Rachel Coghlan is a researcher at the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, was in Gaza undertaking research in early 2020, and continues to support palliative care teaching programs for undergraduate students there. She has written this to her friends and colleagues in Gaza who have urged her to share this piece, bringing together the harrowing phone calls and messages she’s received in the past few days, during the escalating conflict with Israel.
To my friends Mohammad, Hana’a, Khamis, Reham, Mohannad, Mahmoud, Ahmed, and all the rest,
We are painting our house. We are getting ready to sell. The amount of falling debris from old paint and masonry landing on my precious personal items and soft furnishings has me a little anxious. It’s a total bomb site, I yell at my husband, metaphorically speaking. Someone to blame for disturbing the status quo.
A few months ago, weeks ago, even mere days ago, you would have laughed at me for having conniptions over such a minor event. You don’t know bomb sites! you would chuckle and tease, before offering some sage advice about getting through it and being nice to my husband. You are forgiving and thoughtful and you find humour in the mundane and the extraordinary. Some of you would probably also offer some practical advice about masonry and paint I’m sure – you are always so resourceful. You find humour because it’s all you can do to keep on hoping.
You are not laughing now.
Yours are the real bomb sites and the real reverberations of bombs and the real colour blazes of bombs lighting up your night sky.
What’s the point of a metaphor when it diminishes the horror you endure? How flippantly we use such a term.
When our painting blitz started, we didn’t realise it would be so disruptive to our ordinary lives. There was too much dust and drop sheets covering furniture to allow us to sleep in our beds. We jumped online, booked a hotel apartment, packed our wallets and some clothes and our toothbrushes and a few children’s books and toys. We quickly evacuated, metaphorically speaking.
Yours are the real evacuations of war, with Palestinian police escorts and sounds of horror all around and no time to pack your child’s comfort blanket or your wedding photos, time only to check the ID cards are in your pockets where you put them to keep them close. You evacuate to seek less dangerous places – the Red Cross hospitals, the United Nations schools.
There are no less dangerous places, are there? There is no safe place, you tell me.
And yet we message you stay safe and it sounds trite. And we keep on messaging are you safe? and willing you to respond because it’s all we can do and all we can say to know you are still with us.
Our painters and plasterers will take care that they do not disturb asbestos. If it’s there, they will put on protective equipment and they will be shielded from harm to their throats and their lungs.
Yours is the real dust of war, of chemicals, of remnants of war, of asbestos in shelled houses. Your emergency health teams will be entering collapsed homes to pull out survivors or corpses, only to expose your paramedics to the dust of poisons. You will do it with courage and with compassion because you care about your neighbours and you care about your people and you will try to save their lives or be with them as they take their final breaths.
Later, you will reconstruct from the rubble, salvaging what stones you can, and your builders will inhale the fibres that cause terminal cancer. You’ve been here before, though not quite as bad, in the last war, and the one before that.
My family and I are living in a temporary shelter, metaphorically speaking. I look out across the roof of our hardware superstore where you can get just about anything for your house renovation. When I visited you in Gaza last year, you told me about the last war. About how it was taking forever to rebuild the hospital that had been bombed – all seven storeys of it – because you couldn’t get the construction materials and the medical equipment you needed through the borders. It takes two years to coordinate bringing in an elevator for the hospital, you said. It takes three years to coordinate bringing in oxygen pumps for the patients, you said.
When I visited you in Gaza last year, you asked me to bring in a new shower head for you, to replace your old one that only dripped a little water. Now, your showers are falling. Your water is toxic and your electricity has gone.
Last year when I saw you, the coronavirus pandemic was just getting going. Your kids skipped down the street after me, a foreigner, giggling and shouting, Corona Corona! You laughed that there was no way coronavirus would get to you, you, living in your large outdoor prison with gates and sophisticated surveillance. And later we had a zoom call and you told me my hair looked nice up and your children were jumping on your couch with delight that the school had closed and we shared a moment of commiseration with rolled eyes about the home schooling we were about to start.
Now, your children aren’t skipping or jumping, they are running. They are screaming, and when they aren’t screaming, they are covering their ears as they try to sleep huddled together in single rooms on ground floors, away from the windows, slightly open, to avoid being cut with the shards of exploding glass. Or they aren’t laughing or screaming or skipping or running, because they are dead.
Thirty-two children, thirty-nine children, forty-one children dead.
Your wives and your fathers and your husbands and your mothers haven’t slept in days. Their laughter has turned to cries, and their cries have turned to silence, because they are fainting in your homes with the most intense anxiety and lack of sleep. The lucky ones, lucky to still be alive.
I waited for your celebratory Eid messages this week. You send them to me via WhatsApp or Facebook messenger and they sing and jingle with cups of tea or roses or love hearts. I wait for your messages and I feel connected to your joy, like the time we shared kanafeh and baklava and you proudly showed off your famous Gazan sweet shop.
Only this Eid, your festive messages didn’t come. You wrote to me, my dear friend Dr Mohammad Abu Rayya.
A child bought Eid clothes but wore a shroud instead
A girl prepared her white dress for her wedding day after the Eid, but she ran away and tore the dress under the rubble
A mother promised her children she would make Eid cakes for them, but God’s promise was closer
A father changed his kit with tears in his children’s gazes
Every house that has pain and perfume is a martyr
Eid Mubarak to you.
When I visited you in Gaza last year, I took away with me this motto from you – Always find time for the things that make you feel happy to be alive.
You are inventive and quick-witted and find happiness in small things because you have had to rebuild over and over. This time, you are wondering if rebuilding will even be possible. I do not hear witticism in your voices, your humour has gone. This time, you are wondering whether it’s even possible to stay alive. You tell me you are waiting for something that you do not know.
This time is worse, you tell me. There are no breaks between shelling, no pauses to allow you to drift to sleep as you rest in your shoes ready to run. It is all too violent, too frightening, beyond frightening, you tell me. Is there even a word for that? You are men and women with doctor degrees and PhDs, trained in prestigious universities from Cairo to Berlin to Oxford, you are physiotherapists and nurses and engineers and academics and teachers, you are poets, you are interpreters and translators, you are my taxi driver. This time, it is too much for you to console your children without the fear of death in your own hearts and grief-stricken faces. You are human, after all, and this is no metaphor.
Please stay alive to continue to do the things that make you feel happy, that make us happy, us, your friends.
I am not Palestinian. I cannot begin to imagine your horrors. This is your story, not mine, these are your words, not mine. But I write to share the words you have urged me to tell so that others may hear them too.
Photo above: Palestinians inspect the damage caused by an Israeli air strike in the town of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 12, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib