“We can rebuild houses, but we can’t get back memories of our loved ones”

In the second of a two-part blog series, Haitham Saqqa, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)’s Programme Assistant in Gaza, shares his account of the Israeli military offensive in Gaza in May and its impact on people with disabilities. In part one, Haitham described his life under occupation and his experiences in the three previous major military offensives of 2008/9, 2012 and 2014. Here he discusses the impact of Israel’s recent assault in May 2021.

Even though the latest attack on Gaza was similar to others, it was a new experience for me. I am now a father and a husband; my responsibilities are not only related to my own life and how to protect myself but also towards my wife and my three-year-old daughter Laure, who is experiencing war for the first time.

Also, it is the first time that I have experienced attacks while living in an apartment building on the third floor. In Gaza, when we talk about wars, this includes the horrific experience of buildings being brought down by rockets. The 2014 attacks ended with the total destruction of tower buildings and, in 2021, Israeli airstrikes started from where they left off seven years ago. Two of the buildings destroyed in May belonged to my cousins and were on the same street where I live.

"Your private life becomes public when all your shattered belongings are on the rubble in the streets, and your life becomes a story for journalists and photographers."

The destruction of these buildings started with what Israeli forces call a “warning rocket”. Though this sounds like something small, it is a real rocket from a warplane, which can kill and has killed people before. I am not sure what people imagine when they hear about “warning rockets”. It is not a text message or a letter, but a rocket. How could war missiles be used to warn human beings?

Warning rockets to me are painful and heartbreaking. They do not give people enough time to evacuate their houses. They put people in a state of panic, even though most of us prepare small bags and suitcases during these attacks with our important documents and belongings in. But some people forget to take them, or do not have the time to grab them when they are evacuating.

A huge warning rocket hit a bank on my street, next to where my cousins were living. It was followed by a second and a third. The attack was supposed to hit the bank itself, but it destroyed my cousins’ two buildings. Nine families of more than 60 people were displaced from their homes, just because they lived next to the bank. My cousins lost their homes on the day of Eid al-Fitr. I wonder how their children will enjoy Eid in future.

Some of the people displaced by these bombings are staying with us now, while others are at our relatives’ or friends’ houses. The loss of their homes is horrific, but we can rebuild houses. What we cannot get back are the personal memories with our beloved ones and our history in these houses. Your private life becomes public when all your shattered belongings are on the rubble in the streets, and your life becomes a story for journalists and photographers. There are more than 8,200 people in Gaza still displaced by May’s attacks.

Before the bombing of my street, I used to comfort my daughter by telling her that the explosions she heard were fireworks. She was always scared. I am sure she was not fully convinced, but she trusted her father.

That was until the moment this warning rocket hit our street and she saw it from her bedroom. She heard the loud explosion, she saw the sand, smoke, and fire right in front of her eyes. She saw her cousins’ houses in a plume of smoke, and she asked a million questions like: “What do they need from us?” and “Why us?”. I had to think of a million answers.

I always wished and hoped for my daughter to enjoy her childhood and to follow her dreams like other children in the world. But it is all out of my hands, I can’t stop war alone. What I can do, though, is to be honest with her and teach her life, teach her resilience, teach her peace, and teach her love.

I am glad to work with MAP. It has given me the opportunity to engage with my people, especially during times of war and crisis. I am glad to have the opportunity to learn and share my experiences, especially regarding the rights of people with disabilities. I am considered a person with a disability: I am short.

Unfortunately, with every war or attack, the number of people with disabilities increases. There is still a lot of social stigma and a lack of rights for people with disabilities in Gaza. I consider myself a success story and an example for many people with disabilities. My journey was not easy from childhood until now, because of the stigma I faced and the lack of accessibility I experienced in my daily life.

Many people did not take me seriously from the beginning, but I quickly proved to them that we are no different as people with disabilities. Today, I look at the huge number of people who have experienced disability, whether during previous assaults on Gaza or during the ‘Great March of Return’ protests. I still see that there is a lot of work to be done in this area.

The 14 years of blockade and illegal closure which have been imposed on Gaza have had a severe impact on people with disabilities. Restrictions on fuel imports to run electricity generators has lead to frequent power cuts, affecting people with disabilities who may need to recharge the batteries of assistive devices such as wheelchairs and hearing aids, or use lifts. Many struggle to repair or replace assistive devices that break down. Restrictions on movement block opportunities to travel out for education, healthcare, or other activities. The dire economic and unemployment impacts of blockade disproportionately affect people with disabilities.

While everyone in Gaza is trying to survive a desperate situation, people with disabilities are among those worst affected. At MAP, we will continue to work with partners to challenge the stigma around disabilities and advocate for the rights of Palestinians with disabilities. We will continue to demand that Israel, as the occupying power, ensures Palestinians’ rights to movement, access to healthcare and essential services, and protection across Gaza and the whole of the occupied Palestinian territory. 

This is the second in a two-part series of blogs by Haitham Saqqa, MAP’s Programme Assistant in Gaza. You can read the first part here.

Photo: Destruction in Gaza following an Israeli strike May 2021. (Credit: UNDP).

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