Her face still bearing the scratches and scars of being stuck under the rubble for several hours, she patiently awaits word from the rest of her family. She has no idea that they were all killed during the massacre in Tal al-Hawa, and no one is able to break the news to her out of fear for her psychological well-being.
On the night of October 27, Ayah Sha’ban, 10, was found beside 14 of her family members. First responders presumed that the entire family had been killed, but when they were brought to Al-Shifa’ Hospital and wrapped in white shrouds, one security guard could notice that the little girl among the bodies was still breathing. He brought his ear down near her mouth, and when he heard a faint rasp, he immediately pulled her out of the shroud and alerted the medical teams at the hospital. Ayah was resuscitated through CPR and supplemental oxygen.
That security guard, 41-year-old Fawzi al-Ma’sawabi, has two sons and a newborn daughter, but when I ask him how many kids he has, he says he is a father of four, including Ayah’s name among them.
Ayah clung to Fawzi desperately, pleading with him not to leave her because her family was still under the rubble, and she didn’t have anyone. Fawzi cared for Ayah from that moment onward, remaining by her side as he waited for a distant relative to arrive at the hospital to collect her. No one did. He already knew that her close family members, including her parents, grandparents, siblings, and several aunts and uncles, were all with her in the airstrike and that she was the sole survivor. He could not leave her alone.
Ayah would tell him that her family was still trapped under the rubble, and that they would soon be rescued. Fawzi couldn’t bring himself to tell her the truth, continuing to nurse her back to health and look after her in the days that followed.
When Fawzi and his family fled south after evacuating the hospital following the Al-Shifa’ massacre, he took Ayah along with him. They arrived at the European Hospital in eastern Khan Younis, and are all living together in one room.
Approaching and speaking with Ayah must be handled with great care, Fawzi informs me gravely, giving me and other journalists strict instructions not to accidentally let the truth slip.
Ayah lives among Fawzi’s children, truly as if she were their sibling. Ayah tells her story.
“We used to live in Tal al-Hawah in our home,” she says.
A warning came that the occupation’s warplanes would bomb an entire residential block where our house was, so we fled and went to one of our neighbors’ houses until the bombing stopped.
But the bombing followed them where they went.
“We were 14 people in the same room,” Ayah continues, recounting the moments before the bombing.
I don’t know what happened after that.
Ayah then tells me the rest of her story — or the fictitious story that Fawzi told her: Israel had split Gaza in two, separating the north from the south, and her family had not been able to join her and weren’t able to call due to the constant interruptions in internet and telecommunications coverage.
Fawzi tries to shield Ayah from the truth, but her constant questions force him to tell her lies that are starting to put him in an impossible position. He tells me that on one occasion, he managed to locate and call one of Ayah’s surviving aunts, who was stuck in another part of Gaza, and asked her to imitate the voice of Ayah’s mother over the phone to assuage the little girl. Ayah’s aunt agreed, telling Ayah that her family was fine and that they were stuck in the north.
But Fawzi’s lie made Ayah ask even more questions and request that she speak with her mother over the phone every day. Fawzi was unable to maintain contact with Ayah’s aunt, however, due to the breakdown in communications in Gaza.
Fawzi says that a number of people who know her story visit her frequently and try to comfort her, but he always warns them not to let the truth slip — by now, it seems that everyone in the European Hospital but Ayah knows about her family. They come to keep her company or to bring her gifts. One gift was a teddy bear, but she has not opened it to this day, and is saving it for her little brother, Majd. She tells Fawzi that Majd loves this toy, and when she sees him, she will give it to him.
Whenever Ayah finds out that patients have arrived at the European Hospital from Al-Shifa’, she can barely contain her excitement, insisting to Fawzi that they should go see the patients, who might be one of her family members. Fawzi leaves for a period of time, and then reappears and pretends that he has come back from speaking with the doctors. He wasn’t able to find anyone from her family, he lies — they’re still in Al-Shifa’s ICU, and they will be able to reunite with her after the war’s end.
Fawzi says he’s barely keeping it together. Sometimes, he withdraws to somewhere private and breaks down crying, unable to bear the burden of carrying such a secret. He tells me he doesn’t know whether he did the right thing or made a mistake that will come back to haunt him, yet he maintains that he can’t tell her yet, that she won’t be able to handle the news. He says that if she had lost a couple of family members — if even one family member survived — he would have told her. But she’s only ten years old, and all her immediate family members have been exterminated.
Fawzi is still holding out hope that once the war ends, he will be able to go back to Gaza City in the north and find some of her surviving relatives, perhaps more aunts and uncles, who would be able to take her in, and maybe then when she’s surrounded by familiar faces, they could tell her.
Meanwhile, Ayah is living on the prospect of reuniting with her family, often telling Fawzi that she can still hear her mother’s voice, which hasn’t left her ear since she first heard it over the phone.
Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union. He studied English Literature at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. He started his career in journalism in 2015 working as a news writer and translator for the local newspaper, Donia al-Watan. He has reported for Elbadi, Middle East Eye, and Al Monitor.