Winning Essay "30 Minutes... A Thousand Times Over"

Gaza Essay contest winner Nadya Siyam

Nadya Siyam receives award at AFSC office in Gaza.

Nadya Siyam lives in Gaza city and studies English Language and Literature at the Islamic University. She is a writer for the “We are Not Numbers” project where she writes in a narrative style about inspiring daily experiences in Gaza. Nadya also participates in community service activities at local institutions in Gaza. She loves to read, and her favorite genres are historical fiction and thrillers. “I’m highly interested in human rights, and I aspire to get a scholarship and pursue my master’s degree in this area,” said Nadya.

"30 Minutes... A Thousand Times Over"

At times of war you become extra alarmed. You become a navigator as you try to predict how far each bombing is from your house and who of your beloved lives near the area you’ve predicted. And when you’re done with your calculations, you pray you were wrong.

My dad works as an orthopedic surgeon at Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa Hospital. Whenever there is an attack on Gaza, dad, along with other doctors, stays at Al-Shifa for days to deal with the huge number of injured they must treat. Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 assault on Gaza, was no different.

My four little siblings, mum and I stayed alone without dad throughout the 50-day assault. Dad used to call us once every day and insisted to speak to each of us separately, even if it was for 10 seconds. Yousef, our youngest, was a year-and-a-half old then. He would hold the phone with his two tiny hands and say the very few words he was able to pronounce “Baba, yella ta’al” (come on dad, come home). Being the eldest, I had to wait until they were all done talking to hear dad’s voice at last.

- Be safe. Take care of your mum and siblings. Distract our little ones. Make sure the door is locked and the windows are open.

- Okay, Dad.

Dad…please come home, at least at night. We worry about you.

-They need me here. And I’m safe, sweetie. Come on, you know nobody bombs a hospital.

He stopped me from objecting any further with a short tired laugh. He sounded older, maybe because of the lack of sleep.

One afternoon, my mum and I were preparing Iftar (the meal that Muslims break their fasts with during Ramadan) and listening to the news on the radio. It got to the point when we couldn’t keep up with the number of deaths and injuries. Most of the reported bombings that day were in Rafah and Khan Younis – the southern parts of Gaza Strip. We lived in the northern west part of the strip, so the sound of bombings was far.

The landline phone rang.

The voice of my uncle attacked my ear with a loud piercing scream as I picked the phone. “Why isn’t he picking the phone? Your dad is home, right?” he cried hysterically.

 “No,” I replied with my shaky voice, “he is at Al-Shifa. What’s going on?”

His voice was lower this time. It seemed he was crying; however, I immediately dismissed that thought. “Ya rabi, oh God! They threatened to bomb Al-Shifa. The IDF called for an evacuation. They’re going to bomb the hospital,” my uncle said.

Loneliness crept into me, and I had a sudden desire to have a regular chat with dad. I wanted to make him tea – extra mint – and complain to him about school and homework. Then he would call me a huge drama queen while pulling me into a fast hug. We could watch the movie “Taken” for the hundredth time. Dad would say a couple of times throughout the movie, “it’s incredible what a father would go through for his daughter.” And I would roll my eyes and say, “it’s over exaggerated.”

“Nobody bombs a hospital,” dad said. “Nobody bombs a hospital, sweetie.” And I trusted dad.

I don’t remember when mum got next to me but there she was. She must have heard what uncle said for her face was unreadable, and her eyes were wide open, gazing at a fixed point on the floor. My grip was so tight on the phone as if letting go of it meant death. Our living room became a desert where I had to fight for every bit of air.

A couple of minutes later…

An ear-bleeding, bone-shattering raid sound spread like venom throughout the neighborhood. And our building was shaking as if it was electrified. The telephone started ringing again. Seconds later, my mum’s cell phone rang, too. Patriotic songs were playing on the radio in the kitchen, making the whole situation seem like the last scene of a tragic movie. I hated that I suddenly recalled dad’s tired laugh. I hated that my brain was already making assumptions. I hated that mum tried to answer the phone. I hated that I started crying.

My siblings rushed out of their rooms looking for a safe haven. They always did this when hearing a loud bombing, dug their heads in our laps with their hands on their ears, eyes tightly closed, teeth clenching.

My fear was different. I let go of Yousef and hurried to the kitchen window looking out for the heavily dusted smoke, attempting to trace the exact location of the bombing. My brain began making the calculations that led me to the conclusion I couldn’t speak out loud. Three blocks away to the south from our house. That is the location of the hospital.

The next 30 minutes were the longest in my life. We were sitting in the living room waiting to face the truth. The phone rang seven times. And each time it was either a relative or a neighbor asking if we know what happened. Mum calmly replied “no” each time. And we waited. And I died once. Twice. Twenty times. A hundred times, and we waited.

We learned eventually that the hospital was bombed. No deaths were reported. Thankfully, they managed to evacuate the targeted building in time. And only its entrance was bombed. No reason for the bombing was provided, however.

I trusted dad, but it wasn’t him who shouldn’t have been trusted. How naïve it was of me to think no army is cruel enough to bomb who he has already bombed, to kill the dead, to call a hospital for an evacuation. Humanity shouldn’t be trusted.

Dad was alive. But for 30 minutes he wasn’t. And during this time, I died a thousand times over.