We have learned to distinguish among F-16 bombings, Apache and tank shelling, and the sounds of various other projectiles exploding. But two days before Israel halted its ground offensive, Gaza witnessed the most intense attacks and the deepest incursions into its towns so far, and while we could hear a variety of blasts at the end of our street in the Tel al Hawa neighborhood, the sounds were now coming almost simultaneously. At around 6 a.m., after a night of fretful listening, I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
At around 8 a.m., I was awoken by the sound of pounding on my bedroom door. I walked out to the living room to find the apartment in complete disarray, as my family and other relatives who had taken refuge in our home rushed around gathering themselves and some belongings and headed to the door. I was told to get dressed immediately and, having done so, left the apartment with the others.
My cousin, a cameraman, had arrived in an armed press vehicle after hearing the warnings issued by the Israeli military that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters, across the street from our apartment-building compound, and all the surrounding buildings would be bombed within the coming minutes. He arrived at our door just as the news began to spread. The entire building was quickly evacuated. We were, in fact, among the last to leave. We were asked to wait in the entrance for a few minutes, following which we ran one at a time to the vehicle parked across the street. My cousin drove frantically. We didn't know where we were going, but we had to move out of the area. Then we began to hear the bombs fall behind us. We kept moving forward. The car shook left and right, perhaps from the explosions, perhaps from speeding. I didn't know. All I could think about was my home. (See photos of the violence in the Middle East.)
We spent the night at the home of relatives, trying to get information on the whereabouts of my brother, whose home had been raided by Israeli troops the previous night. He was detained, and his wife was left at home with Israeli soldiers pointing their rifles at her head until late in the evening. When my sister-in-law finally called us after the soldiers left, she was frantic with worry. It wasn't until the next morning, Friday at 6 a.m., that we found out what had happened to him. The Israeli soldiers had held him all night, blindfolded and handcuffed in the cold, and interrogated him, along with five other men. My brother and two of the other men were finally released. The others were transferred to an unknown location. My brother was able to find his way out of the closed-off military zone, which used to be his neighborhood.
Come Friday morning, we were anxious to find out the extent of the damage. Despite warnings that the area might not yet be safe, we made a unanimous decision to return to our home. Arriving at the entrance, we saw that we were not the only ones who had returned. Many of our neighbors were pulling up in taxis and walking in with their children.
Despite the charred holes made by missiles in upper parts of the 14-floor building, the place seemed pretty much intact. On entering the apartment, we noticed a thick layer of black residue that had entered through the open windows and covered everything. On closer inspection, we found cracks in the ceilings, walls and windows. We were relieved, however, that no other harm was done to our home.
The cease-fire came into effect at 2 a.m. on Sunday. When we returned to our home, we had no idea that the truce was coming. Now we are dealing with a perplexity. We had all been prepared to sacrifice for the greater cause and had anticipated personal loss. But the experience of the past few weeks raised another, perhaps incompatible, aim: we want to keep our loved ones safe and our lives intact.