The past few weeks have been deeply traumatic for Fouad Mazen Mudookh, a resident of Gaza who lives with his wife and three children in the Sabra neighbourhood of Gaza City.
The period following the 24-hour “evacuation” order directed at 1.1 million Palestinians living in northern Gaza – an extremely tight window of time to arrange a journey to southern Gaza – was marked by relentless Israeli bombardment.
“I saw hell in front of me. Non-stop air strikes,” Mudookh says as he recalls the nights spent in his house.
“I never expected the war to last until now. I did not expect it to be this intense or this fierce. It has been 33 days so far. Can you imagine it has been 33 days of genocide?”
Mudookh said he and his family decided to move to his father’s house in the same neighbourhood during the second week of the war, as his house had been completely damaged during the bombing.
Mudookh added that two of his other brothers, both married, also moved in. That meant that over 20 people were squeezed into one 100-square-metre flat.
“Once night comes, they start hitting nonstop. I can feel the heart of my one-year-old daughter pounding loudly.”
The Israeli military has carried out a relentless bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip, killing more than 10,800 people, mostly women and children, after the 7 October attacks when Hamas led an unprecedented assault on southern Israel, after which 1,400 Israelis were killed.
The relentless bombardment is compounded by severe shortages of food, water and energy. Israel’s ground invasion has severed the south from the north, leading to further complications in the territory that was already blockaded for 17 years before the current war.
Fear of the unknown
Mudookh spends mornings searching for food and water, going from house to house, from one supermarket to another, and from one bakery to another.
“Most of the bakeries have been directly affected, and there is nowhere to find food. We have been racing from one place to another to find water. I can barely fill two ten-litre yellow jerry cans per day. I also look for water for my other brother, who is in a wheelchair.”
The United Nations said that all bakeries in northern Gaza closed on Wednesday due to a shortage of supplies.
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“Gaza has turned into a ghost city. Just walking in the street is treacherous. Recognisable streets and familiar landmarks we have grown up knowing are barely recognisable. Everything has been wiped out.”
Mudookh says he doesn’t even feel safe sheltering in al-Shifa Hospital. “They keep bombing all places in Gaza.”
On Thursday, it was announced that civilians are now able to move during a four-hour window set daily by the Israeli military that assures safe passage from Gaza City and its surroundings to southern parts of the strip.
But Mudookh says that once he learned of that from the news, his wife still refused to leave.
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“We have just witnessed the footage of lifeless bodies of women, men and children discarded on al-Rashid Street. I don’t want us to end up like them – dead and forgotten,” his wife Malak said with a trembling voice, recalling the images of deadly strikes killing several Palestinians who followed Israeli orders to flee from northern Gaza only to be attacked.
Mudookh’s two brothers also refused to leave, including one who is disabled. “I offered to assist him, but he refused, urging me to run and survive. He believed that if we were meant to live, we would find a way.” His mother also chose to remain.
“She told me, ‘I cannot bear the humiliation’.”
Rights groups and international bodies have repeatedly criticised Israel for forcibly expelling Palestinians from northern to southern Gaza, saying it was a repeat of the Nakba.
The Nakba, or “catastrophe” as it’s known in English, refers to the ethnic cleansing of some 750,000 Palestinians from their lands and homes in historic Palestine to make way for the creation of Israel in 1948.
But Mudookh’s unwavering love for his children was the driving force behind his heart-wrenching decision to finally flee. For him, a father of three children aged between one and five, the choice was clear: to stay meant the imminent threat of certain death.
“The only thing that pushed me to leave is my children. I do not want to see them die from an air strike, or fear, or hunger. I no longer can decieve them and tell them these are not air strikes. They understand that these are air strikes that can take someone’s life.”
A treacherous journey
On Tuesday morning, Mudookh, Malak and their three children walked from the Sabra neighbourhood to Dola Street, a path fraught with danger. He just took a change of clothes for his children, diapers and formula.
“That is it. Safety is the most important thing.”
They caught a ride on a donkey cart, clinging to hope as the wheels creaked along worn-out roads. From Dola Street, a major intersection in Gaza City, their destination moved to Kuwaiti Square, another major intersection in Gaza City, where they moved by foot again. The evacuation route was crowded with other fleeing residents.
The journey was fraught with challenges with limited access to supplies and the constant fear of air strikes. There was no time to slow down or rest, as each moment had to be seized with urgency.
They made it from Kuwaiti Square to Bureij refugee camp, where the landscape was marred by the presence of tanks and a multitude of Israeli soldiers.
Aware of the imminent danger that loomed, he held a white undershirt, his ID card, and clutched his wife tightly, who, in turn, cradled their one-year-old daughter in her arms. And there, in the grasp of his other hand, he firmly held his 71-year-old father through the seven-kilometre journey.
“I feel very afraid that I might be killed and my body would just be left here. Then nobody would know about us. This is what they want. They want to kill us and not let the world know about us and our struggle,” he said.
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As they pressed forward, they witnessed countless images of horror. Among the wreckage and devastation, bodies lay strewn on the road. Donkey and horse carts, once a sign of life and livelihood, were now grim carriers of the deceased. They would also come across unexploded ordnance.
The sheer magnitude of the scenes overwhelmed Malak, who suffered from dizziness and fatigue. Mudookh roused her by gently splashing water upon her face, urging her to keep moving.
“I saw a man in front of me and a woman holding a three-year-old child. When the wife saw the Israeli soldier she fell to the ground, and the Israeli soldier said ‘move khabiby’ in broken Arabic. ‘Faster, faster’.
“The husband left the woman behind under the threat of a gun. I was afraid that my wife would have the same thing happen to her.”
Every step had to be taken with caution, hands raised in a gesture of obedience. The smallest sound from a child’s lips could trigger gunfire, causing the family to walk in constant fear and silence.
Guiding their children, the parents shielded their eyes from the scenes unfolding before them.
“The scenes are unbearable. I asked my children not to gaze at anything they see on the ground. I do not want the images of dead people and dead animals to stick in their minds.” People whispered prayers, Mudookh added.
The absence of cameras and journalists intensified the isolation they felt. “If we were to die, our stories would be lost.”
Only once reaching Bureij refugee camp did they find journalists. They were given water and food, and then took a cart to Deir al-Balah, a city in central Gaza Strip below the dividing line drawn by the Israeli military.
“They call it a ‘safe corridor’ but there is nothing safe about it. You could die a thousand times trying to cross it.”