They Graduated Into Gaza’s War. What Happened to Them? - The World News

They Graduated Into Gaza’s War. What Happened to Them?

These college graduates in Gaza finished training just one week before the war began.

We reached out to everyone in the class WhatsApp group to see how they were doing.

It’s difficult to reach anybody in Gaza. Blackouts are common, and internet access is sporadic. But 34 responded.

They were among Gaza’s most ambitious students.

The dentistry program at Al-Azhar University was very selective, and very demanding, and they had big plans. “We dream a lot — more than a brain can imagine,” one said.

But instead of starting new jobs, they found themselves plunged into endless days of burying the dead and fearing for the living.

The students had hired a videographer to capture their celebrations on the final day of exams, about a year before they finished their internships, in 2022. “The most wonderful day in our lives,” one said. That was before the Israeli assault in the Gaza Strip began.

We reached members of the class of 117 students through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. They wrote or talked to us from tents and balconies. Some even climbed on water tanks or walked long distances to grab a phone signal.

All told us they had lost loved ones. Two of their classmates were dead. And many feared they would be next.

Most of their homes lay in ruins. Many described being hungry, and losing drastic amounts of weight.

The survivors described how their loved ones were killed. The New York Times was not able to verify every attack or the circumstances of every death.

This is not the first time war has come to Gaza. Israel and the Hamas militants who made the territory their stronghold have fought repeatedly over the years, but Gaza has never seen this degree of destruction and death. Israel says that it is doing what is needed to defeat Hamas, and that it takes great efforts to protect civilians, but even its allies have begun to characterize the bombing as indiscriminate.

The graduates spoke with anger, desperation and bewilderment about how much Israel’s bombardment, now in its seventh month, has taken from them.

“We had a lot of wars before, but this one is just different,” one said. “Usually it would affect people, but not people that you know. This war took everyone.”

Loss came early for Madeha Alshayyah. She had fled her home in Gaza City, but her grandmother, uncles and cousins stayed behind, despite the bombs.

“They all died and are still under the rubble,” Madeha said.

Now, her sister is missing. She went to the market one day and never came back, she said.

Salem Shurrab had known his best friend, Mouayad Alrayyes, since they were children. They used to meet every night at a cafe at the same table.

Mouayad’s home was bombed while he was out, and his family was killed. He wrote to Salem that he wished he had died, too, “so I don’t feel the pain.”

“Your pain is mine,” Salem replied.

Hours later, Salem said, Mouayad was killed by a rocket when he went to retrieve the bodies.

Mirna Ismail’s home was destroyed, but that did not even come up in her WhatsApp groups.

Now, they discuss “only the urgent things, only who has been killed,” she said. “If someone lost his house, it is not an urgent thing now.”

Mirna lost two friends and a cousin. “We all know someone who has been killed,” she said. “And we can’t understand why they are killing them.”

Lost Classmates

The class WhatsApp group was how most of the graduates learned that two of their classmates were dead.

On Dec. 2, Aseel Taya was at home with her family, including her father, Sofyan Taya, a prominent researcher in physics and applied mathematics, when Israeli warplanes struck, the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education said. They were all killed.

Officially dentists 👩‍⚕️

Messages have been translated.

“Why Aseel? What did she do to deserve that?” Mirna recalled feeling. “At that time it’s not easy to cry,” she said. “You only think that this is a lie and I will see her again.”

Aseel Taya (via Rasha H. Zendah)

In February came word of another classmate’s death.

Officially dentists 👩‍⚕️

Messages have been translated.

Noor Yaghi was sheltering with her family in central Gaza when Israeli airstrikes hit their home. She was “like a flower,” said Asmaa Dwaima, who described her “laughing and making fun of herself and us in the labs.” The Feb. 22 strikes killed at least 40 people, according to local media.

Noor’s remains were never found, said her cousin Asil Yaghi. “Her body seems to have become small pieces,” she said. “My heart is squeezing and my tears don’t stop.”

Noor Yaghi (left) and her twin sister, Aya (via Asil Yaghi)

For many of the students, the talk is of bodies and body parts.

Muhammad Abdel Jawad was visiting an injured cousin at the hospital when he heard that the residential tower where he lived with his family had been hit. He returned home to find his sisters with “burns all over their bodies,” he said.

His father was missing.

Two days later, Muhammad went back to the remains of his home. “I found my father’s body in front of me,” he said. “I tried everything I could to get him out.” His 16-year-old sister was also killed, he said.

Ola Salama said her uncle’s body was found with no head and no feet after his house was bombed.

“The scenes I saw were more horrific than horror movies,” she said. “But they are all real.”

“The missile cut her body into pieces,” Alaa Jihad Hussain said of her 22-year-old cousin, who was killed alongside her husband and daughter. With communications often down, some of the graduates feared their loved ones might be dead without their knowing.

Only by chance did some learn about a relative’s death. When Mahmoud Naser ran into an acquaintance at a shelter in Rafah, he learned his uncle had been shot, apparently by an Israeli sniper.

“I am afraid of dying these days, and that my friends won’t find my name among the names of martyrs because there are too many,” said Asmaa Dwaima, who, already, can count three friends and four cousins among the dead.

“I’m also afraid they won’t find an internet connection to log in and publish a silly story to commemorate me.”

Mohammed Al-Baradei (right) grew up with Ahmad Al-Hourani, attending university and spending afternoons in the gym together.

But when the house next door was bombed, a wall fell on Ahmad as he slept, Mohammed said.

“All my life was with him,” he said. “All of it ended in a moment.”

Alaa AlAbadla (right) last saw his friend Basel Farwana in the seaside area where they were sheltering. Basel was killed when he went home to get a nylon sheet and some blankets for his family’s tent, Alaa said.

But Alaa has little time to mourn. He is busy looking for clean water to survive. “We don’t have time to be sad,” he said.

When Israeli forces invaded Gaza from the north, most of the graduates fled south. Mazen Alwahidi was one of the few exceptions.

Food shortages are most severe in the north, and Mazen said he had lost 46 pounds and has resorted to eating donkey feed. “It was like garbage,” he said. “But we have no other choices.”

He said his aunt, a cancer patient, died without access to treatment. They buried her on a street, near a destroyed graveyard.

Noor Shehada also remains in the north. Her family was relying on wild herbs to survive, she said.

“We are starving. We are living in the 18th century.”

Before the war, her uncle traveled to Israel for chemotherapy. Without access to treatment, he died, she said.

Najat Shurrab said her cousin’s 2-year-old twins, Muhammad and Hamada, had been killed. “They were defenseless civilians,” she said.

Ms. Shurrab has a 7-month-old daughter, Masa, and they have been living in a tent in Rafah.

Every day is a struggle to find diapers and food for her baby, she said, and she fears what the future holds for the child.

Areej al-Astal was pregnant when she evacuated first to a tent in Rafah and then to an overcrowded house with her husband’s family. She slept on the floor for two months.

With food scarce, she said, she gained no weight during her whole pregnancy. Eventually, she escaped to Egypt and gave birth to a son.

“The word ‘dreams’ has ended,” she said. “It no longer exists in our imagination at all.”

More than 100 members of Areej’s extended family have been killed in the Israeli assault, according to a Gazan health ministry spokesman. “I can’t count them,” Areej said.

After being displaced five times, Rabeha Nabeel and her family decided to return home, though it was missing walls.

“Even if it’s destroyed, it’s our house,” she said.

Rabeha said 27 members of her extended family were killed in the first week of the war.

“I lost five of my close friends, my house, my job, my university, my happy memories and my city,” said Mohammed Zebdah.

Mohammed was supposed to pick up his certificate on Oct. 8, but then the bombs started falling.

Many of the graduates told The Times they had just gotten jobs at clinics that are now in ruins. One said he had recently begun working as a volunteer in Khan Younis, treating as many as 60 refugees a day. A few others managed to leave the country.

Months after the joyous celebrations of the graduates, the buildings of Al-Azhar University where they had their dentistry classes bear the scars of war.

“On Oct. 7, all hopes and dreams went with the wind,” Mohammed said.

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