The site on which Gaza City’s Rimal neighbourhood stands was in ancient times known as Maiuma, which was given the status of a city by a royal decree from Constantine the Great. After thriving for thousands of years, Rimal was on Thursday reduced to rubble after four days of relentless Israeli airstrikes.
Suzan Barzak, 37 and a teacher of mathematics at The American International School in Gaza, was born in the city and called Mustafa Hafeth Street in southern Rimal her home. She and her family lived in an apartment building next to the Islamic University of Gaza.
Four families, all related, shared different floors of the building but soon after the Hamas group unleashed its terror on Israeli streets with a sensational land-sea-air assault on Saturday and the subsequent promise of retaliation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ms Barzak and other residents of the building decided to stay together in the first-floor for safety.
Speaking to String Reveals from Gaza City, while struggling to save her phone battery, she describes a living nightmare.
“We had enough food, water, and power for the first two days, but our biggest challenge was dealing with our traumatised children,” Ms Barzak told String Reveals. “They were constantly crying, refusing to eat, and asking us difficult questions like, ‘Why were we born here? Why can’t we live abroad? Why does the Israeli army want to kill us? Are we going to die tonight? What should I do if I’m stuck under the rubble? Is someone going to find me before I die? If something happens to you and dad, where will I live?'”
The Bombings Begin
On Sunday morning, an airstrike targeted a charity organisation directly behind the building. The building was partially destroyed, but Ms Barzak and the others knew it was time to leave.
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“That afternoon, we received three phone calls from the Israeli Defense Army, ordering us to evacuate our building immediately and go to a place at least one kilometer away from the Islamic University, either north or south. We packed our bags and left everything else behind. We evacuated with our relatives who lived one block away from us to our uncle’s house in the Gaza City centre,” Ms Barzak said.
On their way to their uncle’s house, Ms Barzak, her husband Hazem, a lawyer with the International Commission For Human Rights (ICHR), 12-year-old son Karim and their relatives witnessed the true scale of the devastation. With people fleeing in all directions, the sound of bombs going off and Israeli jets flying overhead, there was no place that felt safe.
The Barzaks arrived at their uncle’s house but the following morning, the brutal airstrikes began. The families huddled together in one room, listening to the sound of bombs exploding and buildings collapsing in what was a “12-hour nightmare”.
“Two of my family members went out to bring some food supplies and check on our homes. When they returned, they were silent for a while. They didn’t want to tell us what they had seen. But eventually, they told us that downtown had been hit by an earthquake,” Ms Barzak said.
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“We burst into tears. We had heard stories about the destruction in downtown Gaza, but we weren’t prepared for the reality. Our neighbours, relatives, and friends’ houses, stores, businesses, and entire blocks had been completely destroyed. Our own building had been partially destroyed as well.”
‘We Are All Broken’
The relentless Israeli airstrikes mark the most intense aerial bombardment of Gaza in recent years, in response to Hamas’ deadliest attack on Israel in decades on Saturday.
“Everyone had a reason to cry. My son lost his pets, my nieces lost their friends, my nephew lost six of his friends, my cousins and friends became homeless, and lost their families. We are all broken,” she said.
The once-thriving downtown Gaza now lies in ruins, a vast expanse of rubble where once stood educational, health, civic, commercial, and governmental institutions.
Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas after its attack left 1,200 Israelis dead in its wake. Six days since the Hamas onslaught, it continues to bombard the densely populated Gaza Strip with artillery shells and airstrikes, preparing for the possibility of a ground invasion.
To augment the combined might of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Israeli Air Force (IAF), 3 lakh reservists have also joined Prime Minister Netanyahu’s quest to pulverise the 362-square-kilometre sliver of land that the Gazans call home.
The Gaza Strip is without electricity after its only power plant ran out of fuel and was forced to shut down.
“We have no power and no water. We are using cellular data, but it is barely enough to allow us to use WhatsApp. We can still get groceries from a mini-market nearby, but that is all. No NGOs or United Nations have reached out to us, and there is no local services number to call in times of emergency. It is simply a ghost town around,” Ms Barzak said.
The Palestinians, and the wider Arab world, have a word for catastrophe called “Nakba” which they use to refer to the 1948 exodus that uprooted 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, in what was one of the biggest refugee crises of all time. The Israeli bombardment has been so relentless and so devastating, Gazans fear the second “Nakba” is already upon them.
“I am a mother, and I am narrating this story to beg the world to help us. My children are innocent, and they deserve to live in peace. Please, help us,” Ms Barzak told String Reveals.
Over 423,000 Gazans have been displaced from their homes due to Israeli airstrikes, the United Nations estimates. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, by late Thursday, the number of people displaced in Gaza had increased by 84,444, reaching a total of 423,378.
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Over 270,000 people who have been forced to flee their homes in Gaza are now living in UNRWA schools, making up two-thirds of the total number of displaced people. Another 27,000 people displaced by the violence in Gaza sought shelter in Palestinian Authority schools, while over 153,000 found refuge with relatives, neighbors, and in other public buildings.
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