'I pray that I die in one piece': Gaza's horrifying genocide through the eyes of a young Palestinian artist

7 min read
07 June, 2024

Alaa Zaqout, a young woman in Gaza, shares the physical and psychological realities of living through genocide in Gaza.

Like most Gazans, Alaa and her family have been displaced several times from their home in north Gaza, which was obliterated last October.

She now shelters in a single room in Deir Al-Balah, central Gaza, with her parents and siblings.

Before October 7, Alaa ran her own arts and crafts shop in the Al-Shati district. She is an interior designer by training and, before the war, spent much of her free time painting at her home by the sea.

'I pray that I die in one piece'

"The sound of gunfire and tanks is approaching. They are next to us now, but I don’t know where. My heart is trembling, this war has changed me and made me into a person I don't know," Alaa shares on the violence surrounding her.

"Fear grips me, and my heart won't stop racing. I’ve grown much older than my age, my hair is turning white with fear."

Alaa shares failed attempts at sleeping, because "the sounds of explosions are so loud that the house shakes every minute" from their force.

"Every whistling missile whispers to me: the time has come for your death. All night I pray to God that I don’t die in pieces, that I die in one piece. I look at my sister soothing the children. They sit quietly and I see the fear in their eyes," she adds. 

"When there are bombs, we tell the children that it's fireworks. But when they bomb too close, that lie doesn’t work. They can see our fear. Even when there are bombs far away, they jump," Alaa tells The New Arab. 

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Israel's war on Gaza has so far killed at least 36,586 people, according to the Palestinian territory's health ministry. Around 80 percent of Gaza's 2.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes, while entire neighbourhoods have been levelled by bombing.

The brutal military campaign has seen hospitals, ambulances, and residential buildings attacked. It has also led to widespread hunger and mass displacement.

"October 9, I will never forget," Alaa says. "The sky was red and it did not stop. The sound of collapsing buildings. Shrapnel falling on our roofs. Stones are a scary thing that I cannot describe, and only those who have lived through our horror can understand. We decided to escape to my aunt’s house in central Gaza, splitting into two groups so that we wouldn’t die together from one bomb – all Gazans know this tactic," the young artist adds. 

Alaa and her family
Alaa and her family before the war

"Everyone has lost someone. I received news recently that the family of my best friend from university died. She’s the only survivor, but her legs and hand have been amputated.

"As for me, my uncle and his whole family were killed. They were sheltering in a mosque when they were bombed. We tried to identify their bodies and take their remains. Amal, my aunty, was without her head and hands. We couldn't find them under the rubble. The parts we did find were transferred to Shifa for burial. Days later, the Israeli army invaded the hospital and took their incomplete corpses."

Horrifying images of charred, dismembered and decapitated bodies have been widely shared on social media and news sites, triggering an outcry over Israel’s atrocities.

'Gaza was colourful'

Talking about what Alaa and her family do to pass the time, cope and survive amid war, the artist tells The New Arab, "I find some peace in my day through drawing. But I’m a painter, and I've lost my palettes and colours – there was no time to take them, or my clothes when we evacuated.

Painting by Gazan artist Alaa Zaqout [Courtesy of Alaa Zaqout]

"Today there's no life in Gaza. Gaza was colourful. Now I see it in grey, as if a candle has gone out and there’s no hope for it. But, God willing, we will fill it with new beautiful colours, and if I live, I will rebuild it and the first house will be my home. My place," Alaa says.

"I used to enjoy the peace of evenings, but now my mind feels like it's going to explode. I hold my phone and look at my photos from before October 7 and cry. I haven’t slept properly since then. No one has. I lie awake thinking it’s all a dream."

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Israel's eight-month invasion of Gaza has also caused major disruption to the water systems and supplies for the besieged enclave's 2.3 million residents.

The recent incursion into the southern Rafah governorate caused over half a million people to flee under the orders of the Israeli military, who have since bombed dozens of areas and seized control of the key border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, blocking the entry of vital supplies such as water and fuel.

"There’s no electricity and no necessities of life," Alaa reveals. "Water comes just once a week, and we try to shower. It’s the same day we wash our hands. Life here is not easy.

"Then I get hungry and imagine what food I want to eat. There’s little here and I’m sick of the cans, it is unhealthy and I’m a person who cares a lot about what enters my stomach. But we are lucky. Many others are starving."

The number of people who have died in Gaza as a result of malnutrition and dehydration since October 7 has now reached 35, with 30 of them being children.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Israeli government is using starvation as a weapon of war.

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Since the start of Israel’s ongoing Rafah invasion in early May, humanitarian workers have been displaced alongside over one million Palestinians, with movement within the Gaza Strip virtually impossible.

Telecommunications are frequently down, and many humanitarian activities have been halted. Aid organisations are reporting that most Gazans are unsure where their next meal will come from and that conditions in new displacement sites are worse than ever.

"My father suffers from diabetes, and now there’s no medicine," Alaa tells The New Arab. "Even the test strips aren’t available, so he hasn’t measured his blood sugar for months. My mother suffers from shortness of breath, but she has not taken her medicine for seven months now. Everyone has gastroenteritis from the bad water.

"Luckily we have good people around us. People who help us get food and necessities. Everyone searches the homes of the displaced to find anything edible. But there are bad people too. War merchants who trade on our hunger.”

'We see your protests'

Alaa continues, "For a few months I was so angry at the world. Everything that’s happening to us is being documented, but this is still not enough for people to care. I’m angry at Muslim countries for not standing with us, and the Egyptian government for profiting from our genocide.

"I used to live a life with dignity and without humiliation. Now I’m forced to do things I never imagined I would do," she adds. 

Alaa says she fears that it’s impossible for things to go back to how they were before.

"I want to leave my country. I need to see the world, to see beautiful buildings, not destroyed. I want our kids to have a normal life. I will come back and rebuild, but only when I feel I’m ready to accept what has happened to us. No one can handle all that we’re going through. Everyone’s trying to leave Gaza."

But, the young artist adds that the global pro-Palestine protests have given her hope. 

"I cannot describe how grateful I am when I see students coming out for us in the West. Before the universities started demonstrating I thought the world was forgetting Gaza.

"We think about these protesters being imprisoned and beaten for us. We see this and I hope the genocide stops so they won’t be harmed. Keep thinking about us,” Alaa concludes. 

Donations to the Zaqout family’s GoFundMe can be made here.

Sebastian Shehadi is a freelance journalist and a contributing writer at the New Statesman

Follow him on X: @seblebanon