First Person: Living in Gaza, Under Starlight and Bomb Blasts

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Said Khatib / AFP / Getty

Palestinians carry a bed frame past the rubble of a building destroyed following an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the Gaza Strip on Jan. 8, 2009

As big sister, I accompany two of my five younger siblings to the roof of our 14-story building. We head up there whenever we can, even if people say it makes us easy targets. We climb 13 flights of stairs just to stand and look out on Gaza and breathe in 15 minutes of air before we duck inside again. "Burning City," the children call it. Columns of smoke rise from various locations in the distance, changing the color of the sky and the sun. The entire landscape is transformed. We can make out the locations of several of the many public, residential and landmark buildings that have been turned into piles of rubble. Israeli tanks now block the roads where we used to drive along the coast. Dark, ominous warships look out of place so close to our beautiful Gaza shore, which had been one of the only escapes and a source of relaxation for the besieged people of the Gaza Strip. Earthen barriers have risen in the Zatoun area, cutting off the densely populated, heavily bombarded neighborhood from the rest of the city.

Our entire lives are now one long, chaotic stream of existence: waiting in line each morning to fill up containers with water from the only working tap on the ground floor of our building; baking homemade bread from the depleting supply of flour we managed to obtain a few days into the offensive; turning on the power generator for 30 to 50 minutes in the evening to charge phones and watch the news. Meanwhile, the constant in our lives has become the voice of the reporter on the small transistor radio giving reports every few seconds of the location and resulting losses from the explosion we just heard, or other attacks farther off on the Strip. Not to mention the relentless sound of one or more of the Israeli Apache helicopters, F-16s or drones flying overhead. (See pictures of Israel's deadly assault on Gaza.)

On Friday, while we gathered for dinner, we heard an explosion that shook our building more violently than any we had experienced so far. The panic and frenzy caused tempers to flare within seconds as my siblings argued about what we should do. Leaving the building might be dangerous, but remaining inside could be equally hazardous if the building was being hit by missiles.

People on the outside shouting and banging on our door (we are on the first floor) confirmed that the building had indeed been hit. Within moments we threw on jackets and shoes, grabbed a previously prepared file containing our official documents and left our home. We ran across the street, gathering with the other residents in front of the gate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency headquarters. Young wide-eyed children, wailing infants, men and women stood begging the guard to open the gate and allow them to take cover inside. The guard refused. "Go to the UNRWA shelters," he shouted. "There's one 10 minutes away." We all knew those shelters weren't safe, that 48 people had already been killed in them.

We found out what happened as an ambulance pulled up to the curb. "It was just a small rocket," someone said. "There was just one injury, a small boy on the 12th floor — a block from the wall fell on his back; the rocket came through the window. Small rocket. Everyone can go back to their apartments."

It was a paradoxical sense of relief that came upon us, yet everyone, including the injured boy's family, was thankful that the off-target rocket was not a forewarning of another larger strike. Thousands of other families in Gaza have already been subjected to the horrors of destruction and displacement. We have seen the results of the vicious slaughter of scores of children after the Israelis hit the United Nations school where they had sought refuge. A few broken bones are far better than having skulls smashed or chests torn open. That's how we see it. That's our logic. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

We are now unable to distinguish joy from fear. My 11-year-old sister laughs as she imagines how people all over the world watch the horrific events taking place in the Gaza Strip. "It's like we are in a scary movie. I'm sure people eat popcorn as they watch," she says. My 12- and 14-year-old brothers act out scenes from our reality while quoting Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, their favorite video game, and we laugh hysterically at their performance. Moments later we tense up at the sound of a violent, earthquake-like explosion close by, and resume our laughter when the building stops shaking.

Before returning to our building, I can't help but stare at it for a moment and think that our homes might not always be safe places. But still they give us a sense of warmth, security and protection that is worth fighting for till the very end. I also can't help staring at the sky. The stars are beautiful and seem to shine brighter than ever. I can make out several constellations, and I count five Israeli warplanes.

Safa Joudeh is a Palestinian journalist. She lives with her family in Gaza.