Yesterday morning I visited Toffah, a small farming area about one mile from the Israeli border. Because it sits atop a hill, it so was prime land for Israeli surveillance during the invasion. Mohammed, a university student, agreed to go out to Toffah and translate for me.
As we climbed the hill towards the farms, the damage steadily increased. Houses were completely crushed. Orange, olive, and lemon trees were bulldozed into the ground. People were hard at work everywhere. Women carrying babies and children as young as 5 or 6 were picking up oranges and sifting through the rubble for still usable clothes and household items.
A woman with a baby in her arms walked over to me and took me by the hand. She brought me to see her nephews who were digging oranges out of the rubble. Hamza, 10, and Ahmed, 13, were salvaging whatever oranges they could and sawing up wood for firewood to use in cooking. Then the woman began speaking to me furiously in Arabic. Mohammed explained that the area where we were had been their land. Their extended family supported themselves and ate from the oranges and lemons they harvested and from the chickens they raised. Over and over the woman asked me, “How will we feed ourselves?”
I did not know what to say. In my broken Arabic, I apologized for U.S. support for what happened to her and her family. As I said good bye, I promised to tell people her story.
We had only walked about a hundred feet when another person stopped us. Yusif pointed out his destroyed house and many crushed trays of eggs. He explained that his family escaped the bombing but his neighbors did not. His neighbors spent 15 days trapped in the rubble waiting to be rescued. Some survived and some died waiting for help. Another body was found in one of the houses a few hours before. More were expected. There was a strong smell of death in some areas. I could not tell if it was from dead chickens or dead people.
We then spoke with a family whose house was one of the few left partially standing. They were camped out in the shell of the house, making fires with wood from destroyed trees. Most other people we spoke with were staying in United Nations schools turned shelters. The UN school/shelters will close in two weeks when the schools reopen.
I asked each person I spoke with where they expected to be in two weeks. “We don’t know” became the refrain from everybody I asked. “We will just have to wait and see what happens. You can’t think about the future in Gaza.”
Finally I spoke with 83 year old Mohammed Darouni. He spoke excellent English and was carrying a saw. He told me he learned English from the British who were there in 1948. “I helped them,” he said, “and then they let us be driven from our land. I started again and grew more trees, olive and orange and now they have destroyed them again. I am 83,” he said passionately as he raised his saw in the air,” but I will start again.”
AUDREY STEWART has been in Gaza for several days. Audrey is a human rights worker and mother of two young sons in New Orleans.