The Red and White Bird in Gaza

By Mats Svensson

The young girl from Gaza tells me how she yearns for the red and white bird. It used to come every morning to the little veranda where her mother served a breakfast of bread, tea, water and fruit when the weather was good. Each morning her father left to look for work in Gaza City, and sometimes he was successful. Most of the time he came home late at night. She used to throw out a few seeds or breadcrumbs to the red and white bird. It came every morning at the same time, as if it had its own clock. They used to have breakfast together.

The girl talks about the time before that day in 2004, when everything disappeared.
That was the day when one of the many wars ended. Before then, Israeli soldiers had passed by every day in their big metal boxes. She could see them clattering by when she drank her morning tea. Behind the thick grey steel sat the young soldiers. On these days, she would remain at home rather than going to school.

They were all scared of the uncertainty and of the unknown. They often heard them in the distance, the sound of big machines with their heavy engines, the roar of rockets, the rattling of machine guns. They were afraid that the machines would come too close, that the sounds would come up to them and stop, and that the machines would turn their jaws directly at them. It was on these days that the red and white bird would not appear.

The adults used to sit in the evenings and whisper about what they had seen or heard that day. Everyone dreamed of the day when everything would be quiet, no more machine gun fire and no clattering of heavy metal. The girl longed to go back to school.

In the middle of the cold refugee room, with a few possessions piled in one corner, she sits and tells her story. She speaks in a calm and quiet voice as she spreads a rug on the cold cement floor and helps her little sister with her math lessons.

She speaks slowly, as if she wants to be sure that every word is true, no exaggeration and nothing left out. Back then, they had a house with a veranda and a red and white bird. She shared a room with her little sister. Now the whole family is squeezed into a small room without a veranda and without a bird that comes to visit.

On the morning of the last day of the war, the soldiers stopped their heavy metal box and aimed the long cannon barrel at the house. That was the morning they didn’t just pass by.

The girl will never forget it. She saw how they went by the house and slowly turned back, and in their wake followed four bulldozers. Daddy had already gone looking for work. They were surrounded by tanks carrying soldiers and heavy, specially built bulldozers.

The houses were emptied of women, men and children. The soldiers were screaming, and so were the women and children. The soldiers only gave them a moment. She forgets how long, but it wasn’t long enough.

“I don’t understand,” she says. “I don’t understand. They just came, as if they were passing by our houses. Then they stopped. Someone called out. A soldier approached and asked us to leave our houses, leave them at once. We could bring a few things, but most of our possessions were left behind. The time was too short, everyone was just running around. We wanted to go into the house while it was falling down. The sound of your house being destroyed is terrible.”

A few days before two innocent Israeli children had been killed in Israel by a Qassam missile. Two children playing under an olive tree became part of a constant war of attrition, and penitence day is here. Youngsters are ordered into hundred of tanks, later to become almost two hundred tanks. Sons and daughters contact their parents and their boyfriends or girlfriends before they crawl into the cramped steel containers. Within a few minutes they reach their destination: the Jabalya camp in the northern part of Gaza. Almost two hundred tanks, steel against people, steel against soft skin, heavy artillery against effective firework.

A grenade hits. Five are killed, and three of them were children. Within minutes the tanks take the lead with three children to two. But inside the cramped space the young men embark on a long journey, a journey filled with nightmares, of silence, of not wanting to talk about it, of wanting to forget what can never be forgotten. A journey that will change, break down and recreate the promised land. How can he break the silence?

The steel containers pulled out on October 16, 2004. The result was more than 130 casualties, many of them children. The number of destroyed houses hasn’t been counted.

Someone should spend some time listening and recording peoples’ shattered dreams.

Someone should document this.

They couldn’t take much with them; most was buried under the roof. The walls collapsed as if they were made of cardboard. The four bulldozers broke quickly through the walls. She saw how her bed and her little chest of drawers disappeared in the rubble. When the third wall fell, the heavy cement roof fell with it. Backwards and forwards they went and didn’t leave anything of use behind. The garden had been redesigned to sand and the houses into rubble. When the soldiers and workers were finished with their morning shift, the only thing visible was the roof, which looked like a hard slide.

I saw when a little girl tried to move a block of cement and pull her bag out from underneath. A women looked out over all the dreams that had been turned into sand, I saw the sorrow and the strength in her eyes, when I sunk into the sand dunes and she fell to her knees. Young men gathered around a game of backgammon, a few children used the collapsed roof as a slide. What is it I saw? What is normal and what is abnormal after days and nights of bombardment, tanks and Apache helicopters. It all seemed to be a raining camp for young soldiers.

Randomly selected houses and families.

Somewhere underneath was the veranda where she sat every morning and ate the breakfast her mother prepared. Even on that morning her mother had given her tea and the girl had fed the red and white bird for the last time.

– Mats Svensson is Swedish and a former diplomat. He contributed this article to (This article was originally published in VOX – a Christian Voice – a Human Concern; Issue No. 41.)

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