Photo essay: Provisions, pots, and firewood

Crowds waiting for food. Photo by Mustafa Batnain, used with permission.

This story, written by Mustafa Darweesh Abu Batnain, was initially published by We Are Not Numbers on January 6, 2024. The exact locations of the neighbourhoods mentioned in the article were intentionally omitted for security reasons. However, the primary setting is in the city of Khan Younis, which has endured relentless bombardment for over a week. The narrative remains unedited, as we were unable to reach the author for approval of any edits. It is published as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Within a week after the bombing of Gaza began, I was forced to evacuate my home in Khan Younis for the first time. I went to my friend’s house, where I ended up staying for a month. During this time, he proposed the idea of distributing food to people who were displaced and had lost any consistent source of income. He suggested that I follow the example of previous wars when I had volunteered to help the displaced, the injured, and people in shelters. I gathered with three other people, including my friend’s father-in-law, to discuss the idea of feeding displaced people.

The idea was to collect money from some well-off neighbors and donations from anyone who could offer something to help us cook. My friend’s father-in-law is a cook and has a lot of cooking tools. I’m not a cook; my role is as an organizer. We bought wood to start a cooking fire. We also bought rice, sauce, spices, salt, and anything else needed. We decided that we would try it the first day by cooking one large pot of stew. We found an old house with a large courtyard. We went around to the homes where the displaced were staying and told them to come with their pots and utensils in the afternoon for food.

Children carrying a pot. Photo by Mustafa Batnain, used with permission.

The first day went well. We fed approximately 20 families, but because of the increasing number of displaced people, it was not enough. On the second day, we were able to increase the quantity of food, but we also faced the problem of money. We didn’t have enough to continue the work. Through my knowledge of charitable work, I know donors from foreign countries and also from within. I proposed the idea and collected pictures to send to donors so that they could help us continue the work to feed the displaced. They welcomed the idea and donated some money. Also, people from the neighborhood would come and help us as much as possible. They would donate some money and contribute to the work. Most food products were available at the beginning of the war. We bought beans, rice, frozen peas, and okra, as well as eggplant and pumpkin.

Peeling eggplants. Photo by Mustafa Batnain, used with permission.

We worked for 25 consecutive days. Then, the area we were in was threatened. We were forced to flee, interrupting the food distribution. I moved to the area where my family lives and stayed for two days, but there was a bombing in the vicinity of my family’s house. So I moved again, back home where I’d started.

One day I met up with a friend of mine who works in a charitable organization. I presented the food distribution idea to him and showed him some pictures and videos. He encouraged us to resume the project and pledged the financial support of his association. That enabled us to buy cooking utensils and other necessities and start up again in my neighborhood. My friend does the shopping at the market.

But as the war continues, it’s difficult to find vegetables and legumes. Food in the market is now scarce, and prices have more than doubled. We’ve started cooking a lot of lentils, when we can find them, and eggplant. The charitable association that funds the food distribution work brings us meat every Friday that we cook with rice or sometimes jareesh, cracked wheat, into a stew. In recent days, we have begun to cook without salt, as it is not available in the market.

Assembling food packages. Photo by Mustafa Batnain, used with permission.

We have to buy water for cooking, but it too is scarce, so it’s very expensive. We also buy the wood for the cooking fires. Some people collect firewood by cutting trees into small pieces and then selling them. This seems immoral, but people cannot find another way due to the lack of available fuel.

Gathering firewood. Photo by Mustafa Batnain, used with permission.

We wake up soon after dawn to prepare food, with the help of neighbourhood youth and even children. They make the fires, peel onions, fill the pots with water, and help us clean up. We fill eight large pots. Day by day, the number of people coming for food increases. People come very early and wait several hours while the food is being prepared. Many of the people who come are children. I play with them while they wait and also hold competitions with them, which create motivating initiatives and offer psychological support.

Children waiting for the food. Photo by Mustafa Batnain, used with permission.

Then I make the children, and everyone else, line up in a queue. But sometimes people push and crowd around to take food. Sometimes, sadly, there is just not enough food, even though we’ve reached the capacity to feed approximately 200 families a day.

Cooking for the neighborhood. Photo by Mustafa Batnain, used with permission.

I love charitable work and putting a smile on people’s faces, especially children. This work makes me proud of myself and makes me happy as well. Also, I am convinced that what you sow, you will reap. A person needs someone to take care of him and provide him with the basic necessities of life. I, too, will reach a certain stage in my life where I will need someone to take care of me.

Mustafa with the children. Photo by Mustafa Batnain, used with permission.

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