'Tortured': Fear grips Palestinians in Europe as they wait for news from loved ones in Gaza

FILE- A Palestinian woman weeps during a funeral.
FILE- A Palestinian woman weeps during a funeral. Copyright Fatima Shbair/Copyright 2022, The AP. All rights reserved
By Laura Llach
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The last message Ahmad received from his loved ones was last Saturday, and since then he has heard nothing. Like him, thousands of Palestinians in Europe long to receive Whatsapp messages from Gaza.

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Since the outbreak of war in Gaza, Ahmad Salama's family, split between Germany and Saudi Arabia, has been glued to the television.

Although the news from the conflict is deeply distressing, it is the only way they can find out how their relatives who fled from northern Gaza to the south are faring.

The 23-year-old Palestinian, who has been studying in Germany for six years, receives news from Zahr, his father's aunt, once a week.

"It is nerve-wracking, we can only send them Whatsapp messages and wait for an answer. We have our TV on all the time to make sure that the part where they are hasn't been bombed or that there are no problems," Ahmad told Euronews.

"We wake up every day knowing that there is a possibility that they might not be there.... If we lose them, I don't even know how we will know. So we just watch the news and wait four or five days for them to reply," he added.

The last message they received was last Saturday, shortly after the end of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Since then, they've heard nothing. 

They know that Zahr is in Gaza's second city, Khan Younis, but they also know that the war is gaining momentum there.

The town, once home to around 200,000 people, has doubled in size with the arrival of displaced people from northern Gaza.

The UN has gone from describing the situation as a "human catastrophe" to saying it will be "even more hellish" for the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, for the Ahmad family and the rest of Europe's Palestinian population, every voice message from Gaza brings a moment of relief. 

Ahmad Salama and his family.
Ahmad Salama and his family.Family archive

Voices from Gaza

"We don't know what to do. We came to the south because they told us it would be safe, and now they're bombing the south too," is the first thing Ahmad hears when he presses play on the Whatsapp voice message.

It is his father's aunt who goes on to describe her situation: "I’m tortured. When it gets dark, I am very scared. I can't sleep and the night is very long. There's no electricity, so I wait seven hours before I see the sun again”.

After their house in northern Gaza was shelled twice while they were there, Zahr and her family fled south. No sooner had they fled than their house was bombed a third and final time.

They are now living in Khan Younis thanks to friends who were able to take them in, along with 22 other people.

However, fleeing quickly, they left all their belongings in their bombed-out home in the north. They have no food, no electricity, no internet, no warm clothes and it is getting colder.

There's nothing to buy, and Zahr says the little humanitarian aid that does arrive disappears in seconds.

“It's basically like Russian roulette and they're trying to figure out what to do. Either they stay and a bomb kills them, or they flee and they might die on the way,” said Ahmad.

“I'm nervous every day because I could wake up and hear from my father that we've lost our family. I have to live with this fear because in the end there's nothing certain,” he added.

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Ahmad says that when he goes online and sees a whole family with the same surname as him among the names of people who have died, he shudders to think that they could be his second cousins.

A woman mourns the covered bodies of her child and her husband killed in an Israeli army bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in the hospital in Khan Younis.
A woman mourns the covered bodies of her child and her husband killed in an Israeli army bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in the hospital in Khan Younis.Fatima Shbair/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

The war in Khan Younis is escalating

The United Nations estimates that at least 1.9 million people in Gaza are internally displaced, about 80% of the population.

Bombings have intensified since the end of the ceasefire and the Palestinian Health Ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip estimates that 15,500 people have been killed since 7 October.

"Life is difficult, it has become very prehistoric. I can see Israel's planes above me all the time. We lost everything, but thank God we didn't lose a member of our family," continues Zahr from Khan Younis.

Things are getting complicated for Palestinians whose families are surviving in Gaza. With no internet or electricity in the area, they fear this may be the last message they receive from their loved ones.

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According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Rafah is now the only place in the territory where limited humanitarian aid can still be distributed.

Precious little aid reaches Khan Younis, and access to areas further north has been cut off.

"It is heartbreaking. You get angry at the same time as you cry because you feel helpless, and you want to help but you don't know how," said Ahmad.

"It's just a combination of very bad feelings," he added.

Meanwhile, Zahr dreams of returning to her home in the north of the strip. She talks about the end of the war and the hope of returning and renting an apartment to live in.

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"Don't worry about us," she says in her farewell, "I hope it will all end well”.

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