'We Had a Beautiful Life, and It Was Lost': Gaza Women Widowed in the 2014 War Speak Out

On the fifth anniversary of the end of Operation Protective Edge, Olfat al-Kurd, a B’Tselem field researcher in Gaza, visits five women who lost their husbands and other relatives in Israeli bombing

By: Gideon Levy

Islam Awwad, 24, lost seven members of her family, including her husband and son; remarried, she is a homemaker and has a 2-year-old daughter; lives in the town of Jabalya:

“I am the wife of the shahid [martyr] Mohammed Abed Rabo, who fell in the war on July 29, 2014. My husband was the proprietor of a grocery store and a student. I was 15 and my husband was 23 when we married. I gave birth to my son Jamal, who fell as a shahid with his father when he was 2. I lived with my husband for three years, and for me they were 30 years of happiness and joy. I loved him madly. When he would leave the house he would call me all the time and ask how I was.

I gave birth to Jamal in 2012; it was one of the most beautiful days of my life. The happiness of my husband and my family was indescribable. For a whole month [after the birth], I was in bed and the whole family served me with faces shining from happiness. My husband and my son were my beloveds. I never imagined that one day I would lose them.

“In the war of 2014, my life turned upside-down. On July 28, 2014, in the evening, we were all at home; we were drinking and eating. Suddenly shelling began. We started to scream. I heard my husband say, ‘I’ve been hit.’ I saw shrapnel in his leg. We called an ambulance. When it arrived, the shelling increased. The whole family was evacuated to Kamal Adwan Hospital [in Beit Lahia]. Afterward, we returned home; my mother-in-law and I, we took a few things and went to a safer place – the home of a relative in Jabalya.

“The next day, in the evening, my son, Jamal Ali, and I were sitting together waiting for him to fall asleep. Afterward I put him to bed and we sat down to eat. Suddenly I heard the whistling of a shell. The wall of the room fell on Jamal. We ran into the stairwell. My husband went up to the first floor to give his son first aid and found him dying. Indiscriminate shelling started. I saw my husband thrown into the air with half of my son’s body. My mother-in-law was hit by a shell and fell on her daughter. My sister-in-law was hit by shrapnel. I took my sister-in-law’s daughter, who was 8, held her hand, and we walked in the street on the bodies of shahids with the shells falling around me. I was also wounded by shrapnel and taken to the hospital. Seven people from my family were killed: my mother-in-law, my brother-in-law and his 2-and-a-half year-old daughter, my son, my husband and two of his brothers-in-law. I parted from all of them except my husband and my son, because their bodies were dismembered.

“After they were killed, the saga of my suffering started. I moved to my parents’ house and stayed with them for four months. I cried day and night. Every baby I picked up seemed to me to be my little Jamal. I would wake up shouting, ‘Jamal, my son.’ I even tried to kill myself: I went up to the roof, but my aunt saw me and saved me. I did it because I would see the women in the family holding their little children, while I had lost mine. I heard the voice of my son Jamal everywhere.

“Four months after my husband was killed, my parents and my husband’s parents decided that I would marry my brother-in-law Ali. I didn’t know what to do. I stayed with my new husband almost eight months. I served him and his first wife, my sister-in-law Jihad, and her children, because she was seriously injured, almost paralyzed. Eight months that felt like 80 months. I couldn’t go on. I asked for a divorce. Three months after the divorce, my cousin Ahmed asked for my hand. I married him at my parents’ request. They thought it was better for me, because I am a young widow and divorcee, and need to be a married woman.

“At first I did not adjust. There were problems between us. My parents scolded me: ‘Enough, go on with your life, forget the past, adjust.’ Afterward our life improved and I gave birth to Iyyat, who is now 2 and a half. During the pregnancy, I would say to myself: If only she will be like her brother Jamal.

“Five years have passed, and despite the suffering I went through, I say that this is my fate and I accept it. I lost everything beautiful in my life. I still have a splinter of shrapnel in my head, and because of it I feel strong pains. The fragment can only be removed abroad. Even though I married and gave birth, a deep sadness accompanies me – depression, memories of the war. I remember my husband and my son and the beautiful life we had. I remember how my husband loved me and Jamal. We had a beautiful, happy life, the dream of every woman, and it was lost to me. I cry all the time for my husband and my son. May God have mercy on them and open the gates of paradise to them.”

Fatma al-Hadad. “The light’s gone out, it’s growing dark.” Olfat al-Kurd/B’Tselem

Fatma al-Hadad, 55, a mother of 10 from Beit Lahia:

“I am the wife of Sufian al-Hadad, who fell as a shahid in the war of 2014. I lived with my husband for 30 years. My husband was a tailor who worked in textile factories in Gaza. I did not have a steady job, and we are a family of 12. Every day he tried to ensure that we had food. Even though our economic situation was difficult, he would take us on outings in order to see happiness and smiles on the faces of our children. We had a pleasant family life. I liked how in the nights we would spend time in the house together, my husband and the children and me. I liked the mornings, when we had breakfast together with laughs and smiles. I also liked the fact that my husband helped the children with their homework.

“I had a sweet life. But the 2014 war came, took my husband from me and deprived me of happiness. He fell as a shahid in that accursed war. On July 11, 2014, there was heavy shelling of Beit Lahia by the Israeli tanks. There was farmland next to our house, and the Israeli army shelled it. My husband was outside, watering the plants. He was wounded by shrapnel from an Israeli shell that hit him in the throat and caused bleeding. My daughter Marwa was by his side. She came and said to me: ‘Come, Daddy is lying on the ground.’ I saw he was bleeding and started to shout to the young men who were on the street: ‘Help! My husband has been wounded.’ He was evacuated to Shifa [Hospital, in Gaza City], where he died.

“A year after his death, I was in a very bad mental state. I cried all the time and thought about him. My nerves were frayed, and I went to the mental health center. I also suffered from weakness of the heart muscle. The doctor told me that the weakness was due to my mental state and my constant crying over my husband. Five years have passed, and his absence is still felt. The house is empty and I feel lonely. I feel as though the light has gone out in the house and it is growing dark. My life is wretched. We lost his love and compassion. Two weeks ago, my daughter Aya was married, and even then I did not feel happy. My heart aches because her father was not standing by her side, to hold her hand and lead her from the house outside to give her away to her husband. When I miss my husband, I visit his grave. I sit there, crying and praying, running my hands over the grave, talking to him and asking for God’s mercy for him.”

Shireen Bakroun. “I see his face in every corner.” Olfat al-Kurd/B’Tselem

Shireen Bakroun, 37, mother of five; lives in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City:

“I am the wife of the shahid Ibrahim Bakroun. There was artillery fire aimed at the neighborhood. Because of our great fear, my husband said we would leave and go to a house the family had rented in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood. It was a large apartment that held 50 people – my brothers and my sisters and my parents and my sons. But my husband decided to go back to Shujaiyeh, because the apartment was crowded. He asked me to stay with my family and said that he would get by with his friends and we would come home after things were calm.

“I cried when Ibrahim left and I told my mother I was afraid for him. On July 21, 2014, the place he was in was bombed by Israeli warplanes and he was killed, along with many others. I did not get to part from my husband – neither I, nor my sons. That broke my heart. At the end of the war, I returned home. Those were difficult moments: to return without my husband. I felt heartbroken and suffered great pain. I see his face in every corner of the house. My mother stayed with me in the house for a year to be my side, because I was worn out and have a blood pressure disorder. For three months, I felt strong pains in my stomach. It turned out I had a hernia; I had an operation. It happened because of the crying and the heartbreak.

“Five years have passed. My sons remember their father whenever they go on an outing. If only he were with us. These have been five years of weariness and pain. I cry day and night. Without Ibrahim I am weak. I feel that I am an old woman. When I see women going out with their husbands, I feel brokenhearted. I am young and I need Ibrahim, and my sons need him, too. My husband was granted a shahid’s pension. Every month I receive 2,000 shekels ($565).”

Iman Abu Odeh, 47, mother of eight; lives in Beit Hanun:

“I am the wife of the shahid Awad Abu Odeh, who was killed on July 24, 2014, when he was 39. My husband was a truck driver who transported goods between the Gaza Strip crossing points. We brought our eight children into the world, and my husband was the sole provider. We had a sweet life. He was a loving husband; his relationships with his children were filled with love. He provided so well for everyone’s needs that sometimes I felt he was an angel. He would leave the house and work hard for my and my children’s wellbeing. When my husband was alive, I was free of all responsibility for household matters and for the children’s needs. He always told me that he loved to see me happy.

“He had especially good relations with the girls, and particularly the little one, Kamar, who suffered from congenital cerebral atrophy, which affected her movement and her speech. She was Daddy’s pampered girl.

“In one moment, I lost all that happiness. The Israeli army ordered us to evacuate our homes and go to the UNRWA [UN refugee agency] school. We left on July 17, 2014, and took shelter in the school for a week. The conditions were terrible. We were all frightened; the classrooms were flooded with people, filthy. No electricity, no water. We didn’t have mattresses for sleeping. Sometimes the bombings were next to the school and sometimes above it. Afterward, we were ordered to evacuate the school, because the army was about to bomb it – that was on July 24, 2014. I went down to the schoolyard with the children, and my husband was with me. Suddenly everything was covered in white smoke.

“I was thrown to the ground, and didn’t understand what happened. After 10 minutes, I found my son Udai, bleeding. I started to look for my [other] children and my husband. I found Kamar, who was then 8, wounded in her left leg and bleeding. She was throwing up a lot and her face was yellow. Her father was lying on the ground. I saw that he was bleeding from the mouth, nose and eyes. He was wounded by fragments of the Israeli bombs – in his head, his body and his neck. I started to press down on his neck to stop the bleeding, but it got worse. I threw myself on his body with bombing going on all around me, and my son Mohammed trying to rescue me. The paramedics told me, ‘Leave him, he is no longer alive.’

“My children and I were taken to Kamal Adwan Hospital. Because of the seriousness of my children’s wounds, they were taken to Shifa. I stayed to see my husband’s body; I didn’t want to leave him in the morgue alone and wanted to part from him before his burial. Five years have passed since then, and I still feel the need to hug and kiss him.

“After that, my suffering as a widow began, and the difficulties of life without a husband. But the hardest thing is that my children Udai and Kamar were wounded badly and suffered. Udai’s injuries were bad and they wanted to amputate his arm, but I wouldn’t sign [the forms] for the doctors. I turned to Al-Midani Hospital [a Jordan hospital in Gaza], and that is how the treatments for Udai started. He was transferred to Jordan for more treatment. I couldn’t go to Jordan, because my daughter Kamar was in critical condition and I didn’t want to leave her. She was in a coma and had a series of operations. A platinum plate was inserted in her leg, because her hip bones were shattered.

“For four years, I stayed by my daughter’s side in the hospital. It was unbearable torture. For me, the moment when my husband Awad was killed, was nothing compared to my children’s wounds. My life became a grim tragedy. I was torn in two: half of me with my sons and daughters at home; half with Udai and Kamar. I didn’t sleep day or night. Very heavy responsibilities fell on my shoulders.

“The war ended but the torture and the suffering continue. Udai is still being treated in Jordan. He needs a bone transplant in his arm. I accompanied Udai twice for treatments at Makassed Hospital in [East] Jerusalem, and also accompanied Kamar to Slovenia for treatment of her leg. I underwent a harsh trauma, for which I am getting treatment in the mental health center in Gaza. I stopped the treatment for a time, but am thinking of renewing it, because the events of the war don’t leave me. It’s like a continuing nightmare. I always have the feeling that I am choking.”

Shireen Abu Ita. “I’ve become father and mother.” Olfat al-Kurd/B’Tselem

Shireen Abu Ita, 36, mother of four sons; social worker at a rehabilitation nonprofit in Jabalya; lives in Tel al-Zaatar neighborhood in northern Gaza:

“I am the wife of Mohammed Abu Ita, who fell as a shahid. I was married in 2005 and brought four sons into the world. I was happy in my life with my husband Mohammed, who loved me and poured warmth on me and also on the boys, who were the center of his life. Mohammed didn’t work, but always encouraged me to develop myself. He was my support. I lived with him for eight years; they were the most beautiful years. He loved the children and looked after them. He always went to the market and took the children with him.

“It was in the month of Ramadan. My husband was busy during the month baking kadayif in the Jabalya [refugee] camp market. Despite the bombings and the deaths, I didn’t feel afraid. When we were in the street, my husband always said that we should spread out, and not to walk too close to one another, because of the bombings. That same night, at 2 A.M., we were awakened by a loud explosion next to the house. It was a warning missile. I took the children and went downstairs. Mohammed came down right after me. The last thing he said to me was: ‘Don’t be afraid!’ We thought that the ground floor would be safer. Suddenly I found rubble on top of me, stones and sand. Israeli warplanes bombed the house. I shouted: ‘My sons! My sons!’ I saw bodies on the ground.

“An ambulance took me and the boys to Al-Awda Hospital [in Gaza City]. I felt I needed to go home and look for my husband and his family, because I didn’t know what happened to them, but the neighbors stopped me. In the hospital I learned that my husband’s father, Ibrahim, his mother, Jamila, my brother-in-law Ahmed and his son Adham had all been killed. I didn’t know about Mohammed; I thought he was lightly wounded. The next day I went back home to see what had happened. I found a relative who told me to go to the hospital, because my husband was in very serious condition. My mother was crying. She told me that my husband had been killed. I started to scream; I was in an indescribable state.

“We have gone through five years. I am exhausted, I’ve lost my appetite and I am very irritable. I feel alone without Mohammed. The responsibility I have is very great. I have become father and mother. I lost his compassion for me and for the children. Mohammed was everything in my life. My life ended when he departed. The first Eid al-Fitr holiday without Mohammed was the hardest day of my life. I found my son Abd al-Rahman standing next to a window in the house and calling out, ‘Daddy, I hope Daddy will come from heaven and be with me on the holiday.’

“One of my brothers-in-law proposed marriage to me, but I refused, because my goal in life is to be by my sons’ side, and I refuse to be a married woman again, after Mohammed. I sense the looks of men, but don’t feel weakened. I get marriage proposals regularly, but I refuse them. The house without Mohammed is dark.”

Gideon LevyHaaretz Correspondent

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