DIARY: Fleeing bombs, trying to endure in a city under fire

National & World News

A view showing damage to the Al-Andalus tower in north Gaza City, which was hit by multiple Israeli airstrikes, Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Are the Israeli airstrikes following us? If you’re in Gaza City these days, no matter who you are, that’s an easy thing to believe.

No one knows where the next explosion will be, or when. Getting an hour’s notice from the Israeli military may save some lives, but not all airstrikes are preceded by warnings. And the constant sound of bombing fuels the pervasive dread that at any moment, any place — including the one right where you’re standing — could become the next target and, shortly afterward, be wiped from the landscape.

In the past week, I have lost my family farm to an airstrike. The building I worked in for many years — longtime location of The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera in my native Gaza City — was leveled an hour after the Israeli military ordered occupants to evacuate. We managed to flee and escape unscathed, at least physically.

And on Wednesday morning, as another day of bombardment in Gaza began — as Israel and Hamas continued to exchange fire — I thought I was going to lose my home, too.

___

Shortly after 9 a.m., my cellphone rang and awakened me. I looked at the number. It was my mother, calling from the apartment next door, where she lives.

I wondered through my grogginess: Why is she calling me at this time? She knows I stay up until dawn filing news reports about the ongoing war.

As I prepared to answer, I realized: Not only was my mother calling me, but she was standing right in front of me in my bedroom, too. She’d come directly in, through the apartment door that I leave unlocked in case there’s an emergency and my family can’t reach me by phone.

Something was amiss. I saw immediately what she was carrying: the “emergency bag” found in every house in Gaza. Such bags are filled with passports, IDs, personal items and the things we don’t want to lose under the rubble if the house is bombed.

Al-Andalus Tower is being targeted, my mother said. If true, this was very bad news.

The imposing building sits just 30 meters (yards) from the apartment building where my mother, various uncles, cousins and I live — the only central location in my life still intact after the past week of disarray. Our building is six floors high; if the 15-story Al-Andalus was brought down, it could fall on our home and crush it.

That’s not just idle speculation. For us, there’s terrifying precedent behind it.

In the 2008-09 war, Israel bombed Al-Andalus repeatedly, destroying half of it (it was later rebuilt). We had evacuated our building back then because a ground invasion was underway and tanks were close.

When we returned after the January 2009 cease-fire took effect, our building had been damaged badly. Windows were blown out. Flying debris had torn the curtains. Light fixtures were smashed and furniture broken.

All of this ricocheted through my mind on Wednesday morning as my mother’s words sank in. I rose, gathered myself, dressed and moved fast. My extended family was in peril. They needed me.

____

Sometimes, you downplay the danger. Sometimes it’s simply what you have to do.

That’s what I did this time with my uncles and their children when I found them all in the stairwell, hurrying down, deeply uncertain. Go to the basement, I exhorted: Maybe this is just a rumor. It might be a false warning. I told them I’d stay upstairs, seek out the facts and make sure that everything was OK.

Everything should be fine, I told them. I wondered when I would actually feel as confident as I was trying to sound.

They headed downstairs, leaving behind apartments with the front doors left open to reduce the concussive effects of bombs and the air they might push through the doorways. I stayed in my mother’s apartment next door to mine. It had a view, and I am, after all, a person whose job it is to observe and chronicle what is happening.

Shortly afterward, I was speaking with an editor about coverage plans. Suddenly, my world shook. An explosion. I looked out the window and saw smoke rising from the roof of Al-Andalus. I hung up and realized it was time for me to go to the basement, too. More explosions were coming.

Understand: At this moment, I was not directly worried about my own building. The Israelis say they are looking for Hamas targets. There is no Hamas in my apartment house. Of this I am certain.

Everyone in our building is known. We don’t have strangers who could be potential targets. I know my cousins. I know my uncles. I know everyone. They are my family. They are not part of any factions. They are not members of Hamas. Some of them have permits to enter Israel.

Because of all this, I have held to a belief that my building is safe. But I cannot speak for the buildings nearby. I have no idea who lives in Al-Andalus or why the building — which has remained largely empty since it was rebuilt — might have been targeted. And as I have come to believe, there is no safe place in Gaza.

___

I ran down to the basement and was astonished to find it empty. I was confused. That’s where they had all been headed. Where had they gone? Were they safe? Or had they fled and been caught up in some of the chaos?

I rushed outside, looked around. I was worried, nervous, afraid — but not frantic. Being frantic does you no good in a place where frantic things can be visited upon you from the sky at unexpected moments.

I found my family outside, in the open street, about 200 yards (meters) away from the building. It was not far, but it was far enough to be out of reach of what was happening to Al-Andalus, which was being targeted for sure.

As we watched, another powerful explosion hit the structure. More black smoke rose, but the building still stood. There was none of the heavy damage that an F-16 bomb would do — as it had with our office building just four days earlier.

The building’s roof and some apartments on its top floor had been hit from the side furthest from our building. And our apartments? They were intact, untouched, left to stand at least another day.

Some of my younger relatives were terrified, including my little 5-year-old nephew. We sent him to my sister’s house, driven there by my brother. And the rest of us? Slowly, deliberately, tentatively, we carried our emergency bags back into our building. And we contemplated the words that are shaping our days: Evacuate. Flee. Bomb. Explosion.

We wanted to nudge things back toward normal. We realized that we had no power to do so.

And so we watch, emergency bags packed, wondering when the next word of an explosion will turn out to be only a rumor — or, worse, when the next rumor moving from one set of lips to another set of ears will become a real explosion that will change more lives here forever.

___

Fares Akram is a journalist in Gaza for The Associated Press.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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