mounted, compounded by the threat of an Israeli ground invasion in Rafah. Until, at last, I was able to make it through the crossing.

Now in Egypt, no matter how hard I try to immerse myself in my new life, the memories of my past in Gaza remain raw. The specter of the past six months of war haunts me relentlessly, reminding me of the family I left behind to face the perils of war. The thought of my friends and loved ones brings crippling guilt. I am terrified every time news comes in of a bombing in Gaza. I rush to check on my family, but they cannot always call because of the lack of electricity, and so sometimes I wait hours, even days, for their reply. Physically, I have survived. But emotionally, I am still trapped in the war.

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