"We escaped hell"

Mohammed Isbitah with his family
Mohamed Isbitah and his family were able to flee from the Gaza Strip to Egypt. But even there, the children in particular are haunted by memories of the war. "We are ordinary people, and we are paying the price in this conflict," says the Palestinian. "Our dream of a normal life has been destroyed again and again" (image: private)

Bombs, destruction, hunger: the situation of the people in the Gaza Strip is catastrophic. Those who can afford to flee to neighbouring Egypt. Mohamed Isbitah managed to do just that. He speaks to Qantara.de about his dramatic escape

By Andrea Backhaus

It's been almost eight months since Hamas' terrorist attack on Israel, in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Since then, the Israeli army has been waging a grim war in the Gaza Strip, and its air strikes have reduced homes, schools and streets to rubble.

A few days ago, Israel's army bombed Rafah. The city is located in the far south of Gaza, on the border with Egypt, and is a refuge for hundreds of thousands of people who have fled from other parts of Gaza. The attack hit a refugee camp, killing dozens of people, including many children. The attack could have hit Mohamed Isbitah too – if he had not decided to flee in time.

Before the war, 37-year-old Isbitah managed a media production office in Gaza City. He helped local and international reporters with their work in the Gaza Strip, for example by providing them contacts, and the author of this text also worked with him. Isbitah left Gaza City with his pregnant wife and four children immediately after the Israeli attacks began. The family stayed in the Nuseirat refugee camp, some 14 kilometres south of Gaza City, for a few months. As the Israeli army advanced, they fled further south to Rafah. From there, the family was able to escape to Egypt a few weeks ago.

We've been in contact with Isbitah since the war began. In text and voice messages, he speaks about his dramatic escape – and how the war still haunts his family in Cairo.

Mohamed Isbitah with his daughter Rana in Rafah. She wants to become a journalist one day
Mohamed Isbitah with his daughter Rana in Rafah. She hopes to become a journalist one day (image: private)

“What is happening in Rafah right now is a nightmare. The images of charred tents and children searching for relatives in the rubble are unbearable. Even though we are no longer there, we feel for our friends and relatives in Gaza. No one is safe there. We escaped hell.

We had to leave our apartment in Gaza City in October, shortly after the war began. The Israeli army sent a warning that it would bomb our house. My house was not hit in the air strikes that followed.

But my father's apartment was destroyed and the apartments of my two brothers badly damaged. Imagine this: I worked double shifts for years to get enough money to buy our apartment and build a nice home for my family. I presume there's only rubble left now.

After 6 months, Isbitah's daughters go back to the beach
After 6 months of war, the three daughters go to the beach again in Rafah for the first time (image: private)

Bombs rained down everywhere

Initially we stayed in a friend's house in the Nuseirat refugee camp, but there too we were bombed all the time. We had only been there for a few days when the most shocking thing happened: my pregnant wife suddenly went into labour. It was the middle of the night, and she was screaming and begging me to take her to the hospital quickly. I tried to get her into the car, but at the time bombs were raining down everywhere, it was too dangerous. 

We left the car and I tried to call an ambulance. That didn't work either, I had no phone connection. My wife had to give birth on her own. Fortunately, she and the baby got through this well. Our little girl is a fighter.

Our daily life became more difficult each day. I kept going out to find clean water – drinking water – and food for my family. But there was hardly anything left at the market and our supplies were running low. 

We couldn't go back to Gaza City; the Israeli army had sealed off everything and forbidden us civilians to return. Anyone who tried was shot by Israeli snipers.

Because the Israeli ground troops were advancing from the north further south and in our direction, we fled to Zawayda in December, a town a little further south of the Nuseirat camp. From all directions you could hear the sound of bombs exploding. 

Once my five-year-old daughter asked me if I knew what day it was. I told her it was probably Wednesday. She said: 'Yes, and it's my birthday, are you planning a party for me?' I didn't know what to say. I couldn't find any candy, chocolate or anything else for her.

After the Israeli attack on Rafah, Palestinians try to extinguish multiple fires
Dozens of people were killed in an Israeli airstrike on the city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip. In the photo, Palestinians try to extinguish multiple fires following the Israeli attack (image: Mohammed Salem/REUTERS)

Trapped in Rafah

We were in Zawayda for about a month when the Israeli army dropped leaflets and asked us civilians to move to Rafah. We relocated at the end of January. We stayed in a camp for internally displaced people, where some relatives were already staying. Like them, we lived in a makeshift tent.

The situation in Rafah is catastrophic. Hardly any aid is arriving, people are hungry and completely exhausted. There are no functioning schools, hospitals, or markets. The doctors and helpers are overwhelmed with the many wounded.

We felt trapped in Rafah. Every day we looked for drinking water. It was icy cold at first, then very hot. Food was hard to come by and completely overpriced. My children fell into a kind of shock. They couldn't get used to having to use a hole in the ground as a toilet. They suffered from not being able to eat fruit, meat, eggs, or sweets. 

They were tense and nervous the whole time. We could hardly sleep at night because of the noise, the constant thumping of the air raids, the constant buzzing of the drones over our heads. One morning my 8-year-old daughter woke up crying and said: 'Daddy, I think there is no place for me in this world, maybe I will be in heaven soon.'

War against the children

When the Israeli army stormed Al-Shifa Hospital for the second time in March, I knew we had to leave Gaza. From then on, it was only a matter of time before Israeli soldiers would take Rafah too. 

In previous wars, it had never occurred to me to leave my homeland. But this war is different, it mainly affects children. Children are killed in Gaza every day. I couldn't sit around and wait for my children to be killed too. That's why I decided to get myself and my family to safety.

My brother was already in Cairo at the time. I transferred him money so that he could pay smugglers to get us out of Gaza. I had to pay the Egyptians a total of 31,000 dollars, my last savings. The smugglers work for an agency in Cairo that specialises in getting families out of the Gaza Strip.

The smuggling was unspectacular: as soon as the agency employees had the money, they put our names on a list that was available to the border officials at the Rafah border crossing. This allowed us to cross into Egypt unhindered.

A shadowy existence in Cairo

In Cairo we are trying to return to a normal life. It's not easy. We live near the airport and every time a plane approaches my children think an Israeli fighter jet is attacking us.

My brother has rented an apartment for us, but it's not easy to pay for it. In Cairo there are many war refugees from Sudan and many Palestinians who, like us, have fled the Gaza Strip. 

They all need accommodation, and this drives up rents. Many Egyptians are very helpful, but some take advantage of the refugees' plight and demand far too much money for food or accommodation.

We lead a shadowy existence. We cannot get residency permits in Egypt, no official papers with which we can register with the authorities. My children can't go to school because of this and that's a big problem. I have to find a solution before the start of the next school year. It's important that my children can go to school again; they have already missed too much.

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Hoping to return

It's uncertain what will happen. The Israeli government is carrying out this massive military operation to show that it can take tough action. They're not concerned about bringing the Israeli hostages home safe and sound or protecting the lives of Palestinian civilians. They seem to believe that by killing Palestinian civilians they will bring Hamas to its knees. But it's obvious Hamas cannot be defeated in this way.

I believe the Israeli government has also another aim in mind with the war. They know that they can't simply drive people out of Gaza; not even the U.S. would allow that. That's why they are making living conditions so bad that people are leaving the Gaza Strip of their own accord. The Israeli army has turned Gaza into an uninhabitable wasteland; everything is destroyed. Anyone with children will sooner or later try to flee to another country.

We are ordinary people, and we are paying the price in this conflict. It's been like this for years. Every time we thought that the situation in Gaza was a little more stable and calmer, a new war broke out. Our dream of a normal life has been destroyed again and again. And yet: I try to believe that this terrible war will soon end. And that one day we can return to our homeland."

Recorded by Andrea Backhaus

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