OPT: Driving under the bombs

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Kamal Abu Shabab, a driver with Oxfam and father of 5, lives in Beit Lahiya, 500 metres away from the Erez Crossing with Israel - the scene of fierce bombardments in the 22-day assault on Gaza in 2008. During the war, he drove around Gaza with Oxfam staff, at great risk, to check the immediate needs of people living in the targeted areas.

I don't like to remember the date of 27 December because it was an awful day. On that day I was on the main street of Jabalia Camp, Hawaja Street. It was a Saturday, around 11.30am. Children were out on the streets after school, people were out shopping. I was with my friend who needed to move something to his house. All of a sudden we hear a lot of noise, bombing from all sides, from the east, north, south. I looked at the sky, it was full of Apaches.

Normally Apache helicopters and F16s come and drop a few bombs and leave. This was different. They started bombarding everywhere: offices, houses, streets. I told my friend I had to go to my house as I was worried for my five children. I stayed maybe for one hour, because the main roads were under attack, and when it was a bit quieter I went home.

Kamal Abu Shabab

A lot of people were dying in the streets. On my way I could see many buildings destroyed. At home, the electricity was cut off. Everyone was looking for batteries for their radios, because it was our only way to receive the news.

In the first seven days, the war was total air bombardment. Then the Israelis started entering with tanks, shelling everything. We could hear the tanks, they were so close to us, around 500 metres away. Even the atmosphere changed. You looked around you and you saw something dark, during the day. The expressions on people's faces were dark, black. They lost their families, friends, everything. It was very dark, everyone was looking very different.

For a whole week we didn't get out of our house. We were under attack, so it was also very dangerous to remain there. At any moment Israeli tanks can come and attack us, but where do I go? I had no choice.

The Israelis closed our area in Beit Lahiya after firing five missiles. I had to go to Jabalia Camp to buy some food, without knowing if I would return. Anything could happen, in less than a minute. I had to be quick. I bought a box of tomatoes and a box of potatoes. As soon as I returned home and parked my car I went running back inside. All my kids were huddled in one room with their mother. When they saw me they all came around me. All of a sudden we heard a loud noise and we were all blown over by the blast. Part of the roof was gone. They had fired six missiles some 50 metres away from us. If I had crossed the road five minutes later I don't think I would still be alive. They bombed a water reservoir.

A Palestinian woman walks past houses destroyed during Israel's 22-day offensive. [Photo credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, courtesy www.alertnet.org]

Looking at my neighbours' houses, I could see three people dead and six or seven people injured. Everyone was rushing out of their houses and apartments, running away, nobody knowing where.

The attack happened around 4.30pm. Everyone had fled from our neighbourhood. I stayed for another hour. It was dark and quiet. I realised I was alone there. I looked at my kids and my wife. What to do? I told them we had to leave, we had to escape from the north. The streets were all empty, you couldn't see a soul. I was worried because sometimes when the Apaches see any light or anything moving they strike.

We went to my friend's house in Al Sheikh Radwan. It was difficult. We were seven. How can you stay at someone's house like that? We stayed for the night.

The next day I went back home. I couldn't stay at my friend's more than one night. We needed food, clothes... we couldn't carry everything with us. We'd need a truck. And then what? You go to someone's house with all your furniture? So we went back home at 6am, but by noon Oxfam's Jerusalem office called me to tell me to go to the Oxfam guesthouse for protection. The guesthouse is in a high building close to the beach. They told me 'you must leave now'.

The next day we went to the guesthouse, but my mother refused to come. She's 80 years old, she has two sheep and some chickens and a donkey. She didn't want to come. As you know, old people refuse to leave their house. So during the night she stayed at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school along with other civilians seeking safe haven, and during the day she went back to her house, feeding the animals and watching over things.

It was difficult for us staying in the guesthouse. My kids couldn't stand being locked inside an apartment all day, they're not used to it. They couldn't go out to play. They are aged between four and 15. It was their first time living in a flat. We had no water, so I had to keep coming and going to the market to buy 20 litre tanks.

I couldn't sleep at all. We heard shelling all the time. You never know what's going to happen. Anything can happen, in a second. It's war. You have to expect anything.

My mobile phone was not working, except intermittently. We had no contact with my family and with my mother. In three days maybe we would get mobile service once. After hearing that Israelis attacked a school leaving 40 people dead in Jabalia I couldn't sleep, because I was afraid my mother was in the school. They had no food there. How could I stay in Gaza City with half of my family in the north and others in Rafah? How could I get to see them, to check everything was OK, to see if they needed anything?

You feel incapable of doing anything for your kids, for your family.

My children were asking me a lot of questions. Why is this happening? Why don't we return to our house? Why are we staying here? In 24 hours we had electricity for three hours, maybe two. At night I would watch TV. At all times I kept a small radio next to me. I used to sleep in bed with the radio switched on next to my head. All the time I was preparing myself for bad news.

Eight days after the war started, I received a call from Oxfam's office in Jerusalem, asking me how I was and whether I was ready to go out for work. My family told me that I would be leaving them alone in Gaza City if I went to work, that they didn't know what would happen to me. I insisted I was working with a humanitarian organisation and this was a humanitarian job. I had to do something. Whoever could do something had to do it.

We put an Oxfam flag on the car and started driving around. Wherever I went, I was always looking at the beach. They were shelling us all the time from the ships whenever they saw anything moving in the street.

We visited Al Shifa Hospital. I saw something I had never seen in my life. I can't describe it. So many people dying, entire families, many waiting in the corridors. At first we heard about individuals dying, but there I could see groups of 10, 20, 30, all of them dying. My colleague Mohammed was going around meeting doctors and talking to the people who were there.

My other colleague Elena told me we also had to do something, send some food, working with our partners. So she started moving around with us too.

We went to the UNRWA schools in Gaza City, where everyone was seeking shelter. There are six or seven schools; all of them were full of people. But I couldn't go to the school where my mother was staying. It was too dangerous to go to the north.

At the schools we saw children, people who left their houses, some without clothes. It was an awful picture. You forget you are living in 2009, maybe in 1922 or 1936. You don't believe this is 2009.

If someone told me: Kamal, to stop this war you must lose a part of your body, I would give it up immediately, anything, just for the war to stop. Not just the war in Gaza, in the entire world. Because we are here to work and live with people, not to fight. It's enough. We should do it for our kids, for the people who want to live in peace.