Letter From Gaza: "Birdsong One Minute, Missiles the Next"

“We live a bitter existence, facing the specter of death daily, under the weight of an unjust oppressor.”

Eman Ashraf Alhaj Ali

Palestinian people conduct a search and rescue operation under the debris of a destroyed building after the Israeli airstrike in Deir al-Balah, Gaza on October 22, 2023. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)

If there’s one thing I want people to know about living under Israeli occupation, it’s how quickly birdsongs can be replaced by the screech of missiles. Most mornings in Gaza, my family wake to the melodic symphony of Spanish sparrows gracing our kitchen window. My mother tenderly rouses my younger siblings and our days commence with Al-Fajr prayers — bathing in the blessings of Allah, even as we anticipate our meticulously-crafted to-do lists.

But the morning of Oct. 7, 2023, reminded us that our routines, however sacred, are never safe. My eyes flickered open, gripped by terror as the thunderous roar of missiles shattered the tranquil sky above our home.

Mother, what is happening?” my voice quivered.

My brothers and sisters, ages 6 to 12, had just left for school. We ran to the window and saw them in the street as they shouted for help, their voices full of fear. Come back immediately!” my mother implored.

The days of overwhelming dread have returned … again,” I muttered, my voice barely above a whisper. I reached for my phone, seeking answers in the digital world. Headlines like Israel Declares a Massive Escalation on Gaza,” bring tears to my eyes. Such a swift turn of events can be difficult to comprehend, but such is life in Gaza. Birdsong one minute, missiles the next.

Just days ago, life had proceeded smoothly. After work, I went to the gym, then to meet my friend Asmaa. We discussed the urgent need to delve deeper into the heart-wrenching reality here in Gaza, to unearth truths hidden beneath the surface. Little did we know that we would awaken to yet another shattered dream, another agonizing ordeal.

But the morning of Oct. 7, 2023, reminded us that our routines, however sacred, are never safe. My eyes flickered open, gripped by terror as the thunderous roar of missiles shattered the tranquil sky above our home.

Over the past few days, the heart-wrenching news has continued to pour in, each revelation more unbearable than the last: Israel set its sights on civilian homes, leaving one man bereft of his entire family … A young girl mourned the loss of her dearest friend … The casualties mounted to the hundreds … Martyrs upon martyrs … More souls extracted from the rubble. Countless buildings lay in ruins, a landscape marred by massacres and genocide. Mosques — symbols of our faith — have been obliterated, and at least two ambulances were targeted.

Even now, the harrowing wail of sirens disorients me, the deafening crash of missiles near our home tests my composure, and the glow of approaching danger paints my windows crimson. But I feel the weight of my responsibilities bearing down upon me, and I have no choice but to press on. I clutch my laptop and force myself to focus, knowing that failing to meet my deadlines is not an option.

Like every Gazan family, we have our emergency bags prepared, containing essential clothing and documents in case of a sudden evacuation. We huddle together, a family bound by fear of the unknown, our prayers intertwining with the relentless stream of breaking news.

This is Gaza, a bitter existence, where each day brings us closer to the brink. We face the specter of death daily, under the weight of an unjust oppressor, an inhumane and merciless state that clutches our necks — stealing innocence and joy from our children, and birdsongs from our windows.

This letter was originally published in We Are Not Numbers on Oct. 92023.

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Eman Ashraf Alhaj Ali is an English literature and translation student at the Islamic University of Gaza. She is a writer with We Are Not Numbers.

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