'Is everyone alive?' Witnessing the bombardment of Gaza through my family's WhatsApp group

Author's update: On Friday, Oct. 28, Internet and phone service in Gaza was cut off entirely. Since then, I've tried calling my family every half hour. I've sent messages over WhatsApp. Nothing, Their phones are all turned off. Meanwhile, we had the most violent night of the war. I don't know if my family is still alive. I don't know what they're going through. And there is nothing I can do to help. 

A week into the bombardment of Gaza, I set up a WhatsApp group for my Palestinian family to confirm each morning they're all still alive.

"Could everyone sign in?"

On Thursday morning, I got no response. An hour and fifteen minutes passed. Then, a message from my sister, Yasmeen, in Gaza City. The power had just come on and she had a brief window of WiFi. An hour later, my niece and nephew, Ne'ama and Hammoud, messaged from the south. Between the three of them, we could account for 32 other relatives.

Another day, and, at least for a moment, I could relax.

Though I was born in Gaza City and lived there until I was 28, I've spent the last decade moving between Europe, Jordan, and finally Turkey with my husband, Abdullah. We now live in Istanbul with our 3-year-old daughter, Juju.

Even before Oct. 7, we used WhatsApp to stay in touch.

"The war started, and Abeer is still sound asleep," read the message I woke up to that first morning.

As my sister Siham had thought, I was sleeping when news broke that Hamas militants had crossed into Israel, killing, we would later learn, 1,400 people, and taking more than 200 hostages.

As I tried to absorb the news and images from Gaza — where my parents, five sisters, four brothers, 15 nieces and nephews, and most of my extended family and in-laws still live — my phone flashed again. It was a voice message from my close friend Yazmina, another Palestinian in Istanbul. Her voice was shaking: "Abeer, our families, what will happen to them?"

I have survived three wars in Gaza, witnessed many escalations and cross-border conflicts, and covered most of them as a journalist. But I knew immediately that this time was different. A massive revenge was coming to Gaza — a territory that's roughly 25 miles long and 6 miles wide, and home to some 2.2 million people, almost half of them under the age of 18.

In the days and weeks since, I've been glued to Al Jazeera, squinting at the TV to make out buildings I recognize from my regular visits, and to my phone, which both brings news from my loved ones, and where I share whatever information I can find to help keep them safe.

The close calls started immediately.

Where is safe?

The person in the most obvious danger was my sister, Fatin.

Fatin, a Hebrew/Arabic translator, lives in the Al-Burij camp, very close to the Israeli border, and she's the only one outside of Gaza City. Of all my siblings, Fatin and I are closest. Just a year apart, we both studied English language at university and we got married the same year, when we were both in our 30s — late by Gaza's standards.

She had evacuated immediately, along with her husband and two babies, Maria and Ascia, and her in-laws.

Two days later, Fatin heard from neighbors that her house had been completely demolished in an aerial strike. When her husband returned to see if anything could be salvaged from the rubble, it was heartbreaking for him to see the girls' dolls and clothes thrown in the street.

From Istanbul, Abdullah and I watched on Al Jazeera as places with cherished memories in Gaza City were destroyed live on air. We watched as dozens of buildings were flattened to the ground in Al-Remal, Abdullah's old neighborhood. Abdullah's family house was one of them, but thankfully, just hours earlier, his parents had evacuated to the home of Abdullah's brother in the Tal Al-Hawa neighborhood.

As I watched these beautiful houses fall, I asked myself how demolishing entire neighborhoods can be a punishment for Hamas? I still don't know the answer.

A woman takes shelter under a staircase.
Photo for my sister Yasmeen while taking shelter under the stairs of her building because it's said it's a safe area to hide in.Muhammad Ghanem (used with permission)

Supplies of fuel, electricity, and water had stopped coming into Gaza. Soon, Gaza's main power plant switched off. In Gaza City, you could hope for an hour of power a day to get WiFi and to charge the power banks for cell phones. My relatives kept their phones on at different times, so to reach one I'd have to call multiple numbers.

My parents live in a five-story building in the middle of Gaza City that my father had built 40 years ago. My four brothers — Hussam, Hazem, Alaa, and Hatem — live there too, along with their families, all in separate apartments. Soon, my aunt arrived with her husband and her son's family, after fleeing their home near Gaza's eastern border.

Located in a residential neighborhood with no government buildings or obvious targets nearby, it has always felt relatively safe. When I lived there as a child, I learned to stay away from windows, but to keep them open, during bombardments.

Three days after the war started, I was on Facebook searching for news and saw something that made me let out a gasp: A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces had posted a map of our neighborhood with a message telling people to evacuate.

When I reached my brother, Hazem, he said they hadn't heard about the evacuation order. But he said they could hear constant explosions and he thought it was very risky to move outside. Home still felt like the safest option.

We said goodbye, but for the rest of the day I could not leave my phone. Sick with worry, I scanned Telegram for updates from the ground. My family stayed where they were and each message from them brought fresh relief that they were still alive.

Evacuate the north, but to where? 

That Friday morning, Oct. 13, I woke up to a missed call from Yazmina, my friend in Istanbul. Abdullah and I were never the type of people who took our phones with us to bed. That had changed, and for days we'd been reaching for our phones the minute we opened our eyes in the morning.

I called Yazmina back. She told me that Israel had announced that 1 million civilians in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, should evacuate within 24 hours. To where, it wasn't clear. Scores of people, including most of Yazmina's family, were already heading south. People were taking refuge in the homes of people they barely knew.

I called my parents' home and I asked my dad what he thought. My dad is a great father — more interested in music than politics. Knowing how attached he is to the building he'd lived in for decades, I expected his answer. "I'm not repeating the 1948 mistake," he said, referring to the year Palestinians were removed from our land and Israel declared itself an independent state. "I'm not leaving my house, even if it means I'll be killed."

My oldest brother wanted to go. But the three younger brothers preferred to stay put, pointing out that we don't have relatives in the south. We were all also worried about my mother. She is paralyzed and rarely leaves the house, except for the occasional trip to the beach in her wheelchair.

I told them I would call every two hours to get them news and to know their plans. Beyond what they could hear and see from their windows, I was my family's link to news and information. I could see on Instagram, for example, that people were already starting to pour out of Gaza City and other parts of the north.

I tried not to push them one way or another, since I knew I would be living with a forever guilt if by chance they took my recommendation and were all killed. 

On one of these calls, they said a friend of Hazam's had offered to host them. So it was agreed: All 35 of them would leave.

My niece, Ne'ama, 21, sent me photos of the family packing and her own crying face. They gathered their birth certificates, education certificates, and other documents they'd need to restart their lives if the house was hit. They packed blankets, cooking gas, and cash. They would make two separate trips in my father's two vehicles.

A woman takes a selfie while holding a baby.
A selfie taken by Ne'ama shows her holding her little sister Farah minutes before evacuating from our family home in Gaza City.Ne'ama Ayyoub (used with permission)

Just as my father had said, the scenes of leaving their homes with mattresses tied to the tops of their cars felt like a replay of 1948. "It feels like judgment day," Ne'ama wrote to me.

The drive to the south of Gaza usually takes about 15 minutes. Now, two hours. Elsewhere, we heard that taxi drivers were demanding $100 for the journey, up from the usual $10.

It was agreed that two of my sisters, Hanadi and Yasmeen, would also flee to the south with their families and in-laws, and take shelter at the same home as my parents and brothers.

Yasmeen spent most of the day searching for a car before finally finding some seats with her sister-in-law. Three months ago, Yasmeen lost her only child, Sophia. She had been born prematurely, with underdeveloped lungs and a heart defect, and had been hooked up to an oxygen machine to breathe. She lived for just nine months. On the day of the evacuation, Yasmeen told me she was relieved that Sophia was at peace, that she wasn't sure Sophia would have survived this ordeal.

Two of my other sisters, Siham and Taghreed, decided to stay with their children in Gaza City.

Siham, who lives near the seaport where naval artillery is often fired, said she's very afraid, but that if she is going to be killed she prefers to be in her own home — not on the floor of a stranger — when it happens.

A place to sleep, water to drink

When they got to the home of Hazem's friend, they were surprised to find more than 100 people taking shelter there already. The rooms were packed, and there were long lines to use the toilet.

My sister-in-law had to haggle so that my mother could sleep on a couch rather than on the floor. "It's very humiliating here," Ne'ama told me, crying. "I can't stand seeing my grandmother sleeping on a sofa."

They did have water, though, thanks to a well the family used for agriculture. The family had been trading some of that water for bread, which was in short supply, so everyone could eat.

A selfie shows a large family relaxing near a parked car.
A selfie taken by my nephew Hammoud that shows the family spending an afternoon outdoors while they take refuge in the south of Gaza. My mother is seen, at center, and my father is to the right.Hammoud Ayyoub (used with permission)

When my nephew, Hammoud, told me he'd managed to take a cold shower, I asked if there was any shampoo. He laughed, telling me that my years abroad made me forget what it was like to survive in a war zone: "Of course we don't use shampoo! We are very lucky to have water to shower."

Even here they didn't feel safe. The south was being hit by airstrikes, which the IDF claims are targeting militants. How could Israel order people to seek refuge in the south and then aim airstrikes at those that obeyed?

The next morning, Hanadi said she would return to her house in Gaza City, along with her husband and four children. If all of Gaza was under assault, at least she and the children should be comfortable.

'Despite the current circumstances'

It's so difficult to keep track of everyone.

I'm following the news minute by minute, so I know where the explosions are. If a neighborhood where my relatives are gets hit, I start calling them one by one. Sometimes, I dial five numbers before someone picks up.

This is what led us to create a single WhatsApp group for our whole family in Gaza. Every morning, or as soon as they have signal, my relatives type in their first initial to confirm they and their families are alive. If we have word from another relative who can't reach us, we share that too. As the day goes on, my relatives send selfies, or try to work out where a strike just happened.

I usually turn my WhatsApp notification off — but not now.

One recent message was about my oldest sister. No one has heard from her in a week. But her son, Waleed, has been in touch with her neighbor; the neighbor told Waleed that my sister and her other children are still alive, even though many houses on the street have been hit.

News from Gaza is getting darker, as people endure not only airstrikes but supplies of food and water are dangerously low.

The other day, Yasmeen shared something that had left her shaken.

She and her husband had traveled back north to her in-laws' and had been getting water from a 50-liter tank that was kept under the stairs. But two days ago, the tank disappeared. Later that day, when a team selling water passed through the neighborhood, a fight broke out in the street because there wasn't enough for everyone. She said that she never thought she would live to see a day like this.

Last week, we lost contact with my parents and brothers for three days. The power banks had been used up and no one was able to charge their phones. I feared the worst.

But this was a rare case of a story ending happily in Gaza.

A man, getting a shave, smiles at the camera.
Ne'ama took this picture of Hammoud enjoying his fresh shave and haircut.Ne'ama Ayyoub (used with permission)

When the electricity briefly came back on, messages poured in to the WhatsApp group. Among the evacuees was a barber, and he had brought his tools with him. Before the Friday prayer, he'd given all the men a fresh shave.

My nephew, Hammoud, sent me a series of photos of my male relatives waiting for their turn. Hammoud captioned them: "despite the current circumstances."

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