At 3.30 in the afternoon of December 17, 2012, I was in my office in the Yarmouk camp on, following up on some work concerning displaced people.
The organisation I work for has taken on a significant part of the cost and effort of providing food and shelter for displaced persons in the camp. The Yarmouk camp near Damascus is known as the capital of the Palestinian diaspora. It’s the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in the world. It also has the highest concentration of educational institutions – 15 schools, 60 learning centres, as well as huge markets. It is no ordinary camp.
I was overwhelmed by the amount of work I had to do, but here was Abu Muhammad in my office, complaining about his neighbour in the housing unit, who he claimed had been peeping at his wife.
“Move me to another unit, please,” he said, “or so help me God I’ll have to kill him.”
He was interrupted by a sustained burst of gunfire. In those first moments, we thought it was the sound of a falling shell, a sound we’d become well accustomed to hearing.
Abu Muhammad fell silent for a moment, then picked up where he’d left off, “May God protect us… anyway, you need to find me a solution.”
“Calm down,” I told him. “Keep it together and we’ll figure something out.”
The second explosion was so loud it shut both of us up. I looked outside the window and saw smoke rising and people running in the street shouting, “MiG! MiG! MiG!” – the Russian-made fighter jets overhead.
Everyone but me ran out of the office. I didn’t want to leave before finishing my work. Hungry, I reached for the labneh [cream cheese] sandwich my mother had packed in my bag.
A feeling – or rather, a lack of feeling – was growing inside me. That feeling that erases all feeling, where you find yourself always repeating, “it’s fine, it’s normal”. When I felt calm enough, I packed my things and left.
I got to the street where the schools were and where displaced people were living in shelters. There were fragments of shattered glass scattered all over the road. People were running, their faces spattered with blood. The planes had bombed the shelters for displaced people in the Fallujah school and the Abdel Qader mosque. At moments like that, you can’t ask how many people have been injured, you have to run to the scene of the destruction and witness it for yourself.
I stood by the side of the school entrance, unable to enter. Then I ran to the mosque. The minaret had fallen down and the destruction was on a massive scale. I could hardly feel my legs any more. I approached one of the rescue workers to take a closer look and saw that he had brought a bag to place body parts in. Those damn planes tore bodies apart.
I was unable to help, not even to lift a toddler’s tiny shoe out from under the rubble.
I ran home to make sure my family was OK.
“We’re fine,” said my mother. “Where have you been? We went to the mosque to look for you. We were afraid you were there.”
“Did anyone we know die there?” I asked.
“Yes,” replied my mother. “Hiba. She had a week to go before her due date.”
Hiba had been married nine years without being blessed with a child. When she finally became pregnant, she died with her unborn child before ever getting to hold him.
We all shook with fear, my mother, my siblings and I. We gathered in a small back room as the bombardment intensified. Our phone never stopped ringing. My grandfather’s family, various relatives and friends, all calling to say the same thing – “Leave the camp now. The regime is about to storm it and carry out another massacre.”
The bombardment grew worse. When darkness fell we began talking about how to leave the camp.
“Mum, we have to leave tomorrow,” I said.
“Where would we go?” my mother asked.
“We’ll go to grandpa’s house and when things calm down we’ll come back.”
“Your grandfather’s house is too small,” said my mother.
“Mum, please, we have to get out.”
“I’m not leaving,” my grandmother screamed, “unless it’s in a coffin or I go back to Palestine.”
My grandmother had left Palestine after the Israelis raided their home.
“Darling,” my grandfather had told her, “it’s just a little trip to Damascus to get some fresh air and go to the cinema. Don’t you want to go to the cinema?”
She’d been seduced into leaving by my grandfather’s promise of a cinema trip.
“Just one week and we’ll be back in Palestine,” he had said.
That week turned into 64 years. My grandmother had children in Damascus, my grandfather built a home and later died, and no one ever went back to Palestine. My grandfather had used the promise of cinema to persuade my grandmother to leave – what could I convince her with?
My grandmother regarded Yarmouk as a “Little Palestine”.
We put an end to the discussion and tried to go to bed. Of course, we couldn’t sleep. At 6am we woke up to the noise of suitcases being dragged along the streets outside, and the sounds of men, women and children on the move.
Another Palestinian exodus – that’s all I saw. The streets were teeming with people running toward al-Zahira, the neighbourhood adjacent to Yarmouk. It was like Judgement Day. Panic and fear were visible in people’s eyes. It was impossible to speak to anyone.
I ran into the house to tell my mother to pack our bags so that we could leave, and then went out into the streets to look for a taxi.
My cell phone rang. A friend from work was calling.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m still in the camp. I’m looking for a taxi.”
“Get out as quickly as you can,” my friend said. “Leave on foot. That’s what we did. Everyone in the office has left, including the director.”
“How can I leave while the office is filled with relief packages and food rations and undelivered supplies?” I asked. “We have to figure out a solution. My God, how could the director just go and leave everything like this?”
How had he just left the office like that? We are relief workers – we should be the last people standing. As I wandered through the empty streets, I saw a woman in the distance calling out to me. I felt a rush of relief deep inside me. I wasn’t alone in this place, thank God!
The woman caught her breath. “Thank God I found you,” she said in a trembling voice. “I was looking for you.”
“Me?” I asked. “Why?”
“Please,” she said, “my two-year old son needs milk.”
I replied, “Let’s go to the office. We have milk bottles there, I’ll give you some.”
We went to the office. I had the keys on me. I gave her three bottles of milk.
Just before I arrived back home, I heard a voice calling my name. This time it was a man and wife whom I knew.
“Why are you still in the camp?” I asked them.
“Where should we go?” replied the husband. “We don’t know anyone outside the camp. It’s better for us here. But what about you, why are you still here?”
I couldn’t answer. Maybe I didn’t quite know what the answer was. Instead I said, “What’s important is right now. Is there anything you need?”
They looked at me shyly, and the husband replied, “Yes. We wanted to see whether maybe you had some nappies.”
“Of course we do,” I said. “Do you need them right now, though? It’s a bit late and I need to go back home. My mother’s waiting for me.”
The man and his wife went quiet. Then I cut in with, “All right, I’ll get them for you now. I have the keys with me and there’s nothing to lose in any case.”
Smiles broke out over their faces as if they’d just been rescued from drowning.
We went to the office and I gave them what they needed. Then I hurried home, certain I was right to decide not to leave the camp.