What started off as a regular summer trip to visit family and conduct research related to immunizations in Gaza turned into something I could have never imagined. Gaza is no stranger to bouts of violence and periods of intense instability, but I have never been there to experience it. Suburban America had sheltered me, but that was all over. My thoughts are still a whirlwind, but my feelings have never been more clear.
Day 1, July 8, 2014: Fear
That very first explosion made my blood run cold. My sister and I sat straight up and looked at each other, knowing this could be one of two things: a strategic targeted assault or the beginning of a military operation in Gaza. It was two A.M. We lay back down on our mattresses and prayed for a quiet night. Moments later, a louder and closer explosion lit up our bedroom and rattled our windows. We grabbed our pillows and blankets, moving to sleep next to my mother and grandmother. The airstrikes continued for another two or three hours that morning.
I have never before felt the kind of paralyzing fear that I did while in Gaza during this military assault. The first night of the campaign felt like a terrible nightmare. My mom and I stared at each other in silence and disbelief as my sister loudly sobbed in her arms.
By the 4th and 5th day of the operation, the airstrikes came one right after each other. I sat on the floor and stared at the sky, unable to get up because my legs were paralyzed from fear. Once, my little brother tapped my leg to ask me a question, but I did not even feel it. My mouth was so dry I could barely swallow most of the day. Fear had knocked the wind out of me.
I couldn't eat because my stomach was in knots, even though the hunger from a 15-hour fast was brutal. The Israeli military had a pattern of airstrikes right before it was time to break our fast in the evening and the two hours before the predawn meal. I never had an appetite for food. My body trembled all the time, and so did my house. We eventually had to leave for somewhere "safer."
Fear is exponentially made worse when you cannot sleep. I could not sleep.
Day 6, July 13, 2014: Dead
The death toll quickly rose, even in the early days of this operation. I prepared myself for the worst: not the loss of my own life, but that of a relative or someone I love. We listened to the names of the dead on the radio every night praying that we would not recognize any of the names.
On the 6th day of the operation, a UN convoy organized by the US embassy evacuated us out of Gaza into Amman, Jordan via the Erez border crossing. That morning at 5:30am, a giant airstrike across the street from our house knocked me to the ground. I was too scared to walk to the cab waiting outside to take us to the meeting place for evacuation. My uncle called shortly after to ask if we were all alive. It turned out the person who was killed in that strike was also an Abuharb and he thought it was one of us.
We drove by that house on our way to the meeting point. I watched it burn while the survivors moved rubble out of the way and rescue workers carried bodies into the ambulance. It was like a scene out of a movie. That could have been me.
Day 24, July 31, 2014: Hope
It was hard to have hope when I quickly went from knowing nothing about weapons to being able to distinguish between the sounds of navy shelling, drone missiles, and F-16 airstrikes. It was hard to have hope when the mothers around me, who repeatedly said "I cannot protect my children," were no longer able to stay strong for their children. It was hard to have hope when I felt like a sitting duck as the shelling got louder and closer. But what choice did I have?
I was born in a refugee camp in Gaza during a curfew in the first Intifada. Life has taught me that without hope we are nothing. Without hope life does not go on. I am reminded of this man who sold watermelons on a donkey cart in our neighborhood during this ongoing military campaign. In spite of the shelling and the airstrikes, he came out every day at the same time and sold his watermelons. This man gave me hope for life and hope that we would make it to the next day. He was the ultimate symbol of resistance and the desire to live a normal life. I hope he is well and unharmed because without him, I would have not made it.