‘Worse than dying:’ Gaza taxi driver describes search for family under rubble

Injured Palestinian cannot erase memory of seeing people killed in Israeli air strikes

A Palestinian man and his son walk among the rubble of an area in Gaza city levelled in Israeli air strikes that have killed more than 6,500. EPA
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A Gaza taxi driver has described being buried under the rubble of a collapsed building and searching for his wife and children as "scarier than dying".

Tamer Al Najjar, 39, was asleep with his wife, daughter, son and other relatives in the basement of his in-laws' home in Bani Suhaila in the Gaza Strip when a nearby strike partially destroyed the structure.

“It was scarier than dying - I was moving in the rubble, trying to find my wife, children and I could not find anyone,” he told The National from Khan Younis where he has since taken shelter.

If I was under for a few more minutes, I would not have made it
Tamer Al Najjar, a Gaza resident who survived two strikes

“I was under ashes and dust, screaming their names. Where were they? I was under the rubble for 10-15 minutes trying to get out, it was the scariest minutes – worse than dying.

“I would rather die than lose my family.”

Mr Al Najjar made it out of the debris of the three-floor building and found his family had been pulled out and were safe in a neighbour’s house.

“I was struggling to breathe with the heavy sand,” he said.

“If I was under for a few more minutes, I would not have made it.”

Scenes of death

Mr Al Najjar suffered multiple wounds on his left leg leaving him unable to walk for days. His family escaped with minor injuries.

His wife’s cousins and two children were among five people killed in the building during the midnight strike on October 15.

He cannot forget the horrific scenes of death under the debris.

The blast impact shattered the bodies of people asleep near him and on floors above.

Mr Al Najjar described seeing bodies as "terrifying".

“Two of my wife’s cousins died," he said. "We were sleeping so close, I felt them move their feet, our feet were touching before we slept and then they died.

“It just depended on which side of the building we were sleeping.

“Those on one side of the building were killed or got more injuries, the rest of us live.”

A baby of the woman killed instantaneously was rushed to hospital, but died the next day.

“I have seen other attacks and wars but this is the most terrifying, the most devastating,” he said.

More than 7,000 people have been killed in Gaza, including 2,704 children, since the war began on October 7.

The Israeli strikes are in retaliation to a Hamas attack when militants stormed the Gaza border, killing more than 1,400 people, mostly Israeli civilians, and taking more than 200 people hostage.

No place to go

Mr Al Najjar and his family have survived two strikes. They fled to his in-laws' house after his own home in Khuzaa was flattened in an air strike during the first days of hostilities.

Their only possessions are the clothes they were wearing and the car he drives.

“My home and my in-laws' home is destroyed,” he said.

“We have no place to go after this war ends.”

His family now lives in Khan Younis with friends and shares space with about 150 people.

Mr Al Najjar is trying to let the war affect his daughter, five, son, four.

“I tell them it’s fireworks, yes it’s been two weeks of fireworks,” he said.

“It’s too much for children. They don’t understand why they no longer they have a house, why the baby they were playing with is no longer here.

“The only thing I wish for is for everyone to be safe and for a good future for our children.

“This is the same as everyone wants.”

'Nothing to do with Hamas'

Shouq al Najjar, a family friend, said he and his wife were in shock for days and only recently recovered their voices.

“They lost their voices completely because of the ashes and because he was shouting her name,” said Ms Al Najjar, a resident of Gaza city who moved to Khan Younis.

“When they got here, he was so pale. They can speak now. But this is not the Tamer we know. He was so talkative, before we had to tell him to be quiet.

“He has seen too much. Day by day we try but nothing can take the pain away.”

Another friend lost his entire family in a strike on Tuesday.

“The wife and three children of a friend are dead. He was out of the house and he lost his whole family,” she said.

“It is heartbreaking. We have so much pain inside.”

The daily bombings, shortage of water, medicine and fuel has crushed residents.

“I don’t know how we are functioning,” Ms Al Najjar said.

“My heart is shattered, my soul really hurts and I can’t control my tears.

“My Gaza is completely destroyed. The nights are very long and scary and the air drones keep reminding us - you can die too any minute.

“No one is safe.”

Israel has vowed to obliterate Hamas and warned residents to move to south Gaza.

However, air strikes have targeted the southern strip where people took refuge in schools, hospitals and churches.

“I want the world to understand what is happening – it’s a barbaric attack against civilians,” she said.

“Most people killed are children and women. They have nothing to do with Hamas.

“Me and my family we have nothing to do with Hamas.

“We, people who lost their house and lives, have nothing to do with Hamas.”

Updated: October 27, 2023, 4:34 AM