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‘When will we be next?’: A dispatch from Rafah 

A Mercy Corps staff member describes life in the sliver of southern Gaza where 1.2 million people are sheltering in desperate conditions.

A collage of 3 photos. All side by side. One shows smoke coming from a city. The second an ambulance from above. The third a makeshift open fire cooking space.

The situation in Rafah is getting worse by the day. What was once a place with 300,000 residents is now holding 1.2 million people, and we can feel it. Where can all of these people go? What are they to eat and drink? Where are they to lay their heads at night and feel safe in any way? 

People are sleeping in the streets, in public buildings, and in any other available empty space. Schools and evacuation shelters are already full and have been partially damaged by bombing. Streets are overly crowded, and you can barely walk in them. The infrastructure is damaged in so many areas. We wait for running water that comes once a week for around six hours (if we are lucky). When it comes, we use it to clean and try to store it for the toilet.

Families cook what food they can get in smoke-filled alleyways to avoid being out in the open. They cook on fires fuelled by cardboard or wood from felled trees or damaged furniture from bombed houses. Up to 700 people use a single toilet next to the tents, schools, or evacuation shelters where people who have been displaced now live, queueing for hours for their turn. 

Read Nasma's first article: ‘What can I do?’: Reflections of a Gaza aid worker

Diseases and infections are at an all-time high, and there are kids and elderly who are dying, whether from cancer, kidney failure, or other diseases, with limited access to medication. One of my brothers, who is 16, suffers from epilepsy. His seizures have become much worse and more frequent because we don’t have proper access to his medication.

We need more of everything: food, clean water, medicine, tents, and sanitary products. As an aid worker, I never imagined that my family or I would ever need to receive aid. It is so difficult to even get the aid because so little is entering Gaza and distributing it is chaotic because people are so desperate. There are others who need the aid even more than us, having come from the north with absolutely nothing.

Most of the aid coming in right now is canned food, ready-made meals, juice, and water. These items are necessary because cooking gas is scarce. But more than two million people (in the whole of Gaza) cannot survive on this alone.

We also critically need digging equipment to rescue the thousands of people who are still lost under the rubble. I’m afraid to know what we will uncover when this is all over. I fear it will be even worse than we can imagine. 

An airstrike

I remember a day at the end of December when I went to sleep early because I was feeling sick while my brothers and cousins were playing Monopoly. I was asleep by 6pm, hoping that I would get to rest for a while because I had not slept in the past few days. 

I sleep on the floor next to the balcony door, which starts shaking – just like our hearts – every time there is an airstrike or explosion in Rafah or Khan Younis, to the north. Trust me, there are a lot of explosions.

After I dozed off, I woke up to the house shaking and glass shattering. My heart was about to explode. I was in the room alone, and the only thought I had was, “What will I see when I go outside?”. 

The Monopoly game was flung all over the floor, the door was broken, my brother had another seizure, and my mom and aunt were in tears.

My cousins and my other brother, who is 20, went downstairs to try to find out what had happened. I took my brother to a room further inside the house so he wouldn’t hear the ambulance, the screams, and the airstrikes, or smell the smell of death.

The building bombed was directly across from our house. It was hosting displaced people from the north. Looking down into the street from the balcony, I saw so many children dead. I saw a man running with a tray that held the shattered flesh of the dead. I saw another man collapsing in tears after his mom told him that his brother, who had gone to fetch water, had been killed. I saw people, barefoot and stepping in mud, holding the dead bodies in blankets. I saw a man running after them with a dead man’s hand to throw in a blanket so it would be buried with him. 

I am not sure how I managed to even put what I saw and heard into words. I don’t think I can even begin to express our feelings of fear, helplessness, and قهر (qaher), an Arabic word that is difficult to define.

A picture of rubble with some writing on the wall: “Omar and Usama are still under the rubble.”
A photo of a bombed building with the words "Omar and Usama are still under the rubble" spray-painted in Arabic.

No good choices

Hundreds of trucks with humanitarian assistance are lined up waiting to enter Gaza. It frustrates me no end to know that aid is being withheld or cannot otherwise make it to us. The blockade and restrictions on movement not only limit the flow of aid but also impede the restoration of crucial infrastructure. 

There is no opportunity for us to even try to recover. The bureaucracy and Israeli inspection process make it nearly impossible for aid organisations to know what will be approved or rejected, all while lives are on the line. Every day that goes by is another day someone cannot get the medicine, treatment, or nutrients they need.

Sadly, we have team members we have not heard from in over a month because of the intense situation in their areas. I just hope that we will hear from them one day soon, to know they are alive. 

When the communication blackouts happen, like the most recent and longest one from 17 to 24 January, we cannot contact anyone or know anything that is going on. When aid organisations cannot communicate, we cannot deliver aid because we don't know what the situation is or where we are going, and we cannot risk the safety of our team. As we have said since the beginning, we must have a ceasefire in order to provide an adequate response. 

Sadly, we have team members we have not heard from in over a month because of the intense situation in their areas. I just hope that we will hear from them one day soon, to know they are alive. 

I feel lucky that two other displaced colleagues and their families are able to stay in my family’s home. After orders to evacuate northern Gaza, they were displaced several times before they came to us. At our house, we have around 30 people now, so everything that we manage to find – mostly canned food at this point – is very scarce, and we try to manage it very carefully. 

Every week, there are at least three people in the house who get sick from the terrible conditions and water that we drink. We know the risk we are taking when we drink water but we also know we cannot live without it. 

These are the decisions we are making every day. None of the choices are good. We just do the best we can. We combine our resources to have one meal a day, and that meal costs us a lot because the prices are so high due to how limited goods are. There aren’t even clothes to buy, and many displaced people barely took anything with them. So we are always sharing whatever we have with whoever needs it most.

Together with other Mercy Corps colleagues, we have tried to get creative about how we can help. We were able to get some aid, so we organised food packages and distributed them around the neighbourhood, and we gave other aid packages to volunteers to prepare hot meals. Of course, we wish we could do so much more. 

While I was walking the other day trying to find food and whatever was left in the market, I came across a woman cooking pastries on an island in the middle of the road. Her baby was cradled in a sling across her back, and her other children were gathered around her, helping to stoke a fire made of wood. Using ingredients from an aid distribution, the woman was rolling out the pastries, filling them with cheese, and then wrapping each one in a piece of paper. By selling them, she was trying to earn enough money to provide basics for her family, especially diapers for her baby. 

While I was eating one of the pastries, a little boy asked me for the piece. I gave it to him. He was barefoot and barely wearing clothes in the cold weather. He looked as if he hadn’t eaten in days. As I said before, I wish I could shelter them all. To know my neighbours are in need but not being able to help really hurts my heart. 

So, we are still alive, I guess, but barely. We don’t have any hope to cling on to anymore, honestly, just like the rest of the people in Gaza. But at least I’m privileged enough to tell you that we are still managing to live. At night, we gather around the fire to drink tea, if we have it. We talk about what used to be and what could happen, with the sounds of drones always around us. We look up at the sky and wonder: When will we be next? 

Produced with the support of Natalie Fath, Director of Communications, and Abeer Jaddou, Senior Communications Coordinator for the Middle East, at Mercy Corps. Edited by Eric Reidy.

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