NDTV Exclusive: "Praying For Death," Gaza Woman Describes Her Living Nightmare

Suzan's life changed forever following the October 7 attacks carried out by the Palestinian group Hamas on Israeli soil, killing over 1,000 people, mostly civilians.

NDTV Exclusive: 'Praying For Death,' Gaza Woman Describes Her Living Nightmare

Forced into a life of uncertainty, Suzan and her family found refuge in makeshift shelters.

New Delhi:

During a conflict, stories emerge - tales of survival, resilience, and shattered dreams. Suzan Barzak, a 37-year-old mathematics teacher at The American International School in Gaza, stands as a testament to the enduring human spirit amidst war. Born and raised in the heart of Gaza City, Suzan's life changed forever following the October 7 attacks carried out by the Palestinian group Hamas on Israeli soil, killing over 1,000 people, mostly civilians.

Two days later, the combined might of Israeli forces flattened Suzane's neighbourhood in Gaza City's Rimal. Fortunately, she, her 12-year-old son Karim, her husband Hazem and their extended family, who used to share one building, had escaped anticipating the attack. Now six months later, Suzan and her family, share a tiny apartment in the city of Al Zawayda in central Gaza, just west of the Maghazi refugee camp which was hit by an Israeli air strike in December last year, killing 70 individuals.

"Since October 9, my family and I have not been able to return to our houses. We were forced to evacuate multiple times. Since then, the only information we have received about our neighbourhood and homes has been through neighbours, friends, or relatives who remained there. They checked on our houses and informed us of the situation, sending pictures when connectivity allowed. Unfortunately, these sources have also died, leaving us unaware of subsequent events," Suzan told NDTV.

The apartment in Gaza Citys Rimal where Suzan, her family, and extended relatives lived. It was bombed by Israeli air strikes following the October 7 attacks.

The apartment in Gaza City's Rimal where Suzan, her family, and extended relatives lived. It was bombed by Israeli air strikes following the October 7 attacks.

"My three brothers-in-law and I have had our houses completely burned and destroyed. Additionally, two out of my four brothers had their houses bombed to the ground, while the other two had their houses partially destroyed," she added.

Life In Refugee Camps

Forced into a life of uncertainty and displacement, Suzan and her family found refuge in makeshift shelters.

Israel's blockade on Gaza has severely restricted access to essential supplies such as food, water, fuel, and medicine. Humanitarian organisations have condemned Israel's use of starvation tactics as a form of warfare in Gaza, where a significant portion of the population faces severe food insecurity, according to UN experts.

"We were forced to be displaced six months ago and arrived at my sister's house in Wadi Gaza. However, after three months, we were surprised by tank shelling targeting our neighbourhood without prior warning. We fled under fire to various locations. The 12 families, including my sisters and us, who had lived together for three months, began packing within an hour and relocated to different places," Suzan told NDTV.

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"We dispersed to tents in Rafah, Deir Al Balah, and to the west of Al Zawayda. We endured devastating conditions during the frosty winter weather for two months. The tents provided scant protection and did not suffice for daily living. Neither water nor food supplies were available in these locations. Our husbands were compelled to walk three kilometres every day to reach the nearest market where they could find something for us to survive on. We endured the worst conditions imaginable," she added.

Seeking Normalcy

As a teacher at The American International School, Suzan's commitment to education runs deep. However, the ravages of war have cast a long shadow over the academic pursuits of students. "No schools are working these days," she reveals. "The school has been partially destroyed, and other educational institutions have suffered a similar fate."

According to UNICEF, a staggering eight out of every ten schools in Gaza have been either damaged or completely destroyed. However, what truly alarms experts is the profound psychological impact the war has inflicted on the nearly 1.2 million children in the territory.

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UNICEF estimates that approximately 620,000 children in Gaza are currently unable to attend school. As soon as the conflict erupted, schools ceased their regular classes, with many being repurposed as shelters for families seeking refuge from air strikes.

With nearly half of Gaza's population under the age of 18, the education system was already struggling due to the region's turbulent history.

"Since October 7, our lives have been turned upside down; nothing is normal anymore. I fear it may never be again. Every time I look at my 12-year-old son, I burst into tears seeing him bored, desperate, and lonely. He can no longer attend school, meet his friends, or even connect with them due to the unavailable networks or internet connection," Suzan said.

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"I am speechless whenever he asks about his friends who have left Gaza. How can I answer him when he asks, 'Will I remain in grade 7 while my friends move on to grade 8?' All I can do is reassure him that his safety is paramount for now, and nothing else matters to me as much as his well-being," she added.

On the professional front, Suzan and her colleagues have been scattered to the winds, with many seeking refuge abroad or grappling with unemployment. "Around half of my colleagues have left Gaza for Egypt or other countries, where they strive to rebuild their lives," she explained. "I, along with our extended family, have lost our only source of income, relying on financial aid from relatives abroad to survive."

"I have thought of leaving Gaza for Egypt, but the travel cost is something I could not afford. Having to pay $5,000 for each adult and $2,500 for children under 16, I decided to create a GoFundMe campaign, but unfortunately, I am still far away from reaching the campaign goal," she added.

A Mother's Pain

As a mother, Suzan struggles with the anguish of seeing her son deprived of the simple joys of childhood, his spirit dimmed by the harsh circumstances.

"Pain and sorrow wrench my heart and guts every time my son tells me about his body shape and weak muscles that he is no longer able to go to football practice," Suzan said.

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"The sports club he had joined has also been bombed and completely destroyed. How can a mother feel when her son keeps writing down a list of his favourite meals he used to eat at home or order from restaurants? When he sees an apple or a banana in the market and looks at me in the eyes as if asking secretly, 'Can we buy one?'"

The Integrated Food-security Phase Classification (IPC) global hunger monitor, according to Reuters, says Gaza has already surpassed two key indicators - food scarcity and malnutrition. The monitor warns that without immediate intervention, mass fatalities will occur "imminently," with a projection of famine by May.

The World Bank has reported that all 2.4 million residents of Gaza are facing acute food insecurity and malnutrition.

A Future Uncertain

For Suzan and countless others in Gaza, the future appears bleak and uncertain. Amidst war, they struggle to find hope amidst despair, to rebuild their lives from the ashes of destruction.

"No one knows how many times we have died before we eventually really die," Suzan mused. "Can you imagine that a person who used to live with passion and motivation is ending up praying for death to end this inhumane life?"

"What future could we expect when thinking of our houses that have been destroyed? Our jobs we have lost? Our city that has been demolished?" Suzan asked. "What does the future mean when we have lost the passion to live?"

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According to a recent Lancet report, the violence in Gaza since October 7 has resulted in a severe mental health crisis among its population of 2.1 million, with 67 per cent being refugees and 65 per cent under the age of 25. The constant bombardment, displacement, and loss of family members have left many children vulnerable to conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Thinking of the future is heart-squeezing, it is like thinking of a pre-dated death," Suzan reflected.

"When this war ends, I will face the fact of my destroyed house, of my destructed city, my empty savings account, my incomplete number of relatives and friends," she conceded. "My uneducated son, and my jobless family. I imagine myself living in a desert with no hope of surviving. This is what the future looks like from my place now."

Since war broke out on October 7, over 34,000 people have died on both sides. 

As she looks towards an uncertain future, Suzan reflects on the simple joys she once took for granted - a cup of coffee in the morning, gatherings with loved ones, visits to her parents' graves. She longs for the return of a life that once was, for a chance to reclaim the humanity that has been stolen from her.

"I missed myself, looking at me in a mirror I no longer have, dressing well, sleeping well, spraying perfume and eating well," Suzan confessed.

"I missed living... Who can bring our life back?"