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‘They are Cutting Down the Cemetery Trees for Firewood’: Life in the Middle of Gaza Amid War

‘The cemetery has no more space for dead bodies. The graves are full’, British-Palestinian journalist Hamza Elbuhaisi tells Byline Times

Hamza Elbuhaisi and his wife are trapped in central Gaza

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Hamza Elbuhaisi is an award-winning British-Palestinian journalist, author and researcher with more than 15 years’ experience working with in TV, radio, documentaries and online media.

He is currently trapped in Dair Al Balah, central Gaza, with his wife Sara Albhaisi, and has told Byline Times that they are waiting for their names to be placed on the Home Office’s list of nationals who can cross into Egypt.

Here he provides a snapshot of the situation in the war-ravaged strip, as told to this newspaper on the evening of Monday 13 November. 

‘The Smell of Death is Everywhere’

I came to Gaza to see my wife and family. Now I’m stuck in Gaza, waiting for the UK Government to put our names on the Rafah crossing [list] to cross the border. 

So I’m waiting to cross to Egypt to apply there for a visa for my wife. I cannot get a visa for my wife in Gaza, because I cannot reach the consulate, and I cannot go to the north of Gaza because the Israeli tanks are there shooting at everyone. 

I struggle with illness and my wife is my carer. I take medicines regularly. Recently, I couldn’t get some of my medicines, because they ran out at the pharmacies. I cannot sleep well, and I am struggling to deal with this horrific reality. 

Stopping taking some of my medicines soon will affect me badly. Last week, I visited 12 pharmacies. I found the last two tablets for two different medicines, for just one week. So I have enough medications for only one week. 

The smell of death is everywhere in the Gaza Strip. I experienced two Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip previously, but [the scale of] this one is completely new to me. And it is a real, declared war – with explosive barrels that smell like phosphorus, [detonating] randomly everywhere. 

I’m 36 years old. In 15 years as a TV correspondent and journalist, I have never ever witnessed or covered anything like what is happening right now in Gaza. 

The area I’m living in is Deir-al-Balah, in the middle of the Gaza Strip. It was a shelter for those who fled their homes from the north to the southern Gaza Strip. 

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‘No Place is Safe’

Today, no place is safe in Gaza. We are witnessing a horrific war. Israeli war planes are striking the cities like never before, bombing densely populated areas everywhere, particularly Gaza City. 

I live in one flat with four families. Most of them are relatives and friends who fled their homes in northern Gaza. Not all the families left their homes – mostly those who have relatives or friends to the south. But some people who didn’t know anyone also left their homes.

Again, how exactly will we evacuate more than one million Palestinian people from northern to southern Gaza in less than 24 hours or in a few hours?

The problem is not only the time, but also the space. There are not enough places for everyone. This is why some people sleep in the streets and inside their cars. I saw here some people in Deir-al-Balah sleeping inside their cars. It is tragic. 

Most important is the question of where these people will go or how they will get resources they need if they decide to stay. Also, we haven’t had electricity for nearly one month. There has been no fuel or gas entering Gaza since the war erupted. 

If you don’t have electricity, it means you won’t have internet. People started to buy batteries and they charge them in the mosques or in any house that has solar energy. Solar energy is the main resource that is keeping people connected with the internet and the world right now. 

It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been obliged to drink salty water, water that is unsafe to drink. The water is polluted. From time to time, we’re able to buy good still water. But it’s very expensive. All the people in the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) schools drink polluted water. Some of them don’t have money to buy water. 

I also noticed that all the drivers who fill their water tanks with safe distilled water have now swapped it out for the salty tap water, because clean water is all sold out from the shops. To find healthy water to drink, you need to make lots of calls and wait for one, two days or more. Or you wait for aid. I saw a truck in front of the UNRWA schools, sharing clean water, giving people some bottled water. Each one got a box of some bottles.

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All That’s Left 

The food is not enough for four families. Every day, we stand in a queue for at least four hours by the bakery to get some naan bread and not pitta bread. Most of the bakeries who have flour don’t have gas or electricity. So they closed. I saw some bakeries that cooked naan bread: they used firewood to cook it. 

Of the shops, most of them are closed. Supermarkets are closed as well. The fridges in the shops are not working because there is no electricity. It means that we don’t have any yoghurt or milk or healthy drinks. We have no meat or beans. Many people started to buy rice instead of bread. But now the rice is finished as well. 

Last week, most of the shops sold only cleaning stuff. What can we do with cleaning stuff in a warzone? 

There are no goods coming to the Gaza Strip through trucks. The borders are closed. The aid that enters the entire Gaza Strip isn’t goods – I think it’s all medical supplies. 

In our family, we bought wood because the gas has finished and we don’t know how we’d cook. So we started to use the wood to cook only one small meal for nearly 25 people in the house. And we sometimes help relatives who live in UNRWA schools and provide them with some food. 

For example, we cook lentil soup, because it’s easy to cook. Sometimes we make only tuna sandwiches. Some days we eat only bread with tea. Today, we ate only bread with some tea. 

The medical environment is completely damaged. I live near the biggest hospital in the middle of Gaza Strip. It’s called Shahada Al Aqsa hospital. I visit the hospital regularly. There are not enough places for casualties. There are no more intensive care units. So those who have serious injuries are expected to die in a few minutes. 

The Graves are Full

The dead bodies are everywhere in the main front yard. The civilian bodies are unidentified because the Israeli air strike targets the whole families, with no mercy or warning. 

There is a lack of volunteers to bury the bodies in the graves. The issue here is that the cemeteries don’t have enough places to bury the dead bodies, including in areas like here in Deir-al-Balah.

The cemetery has no more space for dead bodies. The graves are full. 

So now they are using one grave for each family, with four or 10 or more dead bodies together. They put them in one grave if they are from one family. 

The question here is if this is against international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention. 

Nobody is safe in Gaza. Bombs are everywhere, targeting civilians. This is an insane war crime, with the full support of the US, Britain and European Union as well. This is madness, the way they bombard residential buildings and hospitals. 

Israel’s leaders will be seen as murderers and war criminals. After all I saw today, and in the last few days, when I visited the UNRWA schools here in my city, I can tell you that the world is unfair and unjust. 

This so-called United Nations is failing again to protect civilians against the massive, brutal Israeli machinery. For us, Israel has never been a democratic state, but a gang that has committed war crimes against Palestinians since the first war in 1948. 

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The Trees are Gone

We have to raise our voices and tell people the reality.

I live better than the people who have fled to the UNRWA schools. People there are suffering a lot. It’s unbelievable. You can’t imagine how people are living. They are sleeping on the floor. They don’t have mattresses, pillows. Some have only one or two [rugs]. It is very dangerous for the kids. 

There are so many problems here. I saw a woman gave birth in an UNRWA school, because she can’t go to the hospitals. She had her baby in front of me. But she is in pain.

It’s much better in the middle of Gaza, than in the south and north. There, nobody can reach them. They don’t have enough food. I don’t know if people who are stuck in the north are drinking or eating. I have no idea. But I can confirm that it’s very tragic and horrific. 

I cannot imagine how people live there. They are still there. They didn’t leave. Some people didn’t leave at all in Gaza, including some places in the north because they don’t have any friends or anyone to help them to leave. 

Today, I saw people in the cemetery, cutting down trees. And when I stopped, I asked them: “what are you doing?” They said to me: ‘We are cutting the trees for the branches. The branches will be used to cook for our children.’ 

And I thought: never in my life have I seen people cut down trees in the cemetery to make fire to feed their children. 

I think that’s all. I hope that there will be a ceasefire soon. 

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