In Gaza, the last game of Tarneeb

An Israeli bombing that spoiled a family’s enjoyment of Tarneeb inspired this artistic rendering of blood-stained playing cards. Photo/artist: Saleh Jamal Safi, used with permission.

This story, written by Saleh Jamal Safi, was initially published by We Are Not Numbers on March 27, 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.

“Tarneeb,” a cherished strategy card game in the Gaza Strip and the rest of the region, plays out like a dance of tactics similar to spades or bridge. Could this game ever evoke fear? Could its sounds turn truly chilling? For most, the answer is surely no. However, for children navigating the turbulent days in Gaza, the answer becomes a haunting yes!

At the beginning of the war, our neighborhood was targeted, forcing us to seek refuge in my grandfather’s building, where our extended family lived.

A few days ago, despite the sounds of war raging around us, the air was filled with the innocent laughter of my young cousins as they played together. However, their joy was interrupted by a childish fight. Seeking to restore their harmony, I suggested playing Tarneeb.

Their fight suddenly stopped, and their faces reflected sheer horror. They adamantly refused to play. “It could be the same as last time,” they said. Their meaning surprised me; I realised they associated the game Tarneeb with the tragic bombing of the building of our neighbors, the Khawaja family, a memory deeply ingrained in their minds from three months ago. On October 17, 2023, we had been playing this card game when the building next to my grandfather’s house was bombed.

The memory remains vivid for all of us, adults included. Every detail of that fateful day is etched in my memory.

The routine of daily struggles

That day, I woke up early to embark on the daily tasks imposed on us by Israel’s occupation. In Gaza, the quest for clean water has always been a daily struggle, even before October 7. Here we use two types of water. Drinking water, sourced from groundwater, undergoes rigorous treatment due to contamination risks, and often requiring purchase from private vendors, who distribute it in special trucks. Meanwhile, water for daily chores like showering and cleaning comes through our pipes. It is drawn from the same groundwater or stored rainwater, but without the same level of treatment, making it less reliable and of lower quality.

But with Israel cutting off the water supply, we have to depend on drinking water for everything, including showering and cleaning. This entails hours of queuing to collect gallons of water sold by vendors from their trucks, despite the risks we face from snipers and bombs while being outside and exposed.

Moreover, if you are not among the fortunate few at the front of the line, you will leave empty handed, left to wander the streets for another water truck, an extremely rare sight. Alternatively, you can wait patiently for the same truck to complete its rounds and make its way back to the station to refill, though there is no guarantee it will return to your location.

Being one of the first in line that day, I managed to fill my gallons and returned home to wait for my brother and cousin. They were tasked with charging our large battery at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) clinic, where we go for electricity.

On October 8, Israel shut off the supply of fuel and electricity to Gaza. The sole remaining power station, which was the main supplier, ran out of fuel on Oct. 11. Nonetheless, UNRWA persevered in its operations for a few more days by utilizing solar energy alongside its remaining fuel reserves.

The night of the bombing

After completing the day’s missions, we gathered in the house to play Tarneeb — the same game my cousins now refuse to touch.

Suddenly, the room flashed in a blinding bright light as a deafening explosion shattered the tranquility. A tempest of dust and glass filled the air as the windows shattered into glittering shards.

Was the bombing on our home, or was it our neighbor’s? The reality slowly dawned on us as we realized the devastation had struck the neighbor’s house.

ur neighbors’ demolished home. Photo by Saleh Jamal Safi, used with permission.

I rushed to check on my mother, but the force of the explosion flung the kitchen door, slamming it against me with a jolt. When I finally reached her, she was in shock, mechanically placing dishes in the cupboard. It took several shouts before she heard me. “Why are you still standing there amidst all this broken glass?!”

Her reply was almost funny yet heart-wrenching, “I thought it was our home and we were going to die, so I decided to just continue what I was doing until my soul goes back to God.” She leaned on me, barely able to walk, and moved away from the windows.

As everyone hurried downstairs, fearing the house would collapse, we realized my uncle and two young cousins were still outside. We rushed to find them, relieved to discover they were unharmed, despite their proximity to the bombed house.

The neighborhood erupted in chaos as ambulances arrived and people began recovering bodies from the rubble. My cousins and I went back to our house to watch from the balconies.

I wish we hadn’t.

What we witnessed was surreal and horrifying. Words can’t convey the sight of our neighbors’ body parts scattered among the wreckage, with bulldozers clearing the rubble. Some people were still alive, screaming for help, begging to be released from under the rubble. One woman, her face covered in blood, stood on the debris of her home, crying out in confusion. Just moments before, they were simply having breakfast.

I remember wondering bitterly, upon seeing her, if simply having breakfast was now considered a terrorist act.

The trauma that lingers

Whenever I recall the scene, I feel a wave of nausea or an overwhelming guilt that we survived, and that it was not our house that was bombed. Perhaps the war will eventually end, but the pain and trauma will remain etched in our hearts forever.

At night, when silence reigns but the echoes of gunfire persist, you find yourself gazing at each member of your family, one by one, and praying that no harm befalls them. Every time you hear the sound of a house being bombed, your heart trembles at the thought of a family just like yours, no longer existing. They could be your relatives or your friends’ families. You fear your home could be the next target.

As the nights grow more difficult, the windows of the house illuminate with the fires of rockets launched towards people’s homes.  Every night, we gather in one place to ensure we all either die or live together.

However, this spares us none of the bitter pain of loss, or the anguish of having to mend ourselves after experiencing all this emotional and physical devastation in our quest to cope with the trauma of war and loss.

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