Martin Fletcher article-interview Najwa Sheikh Ahmed Times in London
Najwa Sheikh Ahmed, 36, lives in the Gaza Strip with her husband Taher, and their four young children – Mustafa, 8, Ahmed, 7, Salma 2 and Mohammed, five months. Here she talks about her family’s daily battle for survival in Nusierat Camp:
Day 19 of the Israeli war against Gaza, and it seems like life has stopped. We can’t go to work.
Our children can’t go to school. It’s not safe to go to the markets. Nothing is normal any more. All the time we hear the Israel war machine. There are always F16s and Apache helicopters in the sky… Each night we go to sleep not knowing if we will see tomorrow.
We used to live in our flat near the beach. We could see the sea and the waves. It was a source of peace. But after the war started and Israeli warships started firing shells at Gaza our kids refused to stay there any more … Mustafa would start to shake and ask questions – ‘What if they hit our house? What if they kill us?’. Ahmed freezes. He turns pale and stops talking and takes ages to complete each word. Salma cries and screams.
Ten days ago we moved to my in-laws’ home two kilometres away because it is on the ground floor of a building and surrounded by other houses and narrow alleyways and we thought it would be safer.
We found one of my sisters-in-law already there with her four children because their house at al-Buraij camp was damaged by the shelling of a nearby mosque. So there are three families – seven adults and 11 young children – crowded into a house with two rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen that is so tiny there is only space for two people. We have to queue for the bathroom. For the first three days we had no water.
The house gets no sun. Our husbands go out but the mothers and children stay indoors except during the three-hour truce each day when we rush out to get food and anything else we need, but even then we can hear shelling. Sometimes we go back to check on the flat. On our last visit Ahmed took out all his toys. When I asked him why, he said: ‘I want to remember everything that I have. I want to keep everything in my mind’. It breaks my heart to leave again. One day we found a family from another camp trying to move into the building because they thought it was safer. Nobody knows where to go any more.
Even if you can find flour for bread, it is too expensive now … The price of everything is triple what it was. There is no meat, no chicken. We live off potatoes and other vegetables grown in Gaza. When you ask my children what they want most they say a banana or an apple but those are things they can only dream of. Most people here depend on aid from outside Gaza but little is reaching us. The clinics are open but there are very few medicines.
Sometimes we get electricity four hours a day, sometimes not at all. Sometimes we get electricity but no water, sometimes water but no electricity. We have learnt to cook on wood. The telephones don’t work. I cannot communicate with my own relatives and friends and fear for their safety. Everyone swaps stories about the war and people killed or homes destroyed.We worry a lot about our children. They don’t talk about their favourite toys or games or television shows. In the street they play Israelis and Palestinians and shoot at each other. Their friends tell them stories about Israeli planes dropping white stuff that explodes when you pick it up. A few days ago Mustafa rushed home to say Israeli tanks were outside the camp and asking whether the soldiers would start killing the families and their children – I tried to calm him but I was so terrified I couldn’t speak. At night the children dream of being shot or killed by Israelis. Salma has started wetting herself again.
We try to keep the children occupied. We play games or put on music for dancing to stop the noise of the war. We tell them stories, or make them tell us stories to forget about the violence but sometimes they start telling us about the Israelis so we stop them. They’ve lost their childhood, and I don’t think they’ll ever be able to get it back or forget what they’ve seen.
The nights are the worst. Allah created the nights so people can sleep, and rest their bodies and souls, but the continuous bombing, the sound of the warplanes, our fears and worries do not let us sleep. The destruction, the families buried under rubble, the children killed in their homes that we hear about on the television or radio become our nightmares.
Sometimes the explosions wake the children up. We tell them they’re safe. We tell them the explosions are far away in Gaza City even if they’re not. But the sound of the artillery shells is soft compared to the F16s. When you hear them in the sky you know there will be a big hit. In seconds there is a big bang that stays in our ears and a blast of hot air. The windows crack, the walls shake and we feel that it is the end of our lives. Two nights ago a missile hit a house near by and you can’t imagine how loud the noise was. Our walls shook and the windows were blown open. The kids started screaming.
We all sleep in one room on the floor – nowadays in Gaza we joke that husbands and wives live like brothers and sisters. Sometimes I wake up in the night and look at my children. I want to see them grow up. I want Mustafa and Ahmed to grow into nice handsome men and to choose them wives and to see their children born. I want to see Salma become a beautiful lady, and to have mother-and-daughter talks. It’s very difficult to think that at any moment I could lose one of them or they could lose their mother.
I want to live a normal and peaceful life with them but I don’t even know if we will survive to see the morning.
January 15, 2009 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article5519457.ece From Najwa Sheikh Ahmed, Nusierat Camp, Gaza Strip. Najwa Sheikh’s blog: http://www.najwa.tk/