Comment: Life in Gaza - two years on from Operation Protective Edge

Thaer shows a picture of himself as he lays in a hospital bed with injuries sustained in airstrikes. Source: Darrian Traynor

PHOTO ESSAY: Australian photojournalist Darrian Traynor travelled to Gaza and met with some of the families caught in the middle of the fighting.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has made headlines for decades due to its complexity and tenacious refusal to succumb to a resolution.

I’m a photographer, and what I saw on a recent trip to the Gaza Strip reinforced the impact this destructive conflict has had, and continues to wreak, on the lives of so many that are only bit-players in its larger narratives of politics and violence. 

On 6 April, I was invited into the home of Wael Alnamla - but it is not his home. His was destroyed in 2014 by rocket attacks during Operation Protective Edge. Rather, it is the home of his parents in Rafah, a town on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip.  

In this small but efficient house. Wael now lives together with his mother and father, his sister, her three children and his own two children. Nine people in total. And they have nowhere else to go.  

As we sit down for mint tea the sound of an Israeli fighter jet can be heard overhead. After years of practice, Palestinians in Gaza can tell the difference between the sound of fighter jets and the sound of rockets.  

As the tea is poured and the family’s suspiciousness of this new Western interloper subsides, Wael tells me his story about Operation Protective Edge. It is not the story of the thousands of Palestinians killed or Israelis injured, of a mission to destroy the Hamas tunnels and secure Israeli territory from rocket attack. It is the story of a man, who, during a broken ceasefire, lost his world. 

On Friday 1 August 2014, three rockets were fired directly at Wael’s family. Wael’s wife lost both her legs, his son Sharef lost his left leg and sustained an eye-injury. Wael lost his right leg and his brother was killed.  

Wael currently gets around on crutches and a wheelchair. He has yet to be fitted with a prosthetic limb and doubts that he ever will be. Operation Protective Edge was almost two years ago now and he has been living with his parents since then. At just 28 years of age, Wael has the look of man much older, struggling under the weight of heavy burdens.   

Later in the day I meet Wael’s son, Sharef, who is in the process of being fitted for a prosthetic leg.  He is with his grandfather, as Wael cannot drive to accompany him. A taxi is also too expensive. 

Sharef is a bright and cheeky four-year-old. He hops around the clinic with a smile on his face, his infectious energy making the others waiting in the clinic for prosthetic limbs smile. While Sharef’s age may mean he will adapt quickly to life with a new leg, the ongoing ramifications will be a problem for the family. As Sharef grows he will need a new leg every six months or so – a cost which the family will not be able to afford on their own. 

The next day I meet Issam Jouda. He welcomes me into his home and as per normal I’m greeted and asked to sit and enjoy refreshments. Sweet mint tea is something I’m becoming quite found of.  

In a soft and considered tone, Issam begins to speak of his wife and five children. He describes his family as normal people living a normal life. However, in 2014 that life would change. An Israeli airstrike would take the lives of his wife and four of his kids, leaving Issam and his eight-year-old son Thaer as sole survivors.

Thaer suffered horrific injuries. He lost his right leg and a finger on his right hand. He required multiple skin grafts to his arms, chest and left leg where burns scared much of his body. Thaer would have over 30 pieces of shrapnel removed from his face and chest and to this day still has fragments in his body. 

Issam speaks about the bike he bought for Thaer just before his "accident" and Thaer’s one wish is to some day learn to ride it with a new prosthetic leg. 

Outside in the small laneway beside the house the names of Issam’s wife and other children are painted on the wall as a memorial. This type of tribute is not uncommon in Gaza; you only have to drive around for few minutes to see that so many people have suffered the loss of loved ones. Posters of people that have died are also prominent.  

Both Wael and Issam have suffered devastating personal loss. Their pain is unfathomable and yet they consider themselves fortunate to still have a roof over their heads.  

On the 10 April 2016 I meet sisters Fada and Hosna Alnajar. They live in the small village of Khuza, East Khan Yunis. Children run in and out of the house when we speak. The house is essentially a shipping container. Most families in this area live in similar structures with as many as 10 people in each one. There are 11 in Fada’s home. 

The structure is only meant as a temporary living solution. Fada speaks fondly of the house she and her family once lived in. It was a three-story block with four separate apartments that housed her extended family of 27 people. 

During the 2014 conflict Fada, Hosna and the rest of their family were ordered to leave their homes by Israeli forces. The area was deemed to be a military zone. They moved to Khan Yunis and sought refuge with thousands of other displaced people in a UN school. Without the simplest of amenities, such as water, their family would have to wash at a nearby hospital. Fada tells me about the cramped and over crowded conditions of the school, which was ill equipped to handle such a large number of people.

There was a ceasefire during their stay of 55 days, and they were allowed to go back to check on their homes. Upon returning they discovered their homes had been destroyed along with many more in the village. They would later find out that Israeli tanks had done the damage.

Fada’s shipping container houses three generations of her family. To make more livable space the family completed some makeshift additions. After the first few months the floors in these houses would rot and collapse leaving gapping holes. Keeping warm would become a big problem. Rebuilding is difficult as the materials needed are not easily available in Gaza. 

Fada remains stoic while recounting the horror of this time. She maintains eye contact with me while speaking through the interpreter. Hosna finds it more difficult and pleads for help as she breaks down while telling her story. The emotional and physical strain for this 75-year-old is terribly confronting. Mouldy bread sits on the floor as a last resort for food when the situation gets tough. It appears the situation is always tough. 

While is only too willing to help herself and does not wish to rely on handouts, the people of Gaza cannot find work and have no opportunity to seek employment outside Gaza, which was once the case. Hosna finishes our conversation saying, “there is no hope for us, death is better than this life.” 

Not all of Gaza lives like this. Not everybody has substantial wounds from rocket attacks or lives in makeshift shelters, however all Gaza’s civilians have suffered in some way. Often thought of as a constant war with periods of ceasefire, some that hold longer than others, the people of Gaza live a reality that is unfathomable to most in Australia.  

I travelled to Gaza and met some wonderful people. They were welcoming and generous towards me. Apart from a few journalists, aid workers and diplomats, not many people will ever see this part of the world. It's a shame because Gaza is not at all what I’ve seen or read - it’s so much more.

Darrian Traynor is an Australian-based freelance photojournalist. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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