A Diary of Gaza’s Destruction

A Palestinian poet chronicles the war raging around him

A Diary of Gaza’s Destruction
A Palestinian man carries jerrycans of water in Gaza City in March 2024. (Mahmud Isa/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: The below is based on a collection of diary entries written by the Palestinian poet and literary critic Talat Qudaih from the beginning of the present war in Gaza until March 2024.

Why do we need to recount what has transpired since Oct. 7, 2023? Must we chronicle the calamities that have befallen us, akin to torrential rain — an onslaught of missiles, bombs, shells and bullets that have extinguished lives, torn bodies asunder and marred the essence of childhood and innocence? Amid the debris of human limbs and the torrents of blood, how can I muster the resolve to write about all of these tragedies?

Since the news of Oct. 7, the world has stood aghast, bearing witness to Gaza being transformed into a charnel house, seared as though in the throes of hellfire. The international community glimpsed the horrors of Gaza, engulfed in flames, its destruction tinged with the foul smell of burning flesh, an abhorrent spectacle of cataclysmic desolation.

Now, within the hollows of devastation, we stand as we watch our worlds crumble around us. A barrage of agonizing inquiries besieges us, propelling us toward oblivion: What of safety? Of dreams? These questions gnaw at our very being, both soul and flesh, in a manner never before encountered in our wartime experiences. Our minds are overwhelmed by an existential dilemma: Where shall we turn? How do we persevere through this obliteration? To which vast void will we finally ascend? From the outset, it was clear to me that only those marked by fate would weather the storm of this war.

On the morning of Oct. 7, the situation was unclear. The sounds of rockets and shells being launched from Gaza filled the air. As I searched the internet for any information, I came across reports of jeep-like vehicles patrolling the Israeli settlements near what is commonly referred to as the Gaza envelope, and groups seizing control of the distinctive tiled rooftops of the settlements. Confusion reigned. Could this be the doing of artificial intelligence? It was hard to believe that Israel’s highly touted security apparatus, renowned for its technical expertise and surveillance capabilities, could be so easily overwhelmed. Only the attackers knew the truth of what was happening.

My friend, the writer Nasser Atallah, was in Syria. He reached out, eager to understand this shocking development. I shared with him what little information had been disseminated by the media that morning: A leader within a Palestinian faction had been killed, triggering this response (I meant the unusual volume of rockets being fired). A Hebrew news outlet at the time ran a headline stating, “The Islamic Jihad Has Gone Berserk!” The prevailing assumption was that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group (PIJ) was responsible for the rocket attacks, not Hamas, who appeared not to have anticipated a military escalation.

I chose to remain in my home unless the situation drastically worsened. We spent nights at home, closely observing the unfolding events. It was war, but not just any war. The death toll on the opposing side surpassed the total fatalities of all Israel’s previous conflicts, with hundreds captured as well. This reality was beyond comprehension. The details of how and why this happened might remain elusive for quite some time.

Remaining in my home, east of Khan Yunis near the border, increasingly felt like courting danger. We sought safety elsewhere. We found refuge in a library, specifically the library of my friend Nasser. Right from the start, he had graciously offered us a place on the ground floor of his house.

Finding sanctuary in a library was something of a luxury, igniting a natural desire to explore its riches. I discovered works by familiar authors, among them the Palestinian writer Ahmed Zakarneh and his writings on the consciousness of defeat. Was there foresight in his contemplation of war, perhaps a prescient inquiry into what to do when it happens?

We stayed in place for three days until a warning from the occupation forces compelled us to evacuate. Initially, I thought of the UNRWA schools for refuge but, adhering to the advice of seeking separate domiciles to increase the chances of survival, I chose to scatter our family between Bani Suhaila, a town east of Khan Yunis, and the city of Khan Yunis itself, in the southern Gaza Strip. Over the following month or more, our time was marked by brief reunions and then extended separations. Some of us found shelter in the town’s school, while others were in the city.

The dilemma of whether a writer can detach from the adversities of wartime life lingered in my thoughts, particularly after a conversation with the director of an UNRWA school. He asked, “How many family members do you have?” Given our dispersal, I pondered whether to report the smaller number with me now or the larger count. This decision would affect the limited daily food allotments. Oh, did I forget to mention that by this stage, our survival had become dependent on the daily meals provided?

As the war intensified, pain permeated our days, and the burden of living increased. The persistent question of “how” became an unquenchable ember, sparking a deep, soulful lament that was compounded by the questioning gazes of those around me: When? How did we end up here, and when will it all end? Leaving the school or shelter, I encountered two kinds of anguish. The first was the survival instinct I witnessed around me, transforming people into beings driven by desire, willing to trade anything for the barest necessities, a daily routine that crushes one’s soul. The second source of anguish arose from contemplating the future, with the question of “when” resurfacing, poignantly echoing with tears for the ongoing and past events.

A sandstorm of pain haunted the convolutions of my thoughts. People are skilled at possessing, even when they already have much. The veins of many had stiffened from carrying multiple bags and cartons of aid, yet no amount was ever sufficient. Greed does not distinguish between war and peace.

The shifting sands of daily news quickly took us from the prospect of a truce or calm to the reality of the occupier’s rage, relentlessly plunging its bayonets into our flesh. We no longer sought camouflaged news and began to disregard any updates that did not contain the clear, unequivocal term: Cease-fire! What use is news to us if it offers not a shred of certainty?

The war will end one day, and a new war, of a different kind, will begin. A fierce war, sparked by our anticipation of returning to our homes and finding a way back to them. Along that journey, thousands of terrifying questions will erupt like laid and forgotten mines, concerning what has happened and its consequences.

Then, each of us will start to comprehend the future that lies ahead, faced with a barrage of questions: how, when, where, why, what if? These questions will not stand alone; instead, they will form the alphabet of what was and what will be.

The cause of Palestine is not solely a Palestinian, Arab or Islamic issue; it is a human, existential issue. It is a universal matter, a struggle between tyranny and the quest for freedom from it.

History will document everything that has transpired, capturing both its light and shadow. It will only take time to uncover how Oct. 7 came to be. Do not assume that this day is without its complexities, whether in its signs, precursors or consequences. However, it is a day that will alter the course of the struggle.

I write, therefore I still live.

We ruminate on our 10 days of war as if it were bitter melon. Time has lost meaning, as if it were 10 years, not 10 days. The flood drags us down its spirals and along its currents.

Tonight’s jamboree of raids and bombs started early. Immediately after sunset, there were bombings of homes and Al-Aqsa University in Khan Yunis. Homes are demolished over the heads of their occupants, and the horns of ambulances do not quiet or give rest. Their speed is frightening, the fear proportional to the number of dead and wounded, but never close to the depth of pain bleeding from our souls.

The exodus to the south is ongoing. In bed, I toss and turn. Sleep has deserted me since this horror began. The sound of explosions and death shakes the earth and shatters the stillness of the heavens. The people’s pained groans and their terrified and continuous mutterings do not give you, even for a moment, the ability to seize the night with rest to overcome the fatigue of body and soul.

You wake up terrified at dawn, unless your death succeeds in catching you asleep. You rush to call and check on your family. Some of them answer and some of them do not, either because the communications network was cut off, or they fell asleep, or because their phone had a dead battery.

In the morning, I go out. The daily scene is the same, queues upon queues: queues for bread that can barely fill the need, queues for the bathroom, queues anticipating a whiff of electricity to charge their cellphones, queues of crowded cars, and the largest queue is the endless waiting queue — the queue of days. A thought tears at the walls of the soul: “This war may take weeks!” Then a question arises: “Where will this lead us?”

We each think about only two things: the lives of our family members and the safety of our homes, because the loss of either of them would spell a catastrophe and a lifetime of suffering.

We don’t know what to do but wait.

Yesterday, they distributed light blankets, those lead-colored ones for which UNRWA is famous.

We no longer want to know what is happening. We just want to calm down enough to sleep, to check on those we love, to do anything other than look at the sky for fear of a sudden bomb dropping.

We wish we could sleep and feel absent, not wide awake!

Sleep eluded me last night, not even gracing me with its lightest touch. The sounds of explosions reverberated through space and time, with the fervor of planes dropping fire as if the sky rained flames. Ambulances, with their frantic wheels, tore through the earth’s surface, heralding the approach of disaster throughout the night.

Scenes of destruction, the din of bombings and warplanes, conversations, screams, pleas for help and efforts to deliver humanitarian aid unfolded while warplanes hovered over our devastation, our thirst, our hunger, our suffering and our very humanity.

The Gazan day weighs heavily, marked on a calendar of distorted humanity.

It begins with the morning queue for a loaf of bread, now a tremendous challenge to quell the hunger of a child amid war. Time loses its essence in the queue, rendered valueless when tyrants seize it, along with the rights to freedom and life.

Is it worth spending half a day to secure half a loaf of bread, which in turn only sustains life for another half day? Life is precious, yet death looms large.

Personally, my concern for food has waned. When one loses the zest for life, the prospect of death ceases to intimidate. A few biscuits and a cup of any beverage (coffee, tea or otherwise) suffice to meet that need.

I’ve embraced a life of austerity, training myself in fasting and walking. I cover long distances on foot, reflecting on the plight of Gaza.

I am astounded by those who can still smile in the midst of this war, and I wonder: Are they, by smiling, training their faces for an expression they might struggle to master later? Or are they sidestepping reality, evading it to brace for a future even darker and bleaker than our current existence?

Securing half a loaf of bread over three or four hours becomes a heroic act that demands standing in line tirelessly at dawn.

If we emerge from this war, our attitudes toward time and the act of waiting will be forever changed. Losses and victories lose their traditional meanings and values; victories no longer taste sweet unless they signify life and shelter for a Gazan.

The war of 2023 has divided our lives into a “before” and “after,” altering the scales of profit and loss, of value and worthlessness, all through the lens of conflict.

The value and significance of things are now measured by our need for them, and in the midst of this brutal war, there is no greater need than the quest for life and safety.

After opening your eyes, you rub them, attempting to clear away the grime. Be cautious not to blow your nose too vigorously to avoid muscle strain or the risk of an ailment.

You may head to the bathroom as necessary. When washing from a bucket, it’s fine to run some water through your hair — don’t worry about whether it’s healthy. Consider massaging your face with your hands to prevent it from becoming stiff and accelerating the formation of wrinkles. Isn’t it enough that our hearts bear the scars of war’s toll?

Through what is termed “the safe corridor,” allowing residents from the north and Gaza City to cross to the south, people proceed in lines under the watchful eyes of soldiers. Commands are issued through loudspeakers: Stop, walk, come, go, etc.

Suddenly, a voice called out:

“You, in the brown jacket, drop the bag from your shoulder, now!”

For the person addressed, it felt as though the world had spun. How could he abandon his bag, containing all his life’s savings — $50,000, his wife’s and daughters’ gold, and his identity documents? Yet, there was no choice; it was either the bag or his life. With only moments to think, he set down his bag, leaving decades of his life behind on the ground without looking back. His tears, his silent groans, and his wife’s stifled screams and shrieks were all that followed.

He moved on, and with him, everything passed.

If only the prisoners in the occupation’s jails knew the devastation that Gaza would endure for their freedom. Perhaps, then, they would prefer their chains.

We returned home for seven days during the truce that began on Nov. 24, bringing back everything we had taken with us. When the truce ended, we left with very little, hopeful that the situation would improve after a day or two.

Now, after a night of intense bombing and nonstop explosions, I question whether we’ll ever need the luggage we brought back again.

I understand the value of a home to those who dwell within. Homes occupy a space within us just as we occupy them. My home holds a unique story. I nurtured it as one would a child. From 2011 until early 2023, it matured under my care, evolving into an elegant structure with a magical touch, filled with the echoes of laughter and tears in every corner.

Homes carry stories and scents.

Even the books I had taken with me were returned to their rightful place, their library, like children to a mother’s embrace.

I left with only clothes and some utensils — the bare essentials for survival.

This morning, I was determined to go home by any means necessary, regardless of the cost. I did not hesitate. The lack of flour, gas and other essentials made the prospect of continuing to live in a school unbearable.

Placing my faith in God, amid the continuous sounds of bombing, I opted to walk in high places instead of riding a bike. The roads were littered with debris from the bombings, a mix of glass and stone. Whenever I encountered a patch of asphalt, I rode a bike.

Along the road, I saw dozens of people carrying their belongings, fearful they might not be able to return in the coming days due to the anticipated dangers following Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant’s threat to enter southern Gaza.

Regardless, I made it to Khuzaa intact. The town appeared deserted, lifeless and forgotten. I encountered only four people carrying their luggage. I continued on, with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes, until I finally reached home.

My house! Yes, my house, are you still standing?

A wave of relief washed over me when I saw it upright, dignified and unscathed. I embraced and kissed it as though I were kissing my granddaughter’s face. I quickly gathered what I could and began to walk briskly, having rewarded my fatigue with a hot bath, hoping the house would withstand my journey back. My departure turned into a run upon hearing the whistle of gunfire, realizing staying was futile.

I walked about 5 kilometers, with the sound of explosions for company. I opted for a sandy road on my return. Along the way, I encountered people packing up and others staying put in their homes.

Coming across a dripping water tap, I rushed toward it and drank my fill. Continuing on, I reached the town of Bani Suhaila on foot, feeling somewhat reassured until I noticed signs of recent bombing. Upon asking, I learned that the area had been struck just 15 minutes earlier. Finding a shop opening its doors, I requested a bottle of water, drank and quenched my thirst.

Exhausted from both physical and emotional tolls, I knew the task had to be completed swiftly due to the constant threat, as nowhere in Gaza was safe.

Upon reaching the city of Khan Yunis, I was immediately asked, “Do you sell flour?” I responded no and continued to my destination. I shed my external load but kept the internal one hidden. With a deep sigh, I exclaimed, “O, cursed war, what have you done to us?”

This decision may seem insane and life-threatening, but do the dead fear death? Thus, the choice was made.

The journey spanned approximately 9 kilometers.

I walk a road crowded with the miserable, witnessing women weeping over their martyrs, their shattered lives, and motherhood crushed by war tanks, all while being transported on a cart pulled by a donkey who shows more compassion for our plight than humans do.

Tears have ceased to flow, silenced by an excess of sorrows, the ravages of war and a tightness in my chest that struggles for breath.

We are disfigured, scattered; our hearts are rent by oppression and tears. Our inner selves are mutilated as if we’ve lost a part of ourselves we will spend the rest of our lives — should we survive — searching for.

A deep abyss pulls us into darkness, a thick fog envelops us, death strikes from every direction and glimmers of hope fade in a land no longer hospitable to life.

Has this land not been sated by the blood spilled? Was all this devastation not enough for her? How long until the dice are cast?

We no longer comprehend anything. What is unfolding before us? Is it reality or merely an illusion? A nightmare or a punishment?

We know nothing anymore.

All hope is lost. There is nothing left worthy of life in a land that quenches its thirst with the blood of the innocent. When death can claim your life at any moment, everything within you fades away. Questions wound you, and answers betray you.

When will this nightmare end?

When will salvation come?

Can a knife and flesh be considered equivalents? Is the interaction between meat and knife equal, and does the prolonged confrontation between the two serve both as metaphor and reality? Another chapter of death unfolds in the frenzied war on Gaza, perpetuated by the rapacious Israeli occupation. Suddenly, the sound of a speaker mounted on a drone echoed through the school district, announcing: “Whoever hears this call now, leave immediately, or this place will be completely destroyed!”

Faces registered shock and horror, bodies and spirits trembled, and eyes filled with tears. An urgent existential question emerged for everyone who heard this deathly threat: Where should we go now, O God? In whom can we seek refuge, O Lord of the world? The earth has become constricted for us, and the heavens have forsaken us!

The announcement sent waves of chaos and turmoil through UNRWA and other government schools, and into our spirits, crushed under the severity of this aggression, as if the Day of Judgment were upon us.

Fathers and mothers cried out, urging us to carry what might help us survive a little longer, to give us time to endure the exodus, hunger and all the torment coursing through our veins like blood.

In sheer terror, people rushed to exit as though it were the end of the world. Thousands of displaced individuals flooded the streets, fleeing the hellish conditions and the looming threat of death if we did not escape with what remained of our lives — or faced a deferred death. The journey involved passing through three military checkpoints to reach al-Mawasi, west of Khan Yunis (rumored to be safe). The first checkpoint was particularly daunting; as I approached, it felt as though the Hajj season had descended upon this crowded street, with passage through a narrow 4-meter gap between two tanks. Children screamed, women cried for help amid the horror, and heavily armed soldiers made jests while directing traffic, exerting immense, organized psychological pressure to wear down the displaced.

Crossing the first checkpoint brought a momentary relief from the crushing crowd and suffocation, allowing us to gather what remained of our souls and the few belongings we carried, mainly blankets to fend off the chill of winter and despair.

Two more checkpoints, two more terrors awaited. Upon reaching al-Mawasi, we embarked on another journey of suffering: the quest for a tent, or any semblance of shelter, to protect our bodies.

In war, electric light becomes a luxury, and we make do with water, indifferent to whether it’s fresh or salty. Water, as scarce as justice and humanity, becomes sufficient for us to share, whether for quenching thirst, washing or ablution. However, to obtain even a small amount of water, two possibilities emerge: You either pitch your tent near a water source, typically a saltwater well (not entirely pure), or, if unlucky, the water source is far, leading to the ordeal of transporting water in a gallon or a bucket. You are haunted by memories of abundant water, realizing only now the blessing you took for granted.

After setting up the tent, you consider the urgent need to construct a primitive makeshift toilet — a hole, several sticks of wood and some cloth to cover what is euphemistically called a “bathroom.” Even this requires funds, as prices skyrocket mercilessly, showing no consideration or pity for our plight in this brutal war that primarily crushes the simple, defeated citizen.

When each of us reflects on the hellish situation we’ve found ourselves in, through no fault of our own, we have no choice but to adapt, resist and focus on securing basic needs by any means necessary, clinging to the hope of mere survival.

Contemplating survival becomes a harrowing experience, beyond what the mind can comprehend. Suddenly, the world transforms, without warning, into a new reality with no discernible features — a shapeless, shifting world where cruelty and chaos surpass anything else in the universe!

“I need aid.”

“Give me your ID and ration card.”

In the muted interaction with an employee of UNRWA, without going into any details, you comply with the process, hand over your ID and ration card, and then wait.

“I need aid.”

“Give me your ID.”

Requesting only the ID suggests that this individual is not an UNRWA worker. It appears someone is asking for your identification, but your focus isn’t on who they are; it’s on securing aid … and so, you wait.

You have no choice but to endure the wait, which might last days. It could be brief or lengthy. If fortune favors you, your patience will be rewarded; if you end up returning with little to show for your efforts, you resign yourself to the “glory of the attempt.”

And so it continues.

Compelled, you initiate another attempt … and thus, you wait.

For months, the people of Gaza have faced continuous forced displacement, shuffling from one location to another. The sole directive on where to go comes from the Israeli government coordinator’s Facebook page and from leaflets dropped by Israeli planes, offering only warnings of impending catastrophe. Thus, commands to evacuate one area for another ensue, inflicting psychological and physical turmoil on those who receive these paper leaflets, which descend like minor catastrophes upon our spirits.

In these hellish months, the Palestinian people in Gaza have endured the ravages of a war that leveled everything in its path. It obliterated infrastructure of every kind, imposed an economic siege, razed homes with their inhabitants inside, and targeted every form of health, psychological and cultural service center, including hospitals and clinics. Not even the French Institute, neutral in this conflict, was spared from the destruction. This war has been lethal to all aspects of life in Gaza, affecting both humans and structures.

The conflict has caused immense distress for everyone, leading to a prevalent focus on individual survival — “me, myself and I” became the mantra. Concern for others diminished remarkably, and unfamiliar customs emerged among our people, all pointing toward an inward focus on the self.

Indeed, the war has ravaged everything, including our inner selves, as we grapple with personal and collective survival.

Life has become centered on securing aid to satiate the hunger of the populace. In southern Gaza, we find ourselves in a slightly better — or less dire — situation than our counterparts in the north, where the Zionist occupation outright blocks the entry of humanitarian aid to the northern regions and Gaza City. Initially, the airdrops by Jordanian planes seemed almost farcical; the aid would drop from the sky, only to land in the sea, remote areas or even within occupied territories. Only after disputes were a few parcels claimed by the people.

Imagine, nearly 1 million people are hungry.

Now, people envy those who were martyred on Oct. 8, for they were spared from witnessing the widespread killing and destruction that has since engulfed all of Gaza, a Gaza we scarcely recognize anymore.

The line between body and soul becomes increasingly elusive.

It is said that the body ages while the soul remains youthful. Whether one agrees or disagrees, it’s clear that our zest for life has been extinguished. The flicker of hope that once spurred us to defy death and declare our will to live despite everything has vanished.

I suspect that those who survive the war in Gaza will have to abandon many familiar aspects of life: the disagreements, closeness, complex relationships, lofty aspirations and the jumble of memories — places and times. This isn’t a critique of the Gazan spirit but an acknowledgment that we cannot afford to lose what remains in anticipation of another unknown war.

We need to foster a clearly defined, modest memory, one free of longing, the agony of loss, or persistent passion.

Gaston Bachelard once said, “We become trees when we do not exhaust the earth with our travels.” While this might hold true elsewhere, I’d rather deplete the earth with our journeys to plant trees all around than see them incinerated, their potential lost in vain.

If I survive, I remind myself to document extensively what has transpired and what is occurring. I won’t fault myself for portraying the truth as I’ve witnessed it, without adornment or pride clouding the recollection of these events.

Andre Malraux once said, “Every man resembles his own pain.”

I am in pain now. I experience the atrophy of memory, the cloudiness of the senses and a brain that seems to endure electric shocks daily. There is no apt description for a mind so tortured. I feel the autumn rain in the years of my life moving farther and farther away. The horizon narrows, leaving me unable to foresee any future. The anguish of the empty inkwell reverberates where the mind’s chambers groan, echoing Mahmoud Darwish’s words: “Nothing pleases me.” This sentiment resonates with me as I reflect on what has occurred, what is occurring and what is yet to occur in our lives.

Why attempt to breathe with my lungs when my country now lies breathless, plundered by the thieves of war?

It’s as if I’m watching a film in a dark cinema, forbidden from sleeping until the end. Leaving the cinema only returns me to where I began. The absurdity lies in the lack of sleep, in the darkness, with the film being my own existence.

I write with letters that ripple from a wound, from a body traversing hot coals with every step. The flames and their inferno have consumed this body. Any attempt at a clever maneuver, a somersault perhaps, renders my grievances laughable upon landing on other coals.

A hidden tumor burdens the memory on my back, and a swelling in my eyes captures sights I’m ashamed to articulate. Maybe, someday, I’ll suggest removing this shock collar to voice the unspoken, perhaps.

Until then, if I survive, I’ll keep polishing the edges of memory like a lantern, dispelling darkness and leaving behind the husk of a voice silenced by bombardment, a voice that coughed until the air cleared enough to grasp at some form of life again.

This is Gaza, ladies and gentlemen.

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