December 2008, Rafah Camp
War usually leaves a notion of warmth. Violent, cruel warmth, as buildings burn and hot blood spills but warmth nevertheless. Yet when Mohanned stepped out into the shelling, he braced as the winter air clawed at his skin.
It wasn’t frosty – Rafah was not able to reach such temperatures – but, used to the summer humidity, he still felt it. He momentarily resented his role as the retriever of food, until his body adjusted and he continued on his way. At least there was no longer the fear of running into a soldier, but with ever more planes controlling his life below from above, neither was there any longer a place to hide. Still, he kept into the side. There was little to be gained from provoking an attack by walking in the middle of the street. What concerned him most, however, was where he might find bread. The demand now so exceeded supply that even the family shop had not been able to get hold of any to sell, while queues signalled the location of bakeries from afar. Such was wartime in winter.
Predictably, the small bakery at the end of their street was closed. He saw his neighbour, a well-respected man, ahead, and called out to him.
‘Abu Salim. Kef halak ya hajj?’ The man had reached an age at which his steady shuffling enabled Mohanned to quickly catch him up. Mohanned knew he would stand little chance if the shelling began but he was one of those men who was always to be found out in the camp, as though making sure everything was in order, and war seemed not to have provided him the impetus to change his routine.
He smiled on seeing Mohanned’s approach. ‘Ah, Mohanned. Kef halak?’
‘Alhamdulilah, Abu Salim. How are you?’
‘Alhamdulilah. How’s your family? How’s your father?’
Nothing in life rid time of the need to enquire about another’s well-being. He asked him if he knew of anywhere selling bread in the camp.
‘You should have come in the morning. There’s not a crumb to be found on the ground at this time. Even the cats have left and moved to the town for the afternoon.’
He gave a hearty chuckle that turned into a cough. ‘I hear Fairouz bakery is still open for most of the day though. Rumour has it there’s a steady supply of flour coming their way through the tunnels.’
‘Allah yusa’dak, ya hajj. The air is bitter these months. You need to keep yourself warm.’
‘Pah, don’t you worry about me,’ he said, waving a bony hand to the side as though to demonstrate that he was still stronger than the surrounding air. ‘There’s still a hell a lot of life left in me yet. You just be careful on the way into town, mind. And make sure you give my love to your mother and father.’
Mohanned carried on up the road that led to Rafah city whilst Abu Salim continued to shuffle through the camp, greeting those known to him, which was, without exception, everyone he met.
The streets were eerily quiet and heightened Mohanned’s sense that he should not be there. He quickened his pace. Sure enough, as he neared the bakery he could see the queue stretching away from him and the speed at which it was moving suggested that the fresh batch was still being baked. He was glad though that he at least wouldn’t be forced to return empty-handed. He stood in silence, trying not to allow his thoughts to stray to the sky. Others chatted amongst themselves, exchanging tales of the latest attacks, speculating on where the next may be, trepidation increasingly evident in their tones as their feet shuffled to trick their minds into thinking they were moving.
Then the line shook, imitating the structures around them as a roll of thunder tore through the city. In the distance, buildings keeled over, sending smoke signals to the sky. Panic rippled through them.
There was a moment in which they remained in line, reluctant even in this atmosphere to relinquish the progress they had made. But it was only for a moment, and then instinct kicked in. Shrieks replaced idle chatter and they scattered.
Mohanned ran home. Ran towards the sight of the shelling. His broad physique had always rendered him clumsy in any gait faster than a walk but he covered the ground with increasing speed, ignoring the cold claw that now clutched at his throat. Once in the camp, he finally allowed himself to rest, exhaustion and fear both grinding him to a halt. Though his lungs sought oxygen, they found only billows of dust. Ahead of him, the mosque that had once stood tall lay spread amongst the ground.
“You, shab, help us!”
He realised he was being called to.
He hesitated. Images of the Intifada rose to his mind, reminding him that the smell of the dead would make him want to wretch, that, so fresh from life, their blood would still be warm until their bodies turned cold.
He shuddered and ran forth into hell.
The hours passed slowly; time itself weighed down by the weight of the stones he was instructed to shift. Though his strength had increased considerably over the years, he still struggled under those corpses that had not been blown apart and he pitied his younger self who had dealt with twice as strenuous a task. It was only late into the night that they decided they had cleared the mosque as best they could and agreed to return in the morning. His ears had long numbed to the wails of grief that replaced the space once filled by the mosque’s call. He was confident that none of his family would have been in the mosque at the time, since they frequented one on the other side of the camp, but he still faced every fresh body with a sick fear that the red crust upon them would be composed of familial blood.
As he opened the door, he practically fell into his mother’s arms.
‘Ya ibny, where have you been all this time?’ she crowed. ‘Alhamdulilah ala es salama.’
She squeezed his broad shoulders so tightly that he had to prise himself away.
‘I had to help move bodies from the wreckage of the mosque.’
‘Which mosque? Were many people killed? We heard the explosion but were too afraid to go out.’
‘Masjid Al Hedaya. They bombed it just after the Adhan. As many bodies as bricks. Hands, heads, hard to tell how many people. We need to go back in the morning to try to salvage the rest. Barely anyone survived. Sorry, I didn’t bring back any bread. I was in the queue at the bakery when it happened…’
The words tumbled out, tripping over one another.
‘Ya umry, forget about the bread. All I care is that you’re safe. Laith and your father called from the shop hours ago but I had no idea what had happened to you. Sit, habebe. Let me bring you tea and something to eat.’
He collapsed on the firash, pulling blankets in towards him. The blood pounded in his ears and he realised how his body ached. As he allowed his head to meet with the floor, the eyes of the dead rose behind his eyelids.
‘Mohanned, wake up! You’re not to sleep before you’ve eaten.’
He sat up and stared at the dry pieces of bread – remnants left from others’ meals. He had not felt less hungry.
‘Ya immy, why does Mohanned get to eat? We’re hungry too!’
His younger brothers and sisters gathered round him and, despite having already eaten, his mother soon gave in to their pleas and brought more cheese. Mohanned was happy for his siblings to eat his share. He picked at a piece, crumbling it between his fingers before closing his eyes again.
‘Mohanned,’ pestered the youngest, Aliya, ‘why didn’t you bring us more bread?’
‘Aliya,’ snapped Reema, ‘can’t you see your brother’s tired? Shall I send you out beneath the bombs tomorrow to do the shopping instead?’
She gave her mother a reproachful look and said no more, while Mohanned lay back down.
When he woke, the food was gone and only his older brother, Laith, lay with him, his resting body breathing deeply. It couldn’t long have passed six o’clock and he tried to sleep again, his body weak, but it was no use. After washing, he returned outside.
Men were already at work, the debris now at a lower level than the night before, and he joined them in shifting the stone, always alert for an arm reaching out from the rubble. Occasionally, one of the others called for help in retrieving someone they had found but Mohanned worked all morning without coming across a single corpse. Then, before descending to take coffee from the women who had come carrying freshly brewed flasks, he reached out for one last stone and recoiled. Another’s hand had reached it before him, now as cold as the stone, slimy to his touch.
‘Ya shabab!’ he yelled down at the breaking group. ‘Come help me.’
They clambered up as he grasped at more rocks, desperate to uncover more of the picture but, at the same time, afraid of what lay beneath. With the others’ help, progress was quickly made. A bony burnt torso still lay claim to two broken legs but only one wrinkled arm remained and then a head somehow still hanging on, twisted to one side. One of the men tenderly moved it to face them, so as to better identify the man. Mohanned stepped back and stumbled.
Though his face was disfigured almost to the point it was unrecognisable, there was no mistaking the neighbour who had been so alive only the previous day as he shuffled through the camp. Mohanned covered his face with his hand but nothing would rid him of the sight of Abu Salim’s one remaining blackened hand lain above his head, as though still waving aside the air that was to take him from this Earth.