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Gaza Notebook: The Surreal Scenes I Witnessed During 'The Worst Eid Ever'

Standing outside Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, a man who carried his brother to the emergency room awaits word about whether he survived.
Standing outside Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, a man who carried his brother to the emergency room awaits word about whether he survived.

I'm a Palestinian photojournalist who lives in Gaza City. Out of all the destruction I documented this month during the 11-day war between Hamas and Israel, one early morning stands out.

It was two weeks ago on the Eid holiday, and I went out to take pictures of the rubble at 5:30 a.m. The holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan is one of the moments we Palestinians wait for all year. Men wear cologne and traditional jalabiya robes instead of pants. Women wear thobes. We go to the mosque for the fajr prayer and to hear a lesson from the imam about how we should visit each other to spread the spirit of love. People on the streets have big smiles.

We had hoped both sides would call a cease-fire on our holy day, like they did during the last war between Gaza and Israel in 2014. But this time, they didn't. It came a week later, after more than 250 people were killed in Gaza, according to authorities there, and many more were wounded. In Israel, authorities said 12 people were killed as more than 4,000 rockets were fired from Gaza.

A Palestinian man assesses the damage of his accessories shop the morning after it was damaged.
/ Anas Baba for NPR
A Palestinian man assesses the damage of his accessories shop the morning after it was damaged.

I went to Saraya, a square in central Gaza City, and found people looking for an open mosque, just to feel the Eid, but instead witnessing an irrational scene: There was a massive hole in the street, where an Israeli missile had hit, next to a billboard with Ramadan greetings and another billboard with the silhouette of Mohammed Deif, the leader of the Hamas military wing.

The mosques weren't open. Local radio stations were warning people not to leave their homes. Gaza's ministry of Islamic affairs announced there would be no communal prayers because it was too dangerous to gather during war. It said it was not haram, not forbidden, to pray at home with one's family.

"Excuse me, may I ask you something?" I heard. It was Abu Kamal, the owner of the Kodak Express. He was on the balcony of his apartment above his photo shop, talking to me on the street below.

"I don't have the courage to go outside my home and look at the doors of my shop. Tell me, is it bad?"

"I'm sorry, but God loves you very much," I joked. "Only the windows got broken. Everything else is OK."

The smile I saw on his face was, for me, the real Eid.

I asked him what had happened. He said he'd felt nothing like it in his life. The sound made a hole in his ears. He jumped from bed and went to his children's room with his wife. The first airstrike hit. The second. The third.

"The whole house was dancing," he said.

After the tenth airstrike, everything fell silent.

"I didn't understand if I was alive or not. By the crying of my family, I understood I was alive," he told me. "I didn't have courage to look outside my window to look at my shop until I heard the tuk-tuk-tuk of your camera."

A truck carries several families evacuating from their homes in Beit Hanoun, a neighborhood in Gaza.
/ Anas Baba for NPR
A truck carries several families evacuating from their homes in Beit Hanoun, a neighborhood in Gaza.

I left Abu Kamal and drove to take pictures of a collapsed building, when I saw people running. They said they'd just got a call from the Israelis, warning their five-story building in an upscale residential neighborhood would be hit. Sixty families were evacuating.

I saw four kids, a mom and a dad. Their faces were terrified. I pulled over and offered them a lift. The dad was so happy. He said he wanted to flee to his father-in-law's home, but didn't have a car.

It was 6:30 a.m. A girl and a boy were holding lollipops and didn't understand what was happening. The little boy, maybe 9 years old, said to his father: "Baba [Papa], why are we going to Grandpa's early?"

The father, accountant Mohammed Shamali, was wearing flip-flops and pajamas and holding two suitcases. One contained their official documents. The other had his wife's bracelets and gold jewelry.

"I was trying to convince my children: 'All the bombs you hear are not war. It's a celebration for the upcoming Eid.' And when Eid came, we evacuated our home," he said. "This is the worst Eid ever."

I dropped them off and took their photo on the curb, waiting for Grandpa to open the door.

Then I called my mom. I hadn't been home for three days because I was staying at my dad's office, taking photos of rocket fire from the roof at night.

"Happy Eid, Mama," I told her. She started to cry.

Anas Baba is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Gaza City.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.