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Atef Abu Saif: The Children Have Barely Slept

July 31, 2014

Dispatch from Gaza: Day-to-day life continues even in a war zone, but sleep does not.

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Image from Flickr via Al Jazeera English

By Atef Abu Saif

I don’t know how many hours I’ve wasted watching my nineteen month-old girl, Jaffa, sleeping, drifting among the clouds of her dreams; the occasional movement of a limb, the faint smile dancing on her lips. This used to be my favorite moment of the day. But now, looking at children and thinking they could be dead in a minute’s time, they could be transformed into one of those images on the TV, it’s too much to bear. The cruel images from that day when a house in the neighborhood was struck by an F-16 or a drone, or the images that various media outlets have posted online, or those described in vivid detail by a friend who happened to be an eye witness, all these images deny me the pleasure of seeing my kids sleeping peacefully. This used to be one my greatest pleasures.

The children have barely slept in days. Sometimes a couple of hours is enough, especially when what sleep you get is going to be stretched thin with anxiety anyway. Anxiety plays like a lightning storm behind your eyelids whenever you close them, and only when that stops do your hands start to relax. Only then does sleep start to gather, slowly, around you, like a gentle whirlwind, circling you and your loved ones.

I open a window; it’s good to feel fresh air on your face. Important to have a break from staring at the ceiling all the time, or from looking directly into the eyes of your loved ones, seeing the fear in them.

Instead, over the last few nights, I’ve wanted to wake my children up. I can’t bear them being so quiet. When they’re awake, playing, shouting, creating imaginary worlds of their own, they help me deal with my own helplessness. Their noise, the fuss they make, their shouting and running around the flat; all of it makes life a little easier for me. They upstage the sounds of the terrible world outside.

Tonight they will fall asleep quickly, I’m sure of it. The lack of sleep from the night before weighs heavily on them. There’s no electricity. The only light to disturb them is the faint glow of my flashlight. You can hardly see the face of the person across from you, it’s so dark. A few days ago we set down mattresses and bedding in the corridor that runs through the middle of our building, the furthest room from the outside wall. We figure it’s the safest place in the building. I close the door behind them. Tonight, I think, they’ll drop off quickly.

Back in the living room, I open a window; it’s good to feel fresh air on your face. Important to have a break from staring at the ceiling all the time, or from looking directly into the eyes of your loved ones, seeing the fear in them.

It slowly dawns on us, sitting there, that the rest of building is completely empty.

My wife, Hanna and I sit on the blue sofa and stare into the darkness. No light, no details of the world outside the window. Only blackness and the dark outline of the buildings across the street. There is something resembling a world out there, in all that darkness.

It slowly dawns on us, sitting there, that the rest of building is completely empty. Hanna is the first to have noticed it: the people in the flat across the corridor left that morning. Om Noor phoned Hanna that evening saying she had moved to her father’s house in the Al Rimal Quarter. But now she realizes she hasn’t heard a sound from the flat above either. Nor has she heard the heels of the lady who lives down the corridor. We start to retrace the events and sounds and movements of the day, to reinterpret them. It leads to one conclusion: we are the sole occupants of the building, and the building; our home for the last three and a half years; is not safe.

People look to anything that makes them feel safer, anything that props up their world a bit longer, before the inevitable collapse. Our fates are all in the hands of a drone operator in a military base somewhere just over the Israeli border.

The gravity of apparent safety is pulling everyone in the Strip closer and closer to the center. We shouldn’t be near the border to the East, or the North. We shouldn’t be near the beach. We shouldn’t be near any government headquarters, either. This leaves us with just one option; the already densely overcrowded Jabaliya Camp, where my family and Hannah’s family both come from. There’s no beating Hannah’s logic.

People look to anything that makes them feel safer, anything that props up their world a bit longer, before the inevitable collapse. Our fates are all in the hands of a drone operator in a military base somewhere just over the Israeli border. I imagine the operator looks at Gaza the way an unruly boy looks at the screen of a video game. He presses a button and might destroy an entire street. He might decide to terminate the life of someone walking along a pavement, or he might uproot a tree in an orchard that hasn’t yet borne fruit. The operator practices his aim at his own discretion, energized by the trust and power that has been put in his hands by his superiors.

This is how I imagine Gaza looks on the computer screen, through a thousand images captured by a drone and relayed back to his computer, perhaps a laptop on a desk. The images might include any particular detail. One of them could be of Hanna and I sitting on the blue sofa in our flat staring into the darkness. Or, through a window I somehow missed, of our children sleeping in the corridor. It must be quite entertaining for those soldiers, sitting at their computer screens; it must feel like the best video game ever. I imagine they draw lots to see who has first go.

The drone keeps us company all night long. Its whirring, whirring, whirring, whirring is just incessant, as if it wants to remind us it’s there, it’s not going anywhere, it hangs just a little way above our heads.

Fear and anxiety eat with us. The unknown eats with us. The F-16 eats with us. The drone, and its operator somewhere out in Israel, eat with us.

We prepare the dawn food (this is the meal Muslims eat before sunrise during the fast; roughly 3 am this year). We set the food out in the middle of the living room, in complete darkness. Only night surrounded by more night. I turn the flashlight on; its weak light fails to hold back very much of the darkness, but it resists nonetheless.

The food is ready. I wake the kids and bring them in. We all sit around five dishes: white cheese, hummus, orange jam, yellow cheese, and olives. Darkness eats with us. Fear and anxiety eat with us. The unknown eats with us. The F-16 eats with us. The drone, and its operator somewhere out in Israel, eat with us.

Our hands shiver, our eyes stare at the plates on the floor. The dawn prayers leak into the room from a mosque somewhere out in the darkness, and suddenly we remember our hunger, all at once, diving into the delicious, merciful food.

Atef Abu Saif is a Palestinian author who lives in Gaza.

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3 comments for Atef Abu Saif: The Children Have Barely Slept

  1. Comment by Fred Skolnik on July 31, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    Dear Atef Abu Saif

    I am truly sorry for what you and your family are enduring in Gaza and my heart goes out to you. I think most Israelis sympathize with your situation, do not feel any animosity toward you and only wish you well. Israel is not at war with the Palestinian people. It is at war with a terrorist army that has attacked its civilian population with relentless barrages of rockets whose number has now passed the 1,000 mark. It has also used around 40% of Gaza’s total budget in the last 4 years to build a network of tunnels in the direction of Israeli settlements for the sole purpose of murdering Israeli civilians. Without Hamas you can have a real life. I do not envy you. I know what they are.

    With best wishes

    Fred Skolnik
    Jerusalem

  2. Comment by Trisha Johnson on August 5, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Dear Atef Abu Saif. I read your article Gaza: A Wartime Dairy with a very heavy heart and feeling of uselessness! How can this be happening? The plight of the Palestinian people is appalling. Please know there are many, many people thinking of you all. I do not understand how the Israelis can wage war in this way. Hamas has built a series of tunnels to use against them, so they should deal with the tunnels without blowing up innocent civilians. I heard on the news the US is to give another 3 billion dollars to Israel for new weapons!! Unfortunately, people in the US are brain washed when it comes to Israel. My husband and I squirm when we listen to the rhetoric of Netanyahu, all designed to stir up support for Israel. For years now it has been “Israeli soldiers and Palestinian terrorists”! but in a war, both sides are soldiers. I wish we could all come over and rebuild your neighborhoods. With best wishes. Trisha Johnson. USA

  3. Comment by David Israel on December 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    There was only one reason for the war in Gaza this past summer:
    The relentless and unending pounding of Palestinian missiles on civilian Israeli towns and villages, constantly seeking to “score” kills, persistently and ruthlessly aiming at the women, the children and the elderly.
    All this following the historic unilateral evacuation of the Gaza strip by Israel,
    a brave and unparalleled move that involved uprooting thousands of Israelis from settlements that had occupied for almost 40 years. Most of the uprooted population was born in the Gaza strip.
    For them, the Gaza strip was home – even more so than for the many Palestinians who had moved there from elsewhere.

    Personally I had been against the evacuation.
    I did not believe any good would come out of it.
    Muslim Palestinians are not fighting Israel, they are not fighting for independence.
    They are fighting the “infidels,” such as you, Trish, and your husband, naive Americans with your heads stuck deep in the sand.
    They are fighting a Jihad for worldwide domination.
    Israel is but one small battle in their quest to either have us all convert to Islam – or else beheaded like sheep led to slaughter.

    More than 10,000 missiles rained down on civilian Israeli population centers since the unilateral evacuation.
    Gaza had received enough international support to become a thriving global metropolis.
    Instead it lies in shambles.

    As a great man once said, the Palestinians had never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

    Atef Abu Saif, I am sorry for your predicament.
    You need to rise up and overthrow Hamas and all Islamic radicals – then you shall be free.

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