Turks who fled Gaza recount trauma of Israel's war

'This luck is not a good thing,' say those who managed to escape but left their lives behind

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The Israeli strikes on Gaza began just as Hassan Al Hwaity had started to advertise his winter stock.

Al Hwaity Kids Home, the multistorey clothes shop owned by his family in the affluent Al Remal district of Gaza city, was filled with new boots, shirts, and girls’ party dresses. The last post on the shop’s Facebook page, from October 6, shows children’s coats printed with teddy bears and a tiny pair of scarlet red trainers.

“Among tomorrow’s offers – 25 shekels, sizes 1-6 years!” it said.

Mr Al Hwaity was proud of his shop, and diligent – spending 12 hours a day there. It was one of five owned by his family in Gaza city's shopping area.

“We loved our work,” he told The National. “I would go at 10 o’clock in the morning and leave at 10 o’clock at night."

Mr Al Hwaity and his brother Hamed were rooted in Gaza. But they also saw beyond its closed borders. They used profits from their shops to buy property in Turkey, where they obtained citizenship through an investment scheme.

Now he, his wife, and his four children, aged between 4 and 11, live in a hotel in Istanbul’s Fatih district, alongside Hamed and his six children.

They are among more than 1,000 people with Turkish citizenship and their relatives who have been evacuated from Gaza to Istanbul over the past month.

Now physically safe, they can speak first-hand about the conditions repeatedly described in humanitarian briefings over the past two and a half months: hunger, overcrowding, sickness, fear and death.

The UN and affiliated platforms have in recent days said that Gaza’s whole population is at risk of famine with “catastrophic levels of food insecurity”, as well as widespread diarrhoea and scabies.

Bethlehem holds sombre vigil for Christmas amid Gaza war

Bethlehem holds sombre vigil for Christmas amid Gaza war

The Palestinian enclave's Health Ministry said the death toll has exceeded 20,000 people.

The Al Hwaitys did not want to leave Gaza city, but after 45 days of war, they headed south on foot. Their shops were damaged, burnt and looted, and they lost all the winter stock that they had just imported from China.

“Nothing is left,” Mr Al Hwaity said.

In the southern city of Rafah, the brothers and their families tried to take shelter at school run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, that was being used to house displaced people, but were told there was no room, Mr Al Hwaity said.

Instead, they divided their time between the street and a cousin’s flat. But it was also overcrowded and did not have enough beds or blankets, so the Al Hwaitys slept on the tiled floor. The children soon got sick, with rashes on their skin and lice in their hair. They shared a litre of drinking water between 15 people per day.

“You couldn’t help yourself, you yourself you wanted water to drink,” Mr Al Hwaity said. “If you cannot help yourself, how can you help your children?”

For the Palestinian-Turkish citizens now living in Istanbul, fleeing Gaza meant leaving behind all sorts of treasured possessions.

For Ahmed Al Dalou, that meant his chickens. The brood of 20 lived at his house in Khan Younis, and during previous wars the 39-year-old civil engineer had driven from his home in Gaza city to feed them.

“This man is crazy,” his wife Zekiye, 45, said with a laugh. A Turk, she moved to Gaza in 2012 to be with her husband.

Even though food supplies had run low – Mrs Al Dalou described surviving on bread and lentils and breaking branches from nearby trees for fuel – her husband could not kill his fowl.

“Even though we could not find chicken for the whole war, we could not eat them,” said Mr Al Dalou, an employee of the Gaza Reconstruction Committee, part of the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Israeli air strike kills dozens of Palestinians in Gaza refugee camp

Israeli air strike kills dozens of Palestinians in Gaza refugee camp

The couple's two sons, Jamal, 7, and Youssef, 9, became increasingly terrified of living under bombardment. When the family got a chance to leave for Turkey, they took it.

As Israel’s military assault pushed south, relatives who had been sheltering in Ahmed's Khan Younis house had to flee to Rafah. Food for the chickens ran out. “Our neighbours couldn’t look after them, so they killed them and ate them,” said Mr Al Dalou.

“May they rest in peace,” his wife added.

Evacuations from Gaza to Istanbul started on November 19, according to an official from Turkey’s disaster management organisation, Afad.

About 800 people are being accommodated in hotels at the Turkish government’s expense. A second Turkish official said 100 Turks who applied to Ankara for evacuation remain in Gaza. Every departing individual must receive approval from Israeli authorities and pass through Egyptian border control. Other nations including the US, the UK and France have also evacuated their citizens from Gaza.

Those able to leave feel torn. Many had had previous opportunities to live outside the besieged strip, but remained to be close to family, close to the sea, and close to home. Leaving meant saying goodbye to family members not eligible for evacuation.

“When our name came on the [evacuation] list, we gathered all our relatives in Rafah and bid them goodbye, as if it was the last goodbye, as if we will never see each other again,” Hassan said.

Ahmed left 27 relatives behind, including his father and four siblings. He is now trying to find a way to get them out too, so far without success.

Being able to leave comes with an emotional burden for Mamdouh Al Burnu, 59, who arrived in Istanbul with one of his sons and his 78-year-old mother Hosniya on November 19. He feels uneasy with his good fortune.

“This luck is not a good thing,” said Mr Al Burnu, a media producer. “My close family is with me now, but every day I am looking for news about what has happened to my friends and colleagues. Although I am in Istanbul, my thoughts are in Gaza.”

Although she is from Turkey, Mrs Al Dalou said she had become attached to Gaza. As an environmental engineer, she is concerned about the long-term effects of the conflict and said international organisations should factor this in when planning for Gaza’s postwar future.

“I am worried about the land,” she said.

Mr Al Hwaity would like to go back to Gaza. But part of him knows that there is little left to return to.

Nearly 20 per cent of all structures in Gaza have been damaged, including 10,000 that have been completely destroyed, according to a UN analysis of the damage inflicted by November 23.

“For now, there are no schools, no hospitals, no clean food or water, no streets,” he said. “If we went back, where would we live?”

Updated: December 25, 2023, 7:03 AM