Gaza Diaries: Life in a Land of Death, Through the Eyes of Mental Health Professionals

'Do we leave our house that we built with blood and sweat, one brick at a time?'

This two part series is written by mental health professionals affiliated with the United Palestinian Appeal – an organisation which works in devising socially responsible and sustainable programmes in health, education, and community and economic development for Palestinians. UPA is headquartered in Washington, DC, and works in the occupied Palestinian territories and refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon.

This is part one.

Story 1: October 23, 2023.

This is me, Yasmine!

On the seventeenth day of aggression on the Strip, we continue a long journey of looking for a safe place inside or outside our home. You see, after we received messages stressing that we leave our homes and head to the south, we believed that the south is truly the safe place! But after we headed south, we discovered for ourselves that there is really no safe place in Gaza!

We are targets for this fascist occupation wherever we were. We then decided to go back home, telling each other “We are dead, either way. Better to die in our homes, for at least then people would know we rose as martyrs. But outside our homes, we may die and nobody will know we passed.”

For this reason, we came back home. My husband, Mohammad, has been preoccupied with keeping me in the house. He wants to protect me from any danger that may hurt me. You see, Mohammad and I have a strong and special bond. With our love for each other, we had barely survived the loss of our baby Sofia, just a month before these attacks started. Sofia turned into an angel, days before her first birthday because the hospitals in Gaza did not have the proper equipment to care for a baby born pre-maturely. Our best was not enough to keep her alive.

Now, Mohammad wants to do all he can to keep me safe.

So he looked for a place he thought may be the least dangerous, and so he decided on under the stairs. He made me a safe “Staircase House” to protect me from any of the rockets of the brute occupation that could hit any time. I keep by me a bag with important papers and some money, and I have another bag with essential clothing, knowing very well that if an emergency happened and we had to leave suddenly, I will carry none of it! But simply having them next to me gives me a sense of safety. You know how they say “we have to secure ourselves”. I don’t know what to secure ourselves from in this case, with these bags, if we lost our homes or our families! Will any safety remain afterwards, anyway?!

I run to seek refuge in my safe staircase house every time I hear the sound of a falling missile, horrified that this may be the moment that would end our lives! Although I know very well that if any of these missiles fell on us, there will be no safe place, and even this little safe house of mine will disappear!

Yasmine Ayoub is a mental health practitioner at Gaza, who works at UPA.

Story 2: October 24, 2023

Our situation is terror of dying any minute. As much as possible, we portion food and water. Every day, there are long lines for food and drinking water. We don’t know when we feel the wrath of the airplanes as we are filling up our drinking water.

Fear and worry all around the clock, day and night. We barely sleep interrupted 3-4 hours, because the madness of the attacks escalates at night.

Our kids are terrified. My son is a year and a half old and he doesn’t get off his mom’s lap or mine, he doesn’t eat, he just wants to nurse.

In the midst of all these conditions, there’s big hope that things resolve in a minute. Every day we thank God that we still have life in us.

Roo7 is a mental health professional, anonymous for fear of being targeted.

Story 3: October 25, 2023

Wishing there was no night.

The worst time of the day in this savage war is when the sun starts setting, as if the night has been weaponized by the colonizer to instil fear and horror.

These are the nights of terror.

Total darkness.

No electricity.

Incessant trepidation.

Exaggerated sounds of explosions.

Fear for our kids is multiples of our fear for ourselves.

When we have the chance to follow the news or see the martyrs, especially the children, we are overtaken by an overwhelming sense of fear that shakes us to the core.

Only excessive fear and cumulative exhaustion can put the kids to sleep. We thank God when they sleep, even if from fear and exhaustion, so they don’t wake to some of the terrifying sounds of shelling.

Us adults push each other on with prayers, praise, and wishes that we are not the next target.

Hours of the night are slow and motionless. We pray to God that we see another morning in a new life… although daylight is no less dangerous, but we find solace in the company of people around us who remained alive. The occupiers transformed the night that God made for rest and contentment to an unwanted visitor of daily terror.

Our wives keep themselves busy by preparing food and caring for the children as much as they can. And us husbands leave the house holding our souls in our hands to make available whatever we can find of basic necessities. I don’t know wether I will return with water for my family or wether my blood will water the earth beneath me. I don’t know if I will come back to find my family alive and well or under the rubble. And if I am destined to return to my beloved wife, I support her as much as possible. Oh how I missed talking to her about the children and my problems at work! Now our conversations are about listening and supporting (considering emergency plans – problem-solving solutions for water shortage – arranging for general daily challenges and so on). We hold on to dear life with all what is left of our strength for the sake of a better tomorrow.

We console each other that we are still alive and that hope is enough to hold us until tomorrow. All for tomorrow. A tomorrow we pray would be better than yesterday’s tomorrow.

Roo7 is a mental health professional, anonymous for fear of being targeted.

Destroyed buildings in Gaza. Photo: X/@UNRWA

Story 4: October 26, 2023

This war is not like any previous war, at least not for me. Wars and aggressions are typical for us. Never did we know peace or security. In the thirty years of my life, I was always known for my strength and tenacity in difficult times. I was always the wise and dependable one in the family, especially caring for my ill mother. But this time is not like every other time.

I look after my mother and nephew, who had come to visit and spend some time with his grandmother and aunt (me). On the thirteenth of October, I was sitting with my mother in the corner we deemed to be the safest in the house. Suddenly, we heard the sounds of people screaming and learned at the time that they forced the evacuation of a building nearby because the Israelis were about to bomb it. I couldn’t but yell to my mom and nephew that they will bomb! I don’t know how I picked up the bags I previously prepared, with some of my important papers, pictures of my deceased father (may his soul RIP), and some clothes. I made sure my mom and nephew were ahead of me and we quickly ran down the stairs yelling as loud as we could to warn our neighbours “EVACUATION… EVACUATION…”

At the entrance of our building, our screams met those of my brother’s wife and his two daughters. I looked everywhere around me and could not find my brother. I felt my heart beat in super speed and I got in the car with my mom and nieces. My 6- and 10-year-old nieces were crying hysterically. Then I drove the car outside the parking as I was shouting my brother’s name , “FIND ME MY BROTHER!!”

With all these souls being my responsibility now, I had to drive to a place somewhat away from the shelling. My mom was trying hard to get the phone out to call my brother, but her hands were shaking so hard from shock and terror that she couldn’t call. I remember well how I climbed over the sidewalk , completely overwhelmed with my fear and worry about my brother, about whom I knew nothing. Finally, I stopped the car, picked up the phone, and called my brother, who finally answered. As soon as he answered, I broke into tears as I was terrified something horrible had befallen him! He told me he was going around knocking at the neighbors’ houses to evacuate.

Between my sadness and worries, feelings of pride and gratitude arose because I have a brother who chose to save the lives of others before his own…

I hung up the phone and then looked to the back and saw my nieces crying. I will never forget the sight of my 6-year-old neice who could barely breathe as she looked at me fearful and shivering. When I looked at her, she hugged and kissed me and held on to me for dear life. I could not tell whether she was supporting me or looking for any sense of safety and security in my arms…

Hayat is a mental health professional in Gaza, Palestine. Anonymous for fear of being targeted.

A young boy plays in the street amidst the wreckage of homes destroyed by airstrikes in Al Shati Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. Photo: UNICEF/Mohammad Ajjour

Story 5: October 27, 2023

A winter of paper:

I have an 11-year-old son. He is my eldest boy. He loves me very much and wants nothing more in life than to be like me. Rowdy-dowdy and fun-loving, just like me! He even mimics my humorous style and watches how I make his mother laugh. Gradually, I watch him turn into a mini-me. He loves to make his mother laugh even in silly situations. His happiness peaks when he makes his mother laugh, for he feels like he owns the world!

One of my son’s most joyful moments is the time I challenge him in PlayStation soccer at the gaming store next door. Here he starts teasing me and says: “you play better than me because you are older but there will come a day when I will beat you like my maternal uncles beat you, for they play better than you hahahaha…” I start running after him pretending to be angry, as he hides in his mother’s lap. She looks at me and says: “your game is weak compared to my brothers’ hahaha…”

On the first Friday of this vile offensive, I was washing for prayer when my son rushed through the door and said:” Daddy, daddy, the sky is raining papers!!” I immediately realized that the occupier planned an atrocity as per usual.

‘Leave to the south of the Strip as this is the safe place. You have 24 hours. If you don’t go, we will consider you to be terrorists.’

What nonsense is this?

What logic are you using?

I went down to the street to find my neighborhood evacuating. Lucky he who owns a car! He could take his family and went to the allegedly safe south. Not me. I don’t own a car. Even if I had a car, how do I move when I am responsible for 19 people of my family, father, sister, and siblings’ families who all live in the same building?

This is the most difficult decision I will ever make. On it henges not only my future, but also that of every person under my care. We may never come to our home again, we may die on the way, we may truly find safety. We don’t know.

Oh dear God, what do I do??

I look at the kids and my dad and my family to find everyone asking what do we do?

I feel helpless. For the first time in my life I lose control like this. My thoughts froze as if I turned into an object. I suddenly told everyone to take as much water as they could, to empty their school bags and fill them with some clothes, water, and food so we can start heading south.

My wife: “Do we leave our house that we built with blood and sweat, one brick at a time?”

And then she started looking at every detail, every room, and every part of the house. I couldn’t say a thing because I was feeling the exact same way. At that moment, that mischievous child, who always wanted to be like his father, said: “Mama, let us leave and if we couldn’t continue, we can come back home. And if we die, we go to heaven. Don’t you always tell us that when we die we go to heaven and be rid of terror?”

We looked at him as if God had spoken to us through him to ease us into the lesser of two evils.

Do I feel proud that this boy has truly become his father’s son or do I weep that he grew up so early that he accepted death at 11? I didn’t know. But I did thank God that he was my son, the apple of my eye.

We finally managed to get ourselves out of the house; the sight infront of us full of glass and destruction, and the sight behind us of our home that we may be looking at for the last time. The plan was to head to the hospital and from there look for cars to drive us to the allegedly safe south.

Roo7 is a mental health professional, anonymous for fear of being targeted.

Story 6: October 28, 2023

The night of the hospital:

A sole night spent at the hospital was enough to realize that dying under the rubble of our home was much easier than staying only for a few hours at the hospital. The plan was to head to the hospital on foot as a first stop so we can find some cars to take us to the supposedly safe south.

I gathered all my 19 family members in one of the hallways of the hospital so I can go find some cars to drop us off at the supposedly safe south, without having to worry about leaving them out in the street. Little did I know that we would be spending the night in that tiny corridor designed as a walking passage way in which you can barely sit.

I left the hospital to look for two to three cars. What an idiot! Even he who finds one car would be lucky, yet here I was looking for three.

After much turmoil and an exhausting, ongoing search under the burning sun, feeling thirsty and fatigued, I found one small car that holds the driver and three passengers. I begged him to take us to the south. He said he would drop us off as passengers only without any bags, for the price of 100 Shekels per rider.

I stood in total shock.

Then I affirmed: “The ride is 6 Shekels per person, how did it now become 100? What is this exploitation? Isn’t it enough that we are showered with pieces of death? You, too? What is wrong with you?”

He said: “Brother, I have a family just like you and this car is my only source of income. If I take you, I will use this money to buy basic necessities for my family for I don’t know what awaits me in the south or if I will come back alive. Don’t consider this exploitation, please see it as survival for my family and I.”

I looked at him with forgiveness and compassion, and I was speechless.

I finally said: “May God bless you and be with you.”

I went back to my family at the hospital, feeling completely helpless with my inability to procure cars to get us to the so-called safety. When my wife, father, brother, and sisters-in-law saw me like this, they reassured me and noted that God may not want us to go to the south, after all. My wife held my hand and said: “Take it easy. You are not the only one responsible for our safety here. We are all in this together. Rest now, my love, and God will show us the way.”

We decided to spend the night at this hallway. This hallway is barely good to pass through; you can’t even sit, let alone sleep. We stuck to the walls to allow pedestrians to pass. That night, we saw all types of injured victims who lost legs and arms, and had bleeding heads, and many more tragedies and pains. If I myself couldn’t tolerate these scenes, how could I expect our children to do so?! How do I protect my children from exposure to all this madness? The impact of this particular night will forever be in our children’s memories and I, a trauma psychologist, am clueless on how to handle that if we were destined to survive this brutal aggression. For now, I have to figure out a way to boost our chances of survival. But how?

I stood by the window that overlooks the registration desk at the hospital, looking for some fresh air. The building was so over crowded that the air was polluted with the smells and breaths of people: their sweat, food, and the dirty bathrooms… all these odours and more in this building we sought refuge in. We have no place except this hallway. Where could we go?

When I looked out of the window، the aggressors had committed a new massacre near the hospital, destroying a house over its residents. I saw the martyrs being laid out on the floor of the registration area, being readied for transport to the tent of the dead, a space you can barely call a tent! I saw human parts and blood. I saw the chopped legs and beheaded bodies. I saw all this with my own eyes. I wept and wept and wept until I had no breath left. Smelling all the foul odours inside the hospital was much easier than watching outside this window.

I don’t recall how this night ended, nor do I want to know. It’s over and we are not going to the hospital again.

With the first light of the second day, my wife told me: “Come on, let’s go to our home; we can’t take it anymore.” Then the entire family asked to go back home and that they had enough.

We went back home knowing fully well that we are walking back to death. But this time, we are content with what will happen to us and are leaving our fate to God, for He is our saviour and protector. We find solace in knowing we had done all we can to stay out of the house, but all in vain.

We are at our home now and will not leave. With the sunrise of every new day, we pray in thanks to God for the gift of being alive.

Roo7 is a mental health professional, anonymous for fear of being targeted.

A damaged school building in Gaza. Photo: X/@UN_SPExperts

Story 7: October 29, 2023

Yasmine here… miraculously spared by the angel of death after the shelling of the past few days, next to which we had never seen before.

I had told you before about my safe house “under the staircase”, and I would like to update you about that. I left my safe house 3 days ago because it is no longer safe. A house across from us was targeted and that bombing seriously damaged our home. We thank God that we are breathing and as the popular proverb goes: “in wealth and not people”!

Today, Mohammad, my husband, went to check on the house and the damage incurred in the last shelling. He first went into our beloved baby Sofia’s room, the little birdy of my heart. I kept her toys and clothes, and her oxygen concentrators that gave me a few additional months of her life… and the memory book that I had started for her since the first day she lived inside of me! I insisted on going to check on them everyday, and smell her in them. Today, Mohammad went to find nothing in place! A shattered window. Dirt and sand filling up the place. When we fled the house, I could take nothing except her favourite toy with me. That toy is always with me, even in my normal days, inseparable from me.

I felt my heart sink when my husband sent me the picture of the room! The smell of dust and gunpowder overshadowed Sofia’s smell in the place… her toys scrambled here and there… and the memory book full of dirt and gunpowder! I miss her so much. I miss visiting and talking to her. I weep everyday longing for her.

The thought of death used to terrify me, but not anymore, for perhaps I can meet my only sanctuary and my eternal love, Sofia, without fear or pain…

Yasmine Ayoub is a mental health practitioner at Gaza, who works at UPA.

Many parts of Gaza lie in ruins following airstrikes. Photo: UN News/Ziad Taleb

Story 8: October 30, 2023

One of the nights of terror.

For every family with many siblings, there is always a child who steals your heart with their light spirit, wit, and an adorable presence that everybody seems to love. This poses a challenge for a father so as to avoid provoking rivalry in other siblings, but to no avail! The eyes talk and expose you. You try to save face and say “I love you all”… and I believe, according to my limited experience in life, that this is part of the struggle of most fathers and mothers.

This younger daughter of mine… the first day she was born, my heart skipped a beat in a way I never experienced with her siblings. I felt a unique connection with her that I couldn’t explain. From the very first moment, I fell in love with her features, I was captivated by her smile, and I knew she took over my life… for she is “the apple of my eye” as we say in slang. We share  a secret that “you are my favorite child”! A secret she whispered in my ear each time she felt jealous of her siblings “daddy, don’t forget I am your favorite child” hahaha… oh how much I love her and fear for her and how weak I become infront of her sparkling eyes!

In that night that we called ‘night of death’, suddenly, all connectivity and communications were cut off and radios declared Gaza as dark and isolated, with all the dire implications this declaration brings. You couldn’t even check on your family and relatives in Gaza.

A few minutes later, the shelling exploded from all directions. Suddenly, the skies lit up with the colors of fire and then switched off, fire belts here and there, homes bombed over the heads of their occupants, the sounds of people screaming all around us… our hearts nearly stopped. A terrifying idea overtook our minds that “this is our last night.” I heard my brother speak the shahada (praising God before one dies); my seventy five-year-old father frozen and paralyzed in horror; my sisters-in-law screaming with every explosion; their children trembling. My wife took the boys in her lap and I took in the girls.

My older daughter was terrified, but she stuck her head between my shoulder and neck and held on to me so tightly, it felt we were one body. This also meant she felt my fear and fast heartbeats the most. As for my younger daughter, every inch of her was shaking, her face yellow, her lips pale and dry, her extremities cold, her body shaking, her fingers in her ears, screaming and crying with every hit… and there was a hit every minute. Since that day, she hasn’t been able to sleep except in my lap, with her fingers in her ears.

The situation remained like this for around 5 hours of  death and destruction. You can imagine what that sunrise was like for us as we realized we were still alive and breathing.

Yes, such have become our daily routines, our nights, our memories, and such are our children.

We have but God and He is our protector.

Roo7 is a mental health professional, anonymous for fear of being targeted.

This series first appeared on UPA’s blog. Read the original here.

Part two of this series continues tomorrow.