“When you shoot, please shoot to kill”
By: Jehan Alfarra
“I do not know whether I should blame Israel or myself for not printing out the papers, or perhaps even blame my uncle for forgetting to bring us some fuel for the generator this time. How naïve of me to trust the electricity schedule! How naïve of me to not see it coming! I should have gathered that electricity for two days in a row, which I had a party about, were not some apt mistake on their part! I should have gathered that they would get me back! And here I am, stuck in front of the laptop screen and I can do nothing about it. I cannot believe I have actually waited till the midterm night to print out my work and did not consider that the electricity might go out – even though it was supposed to be back at 3 pm today!”
She was sat there in the dark, with her little sister, Salma, lying on the mattress next to her, and she, hardly able to hear herself think with the aggravating, irksome noise of the neighbouring generators she had grown accustomed to, supposedly reading, was actually predominantly just watching the low battery indicator on the laptop almost hit zero. And… there it goes… The flashes of the red X on the indicator laid down the law. She must wait for four more hours for the electricity to come back.
She crosses over to the window of the bedroom. She leans over it, and placing her forearms on top of each other, she gazes out to the horizon. She watches how strangely and beautifully the sky has merged with the ground. One black surface patterned with an array of white dots, posing much like polka dots that she loves so much. It always amazes her to see how those buildings on the other side of the border line in the distance, with their never-out lighted-windows, shaped much of an extension of the starry sky.
A sigh departs her lips as she turns around and crosses over to the drawer of her dresser where she keeps the candles, and placing a candle on her dresser, she draws the lighter from her pocket. It never grows old how beautiful she finds it when the softly born flame springs up passing from the lighter to the candle thread. She mysteriously finds comfort and contentment in the burning beauty of this candle. She can sit there for hours just watching the flame blaze on and burn out, occasionally playing with the wax with the tips of her fingers.
She could see a reflection in the mirror behind the candle. She could see a scarred forehead, two cavernous hazel eyes, a nose, and slightly parted lips. She smiles and her eyes twinkle, and she watches how the mirror reflection smiles exactly the same. She utters, pointing at it with her finger with some frenzied laugh, “You will suck at your exam tomorrow, Laila”, though the reflection does not reply. The smile soon dims out, another sigh makes its way out of her dry lips to be wetted with an intense tear trickling down her face. Her hand moves up swiftly to wipe it out, as though it were a sin for her to cry. She must not cry. She hates it. But how could she not? Two years have passed now since he had died. And she… well, she has been strong all along.
It replays and replays on an unremitting wheel in her head, making her wonder if she should drop her medical degree altogether. The mere thought that she might have to do what those doctors were forced to do with her father haunts her. “I will be cursed, blamed, and helpless. I will be responsible for people’s lives! I will never forget. How can I?” she thought, rubbing both eyes with her cold fingers, “maybe I should forget about medicine. Will I be strong enough for it?”
It was an oddly quiet night that night, when she slept at last with the break of dawn, crammed with her two sisters on the floor of their dim living room, wrapped up in a couple of sheets, with only the sound of silence filling the space, desperately trying to pass the time they had lost track of, trying to escape the uncertainty of reality, and the hideousness of their days, which has been nothing but a series of very much appalling and altogether horrendous nights; fifteen nights of immense horror and fear that one of those loaded Apache’s flying over their house non-stop, or one of those blood-thirsty monster-like Merkava tanks outside might be bombarding their house instead of their neighbours’ for a change. Fifteen nights of barely any electricity, any phone-line network, or any food. Her father, being indifferent to the intimidation of bullets that had caused more than a few holes in all areas of their house, seized in his inability to ensure the safety of his beloved wife and children, was leaning against the wall, with his hands in his pockets, and his grey eyes watching them breathe slowly as they sleep, momentarily looking at his wife, who was fearfully reclining next to them and desperately trying to comfort her little one with a bedtime story, not being able, just like him, to do anything to stop those cold-hearted zionists from harassing them every time they felt like it. It was then when four israeli soldiers broke into their house, kicking the door down with their filthy boots, one of them munching on some chocolate bar he held in his left hand, and holding an M16 rifle in his right.
Her mother jumped in shock, one hand pressing tightly around her three-year-old Salma who went on crying, and the other covering her mouth so as not to utter a sound. Her heart skipped a beat, and the fear locked up any utterance in her throat and any tears in her eyes. Laila’s father did not know if it was wise for him to approach his young ones and beloved wife. It must be risky with such unpredictable creatures in their house, he thought. To stay still might be safer. All he could do was stand there and pray that they would leave them alone. Laila knew it would be an inconceivable folly to look them in the eye, though the rage in her heart could not take it. She stared and stared at that one soldier, till he fixed his two repulsive eyes on her, pointing his gun towards her, and she, without even a blink, did not turn her eyes. He, then, shifted his gun towards her father, with a smirk like that of a senseless crocodile. He held it there for a few seconds that were the longest and most torturous in the family’s entire history. He did not fire at him. Not yet. He, rather, approached him until he was only 20 cm away. He grabbed Abu Laila’s hair from the back, sinking his untrimmed nails in his scalp, and forced him on his knees. All the while, the rest of the soldiers were roaming about the room, chatting in Hebrew, and laughing. One of them holding the pictures on the walls, picking them up, spitting at them, and breaking them on the ground, and another fiddling with the school books and notes of the little ones, ripping them and grinding them under the heels of his zionist boots. The father could not raise his eyes, not fearing for himself as much as fearing for his family. The soldier started speaking to him, in Hebrew. The father understood some Hebrew but could not speak it. He did not respond. The soldier started kicking him on his bent knees, on his stomach, and got too excited that he started using the edge of his gun to hit the unfortunate Palestinian. The pain was immense, though the man had to take it in soundlessly, for his family. One last strike to his chest was so devastating that Abu-Laila fell down instantly squirming in pain. The echoes of the soldiers’ laughs filled the disgruntled air of the living room. The soldiers walked over towards the door, but before they left, the soldier wanted to finalize his job. He shouted “Mekhabel Arab” [Hebrew for Arab terrorist], spat on the floor of the living room, aimed his gun at the beleaguered father, and… bang! A shot fired.
The soldier was not trying to be funny before he shot, nor was he even just enacting the role of a zionist, israeli soldier. The soldier really believed what he was saying. He believed that this farmer, who had worked tooth and nail throughout his life to provide for his wife and daughters the most basic way of living, was a terrorist. He is Palestinian, an Arab, and that says it all for the zionists.
The mother let out her long-suppressed scream. She, with Laila and little Sarah, crawled over to Abu Laila, who had already passed out. Amidst the cries and the excruciating event, the mother forgot 3-year-old Salma where they were lying down, and it was in a split second that they heard a ravaging explosion which shook them inside out. The quiet night had obviously faded away to introduce one night to never be forgotten. The room was covered in black patches of smoke fused with the wind that blew in from the broken windows, and 3-year-old Salma was hit.
Laila, Um Laila, and little Sarah found themselves forced to be paramedics, a real life or death test. Laila leapt over to pick up injured Salma in her hands, and place her in her mother’s lap. Salma’s leg was hanging, half disconnected from the rest of her body. Blood all over. The mother did not know whether to hold Salma, or her husband. The sounds of ambulances could soon be heard in the distance, and without any thinking, Laila ran towards the door. Her mom, shouting at her, cried even louder, unable to hold her breath or conceal her pain “STAY HERE!!!!!!! Lailaaa… Laila… Habibti, don’t do this to me. This is more than enough… Come back.. I beg you…” Um Laila cried and cried, and 10-year old Sarah was left with no other choice but to join her weeping mother.
Laila, determined to get help, stood at what was left from the door, one hand wiping her tears and the other pressing against her heart, not allowing her knees to let her down. She tried to sneak a quick look at what was going on outside. It was cold, dark, and rainy. She could spot three tanks standing in the distance, like ghosts of the most horrifying variety. Not the ghosts of horror movies, or bedtime stories, but ghosts of a day-to-day life they had been constantly subject to just for being born Palestinians. She could hear an ambulance, though there was no sight of any in front of her. An Apache flew over the house, forcing Laila down on her knees. Soon, the drones came to accompany them, promising some action and swearing that the silent night will not be as still and creepy as it was minutes ago. Laila had to pick herself up. What else could she do! She had to save her father and sister. Or so she used to believe. But, three more rockets hit the area, one falling in their small piece of land they lived off in front of their house, shaking the ground, and throwing Laila so ferociously back into the house where she fell down motionless, with blood seeping down her face, mingling with her tears. A numbness overcame her small body. She felt nothing, and heard nothing.
She opened her blurred-up eyes to find herself in a jam-packed room of five beds, where other little ones were lying, surrounded by their families and a few doctors rushing here and there. She looked around her for someone to recognize, and noticed her sister Sarah, holding her little ripped up teddy bear, and sleeping at the end of the bed where she was lying. Laila could feel something on her face, a bandage. She tried to remember what had happened. She murmured, forcing the words out ‘Baba… Salma…’ Sarah woke up, held Laila’s hand, and said ‘mama is with them, don’t worry. They are alright.’ And Laila fell back asleep.
Sarah let go of her hand, held on tight to her teddy bear, and walked out of the room. The corridor was full to capacity with people lying here and there, her little feet could hardly find a place to move. Some were lying on the floor sleeping, some were crying, some were laughing; it was all too much for her to see. She found a little corner next to a door and curled up there pulling her legs towards her, and placing her forehead on her knees. She had already cried enough that no more tears were left to be shed. She could not bear staying with her family members. It was too much for her small heart, a heart small in size but big enough to endure such horrors. Sarah did not know why it was all happening. Sarah was not fully aware just yet what israel meant. All she knew is that it meant Apaches, F16s, tanks, bullets, wicked soldiers, and blood.
Abu Laila and Salma survived. Salma was too young to realize she will probably never walk again as one of her legs was completely blown off, and the other damaged pretty severely. Abu Laila, on the other hand, had a ripped up kidney resulting from the bullet, which pierced right through, and a slightly broken chest bone resulting from the beats of the edge of the rifle. Fatty droplets–tiny particles of fat from the area of the bone fracture–got into his bloodstream and passed through the heart to his lungs. The droplets triggered immune mechanisms in the lungs, filling the lungs with fluid and blocking the ability to take in oxygen, and resulted in lung hemorrhage.
The family stayed in the hospital for three days, the father on a ventilator until the doctors had finally managed to stabilize his condition. The family could not stay at the hospital any longer. The offensive was still in full swing, and the hospital was receiving more and more bodies of dead and injured, and there was a severe lack of space. A lot of them had to leave and make space for others.
The radio was the only means for them to know what was going on up north in Beit Hanoun where the family lived, and apparently, the invasion of their area was still well underway, and so it was not safe for them to go back to their house that was shelled enough already. Not that the hospital which got its own share of bombardment was safe either! However, it was relatively safer than other areas in the locked-down strip. The mother had to call her sister who lived in the middle of Gaza City to see if they could stay with them.
‘Salamu Alaikom, Mona’ said the mother in a low, trembling voice, fighting back her tears. ‘ Wa Alaikom Alsalam, Mariam habibti. How are you and your family?’ replied her sister.
‘We are at the hospital right now’
‘THE HOSPITAL!’ interrupted Mona in angst. ‘Habibti, what happened? Did anyone get hurt? Are the girls alright!?’
As the tears started building up in her eyes, Um Laila responded, ‘I just want to know if we can stay at your house for the time being. We cannot go back to Beit Hanoun’
‘Of course, Mariam! Do not be silly! It isn’t much safer here but we are waiting for you! Are you not going to tell me what is going on, though? You’ve really worried me now, Mariam! Talk!’
‘Expect us anytime now, dear. I hope you are all safe.’
‘I have to go now, but will call you back before we depart. I love you, sister.’
‘I love you too, habibti. We are waiting. May Allah be with you.’
‘Wa ni`ma billah. Salamu Alaikom.’
Um Laila hung up the phone, with her heart squeezing her. She went up to the doctor, with little Sarah holding on her hand tightly, and told him they had found a place to stay. He gave her a few glucose drips and instructed her and Laila on how to use them. He had also warned her of some life-threatening complications and said that the father needed to be taken back to the hospital once the situation had settled down – nobody knew when that would be.
Amidst the bombing and intimidation of the israeli jets, the family managed to reach Mona’s home. Five days had passed, in fear and grief. In pain and torment. But then, the next morning came, and it was too quiet. Something the Palestinians find dreadful, for it usually means the worst is yet to come, the silence before the storm. However, this time it was the end of the slaughter which felt everlasting to the whole population of the strip. Now the apparent situation is that the suffering has stopped. No more bombing or collective killing. People had endured enough, and now they can go back to their daily lives. For Laila’s family though, the real suffering had all just started.
As they headed back to their home, they found that their piece of land had become nothing more than a bunch of ashes mixed with the sand. The entire harvest of the year is gone with the wind. Palestinians never seem to get tired of starting over. This time, though, Abu Laila cannot start over. Abu Laila’s health is severely damaged. He had to have a kidney operation in Cairo that was put on hold since Rafah terminal was closed. Only some patients, some foreign passport holders, and some of those who had special coordination with Egyptian Intelligence could get through. His kidney operation could not be conducted in Gaza, nor could the lung hemorrhage be treated efficiently without the necessary equipment that Gaza hospitals lack. Abu Laila’s case was critical. Nonetheless, his case was rated to be not as critical as other cases, and consequently he was not allowed to leave to Cairo.
His pain was not physical. He did not give a damn if it hurt or not. Abu Laila’s pain was in the pain of his family. It was in the thought of him being a burden rather than a breadwinner at a time they needed him the most. Laila was torn between running from this hospital to that hospital working on her father’s papers, and studying for her Tawjihi exams to nail that scholarship she had always been dreaming of. Um Laila was torn between taking care of her injured husband and daughter, and running their farm. And little Sarah, who was once a cheeky little girl, became trapped in the images of death and destruction, and the feelings of fear, pain, rage, and hatred. Sarah will never get therapy. She will, however, continue to look after little Salma and play with her, and will continue to sleep next her father whose tears became his nightly ritual.
Abu Laila’s condition was deteriorating day in day out. Four months of utter pain had passed when one day, Laila picked up the phone to the voice of the doctor telling her that by the end of the week, they will have sent Abu Laila’s file and that he might have a chance of traveling for that operation. It was the first good news in way too long! Laila could not believe her ears, nor could her mother believe her! ‘Are you sure he said this? Laila, are you 100% positive?? When would they send it? When would we get the reply??’ asked Um Laila with the tears of joy rushing down her face uncontrollably.
They could not wait until the end of the week. Those five days were longer than any five days ever that their hearts were racing non-stop, and their minds knowing no sleep being unable to wait! Finally, he will be going out for treatment. Finally, he will be able to go back to work. He will be able to eat properly, to take them out, to laugh from the very depth of his heart, and he will not have to worry that he might be dying any passing moment. Finally, Laila will be able to study without worrying constantly, and Sarah will not have to see her father cry quietly. Sarah will not have to hear her parents talk about death and future possibilities anymore. And little Salma will be having all the attention and care of both parents and the entire family now.
Thursday had come. At last. The clock struck 6 am, and Laila and her mother were already up. They had made breakfast for the family and got dressed and headed to the hospital right away. They could not wait for the phone call. They wanted to go and see for themselves.
They arrived at the reception and asked to see Dr. Mahmoud. He wasn’t there just yet. Two hours of waiting seemed, to Laila and her mother, longer than the five days, though they were worth it. The minute he walked in, Um Laila jumped from her seat, and called in anticipation, ‘Dr. Mahmoud!’ Fixing his glasses and swallowing his words, he replied, ‘Oh. Um Laila…’
His facial expressions and his words were not very heartening. The sight of him with that face on made Laila and her mother shudder. It gave them a pinch in the heart. Should they go on and ask him about the papers? Or do they not want to hear something which might upset them? Something that might crush the beautiful fantasies of the past five days. Something that might absolutely destroy any last bit of hope they had. No. Every bit of his face was saying, ‘Don’t ask about the papers. Don’t ask about the file. Don’t ask about the God damn treatment!’. They did not ask. Neither Laila nor her mother could utter a single word. Dr. Mahmoud cut to the chase and said, ‘Um Laila, look… Your husband is quite old, and lived his life to the fullest. If you were in my position, would you send his file or the file of a dying baby??’
Squeezed up hearts, bitten lips, and wide open eyes with a few tears struggling to roll down was their response.
Dr. Mahmoud went on, ‘We had a baby come in this week who has some serious blood condition, and if he does not travel for treatment as soon as possible, the little one might pass away before he even learns how to walk!’
Um Laila gasped in shock as to what this might entail, as Laila shouted intensely ‘WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE LIVED HIS LIFE TO THE FULLEST! WHO ARE YOU TO CHOOSE WHO LIVES OR DIES!’ Their panicking expressions and Laila’s eruption made it somewhat difficult for Dr. Mahmoud to keep the same level of his tone, but he continued steadily ‘Look, I am terribly sorry. There is nothing we can do about this. We only do what we can. If anything comes up, I will make sure to call you! I have to go now, I have a patient waiting. Take care of yourself Um Laila, of your daughters, and of your husband.’
Everything just stopped. The clocks are to tick no more, and the world is to go on no more. Everything seemed too insignificant for a moment. Time is insignificant, pain is insignificant, hope is insignificant, fear is insignificant, and the lives of people are definitely the most insignificant.
Laila wanted to shout, to cry, to scream her heart out! Laila couldn’t. Her mother is having it bad enough. Laila must be strong for her now! One crying and howling in the middle of the reception room is more than enough! The word ‘tyrannous’ echoed in the room, as the mother had a nervous breakdown. What are they going to tell Abu Laila, now? What are they going to tell the man who’s just been setting plans for what he will do for his family once his health is restored??
Nothing. Simply nothing.
Abu Laila left this malicious world three weeks later, leaving behind a family wishing he had died the minute he was shot. A family wishing that he, and they, did not have to go through the agony of inhospitable hospitals, and through the pain of misplaced hope. What Laila and her family would not comprehend, though, is that they were still what can perhaps be called ‘lucky’. Gaza sure is a strange concept. It is, in fact, the very embodiment of enstrangement. It really plays on your definition of lucky, if there ever was one. The family was lucky that the walls of their house were still standing, and they did not have to live in a tent and endure the brutality of winter. Salma, whose nappy apparently poses a threat to israel’s security, is also lucky that her brain is still in its place, that she was able to get treatment inside Gaza, and that the roof of the house did not fall on her tiny body forcing the family to dig up the pieces of her flesh from underneath. Um Laila is damn lucky her physical health is great, and that she is able to fend for her family and provide for them. Little Sarah is lucky she was not also physically damaged, adding to her psychological disturbance. And Laila was also lucky to pass out and not witness more of what can only be called hell on earth, before they were taken to the hospital. Laila is lucky that she was not yet engaged, and that her fiancé was not to be killed making her a widow at a very young age. She is also lucky she had the ability to still concentrate enough to ace her exams and win the scholarship she had always dreamt of. The family’s calamity was not that much of a calamity when placing it on the scale of severity of Gaza’s tragedies. Myriad untold stories are to be buried under the rubbles of Gaza’s desolation, but it’s the Palestinians’ instinct for survival that pushes them to always look onwards. To go back to their destroyed home, pick up the broom, and start clearing out the ruins to start over. It is this instinct for survival and the belief in the justice of their cause that pushes them to grow stronger and more determined. It fuels their struggle for freedom. It is a perplexing way of transforming all this suffering into an inspiration to continue. Gazans have proven time and again they were pretty much like a nail. The more you hit it, the stronger it holds.
Nails sometimes simply bend, however. Laila will not hate the little baby whose file was sent instead of her father’s. She will only hate israel for making it so that the doctor had to choose. She will only wish this baby will survive, will grow up, and will be a freedom fighter. Laila is only human. A strong human, yes, but she is still sat there in her bedroom, with the candle burning out, and as she hears the sound of an Israeli Apache ripping through the sky, she looks over, and in that weak moment and in the memory of all the suffering following her father’s injury, Laila mutters “Next time, finish your job. When you bomb, bomb to end. And when you shoot, please shoot to kill.”