Same planet, another world -Gaza

The world is an angry place and nowhere more so than in Gaza and Israel. Whilst western media report on what’s happening there, they do so excluded from Gaza. Civilians are caught in the middle of the conflict. Feeling abandoned by the world, one Gazan describes life in a place without hope.

In search of hope

The relief, after months of despair, is palpable. Hamas have just accepted a ceasefire proposal put together with the Egyptians and the embattled people from all over Palestine, corralled in Rafah, can breathe a sigh of relief.

Sitting here in the quiet of the English countryside, having read what Tarneem and her family have gone through since 7th October, I can feel her heartache and sense the release this news has brought.

Devastation is everywhere, the length of the Gaza Strip

The last seven months have visited every imaginable hell upon her, her loved ones and her neighbours. So much so it’s hard to rationalise and feel anything other than the world has forgotten them. In the west we know that isn’t true, for much of the general populous anyway, but at a governmental level politics and self-interest rule the airwaves.

For the Palestinians of Gaza, politics are something long out of their control but the consequences of the politician’s posturing are something they deal with daily. Powerless, they have to respond to the world around them and the repeated challenges which would make most of us crumble in days.

In my silent evening, when the only noise is the occasional hoot of an owl, the relentless hum of drones and the echoing, shaking sound of explosions doesn’t easily compute. Yet as I read Tarneem’s words on my phone screen I am transported to a brutal world of which humanity should be deeply ashamed.

The start of war

Life in Gaza is always tougher than most of will ever know or experience. The current conflict is in the news but this is not the first time a war has flared up in the Gaza Strip. These people have already lived through several military assaults in December 2008 and January 2009; in November 2012; in July 2014; in May 2021; and in August 2022. As much as anyone can be, they are hardened to it, but this latest conflict is taking them the closest ever to breaking point. It is more viscious, more indiscriminate, louder and more unrestrained than any which have gone before it.

News footage showing the devastation of buildings and infrastructure the length of Gaza is truly shocking. This is not a targeted approach to achieve declared aims. It a savage approach to obliterating everything. It is not civilised or measured.

There is no denying that the acts of October 7th 2023 were abhorrent. But as Israel’s response to these have gathered momentum it is hard to see the actions of the Israeli government as any less barbaric, any more justifiable.

Tarneem’s story…

For Tarneem, the 7th October was laundry day, but it started with a jolt as missile strikes thundered around her and the inevitable screams of children who’s world was rocked. A missile had hit her neighbourhood, without warning. The death toll was immediate; a school teacher and a child on their way to school.

Fighting disbelief, the hard reality of a new war struggled to find acceptance. But that reality left no room for ambiguity. The rituals began, they had to. Emergency bags were packed and placed by the door. These included passports and ID, other important documents and some essentials. Going to bed, huddled together with family members for comfort, was accompanied by bottles of water, just in case… just in case the next time she woke it was under the rubble of her home.

Tragedy is every where, every day

The general sentiment amongst the people was that they all live or all die. Losing family members, especially children, but surviving was the worst of all options and hard to even consider. Yet it was the reality for many families.

What’s left of the Jeep where Tarneem’s uncle was found, having died sheltering his son and saving his life

There are no bomb shelters in Gaza. The 17 year long blockade prohibited the type of concrete needed to build them from entering the Strip. Only seven days into the war Tarneem’s family felt their first loss. Her uncle died in his Jeep protecting his four year old son. He was found with his arms wrapped around his little boy. The child survived with only burn as result of his bravery and actions.

Loss like this is painful beyond measure. Her uncle’s infectious laughter would now only ever be an echoing memory, but to his six children it would be a forever void.

Families came together in the same buildings, creating some semblance of normality, as long as you could block out or drown out the noises of war. Other victims were claimed; some to explosions, some to strokes and heart attacks from the stress of invasion and the stress of not knowing when your time was over.

As I listen to the owl again, it’s hard to hear its hoot above the imagined din of war and I wonder how this all feels to Palestinian civilians. The answer comes in Tarneem’s words… “it feels like systematic killing and displacement of people. It’s a battle to retain any faith in humanity, to still have hope of any kind. Hope which restores dignity, hope for the children of a better life”.

The fight for survival

The inevitable time when she would have to evacuate was fast approaching. Here, we are fed news of the map which tells civilians when to evacuate and where it is safe to go; the map which has caused so much anger and death. It’s online! Yet internet connections are at best erratic and unstable, and these are controlled by the invading forces too. They are part of the wider PR war and ‘live or die’ has far too high a percentage of luck. This is my home!

Life is a struggle with little hope. Starvation is real and water in very short supply

With food and water extremely limited, the war was getting ever closer, and the sound of tanks heralded its arrival. Through the window, Tarneem saw two of her neighbours, who were filling their water tanks, hit by five tank shells, erasing them from this earth and reducing the building to rubble. It was time to flee by whatever means possible. But for the adrenaline surge, events like this would leave you paralysed by fear.

The decision to flee was agonising,  but this area in central Gaza was no longer even remotely safe so families headed for Khan Younis and the camp in the Mawasi area. This was to be home of sorts until mid-January, until fighting arrived in Khan Younis too and heavy combat filled the air with explosions and smoke.

A second evacuation took a heavy toll. The physical process was almost automatic, but the spirit of resilience was increasingly hard to muster. In the comparatively fortunate position of having relatives in Rafah there was at least somewhere other than a tented camp to flea to. The city, by this time, was vastly over-crowed though, but there was nowhere else to go and certainly nowhere which afforded any degree of safety or respite.

Where next? Returning home?

As threats of a ground invasion reached the civilian encampments, terror returned. There were no ‘safe zones’ left in Gaza. Should the family return to their home further north again? Was it even still standing? News reached Tarneem through her brother that their house was severely damaged, though still standing but unliveable. This left little choice but to stay put in Rafah and hope. Where do Gazans go now?

The remains of Tarneem’s home, photographed by her brother

Tragedy is around every corner in this Gaza war and every family is devastated by it. On the 22nd February, Tarneem lost most of her cousin’s family. Only two survived. The son was volunteering as a nurse at the hospital so escaped. The 15 year old daughter miraculously survived as the house was destroyed around her. She had to identify the the body parts of five family members, and six more are still buried under the rubble. How will she ever deal with that horror?

Tarneem has no words to even begin to describe the horror and chaos which she’s witnessed. No language to encapsulate the pain of a child collecting shredded body parts of their own mother and father, or seeing their brother’s body torn in half and sister’s body missing its limbs. No words…

We should all be frustrated at and ashamed of the world we live in today, A world where geopolitics mean more than human life, more than tens of thousands of human lives. You can’t help wondering whether the lucky ones are the ones who’ve died.

On top of all this, starvation is ravaging the surviving population, with children at the forefront. All avoidable. Barbarism beyond most people’s imagination and that’s before you even get to the war crimes being perpetrated… ‘allegedly’ of course!

Why haven’t we in the west heard all this? Journalists on the ground in Palestine and even aid workers have been targeted, and no western journalists have been allowed in. Why not? If you haven’t asked yourself that then you should be doing that right now!

Hospitals are mostly closed or bombed out, but still try to treat the injured. Devastation is all around and much of the population now live in close-packed, overcrowded tented camps

It seems to be a global problem that our politicians are not only letting people in their own countries down, but also the world. There are no easy solutions, but if this was a school report the ‘Must try harder’ would be the obvious comment.

As I sit with the sound of my owls, that news reaches us that Hamas have agreed the terms of a much needed ceasefire with the Egyptian negotiator. A rare moment of excitement spreads through the Gazan population. Is this some respite, even if only a temporary one? 

We will all have our own opinions on the Middle East, on Gaza, on the atrocities on October 7th, on the Israeli government’s response, on every element of this sorry situation. My owls and I wouldn’t be so bold as to tell you that yours are right or wrong. What I will say is that what is happening to ordinary people, people like you and me, but born in a different place and with a different passport, is totally and categorically wrong, and thoroughly reprehensible.

eye for the light

Within hours the Israeli government has rejected these terms and the inevitable assault on Rafah begins in earnest. I haven’t heard from Tarneem since it started. She will undoubtedly be fleeing Rafah and I pray that she’s safe and still alive.

Can you sleep on that thought? Tonight I won’t be sleeping at all as my head is swimming with thoughts of and empathy for people, including Tarneem; Gaza’s who I’ve never actually even met.

As you can imagine, information from Gaza is hard to get. This feature was only possible because of the brave people there who risked their own safety to describe what’s happening and to send their pictures. We owe them a debt of gratitude. They want their story told. They feel abandoned by the world. Please tell their story to others, share it, so that they can at least have some hope for a future beyond just existing and living in permanent fear. Tarneem loves owls. The one above is for her.

Published

By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.