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10 April 2024

My mother-in-law’s life ended as it began: in a Gazan refugee camp

The last time I saw her was when I left for Egypt. Now, I watch from afar as my family, friends and neighbours appear in the lists of the dead and injured.

By Atef Abu Saif

My mother-in-law died on 29 February in a tent in Rafah. The night before, my brother, Ibrahim, rang me to say she needed to be hospitalised. Over the previous two weeks, her skin seemed to have started to decompose and big, blood-red stains had spread over her body. Yet there is only one functioning hospital in Rafah these days, Abu Yousef al-Najjar. All our attempts to find her a place there failed. My father-in-law asked, through his tears: “What can we do?” My wife, Hanna, cried all night. It is impossible to express how helpless we felt, how powerless, how paralysed. It was not that nothing could be done, but that help could not be reached.

The next morning, she was throwing up almost constantly and fainting. Hanna tried to talk to her over the phone. All her mother said was: “I want to sleep, I want to sleep.” Ibrahim tried the hospital again. “She needs to be admitted into the intensive care unit,” the doctor said. But the ICU is overwhelmed with those injured by bombs and bullets and shells. Patients are treated while they lie on mattresses or on the bare floor outside the hospital, so overcrowded is it inside.

After she died, people emerged from their tents in the refugee camp in Tel es-Sultan to pay their respects. Her body was taken to a graveyard in Rafah, near the hospital where she was never treated, to be buried.

The crossing

The 76-year-old woman, who had been forced to evacuate her house in Jabalia, north of Gaza City, and move to the south three months ago, died in a tent. In some ways it was fitting. When she was less than a year old, her family was forced to flee their town, Majdal, now part of Ashkelon in Israel, to Gaza. She spent her first five years in a tent, and her last five weeks.

The last time I saw her was the morning I left for Egypt. She hugged Yasser, my son, and told him, “When the war ends, please come and visit.” The war never ended. She passed away. I still remember the weight of her when I lifted her out of her wheelchair while passing through the military crossing point to reach Rafah. She suffered greatly in that exodus: we had to keep moving, soldiers were screaming at us, threatening to shoot if we stopped. In places the way was unpassable and she had to be carried. The road was filthy, covered in mud, bodies and blood.

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Three weeks after we left our homes, her house was struck by an Israeli shell. I tried to tell her she should feel lucky that she wasn’t there. She nodded, saying: “None of us know when and where we’ll die.”

Family tree

Hanna asked Ibrahim to send a photo of her mother’s grave. This is all she has now. Almost no one is left of her family in Gaza, only her father. On the eighth day of the war, she lost her only sister, Huda, her brother-in-law, Hatem, and her two nephews in an airstrike that destroyed a four-storey building. The only survivors were 23-year-old Wissam, whose legs and right hand had to be amputated, and her sister Widdad. Now, the two are in Cairo. Wissam is in a hospital waiting for prosthetic limbs. Widdad has been sectioned; she had a breakdown the moment she got out of Gaza.

My father-in-law cried: “I know death is inevitable. Everyone has to die. But who is to keep me company now?” He was married for 55 years. Now, he is all alone.

From afar

I cannot allow myself to stop thinking about all those I left behind. To preserve them in my mind, I visualise the day I will return. When I passed through the Rafah border into Egypt in late December, my brother Ibrahim asked me: “Are you sure we’re going to see each other again?” I had to pretend I was absolutely sure. Since then, I’ve watched my homeland from afar; watched and shuddered as the names of my friends, neighbours and relatives appear in lists of the dead or injured. I drown in memories of them. I want to cry, to scream. The list grows the longer the war continues. At some point I will be left with no friends at all.

The truce

For weeks, the news coverage has been about the efforts being made towards a truce. After so long of such a modest hope, “truce” has become everyone’s favourite word, a cherished, idealistic, holy concept. It is such a meagre thing to hope for – a few days without killing. But even that is beyond us.

In situations like this, death is seen as a gift, a relief. To Hanna, her mother was lucky to be buried in a proper grave. This is what “lucky” looks like in Gaza. After a lifetime in tents – from Jabalia to Rafah – she has finally entered permanence: the house of God.

Atef Abu Saif is the author of “Don’t Look Left: A Diary of Genocide” (Comma Press)

[See also: The UK should stop sending arms to Israel]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward