I Have a Friend in Gaza

I didn’t know I had a friend in Gaza. In the Facebook profiles of street animal rescuers, cats and dogs are always the protagonists. Wherever you live, the cases are very similar: animals found in deplorable conditions flourishing under the care of people who are not paid for this service. Most of them are women.

Before October 7, 2023, I didn’t know that Maryam Hasan rescued disabled cats from Israeli attacks. I read a post where she said they were throwing white phosphorus bombs at them, internationally banned. I googled it and found out that these cause severe burns and lung injuries when inhaled.

I have never witnessed a war. I have barely heard gunshots live. The sound always overwhelms me, paralyzing. I have never seen a bomb explode, except in audiovisuals.

I think of my cats, who are everything to me. Because of them, I have not abandoned this island, despite living almost like an outcast, in an endless inner exile. Because of them, I have covered doors and windows with nets, and thanks to a friend, I even installed a transparent one on the balcony, which allows me to see that strip of sea without obstructing it.

Maryam also lives for her cats. She does not leave her house for them, which could be demolished by an Israeli missile and become her grave. In the city they call ‘the largest open-air prison in the world,’ these defenseless beings, who lavish in the most autonomous love, have become her children.

I compulsively start searching for information about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I remember a Chilean poet who years ago told me what it means to have your country stolen from you, to be evicted from your home, to become a pariah within your own land. I open YouTube, and they only talk about Hamas terrorists and a war between two equal armies. My son suggests a neutral search engine, not conditioned by biased algorithms.

An Argentine friend shares videos with me where Palestinians are seen entering hospitals, carrying bodies of children covered in ashes and blood. Nausea mixes with tears as I share it on my wall, and I begin a seemingly reverse journey: many of my friends have changed their profile picture to the Israeli flag.

They attack my post. They attack me on Messenger, asking if I’ve become a communist. Don’t you know that the Cuban government supports Palestine? And what does that have to do with it? You see? Even the official discourse uses Martí to exhaustion. And the apostle is venerated by the most anti-Castro exile.

‘You’re defending terrorists,’ writes a friend in exile in Holland. ‘Those people use their children as shields to protect themselves from gunfire.’ Can anyone truly believe that? Look at the videos, see how they run, how they suffer for their babies. They are excellent parents, my Argentine friend tells me, they don’t even give them up for adoption if they are poor. I wish I could adopt one of those orphans, oh, I would love to, but there are no adoption agreements between our countries.

My friend in exile in Utah comments to me in a very serious tone: ‘If you were with those people, they would have already killed you just for how you think.’ And what do I think? What makes me so terrible? That I haven’t read the Quran? That I don’t think it’s necessary to cover my head?

Days go by and Maryam doesn’t post. Friends fill her biography with questions, with an increasingly desperate anguish. They are all rescuers, protectors of beings that society disregards in times of peace, and in wartime environments, they are worthless. They are not even included in death statistics.

Finally, Facebook notifies me of a post from Maryam. The news is not good: ‘My uncle’s house was bombed, and they died. The place has become very unsafe, but we cannot leave. I think this barbarism will end when all the inhabitants of Gaza have been eliminated. In a scene I witnessed with my own eyes, barrel bombs were thrown at the house next door, as if they were the horrors of Resurrection Day. I felt as if my house was lifted and put back in its place… For a moment, I thought I had lost my hearing. Everything was flying, even the cats, and I saw children blown to pieces on the street, before my eyes. A child took his last breath when his head exploded… This is just a drop in the ocean of what we experience daily.’

Immediately, the comments pour in. Take care. Protect the surviving cats. We are praying for you. We all want to tell her that this nightmare will end soon. But no one can promise anything. How can someone unarmed and locked in a cage protect themselves against one of the most powerful armies? We avoid using offensive epithets. We all know the dangers of censorship.

I open the internet with a neutral search engine and see demonstrations against the genocide in Gaza: in London, Paris, Washington DC, in Yemen…! Crowds with Palestinian flags, and the kufiya, the traditional cotton scarf, in black and white. Posters with slogans of solidarity and hope. I feel so happy that I want to share it with my friends. But none of them react to the videos. In a strange hermeticism, loaded with hatred, they seem to prefer destruction.

Maryam disappears again. Friends continue posting their concern. A friend from Florida posts that she saw her active on Messenger. Then she’s alive!, we think with relief. I want to write to her that I regret not having talked to her before this absurd war. Even though I reacted to her posts, I never knew she was one of many young people in Gaza, a besieged city where there is no future, except for those with dual citizenship. I finally decide to write to her privately that she cannot die, that I cannot accept a world where only noble people die. When I check my message, I see that she reacted with a heart emoji.

I scroll down her wall and see many photos of Caramel, her favorite cat, also disabled. Maryam dreamed of a larger shelter, with more resources, to be able to support more abandoned cats.

I wish I could be useful. Maybe many people don’t know the truth and only consume news from biased media. I share videos of injured children, of children dying, one after another. Of the bodies lined up on the clear ground, of the three girls that pretend that  one of them has died and the others transport her. When an adult asks them what they’re doing, they explain their game and laugh innocently.

An hour passes, two, ten hours, and the videos have only two reactions. None from my Cuban friends. Days go by, and again the silence accumulates on Maryam’s wall. Her friends fill the space with affectionate phrases and tender images.

I send friend requests to people from various countries who have the Palestinian flag in their profile picture. They share images so graphic that my stomach seems to sink, and a faintness forces me to momentarily close my eyes.

A notification alerts me to a new post from Maryam: ‘The situation is worse than you can imagine, I am still in danger. I have not moved away from northern Gaza, and many relatives have died. And the most dangerous thing is that the tanks approached a few meters from our homes. Everything is being destroyed, Gaza is no longer a place fit for life. Everything you see on TV is just a drop of the reality that is Gaza. If we don’t die in this war, we know we will die later, the situation is catastrophic, words cannot describe it. Even feelings are dysfunctional. All internet lines have been permanently blocked, I don’t even know how these minutes of connection came.’

I sleep with nightmares, and it becomes difficult to eat thinking about Maryam, about tanks approaching her house, about those children trembling under the cold lights of the hospitals. Some look with terrified and wide eyes, as if they were still under bombardment. A girl lying on the stretcher asks her uncle while they treat some scratches on her face: ‘Is this real or am I dreaming?’

My Colombian friend tells me she managed to send money to displaced people through PayPal accounts. That she wants to help Maryam. But she doesn’t post, she doesn’t respond. Her friend from Florida says she hasn’t seen her active on Messenger anymore.

My friend living in Holland unfriended me. He said he lived two years in a refugee camp and doesn’t trust any Arabs. My Christian friends tell me that they don’t want to know anything about Palestine, that they support Israel because it is the Holy Land. They avoid talking about the topic because it makes them uncomfortable.

I look at the clock and realize it’s been hours since I started scrolling through Maryam’s posts. My heart aches, and I feel a deep sense of helplessness. How can we be so powerless in the face of such suffering? They quote Bible verses that they believe confirm that all this is prophetic, that it had to happen because no one messes with the people of God. So, does God want the death of all those children? Of all those people who have never committed an act of terrorism or touched a weapon? I send images that I have seen on the wall of a painter from Gaza: she asks for help for the people who have lost their homes due to bombings and now live in improvised tents. No bathrooms, no food. She cooks sweets for them to try to bring a smile back to those children.

“No, I’m sorry. I can’t help those people. My government is with Israel. My church is with Israel, the chosen people. No, of course not. That’s the UN’s business and whoever wants to get involved with them. No, not a chance, here they investigate your transfers and I don’t want to get into any trouble…”.

And the faces of those children, the bodies with shattered limbs that had to be amputated without anesthesia. There are no medications. There is no water. They cut off electricity and internet. All patients dependent on medical equipment in the intensive care unit died. The newborns in incubators died. Some prematurely torn from their dead mothers’ wombs. Palestinians don’t say ‘murdered,’ no. They say ‘martyred.’ They are so delicate with these terms where their faith is above all else. Because this body is a shell that can be discarded at any moment.

I remember that Maryam also mentioned it once: that they await death as a liberation.

A protector asks me why I post so much about Palestine, as if we don’t have problems here. I tell her that I have talked about Cuba for over a decade, not only on social media. I want to tell her that if we allow this genocide to continue, something sacred will be extinguished. Something that contains us as a species, in an unspoken agreement of minimal civilization. But I tire before I get the words out. I tell her that I post what I want and I block her.

Days go by, and silence accumulates upon silence, interrupted only by the posts of friends who cling to an almost illogical optimism. I inquire with recent acquaintances living in Gaza, and they tell me that everything there is chaos, attacks are continuous, and the level of destruction is such that it is increasingly difficult to retrieve the bodies: thousands of dead and wounded lie under the rubble. In this brutal race against time, the only thing certain is more bombings.

I look at Maryam’s photos and see her face so calm, so sweet: no feelings of resentment, while I feel an almost unbearable anger. My Colombian friend shares another video with me: the Israelis bulldozed a refugee camp in the courtyard of the Kamal Adwan hospital. Debris and pieces of human bodies are mixed in a Dantean jumble. I remember that post I saw at the beginning of this war: children who wrote their names on their arms and legs so their parents could identify their limbs.

And more rows and rows and rows of white shrouds. Women and men bent over, torn apart and crying. A man comments that he has been collecting, in bags, the remains of his relatives.

Then it arrived, I can’t say it was sudden because it settled in as a very gentle sensation, a kind of inner caress. I stopped feeling fear for Maryam, for everything she might be experiencing. The anguish was left behind, replaced with something else . My friend from Florida tells me, ‘I feel like she’s no longer in her physical body.’ Another friend posts that she sees her as an angel, laments the cruelty of the world government, and hopes that heaven is better than earth.

But most insist on an official notification as the only irrefutable proof. Another friend posts Maryam’s details in case anyone has any information. We share it in English and Arabic.

And silence again, longer and longer each time, although it slips away with a very sweet peace, among the posts of friends who send greetings, reaffirm that they still hope, believing in a miracle that is not strictly material. Although for that population where winter, hunger, and diseases have fallen, death is a gift administered with exact and loving precision by Allah, their God. The only one who has not failed them in these three months of hell, isolation, and Western forgetfulness, which even celebrated a bustling Christmas ignoring that Jesus was born in Palestine.

The friend who posted Maryam’s details updates that she contacted someone in Gaza and learned that Maryam finally moved to a shelter in Al-Zaytoun, but this was heavily bombed. It is not known if she survived.

In the rain of alarmed reactions, still hopeful, silence upon silence. The only miracle is a return home: Maryam with her beautiful Caramel and her dream of creating a larger shelter for disabled cats. Because reality is as unbreathable as the smell of those phosphorus bombs, and the sight of blood is so repulsive that Facebook immediately covers the images with a merciful, selective veil. And even the bodies of murdered babies are considered sexual content and threaten to restrict your account if you insist on posting them.

The heaviest silence in the end is not Maryam’s, but the world’s, the world that has managed to naturalize so much horror, the crowds eager to return to the mirage of justice and to sentence that this war expired with the change of the year.

After all, that’s why happy images are not censored. To insist on the physical miracle. In a Gaza once again suitable for life. Better yet: without apartheid. An open city and not a cage, where one can be a woman or a bird or a cat, and fly freely, without the urgent need to become an angel.

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VERÓNICA VEGA
VERÓNICA VEGA
She writes for Cuban magazine El Estornudo.

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