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Displaced blind Palestinian woman shares her tale amidst bombardment of Gaza

Hanadi, a 30-year-old blind Palestinian woman with a degree in social work, resides in the Gaza Strip. Her life has been dramatically affected by the ongoing conflict, particularly since the deadly attacks began on October 7, 2023. These attacks haven’t discriminated between civilians, be it children, women, men, or the elderly.

Her personal experience, marked by forced displacement and a lack of security and protection, began in early October. Many individuals with disabilities in the region share similar harrowing tales, having been driven to flee for their lives due to the Israeli aerial bombardments targeting civilian areas. These bombardments have persisted for three weeks, causing significant damage and loss of life.

On October 23, 2023, a disability activist from the Gaza Strip interviewed Hanadi to shed light on her journey to find safe refuge after the bombardments dangerously approached her home. Hanadi’s decision to share her story stems from a deep sense of duty. She aspires for her account to raise awareness about the dire circumstances faced by persons with disabilities during the continuous airstrikes.

The current situation escalated when the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a significant assault on Israel on October 7. This resulted in the tragic death of over 1,400 Israelis, with 230 others, including women and children, taken as hostages to Gaza. In retaliation, the Israeli military conducted air and artillery strikes, leading to the death of more than 8,000 Palestinians in Gaza, as per figures from the Hamas-run health ministry.

In the wake of these events, Israel imposed severe restrictions, cutting off electricity and water supplies and halting the import of essential goods like food and medicine. A very small amount of aid was permitted through Egypt’s Rafah crossing. The region remains tense, with Israeli troops positioned near the Gaza boundary and Palestinians preparing for the possibility of a significant ground operation.

The following interview was given to Centre for Lebanese Studies (CLS) who has shared it with AOAV. The above contextualising of the war are the words of AOAV and not of CLS or the interviewer or interviewee.

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Hanadi’s story: navigating disability during forced displacement in the Gaza Strip

“I am Hanadi, and I belong to a family of ten members, all living in a modest house in the Gaza Strip. Our residence consists of two small rooms, a kitchen, and a single bathroom. My father constructed this dwelling with unwavering dedication, albeit in stages. He initially built the two rooms, and later, a charitable organization added an extra section, which now serves as our kitchen. My father works as a labourer, earning a meager income, and the weight of life’s financial burdens rests heavily upon his shoulders. Completing the construction of our house was a luxury we couldn’t afford, for my father prioritized covering the educational expenses of my sisters in schools and universities. I have three siblings with severe and multiple disabilities, including visual and hearing impairments, stunted growth, and various other health conditions demanding constant medical attention and care.

In recent nights, we have borne witness to events that defy belief, but the night prior to this was a shocking and unforgettable experience that surpasses imagination. Amidst the intense Israeli bombardment of civilian homes, our neighbours urgently implored us, ‘Evacuate the premises… Leave your home!’ We hurried to find refuge in a nearby kindergarten, hoping against hope that the Israeli military would spare children and their institutions from their assaults. With us were children, older individuals, and family members with severe and multiple disabilities. However, the relentless aerial bombardment persisted, compelling us to make our way to the kindergarten with all haste. In the pitch-black night, we fumbled along, searching for safety.

That night, I longed for my sight to briefly return, if only to alleviate my family’s suffering and assist my siblings. During this perilous hour, an ambulance passed by, but regrettably, it couldn’t accommodate all of us due to our large group, and the ambulance team was occupied with an urgent mission to rescue the injured and transport the deceased. Our mobility, especially mine as a blind person, and my three siblings grappling with severe disabilities and multiple health conditions, was anything but smooth. We couldn’t move swiftly or with ease. The terrifying Israeli bombardment was a constant threat to anyone on the streets, and never before had I realized the value of sight as I did that night. Navigating the perilous path to safety when you cannot see your surroundings or what lies ahead is an exceptionally daunting challenge. The most agonizing aspect was the overwhelming sense of burdening others during those moments.

We proceeded cautiously, as if time itself had decelerated, and we eventually reached the kindergarten at 3:30 in the morning. We were grateful to have arrived at a shelter that, we hoped, might be less vulnerable than our home. However, it took mere minutes before those in proximity to the kindergarten delivered a stark message: ‘We have received warnings to evacuate the surrounding areas, including the kindergarten, as it is within the range of fire.’ They stressed, ‘You cannot rely on the Israeli military… Everyone must evacuate immediately.’ We opted to divide into two groups, ensuring that each group clung together. We brought along some water bottles to quench our thirst and essential items for our temporary refuge. My mother held my hand, and my uncles took charge of my siblings. The streets were shrouded in darkness, making swift movement perilous due to the debris, stones, and shattered glass littering the road. We refrained from using the lights of our mobile phones to avoid becoming targets for Israeli warplanes. The notion of running such a lengthy distance with my family in a single night had never crossed my mind. Every step was a vigilant moment, as we could become targets of Israeli airstrikes at any instant.

Upon reaching my  grandparents’ house, we found that devastation and debris surrounded the residence. The situation was graver and more perilous there, with no access to bread, water, or electricity. As the airstrikes intensified, we had no choice but to leave the house. Death loomed dangerously close, and the flying shrapnel from the explosives filled the area. We took my elderly grandmother who was in that house along with us. We couldn’t document these events with videos, for death approached with alarming speed. Nonetheless, we lived through death, minute by minute, feeling its relentless proximity. The true face of death unveiled itself when my father insisted on returning to our home, in the hopes that it might offer safety. God forbid, but if anything unfortunate happened, our fate would have been sealed within the very house we had grown up in. My father led the way back to our home, a decision I fervently wish he had not taken. His return was a devastating shock that will remain etched in our memories for the rest of our lives. He reached the house we had left only a few hours earlier, only to find it reduced to a pile of rubble and stones. It was a stark reminder of the fate we had narrowly avoided by our timely departure. Our cherished home, which had sheltered us and contained our most cherished memories, now existed only in a recorded video. Beyond that, it was no more.

We were now internally displaced. The safe haven that had offered protection, security, and comfort was lost to us. I had heard tales of my grandparents’ displacement and their refuge in the Gaza Strip with their children, but I had never anticipated that the inevitable march of time would once again catch up with me and my siblings. My siblings and I had already overcome many obstacles as persons with severe disabilities. Yet, our family home had been the warm refuge that symbolized hope, safety, and protection.

How can we return to our home, and where is our home? God knows every room in our house how it was built. Our house wasn’t built with concrete; it was made of asbestos and zinc, which ultimately caused its complete collapse and destruction during the bombardment. It was a small house, but it was the widest home, it sheltered us.

I do not know why additional difficulties are imposed upon us, people with disabilities, along with other challenges. These challenges, created by the occupation, are intended to shatter our hopes and aspirations. Gaza is my city, and Palestine is my homeland. I do not perceive any stability here, especially as we endure hostile bombardment, particularly during the winter season.

Now, we were left questioning: where is our sanctuary? Where should we go? Is our destiny one of perpetual displacement and loss?

What have my siblings and I, grappling with severe disabilities, done to deserve this? Where are our rights as people with disabilities to a decent living and residence? Where is our salvation? Had we been deceived when we were told that international conventions protect people with disabilities displaced under military occupation?

Unspoken but implicit was that human rights did not apply to us, only to the citizens of prosperous nations, particularly Israelis, Europeans, and Americans. What was it that they wanted from us? To abandon our land and forsake everything?

For those who seek to understand, we are still here, enduring, even if it means living in the open. We coexist with our disabilities, with no recourse to international conventions, United Nations agreements, or human rights. Our reliance is on a higher power, on God.”

Watch the video of her testimony here: