In Gaza, trapped in the rubble, body and soul

A mother covers her mouth to prevent herself from calling out to her children to give them a chance to survive.  Screenshot (22:28) from Episode 1 of ‘Attack on Titan’ on YouTube. Fair use.

This story, written by Saleh Jamal Safi, was initially published by We Are Not Numbers on January 12, 2024, as a personal narrative amid the relentless bombardment of Gaza by Israel. The story stands unedited, presented as the unfiltered testimony of a war witness, and has been published as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices.

Giant monsters attack a village, and a mother’s legs are pinned under the rubble of her destroyed home. Unable to walk, she commands her son to leave her behind and flee with his sister to safety. 

“Eren, take Mikasa and run!”

“I want to run! So hurry and get out of there!” says Eren.

“Now! … My legs were crushed by the rubble. Even if I get out, I can’t run. You understand, don’t you?”

“Then I’ll carry you!” responds Eren.

“Why do you never listen to me?! At least listen to me one last time!” says the mom.

Just then, an adult neighbour arrives, realizes he cannot save the mother in time, grabs both children and carries them away. The mother covers her mouth to prevent herself from calling out, urging them not to abandon her.

This painful scene is from the first episode of the popular Japanese anime TV series based on the comic book Attack on Titan

Could that scene happen in reality? Absolutely not — at least, that’s what I thought when I first watched the series a few months before October 7, 2023. It was too surreal.

Too surreal, yet our reality

November 29, 2023, was the 53rd day of genocide in Gaza by the Israeli occupation and the fourth day of a brief ceasefire. I was in a car, sharing a ride with a stranger as I returned home to Rafah from Khan Younis, where I’d gone to buy some essential items not available nearby.

It turned out that the other man in the car was a survivor of the Al Hoja Street massacre that had occurred less than two weeks earlier, on November 18. He shared with me how truly miserable and horrifying the situation had been.

“We were evacuating,” he explained. But they were not permitted by the Israeli forces to take anything, not even food or water, just their IDs.“We walked on the street, unarmed,” when the crowd was hit by an Israeli air strike. “So many people were turned into martyrs. Others were injured. Some survived, but the survivors couldn’t help most of the injured — many had lost the ability to walk. No one could help them even if they tried.” He continued:

An injured man gave his child to his wife, asking her to leave him behind so the two could make it out of there. The wife froze; maybe she was contemplating how she would look into the eyes of her children after leaving their father to die.

It struck me that the terrible scene from Attack on Titan had turned into reality. But still, I couldn’t believe such things could happen.

The man’s story didn’t end there.

“My brother and his little son survived, and we were thankful,” he said. “We felt a mixture of happiness, sadness, and disappointment with guilt. Happy to survive and guilty about being happy while others had lost family members and parts of their bodies. It didn’t take too long for all our feelings to turn into bad ones.”

He went on to explain that they reached an Israeli occupation checkpoint where the guards checked their IDs to make sure that no one was related to Hamas. Then a soldier said, “Come here, goat.”

He was calling my brother, who was holding his son. We were confused, wondering what was going on. My brother went to see what he wanted, which is when the soldier spit this insulting, savage sentence: ‘Goat, where do you think you’re taking your son? Get in the jeep because you’re going to prison.’ My brother didn’t even have the right to know why he was being arrested.

“The soldiers made them take off their clothes and wear only their underwear,” he explained. “How would a child feel when observing how they were treating his father?”

A documentary of our lives

I’ve witnessed other terrible things that make me feel as though Attack on Titan is a documentary of our lives.

On December 6, 2023, I’d been arguing with my sisters about food. We had evacuated to my grandmother’s home, where there was a falafel seller nearby. The only solution was to buy some falafel so our appetites could all be sated, but when I went there, I found a very long line. I stood there, waiting my turn. A girl, about age 10, was standing next to me with her younger sister.

Suddenly, some men emerged from a tiny street next to the falafel seller. They were holding a child with her face covered in blood. I’ve seen a lot of martyrs, but that day was different. I’d never been this close to one.

I couldn’t handle the scene. I wanted to throw up, and I felt really bad. I regretted the feelings that I couldn’t control; how could I feel like this when I was seeing such an angelic face?

Meanwhile, the 10-year-old girl was telling her younger sister not to look. I tried to distract them, or maybe I was distracting myself, but it didn’t work. The girl asked me if I had seen the child. I think she read my face, and it definitely said yes.

She nodded when I asked her the same question. Then she asked, “She’s so young; she will be happy in heaven, right?”

I said yes, but I couldn’t say more.

Minutes later, they pulled another child and a man who had been murdered in the same bombing out of the rubble. My emotions were trapped, my feelings shattered.

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