"I have four sons and four daughters," says Abu Sahl, "I used to live in a four storey house with my wife, my four sons, their wives and children, and my youngest unmarried daughter. Now it's just me and my wife." Abu Sahl and his family were ordered to leave Ezbet Abed-Rabbo neighbourhood in north Gaza by Israeli forces on 7 January 2009, fleeing to UN shelters or the homes of relatives. When they returned after the withdrawal of Israeli forces on 18 January they found their neighbourhood had been completely destroyed.
A man is not supposed to cry
"A man is not supposed to cry, but I cried," says Abu Sahl. "We built the house over 35 years and they reduced it to rubble in minutes. When my 6-year-old granddaughter, Saja, saw the remnants of the house she started to walk around it to try to find the entrance. When she couldn't, she started crying. I think that's what upset me the most. I started to cry like a child," says Abu Sahl before breaking down.
When he found his home had been destroyed, Abu Sahl concentrated on finding his children and grandchildren somewhere to stay at relatives or family friends. He and his wife, Um Sahl, and their unmarried son, Sa'id, moved into a UN tent. "We stayed in the tent for five months," he explains, "and cooked on wood fires outside. It was still winter then and really really cold. The tent was new but it kept falling down in the rain."
Instead of bringing relief, the warmer summer weather brought a deterioration in their living conditions. "I started longing for it to be winter again. I realised that the cold wasn't as bad as the insects. There were ants, mosquitoes and scorpions that bit us and really hurt." As the sixth month of living in a tent approached, a Turkish charity donated a small caravan. "We put the caravan next to the rubble and my wife and I moved in. My son, Sa'id, stayed in the tent because the caravan has only one room. It fits a bed and some shelves and the freezer we managed to retrieve from the rubble of our home. We either cook on the fire outside, or my children come over with food."
Just before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which this year started in September, an international non-governmental organisation started to remove the rubble in the neighbourhood. "I agreed for them to pull down what was left of my home," says Abu Sahl. "Even if we had the money, we can't rebuild because there are no building materials in the Gaza Strip as a result of the Israeli siege. But I wanted to pull down the rest of the house to stop me remembering what they did. Every time I look over at the rubble I see my bedroom, my kitchen, my living room..."
Ramadan, the month in which observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, was particularly hard for Abu Sahl. "On the first day I started to cry," he says, "My whole family used to get up for suhur (the pre-dawn breakfast meal) each day but this year it was just me and my wife. One day during Ramadan, my sons and daughters came over with food for the suhur as a surprise; they said, 'Its Ramadan and we want it to be like it was before. We want all of us to eat together.' I really miss those days." The Eid holiday, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan, was also a struggle for Abu Sahl. "We all went to our local mosque to pray on the first day and then my children went back to their homes and I went back to mine. It was so sad for all of us," he says before again breaking down in tears.
"My cousin, Khaled, suffered even more pain than us because of the last Israeli offensive. On 7 January Israeli forces stationed opposite his house shot his three daughters and his mother from close range. Two of the girls were killed and the third was paralysed for life. Then their house was blown up by explosives. There is nothing as painful for a family than the loss and destruction of such young lives.
Abu Sahl desperately wants to see an end to Israeli occupation before he dies. "I was 11 in 1967 when Israeli forces occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank," he explains, "and life has been terrible since then. I was injured in the leg by an Israeli attack during that war and again in a 2003 invasion. My shoulder was torn apart, and I can't walk properly now. My wife also sustained a critical injury and still has shrapnel lodged in her head. We're both living on painkillers. I just want the occupation to end. I want everyone around the world to look at all the little girls here who lost their eyes, hands and legs and pretend that they are their own daughters. Why isn't anyone helping us?"