"The kids were terrified and screamed all the time, we stayed under the staircase unable to leave"
Interview with Amal Hekamt El Aqra’a, Beit Lahia
Ruined houses in Al Atatra area
As the dust settles on Gaza and the true horrors of the three week Israeli offensive begin to emerge from the rubble, there are few in Gaza who do not have a story to tell. Amal Hekamt El Aqra’a is a 43 year old resident of Beit Lahia in Gaza’s Al Atatra area. Amal is a mother of four. The story she relates of her and her family’s experiences during the Israeli military operation in Gaza, though horrific, is unfortunately far from unique.
In the first few days of the Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, Amal recounts how the residents of Beit Lehia had got used to the regular invasion of the Israeli tanks. "Every time, they entered our area for two hours, and then the tanks would leave" she explains. "We had been able to go to our farms and work as usual, even with the presence of the tanks around us, so we felt ok, and the residents of the area decided to stay in their homes, and not to leave."
Our only care was to save our lives
This tense equilibrium did not last long and only a few days later Beit Lehia witnessed an intensification of Israeli military activities.
"I was in my home with my kids and husband when the tanks entered, shooting towards the house," Amal recalls. "When the bullets started to hit the house and to fly over our heads we took refuge under the staircase. We were unable to leave the house because of the heavy shooting."
"The kids were terrified and screamed all the time, we stayed under the staircase unable to leave."
"It was about six in the evening. The shooting continued and we slept the night on the floor without any blankets or mattresses. I was praying that God will save us all. My elder daughter is six months pregnant; I was so scared that she would lose her baby."
After a terrifying night of shooting and tank fire, the family thought that a lull in the fighting offered a chance to flee. "We stayed at the staircase until it was 5 in the morning, and the shooting stopped for five minutes," Amal explains. "It was our chance to leave, we did not take anything, or change our clothes. Our only care was to save our lives."
"We opened the door and the tank was opposite us, we were terrified. I told my children to sneak out one by one to the neighbour’s house, and then through the farms to the downtown area. It was so risky and we were scared for our lives."
As the family reached their neighbor’s house the shelling was renewed; 25 people were now stranded in this house, over the course of the morning this number swelled to 60 as surrounding houses were shelled.
One neighbouring house was shelled as its owners sheltered in the bathroom. The men who were with Amal managed to rescue a mother and her eight children from the house, even as the firing continued. Another neighbour broke the wall of his house from the back and dropped his children off.
Amal recalls the difficult conditions. "We became 60 persons in one house of three rooms. There was no water, no food, and no place to hide; the children were terrified from the sound of explosions. We couldn’t quell their fears, we were also terrified. We had no idea what to do."
Either die together or live together
Over the course of two days the group remained in these cramped and deteriorating conditions. Though they made frequent calls to the Red Crescent, they were told that the Israeli Army was refusing to allow evacuation.
On the third day the group decided that they had no other choice but to flee. Amal describes how they "all held white banners, papers, napkins."
"We told our children if the tanks shot at us, don’t run and stay close to each other, either die together or live together."
"We were, all 60 of us, adults and children, crying and praying. We walked about 200 meters when we came across a tank. The Israeli soldiers saw us and said nothing, did nothing. Suddenly, they started to shoot above our heads and beneath our legs; we were jumping, and trying to avoid the bullets."
"As the tank moved we felt that it would crush us to the wall, we were unable to walk because all the streets were destroyed, the children were crying and screaming, the tank directed its artillery on us, and we thought that it was our end."
It was then that the planes began dropping their missiles. "We could hear the sound of the explosions all around us. It was frightening."
These explosions followed the group as they made their way out of Beit Lahia and to the relative safety of UNRWA’s al Fakhoura school where they sought refuge receiving blankets, mattresses, food.
No respite for those seeking refuge
Unfortunately even the neutral walls of the UN could not guarantee the family protection. On the 6th of January over 40 people were killed when IDF shells landed in the vicinity of the al Fakhoura school. Among the dead were many people who had been seeking refuge in the school. Amal remembers the horror.
"On the day of the attack, we were at the windows watching the children playing. All of a sudden we heard three explosions. People were screaming, the school was shaking, and everyone was running looking for their children. Bodies of the dead were on the floor, blood was everywhere."
Amal has yet to return to her former home. Following the ceasefire Amal’s youngest daughter went back to check on their house with her father and older brothers. "There was nothing, everything disappeared, as if nothing had ever been there," 10 year old Nadine describes.
Memories of her recent ordeal still terrorize Nadine. "I felt that I was going to die, the shooting was everywhere. I was terrified and could barely stand. I still have to close my ears when there are loud sounds, I don’t want to hear the sound of the explosions. It was so loud and horrible."
Amal’s family is one of many Gazan families facing an uncertain future while still coming to terms with the trauma of their recent experiences. "I pray that no one will experience what we have been through," she says.