'A gaping, collective wound': The never-ending torment of a Gazan abroad

'A gaping, collective wound': The never-ending torment of a Gazan abroad
Far from home, Mohammed Seyam reflects on the horror, helplessness and grief he lives with as he watches Israel's genocidal assault on Gaza.
12 min read
30 Jan, 2024
Feelings of powerlessness are overwhelming for Palestinians from Gaza living abroad, who are unable to protect their families from Israel's ongoing assault. [TNA]

The wound of the Palestinian people runs wide and deep. Over 75 years, during which Zionist settler colonialism has forced this people to endure every manner of torture and pain, starting with snatching the land from its original owners, followed by their expulsion, slaughter and fragmentation; then their arrest, besiegement and enforced vulnerability – and every form of persecution you can think of – the Palestinian wound touches every Palestinian.

While no one among this people, whether in the West Bank, Jerusalem, the 1948 lands, Gaza Strip and diaspora, has been left unscathed, it is fair to say the last two decades have seen Gaza's Palestinians shoulder the lion's share of the torture.

Starting with the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, followed by the total siege imposed on Gaza in 2006, itself followed by a string of violent Israeli wars against this trapped people which began in 2008 and continue today.

These wars arrive like harvest season – every two or so years, thousands of Gazan souls are cut down, and the Zionist killing machine decimates everything in its path – stone, human, tree.

This horror is life for those inside Gaza.

"The hardest thing the Gazan expatriate suffers is the sense of powerlessness to do anything for their people as they come under attack"

However the torment is multiplied for the Gazan expatriate who is stuck outside Gaza. All the time, in war or peacetime, thousands of Gazans living overseas are consumed with dread at the notion of  travelling to Gaza, for a multitude of reasons, which makes their expatriation a forced exile, with each individual surrendering to fear and choosing to preserve a semblance of peace.

Years go by and the Gazan abroad tells themselves the situation might improve soon, they might be able to visit…but this "soon" might stretch into a decade – as in the case of this writer – or even longer.

However, throughout Israel's current onslaught against the Gaza Strip, the despair of Gazans in the diaspora has been continuous, and the end of the torture is impossible to envision.

The hardest thing the Gazan expatriate suffers is the sense of powerlessness to do anything for their people as they come under attack. This powerlessness turns into a sense of full-fledged oppression, as even the capacity to send money is cut off.

Attempts to contact his loved ones could take half a day, or more, and his mobile phone turns into an implacable enemy after having been his closest friend. But he cannot put it down, though he pleads with it not to ring, not to sound a text notification, and every time it does, he starts shaking, his hands trembling, from the mounting fear that this will be bad news.

However, when Israeli bombardment of the networks causes a communication blackout, the situation of the Gazan expat is reversed - he begs his phone to ring, to receive any information at all.   

As Israel's assault on Gaza rages, the Gazan expatriate loses the ability to focus on anything, and wanders the streets bewildered and sad, facing possibilities like losing the family or the house; injuries; homelessness; hunger; thirst; lack of medicine; displacement; his family having to seek refuge; arrest.

Then comes the collision with reality. The loss of parents, family, friends, under the downpour of missiles and bombs, and the Gazan expat realizes they will never again feel the hug of a parent, or see their face, or kiss their cheek, again.

A smaller house of mourning opens in the larger house of exile, and he is temporarily kept steady by the crowds who visit him, and keep him busy, bodily, though not in spirit, nor mind. But when the house of mourning closes its doors and he is alone with himself, he collapses, and longing pins him down with no warning.

A corner in the furthest recesses of his home becomes a corner for his grief, where he revisits his memories, and weeps. He hides himself, his weakness and his tears in that corner, so his anguish doesn't pass to the children. The Gazan abroad cries alone, wipes away their tears alone, overcomes the iron grip of misery alone - apart from for his faith in God's justice.

Brothers – his neighbours, colleagues and friends - are a pillar, and a healing balm in their support and stability. Then there is his wife, who he turns to for strength, and who turns to him for strength.

This is just a glimpse of what Gazans living abroad suffer.

Gaza's gaping, collective wound has expanded to envelop all, but now every Gazan also has their own, individual wound.

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My story

For me, it started on day one of Israel's assault on the Strip, launched immediately after the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation carried out by the Qassam Brigades.

Pain took root in my heart with the images and stories flooding in, depicting the scenes taking place of my butchered people…the wound widened, engulfing all of Palestine.

But fate tore me a wound of my own, aside from my share of the collective wound, striking my core, and snatching from me the closest, dearest of people.

I was on a trip, in a hotel room, alone, when I received the news that my maternal uncle's home had been hit. He was killed alongside his whole family – wife, children, grandchildren. None of his descendants had been spared except one son and one daughter. My other uncle's family had also died there – though he was out of the house and survived. He lost everyone, his entire family had been extinguished.

That was the first calamity.

The second calamity was two weeks later - the martyrdom of three cousins on my mother's side, and one on my father's side. My wife's family was besieged in the Al-Quds Hospital, and I learned of the loss of many of my childhood friends.

The third calamity arrived when my sister's house was targeted. She was killed with her husband, son, two daughters, grandson, his mother. Her brother-in-law's entire family was also killed. My sister's three other sons were injured. They told me the force of the explosion had hurled my sister onto the roof of a neighbouring building.

At that moment, I broke down and burst into tears in the office where I work, and some work colleagues took me home.

Over the past 117 days, Israel's relentless bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, and injured at least 65,000 more. [Getty]
Over the past 117 days, Israel's relentless bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, and injured at least 65,000 more. [Getty]

With each of these events, I felt like I was losing large stores of memories, and I felt like it was me who was dying – not them.

But when I spoke to my mother afterwards, I sensed the bitterness of the loss in her voice and words, in her grief for my sister. My mother didn't know, then, that I would be the one seared by her departure, just a few days. No one knows the unknown.

I controlled myself, convincing myself that continuing to live, work and learn - all these were integral elements of remaining steadfast and stubborn in defiance of the Occupier.

This was the state I was in when the earthquake struck.

The day was 3rd December 2023.

I was driving when I received the news that my mother had been killed. I suddenly felt I was falling into a deep, dark tunnel, or like the wind had thrown me into a bottomless place, and the news came tumbling out faster and faster.

They said:

The house was bombed

Your mother has been martyred

And the family of your paternal uncle

And your brother’s wife

And your brother’s children

And everyone else who was in the building

Your mother is still under the rubble.

"I surrendered to God's will, and I convinced my heart it was capable of remaining steadfast before this tidal wave of grief, this tremendous earthquake that had left me an orphan overnight"

A series of deadly blows all pummelling the same heart. Despite the shock, I had no choice but to control myself, even temporarily, because I was suddenly confused, asking myself - should I go back to work and ask one of my colleagues to take me home? Or keep driving and tell my wife and children at home before they hear the news another way? But at the same time I had to call someone to go and support my sister in Turkey, and someone to go and support my brother in Germany…

Torn between these conflicting impulses, I opted to go to my wife, because I knew how heavily the news would hit her.

While driving, I had a surreal call with my father.

Everyone I spoke to before him hadn't been able to talk - they'd been busy moving the wounded, or trying to pull out the bodies out from under the rubble, except for him, and he said to me in a steady voice:

Don't worry Yaba

Your mother has been martyred

The house is gone

It is for God's sake,

Then the line disconnected.

I couldn't believe this was my father - who always cried so easily, who was so soft-hearted. Where did he draw this reserve of composure, at the very moment of loss? From God?

I won't hide that my mystification at the call persisted, until my father himself was martyred a day after my mother - one single day - and they were together once more. Only then did I realise what lay behind his calm voice – he had preparing for his own martyrdom.

My father's death reached me with details I found even tougher to absorb than those around my mother's death.

Even now, there are two narratives, each worse than the other. I have not yet been able to verify which is correct. What good would it do anyway?

Account 1

The invading Israeli forces surrounded them while they were in my sister's home, and ordered them to come out. My big sister came out with her hands in the air and her head raised to the sky, and the treacherous Israeli sniper shot her. My 76-year old father followed her, and the murderer shot and killed him next to my sister.

Account 2

The Israeli sniper killed my elder sister while she was still inside the house - a bullet entered her head through a window. My father was busy feeding my nephew, who was injured when our house was shelled a day earlier, but tried to go to my sister, and the killer shot him through the same window.

My father and my sister were martyred side by side.

Everyone who was in the house rushed to them, but they couldn't do anything, because the hidden sniper was stalking them all. They managed to make a hole in the wall, those who were injured, with burned hands managed to crawl, and the rest of the people in the house crawled, and survived by sheer miracle.

However my father and big sister stayed, martyred next to each other inside the house, each one of them giving the other company, and I remained left out, in shock.

I admit that after my father's death some of my sorrow, or even most of it, left me. I had sensed that fate was telling me something might happen to my parents, and now that they were reunited, I realised this was it. And it was true that I couldn't imagine at all how my father could have kept living without my mother.

I surrendered to God's will, and I convinced my heart it was capable of remaining steadfast before this tidal wave of grief, this tremendous earthquake that had left me an orphan overnight.

I am trying to emerge from it alive, but thoughts and questions have been ceaselessly attacking me from all sides, visions of the dead, their voices and my memories of them.

However, the hardest thing for me has been the situation after their martyrdom; after my father and sister died, they were left in a room and the door of the house was locked, as the house was evacuated – everyone else fleeing the sniper.

I counted the days, awaiting the moment we would be able to bury them. Some of the youngsters genuinely tried to get to them, but the sniper swiftly dealt with them - two of them were killed.

So my father and sister remained unburied until eight days after their martyrdom, then were buried hastily in a plot of land which had never been a cemetery. They lay side by side in the grave, as in death, and we hope they will be transferred to another grave after the war ends.

Until now, what was done for my father and sister hasn’t been done for my mother and the rest of my uncle's family. All of them have been trapped under the rubble since they were martyred, 20 days.

"An image of my mother under the rubble never leaves me, whether I am awake or dreaming - whatever I am doing. I see her lying among the stone and the earth, and am assailed by thousands of questions"

An image of my mother under the rubble never leaves me, whether I am awake or dreaming - whatever I am doing. I see her lying among the stone and the earth, and am assailed by thousands of questions.

Questions like: Was my mother even martyred in the initial days after the bombing? Maybe she lived a day, or two, then died, because no one could reach her due to the rubble, the lack of machines, equipment, and the uncertainty that the area wouldn't be bombed again.

Many Gazan expatriates, myself included, will remain trapped within these questions, until we can reach our mothers, fathers and children, so that they can be properly buried and honoured. Without this, our hearts will remain outside ourselves, dwelling there beside them.

There is no escape from the pain and the grief, and this has been the case since the Nakba in 1948, except increased resistance to the source - the occupation - and redoubled efforts to end it. The occupation is the single reason behind all the pain, and all the grief, and all the horrifying events that have been inflicted on the Palestinian people.

While on a personal level, salvation from the pain and sorrow seem impossible, the suffering can be alleviated through accepting God's will, and thinking of those Gazans among us with even greater misfortune than our own, and by casting our gaze more widely yet, on our collective plight, at the sacrificial lamb - Palestine and the Palestinians.

Mohammed Seyam is a Palestinian PhD researcher from Gaza studying conflict resolution.

This is an edited and abridged translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here. Original article published on 30/12/2023.

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.