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As a Journalist In Gaza, All I Can Do Is Write the Stories of the Dead

All around us our loved ones are being killed, leaving behind only memories. Here are just three of their stories.

A Palestinian holds the body of a child wrapped in a shroud as another stands next to him, outside a hospital following Israel's bombardment of Gaza City's eastern suburb of Shujaiya, on November 4, 2023.

I had no idea that the people I have known and worked with over my years of writing people’s stories would one day become stories of their own. I wish I didn’t have to write them now, but they should not remain a mere memory of a person snuffed out by the Israeli war machine.

During the first two weeks of the war, I refrained from going on social media — going through my feed was like walking through a minefield. As I continued to scroll, I would see yet another person with whom I worked in the past or with whom I have had both passing and intimate friendships.

As I continued to scroll, I would see friends posting pictures of their friends, and I would know without even reading the accompanying text what those pictures meant.

Now, however, after almost a month since the start of the war, I make a point of looking through social media — not to know who has died, but to check in on which of my friends was still alive. After the massive increase in the number of deaths, which continues to climb every minute, I’ve taken to contemplating and focusing on the details of every person around me, wanting to take them all in, to sear their faces into my memory before I lose them — because I am now certain that the Israelis are going to exterminate a massive number of people, including people I grew up with. All of them are friends. All of them are family.

As for the friends I’m going to be speaking about in this story, it doesn’t matter to me when and where and how they were killed. All that matters is that they were my friends, and that I shared beautiful moments with them. Now they’re gone, for no sin other than being civilian residents of the Gaza Strip. Many of them were sheltering in their homes, killed alongside their families.

The Dreamer

Mahmoud al-Na’ouk was a young man in his 20s with all the ambitions and aspirations that are to be expected of a person his age. We worked together at the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor. I was working as their Arabic-language editor in 2017, while he was their English translator. English was also my specialty, and I would write at the time for international publications like Middle East Eye. He always liked the human stories I wrote and would often drop by my office to discuss them with me and learn something about journalistic writing.

Mahmoud was a dreamer who loved life. His eyes always looked to the future. He would never hesitate to help anyone nor to jump at the opportunity of learning something new. During my few months of working at Euro-Med, we would have breakfast together alongside our other colleagues, trading stories and hopes for the future. Mahmoud was the closest person to me at the office, and our work would often overlap because he would always be eager to know more about my stories. He was still a beginner translator and thought I would be able to help him out in refining his craft. I helped him where I could, providing him with several books and referring him to sites, and he was always extremely grateful.

During this year, Mahmoud traveled outside of Gaza for the first time in his life. It was a work trip to Malaysia with Euro-Med, and I would often call him and ask him about what life was like outside of the Gaza Strip. Yet despite all of the beautiful things that he saw, he always insisted that life in Gaza was unlike any other, and his return home was unavoidable.

Mahmoud, full of life and energy, reaped the rewards of his hard work recently by receiving a scholarship for a master’s degree in Australia. After returning from Malaysia, he was already planning his trip. But he never made it.

Mahmoud was killed in an Israeli airstrike alongside 21 of his family members, including his parents and siblings. Mahmoud deserved everything good in this world, but what he got was something different. Perhaps he has ascended to paradise as an innocent and blameless martyr.

The Journalist

Rushdie Sarraj was a journalist and co-founder of a media group in Gaza called Ain Media. I first met Rushdie a little over two years ago when I visited him in his office, where he was preparing a number of visuals in English and Arabic for a project. I needed his help in preparing a few videos for some journalistic features I was working on, and had searched all over Gaza for someone who would be able to produce a professional-quality video, until I was eventually led to Rushdie. When he knew that I work with English-language news agencies and that I wrote stories about Gaza’s oppressed and downtrodden and wanted to capture their stories on video, he expressed an enthusiasm I had scarcely ever seen before. He almost regarded me with pride and made me feel that we were part of the same struggle to make the voices of our people heard.

During our first meeting, we talked a lot about how to convey the suffering of the people of Gaza, how to make other people understand what they were going through — people who had no notion about what life was like in this besieged coastal strip. Rushdie was perceptive beyond his years, and his dreams and aspirations could not even be contained by Gaza’s skies. Professional awards lined the shelves in his office, including international awards for several films that he produced.

After our first meeting, Rushdie became my main reference for work due to his extensive networks and impressive range of knowledge. Whenever I needed the number of an official, a farmer, or a worker for an interview, he would always provide me with a contact without hesitation — because he always helped whoever came knocking on his door.

I ran into Rushdie often in the field, especially at the Gaza border fence, when we covered the protests of the Great March of Return and the subsequent protests that returned to the border again and again in the years that followed. Along the way, Rushdie lost friends of his own. He was a close friend of the martyred journalist Yasser Murtaja, who was Ain Media’s other co-founder.

Days before he was killed, Rushdie wrote on Facebook that he would not leave his homeland. Not to Egypt, not to the Sinai, nowhere. If he were forced to leave, he would only go to one other place: heaven.

That turned out to be his fate, following his dear friend Yasser and the dozens of fellow journalists who were martyred during this invasion.

Rushdie was killed in his home with his family, not in the field. He was survived by only a few of his family members.

The Vendor

Ismaeel Barda was a simple street vendor. He was married and had three daughters and a son. All of them were killed in an airstrike as they fled with thousands of Gazans who were ordered to evacuate the north and head southward. Ismaeel’s family was in the refugee convoy that Israel targeted before they could find safety.

Ismaeel sold cheap toys and sweets on the street in front of his house, and he has been selling them since I was a child. I would often drop by Ismaeel’s stall on my way to school and buy treats from him whenever I had pocket money to spare.

After several years of struggling to make a living, Ismaeel was finally able to find a government job in Gaza. It was a civil post unrelated to the resistance — and it should also bear mentioning that Ismaeel has no ties to the resistance, not for any particular reason, but because his body was never made for fighting.

He would always sit at the entrance of his home with his children. He and many others in the neighborhood would gather there during power cuts, escaping the oppressive summer heat of their homes that had no electricity. I would see him there every day whenever I left my house or came back.

Despite his government job, Ismaeel always made a point of saying that he had nothing to do with the government and that, in fact, he did not support or like it. He was forced to take the job to make a stable, dignified living for his family.

And even if, in spite of all this, the occupation saw him guilty because he had the audacity to make a living for his family, then it appears it also decided that his children and wife were equally guilty. It had no problem in passing the sentence.

Ismaeel and his family were killed, and a few days later, their entire neighborhood was completely wiped out, my own home among them.

This is the kind of life we’re living now. Everyone we know is dying, and no one knows who will be next. Every missile and airstrike we hear is another person gone, another friend or family member or fellow traveler erased from the civil registry. The only sin we’re guilty of is that we were born here. We are not Hamas, and we do not represent them. We are not a party to the acts that Israel has decided we are guilty of.

But, like it or not, this is the life we lead. We die together, have our families wiped out, and loved ones taken away from us as we wait for our turn.

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