It felt like a ‘rain of terror’. There was no safe place in the whole of the Gaza Strip

A boy looking through the damaged walls of his house in Gaza. ©UNDP / PAPP — Abed Zaqout

Sitting on my balcony, looking out into the beautiful deep blue sea as I sip my Arabic coffee, I could be in a luxury resort on the Mediterranean coast. Only, this is Gaza. And only a few days ago, we were in the midst of one the worst hostilities Gazans had experienced.

I had decided to come into Gaza on Sunday before the Eid holidays, to enjoy a relaxing long-weekend with friends. My apartment in East Jerusalem happened to be on the street in Sheikh Jarrah where many were demonstrating against the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes. Police in full riot gear chasing down groups of young men on horseback, the loud bang of stun grenades, smoke coming out of flaming garbage dumps, and the horrible stench of skunk water was getting intense. I thought, perhaps it would be better to go to my quiet apartment in Gaza. Little did I know what was about to unfold.

Sunday night ended up being my first and last iftar (the breaking of the fast during Ramadan), as on Monday, 10 May 2021, exchanges of rockets and missiles elevated the security level and restricted our movement. By Tuesday, it had become apparent that the number of rockets being launched and the incoming missiles was far beyond the ‘usual’ escalation levels, and the situation was deteriorating rapidly.

The sound of F16 fighter jets flying above, booming sounds coming from the navy ships, and explosions throughout Gaza began to intensify. I went to check my windows covered with shatter-proof film to make sure they were open, so the blast would have an escape — just in case. I dragged my sofa to the back of my kitchen, as that was the only area not directly exposed to windows. It was going to be a long and difficult night.

At around 7pm, I was alerted by colleagues and friends that a fourteen-storey residential building less than a kilometre from my apartment was targeted by an F16 strike. The security guard of the building had been informed by the Israeli authorities, and everyone was rushing out of their homes to evacuate. There was chaos on the streets.

The first ‘warning’ strike came. There was a strong ‘boof’ of air pressure, and my building shook. All of us were waiting for the inevitable. After what seemed like forever, I heard the whooshing of the F16 loaded with the missile, heading straight towards us to deliver the final strike. The intensity of the explosion and powerful jolt from the blast felt as though the building next door was being demolished.

At that moment, I made my decision to move to the UNDP compound.

Residential buildings being damaged or destroyed during the hostilities. © UNDP/PAPP — Mohammad Majdalawi

Our shelter in the basement of the UNDP compound became my home for the next 10 days. It also unexpectedly turned into the home of 43 international and national staff and family members of UN agencies and international NGOs.

On Wednesday afternoon, many of the international staff had come to the UNDP compound; they were on standby, waiting for the humanitarian corridor to open to leave Gaza.

I was asked whether I wanted to leave with them. Being the head of the Gaza sub-office, this option had not even occurred to me. My immediate response was ‘No, I will stay with my colleagues here. This is where I need to be.’

When it became clear that there were too many risks for the convoy to proceed and the border would remain closed, I went downstairs to the basement with my team to set up the shelter for guests who would stay for the night. Or perhaps a couple of nights at most.

Every time there is an escalation, or potential escalation, I check our basement with my team to make sure that the bottled water and canned food, as well as mattresses, pillows, and blankets and medical supplies are properly stocked. I check whether the underground fuel tank, the three generators, and armoured and soft-skinned vehicles need to be refuelled. As UNDP hosts the UN Emergency Coordination Centre, I also double check that all communication backup systems are working.

I had gone through this procedure a countless number of times since my arrival two years ago, but this was the first time since 2014 that we would activate the emergency shelter. I was relieved that I had an experienced team who had gone through… unfortunately, many escalations, hostilities and wars, and knew exactly what they were supposed to do. I trusted them with my life. I could focus on managing the compound and keeping the residents safe, and ensuring our national staff were given the support they needed to get through this terrifying experience.

The sound of outgoing rockets whooshing towards the north or east were inevitably met by either the booming of its counter-missiles blowing them up in the skies, or incoming missile strikes delivered by drones and F16s, or the retaliatory projectiles from the sea or land. During my first escalation experience in May 2019, only a week after my arrival in Gaza, I had learned to differentiate the various sounds, which were mostly in the distance. But this time, the continuous intensity of overlapping and intermingled sounds made it difficult to distinguish. This time, the explosions were all around us in the Rimal area — where UN agency offices and residences were located, and most INGOs had their main offices.

UNDP Special Representative, Yvonne Helle, accompanied by Chitose Noguchi, Head of Gaza Office, inspect the damages of houses and facilities accross the Gaza Strip. © UNDP/PAPP — Shareef Sarhan

At night, long after everyone had gone down to the basement to sleep, I would occasionally be able to go down for a few hours to lay down. The shaking of the building and reverberation of the blast through the ground kept many of us awake. During one of the worst nights, when it seemed 80 air raids descended on us within a span of 30 minutes, it felt like a ‘rain of terror’. All of us were absolutely certain; there was no safe place in the whole of the Gaza Strip.

My heart broke when one of my staff told me that her little son clung to her saying he does not want to leave her side, so they could all die together when the time came, so he would not be left all alone in this world.

I know Palestinians, particularly Gazans are resilient, and their tolerance for pain and suffering defies all norms. But all human beings have a breaking point.

As we sat on my balcony looking out at the breathtakingly beautiful sunset, with hues of pink, yellow and orange blending into the blue sea, our UN stress counsellor asked me ‘when were the most difficult moments during the past 11 days?’ I replied, ‘when I feared for the lives of my staff and their families’.

I recalled very distinct moments. When I was not sure whether my head of security was going to make it out safely during an evacuation. When I heard the fear and panic of my staff and her screaming children when the attacks were getting too close. And when the wife of my staff who had just fled their home with their three young children, barely holding it together, looked directly into my eyes and pleaded that this not happen again…

Something has to change this time. We cannot let this happen again.

‏‏شعوب متمكنة، أمم صامدة -الحساب الرسمي لبرنامج الأمم المتحدة الإنمائي في المنطقة العربية. UNDP official account in the Arab States