Name: Issam Sammour (34)
Location: Khan Younis
Profession: aid worker, human rights activits, photographer
Languages: English, Arabic
Issam describes his experiences and impressions in the Gaza Strip day by day. He also photographs the impact and destruction left behind by Israeli airstrikes and artillery shelling on Khuzza and Bani Suhila, east of Khan Younis.
My brother Hamada, who is 22 years old, came to me and said, “Issam, it’s Friday. Will we go to Friday prayer at the mosque?” I was shocked to realise I had forgotten which day it was. I said, “But you see the number of warplanes, and you have heard the heavy shelling.” He smiled, “Don’t be scared, man. It’s just one life. If they hit us with a missile, at least we will die together.” This gave me mixed feelings. l was a bit hesitant, wondering if it was a good time to move or not. I told myself, “Be brave, Issam.”
I changed my clothes and we left the house together, talking about the war and wondering when it would be over. There was no one on the street which made me nervous. The distance between my home and the mosque is about seven minutes’ walk, but the rising panic meant that every single moment I expected an airstrike to kill us. Eventually, we arrived safely. We felt comforted as we performed the Friday prayer and we went back to our home.
There is no electricity at home which is a nightmare. The clock moves slowly. We want to know what’s happening around us. We hear bombing and ambulance sirens heading in every direction, but can’t determine which places are under fire without access to the Internet. Meanwhile, every time I close my eyes, I see the four Abu Bakr children who were killed while playing football on Gaza Beach. The image of their little bodies, torn apart by shells, is seared into my memory.
I opened my eyes. My heart was heavy. My youngest brother, in a loud voice, announced that the power was back on. I shook myself and began to check my messages on Internet and try to catch up with the latest news. I contacted my friends to ask about their safety and find out if anyone had been killed or injured. I read on Twitter that a family home was hit in the Middle Area and one person was killed. Later, I discovered that the man was one of our relatives.
We had just broken our fast when missiles began falling nearby, causing large explosions. I received a call from a friend of mine to tell me that one of my mother’s relatives had been killed in an Israeli airstrike. I didn’t know how to tell my mother. I was so worried about how she would react that I decided to tell her only after I had discussed it with my two brothers.
It was after 9pm and there was bombing everywhere. We were afraid she would lose her mind when we told her. The last thing she expected was for her sons to come to her and say, “Mama, Mohammed was killed in an Israeli attack.” When I told her, she started screaming and crying, and searching for her phone to try to contact anyone she could reach to confirm the news. She finally spoke to my aunt who told her it was true. My mother’s tears fell like drops of rain on her face. I sat down beside her and said, “Mama, please pray for him. Stay strong.”
At 6am, my mother told me she was going to the funeral, her eyes full of sadness. She asked me to feed the birds on the roof. The problem is how to get up on the roof with Israeli warplanes hovering overhead, scanning every single movement on the ground. 30 minutes later there was heavy shelling. Israeli forces invaded east of Khan Younis. The sound of bombing never stopped. My brother turned on the radio on his phone. One person was killed and several others were injured, all people from our extended family, who had gathered at the centre of our family home, not knowing what else to do. Ambulances were trying to reach the site to evacuate the injured but couldn’t due to the heavy shelling. Women and children were crying, not knowing who would be killed next. There is so much sadness. Death is all around us.
There was a massive explosion. I put my fingers in my ears. My house was shaking. We were three: my father, my friend, and I. Black smoke was rising, while shells were falling near our home, reducing some houses to rubble. We felt it was very close to us. I called my relative who lived near to the explosion and he said he couldn’t tell what was happening in the darkness. The electricity is off for 22 hrs a day. I heard chaos in the background: women and men screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’, brothers turning on their radio phones to listen to the news. I could hear ambulance sirens very close by so I realised that people had been injured. Two ambulances came to evacuate the bodies of my relatives. They had been killed in an airstrike as they were sitting in their garden. It was very hard for us to hear that some of our beloved ones had lost their lives.
With nonstop airstrikes on the Gaza Strip for more than two weeks, we cannot sleep. We spend all our time wondering if there will be a truce that can end this madness. I have mixed feelings: fear, panic, sometimes optimism. Our future is filled with black smoke. I went to the funeral and prayed the Al Jannaza prayer at the mosque. I saw many red faces with angry eyes. I saw the tears of some men, moments of such sadness.
When the random artillery shelling resumed, my youngest brother said to me, “Issam, I count the seconds and minutes, afraid they will kill me at any time. I’m just waiting to be murdered. I know I shouldn’t say this to you, but they are targeting everybody and no one is safe.” I spoke to him for some time and got him to calm down. He trusted me when I told him it would pass soon and that we would never lose our home.
In Gaza, you spend the whole day counting the deaths and injuries, following the news of humanitarian truces or potential ceasefire agreements. Last night was horrible; intensive bombardment killed around 100 people. At midday, warplanes dropped leaflets warning residents in the area east of Khan Younis to leave the main street, Salah El Dein. Families were so worried trying to think of where to go.
With angry eyes full of tears, my mother said, “Issam, I’m not moving from our house until I take my last breath.” I went to my father to ask him to convince her to move. I felt sure they would bomb us. Israeli forces were randomly firing artillery shells in the area and I knew people could easily be killed. She kept insisting with a big “NO!” I asked my aunt to put some pressure on my mother, to make her understand the impact of her decision.
In the end, my father spoke to me in clear words: “Why move from one unsafe place to another unsafe place. At least we can die in our homes and not on the street. You know that airstrikes have hit homes, hospitals, UNRWA shelters, and mosques. Nowhere is safe.” We agreed to stay at home until we heard news of a ceasefire agreement. Diplomacy talks had already begun at this point.
At 10pm, we went to sleep. Well, not to sleep, just to lie down. With such heavy bombing, sleep was impossible. The horror! My brother said there were more warplanes in the sky than stars. In every little space, it seemed there was a warplane hovering. In areas near the borders, there was nonstop artillery shelling. In the darkness, we could only hear the sounds of bombs, warplanes, and ambulance sirens.
At 5am, when the morning came, we decided not to stay in our home. My aunt went to prepare tea for us before she left. Suddenly, an airstrike hit a building very close to us. Shells fell on our home, and black smoke began to rise quickly. We ran to get our bags and rushed outside, shouting and screaming. Everybody was rushing in different directions in panic but I managed to call everyone back and get them to calm down. Luckily, there were two cars we could use: one belonging to my brother, and another belonging to a friend. 22 members of my family got into two cars which should normally only take 8, but at a moment like that you don’t think of such silly matters. The important thing is to run and escape from certain death.
We went to Khan Younis refugee camp where my friend lives. I had phoned him to ask him to search for an apartment for us, but it was mission impossible due to the huge numbers of people displaced from eastern Gaza. Some people were sleeping on the streets on cardboard boxes. My friend could only host a small group at his home. We divided into five groups, and each group went to a different corner of the city. We went to the market to bring back some bread and canned foods. There was a long line of displaced people waiting. The city centre was crowded with thousands of people lying on the ground, leaning against walls, shopping. There were very limited stocks in the market, and water was in especially short supply. I stood for two hours under the hot sun just to bring some bread for my family. My brothers were calling me, asking “How are you? How is everything? Please let me know if you hear any news of a ceasefire. We are all exhausted!”