No safety in the south

10 days of displacement in Gaza

Oct 29, 2023
Palestinians waiting in line to at a water station in Khan Younis. (Photo: Mohammad Abu Rukbeh)

Khan Younis, October 27, 2023—The Israeli aggression on Gaza has been ongoing for 20 days. My name is Mohammad Abu Rukbeh and I work as the senior Gaza field researcher at Defense for Children International - Palestine.

My family and I have moved and been forced to evacuate to several houses due to Israeli threats and continuous airstrikes. With my large family scattered and following Israeli warnings to evacuate the northern Gaza area where I live, as well as Gaza City, and to head towards the southern regions beyond Wadi Gaza, according to their description. The Israeli army issued warnings through various media outlets and distributed flyers in Gaza and the northern area, emphasizing the necessity to move south. 

I left my house 10 days ago and went south to Khan Younis, thinking it was the safest option. My concern and fear for my four children compelled me to take this step. Perhaps my situation was better than thousands of displaced people from northern Gaza and Gaza City who sought refuge in UNRWA schools. I found shelter in the house of my former colleague who worked with us at Defense for Children International - Palestine. According to him, his area is safe, and most neighbors work for UNRWA, and there is no affiliation with any political or military faction. 

Maisa, Amina, 2, Ahmad, 14, Kareem, 13, Karam, 10, and Mohammad Abu Rukbeh. (Photo: Mohammad Abu Rukbeh)

The house is new and spacious but not fully equipped to accommodate my family and the families of my siblings, who sought refuge in schools. This prompted me to take some blankets and bedding from a friend. The house has no internal gas supply, only a two-kilogram gas cylinder, and there is no electricity, as is the case throughout Gaza. I bought a battery and an alternative lighting network so that the children can see at night. I also purchased shelf-stable food items, as I do not know how long the aggression on Gaza may last.

I contacted my siblings who had sought refuge in an UNRWA school due to the dire conditions they faced, with around 3,800 displaced people in a school lacking sufficient drinking water, bathing facilities, and hygiene. Men and children older than 12 sleep in the schoolyard, while women and young children are cramped inside classrooms, each holding around 25 women and 50 children. UNRWA, due to border closures and aid restrictions, cannot provide meals to these displaced individuals. Faced with these challenges, I decided to bring my siblings to my colleague's house. My brother Sayed, who is married with three children, was in a particularly difficult situation, in need of a clean bathroom and food to alleviate their hunger.

Now, our number has grown to 11, including my family and my brother Sayed's family, which includes seven children. With time passing and the increasing congestion of displaced people in the southern areas, larger problems began to surface. The queue at bakeries takes five or six hours, starting at six a.m., and requires intense competition. Standing in the line itself is unsafe, with the constant fear of airstrikes, as Israel has so far targeted about 15 bakeries across Gaza, exacerbating our food crisis.

Grocery stores are nearly empty, and many food varieties have become scarce. I tried to find a bag of flour to secure bread for a short period, but I could not find any. I learned from the seller that the price has surged to three to four times its normal price, and it is usually unavailable. The market itself lacks many food items either because farmers and traders are unable to reach their agricultural lands that are often located in open areas or near the borders, or because of fuel shortages for food transportation. 

Transportation is extremely difficult and hard to find, so we have to walk long distances from home to the market, the bakery, and the water station. Walking the streets is very dangerous because we do not know which house Israeli warplanes might target next without warning.

The gas cylinder is among the challenges we face, as it is running out, and we do not know how long this war will continue. We now buy wood and firewood to cook food and make tea and coffee on an open fire, as if we have regressed a hundred years. Even lighting the fire could be dangerous as it could be seen by Israeli warplanes, but we have no other option. After lighting the fire, one feels the need to bathe to get rid of the smell of wood and fire, but this is currently unavailable.

Cooking over a wood fire. (Photo: Mohammad Abu Rukbeh)

The water crisis affects all of Gaza, not just Khan Younis. Initially, when I moved to Khan Younis, water came for about an hour every three to four days. Due to the lack of electricity, my children, my brother Sayed, his children, and I used to carry water with buckets and manually fill the rooftop water tank. We then bathed with cold water, as there was no electricity to heat it. 

My children and Sayed's children could not tolerate the cold water, but there is no other way as we are now in a struggle for survival. We are in a better situation than many areas where water does not even reach. We must prioritize personal hygiene for our children to prevent infectious diseases like scabies and chickenpox, which are spreading in Gaza, especially within crowded shelters.

Mohammad's brother gives his son a bath using cold water from a hose. (Photo: Mohammad Abu Rukbeh)

Regular water from the tap is not suitable for drinking, so we are forced to take water gallons and head to water vendors or nearby mosques, standing in long lines to provide safe drinking water for our children. The loss of the feeling of safety extends even to the southern and central provinces, which Israel claimed to be secure areas. In northern Gaza and Gaza City, bombings continue day and night, resulting in continuous airstrikes on civilian homes and dozens of civilian casualties. 

On October 23, 2023, around 9:10 a.m., while having breakfast with my children, an Israeli warplane suddenly bombed a house near where we are staying. Specifically, the missile hit the Abdelhadi family's house in the Baraaq neighborhood, located 15 meters (49 feet) away from the house I evacuated to, causing significant damage to the house and the street. I was frightened and found the window glass shattered over my head as if I had opened a water faucet, filled not with water, but with broken glass from the window. 

I did not know what to do and did not even think to lift my head. I waited for the glass shards to stop falling over my head, still alive. After a few seconds, the glass stopped falling, and I raised my head to check on my wife, children, my brother Sayed, and his family, ensuring they were unharmed by the glass that filled the living room, bedrooms, and every corner of the house. Thank god, nobody was harmed. Due to the fear we experienced, our legs were trembling, making it difficult to stand, but I tried to pretend strength, especially in front of the children. However, I was genuinely more frightened than them. I inspected the area, and then cleaned a part of the house from the glass, placing my children there. 

Broken windows after a nearby Israeli airstrike. (Photo: Mohammad Abu Rukbeh)

Ambulances arrived at the scene, carrying the injured from the Abdelhadi family due to the Israeli airstrikes. I saw a crater 15-20 meters (49 to 66 feet) deep in the street, causing significant damage to most of the area. I called the owner of the house to inform him that the house he gave me had suffered significant damage due to the airstrike. He checked on us, and I assured him that we were safe, learning that damages were widespread and there was no safe place. 

Huge crater from an Israeli airstrike that hit a Palestinian home close to where Mohammad and his family are staying in Khan Younis. (Photo: Mohammad Abu Rukbeh)

I thought a lot about where to go with my family, having exhausted all my options in searching for a safe place. My brother, Sayed, decided to go to an UNRWA school to look for safety for his children. As for me, I decided to stay at my colleague's house, hoping that Israel had completed its objectives in the area. My brother went to the school, but he did not find sufficient space inside the UNRWA shelter, so he returned to where I am staying. 

I collected the shattered glass from the windows and cleaned up the house, which is now without windows. However, I learned from neighbors that we were facing a more significant problem—damage to the water network reaching us due to the airstrike that hit the street and Abdelhadi house. Also, the sewage system was affected because of the extensive damage in the street. Since that day, water has not reached our area, and we are now trying to minimize water usage as much as possible, hoping for an end to the war.

What my family and I are currently experiencing on all levels is a loss of security and the unavailability of essential items, including bread, water, and gas. My current thought is to let the days pass quickly, and if the situation gets a little bit better, I will attempt to take the risk and return with my children to the northern part of the Gaza Strip. There, in my hometown, I can manage my affairs better than in the city of Khan Younis. 

Everyone is suffering throughout the Strip. While there is a sense of solidarity among people offering services as much as possible, the scarce essentials like bread, flour, gas, water, and fuel cannot be given by anyone to another in these conditions. We are truly living in a struggle for survival, and the world is watching us without taking any action.

Two days ago, Israel conducted a massive airstrike in the Yarmouk and Jallad area, where my sister Mahassen and her daughters have sought refuge since the beginning of the war. I tried calling my sister dozens of times, but the signal was weak, making it impossible to reach her or her husband. An entire hour passed while I attempted to contact her, and all possible scenarios crossed my mind, especially the fear that my sister and her daughters might be under the rubble of their house. 

After an hour, I felt relief when she answered my call and informed me that she miraculously survived, along with her young daughters.

I need to pause for now because my current concern is to safely get myself, my children, and my family out of the Israeli war machine. You can try to imagine my situation now: me with my children in Khan Younis in the southern part of the Strip, two of my siblings in UNRWA schools in Al-Nuseirat in the central governorate, my sister in Gaza City, and my father and younger siblings in the northern part of the Strip. With every urgent news report and any Israeli bombing operation in any part of Gaza, I contact my family, hoping they are still alive.


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