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‘Bodies Everywhere:’ One Family’s Harrowing Journey Out Of Gaza City

Above photo: Palestinians flee to the Southern Gaza Strip on Salah Al-Din Street in Bureij, Gaza Strip on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. Stringer/APA Images.

‘Horrific scenes, enough to make a stone cry.’

Zakaria Baker and his family were forced from their home in Al-Shati refugee camp by Israeli bombs on November 7. As they traveled south over 15 kilometers they witnessed incredible horrors and not everyone survived the journey. This is their story.

Editor’s Note: The following testimony was given by Zakaria Baker on November 11, 2023. The testimony was collected by Amplify Gaza Stories, an organization working on the ground in Gaza to collect and translate testimonies from Gazans, ensuring their stories of struggle, resilience, and survival are heard.

I am Zakaria Baker, one of the people who were displaced from their homes four days ago in November 2023 – around November 7, 2023.

The beginning of the displacement is as follows: An Israeli intelligence officer called one of my cousins. There were about 20 of us sitting on chairs. The bombing of Al-Shati Refugee Camp did not stop for a single second. The missiles that were fired at the camp – we couldn’t see or hear them. They were barrel bombs. When they were dropped on a residential block of six or seven houses, they destroyed them completely. The scariest and most painful thing is that these missiles are fired at houses crowded with people. The bodies in Al-Shifa Camp are still under the rubble. We could smell the bodies.

The Israeli intelligence officer called one of my cousins who was sitting with us and said, “Bakers, why haven’t you left? Your neighbors have evacuated. You have 30 minutes to leave for your safety. If you don’t go, we will drop death on you.”

Ok, half an hour… What do we do? We are families and children and have to get ready to leave?

Zakaria Baker, in a photo taken before October 7, 2023. Musheir El-Farra.

Less than half an hour later, about 20 minutes, maybe less, the bombing started a few meters away from us. It was targeting houses that were just two or three houses away. We couldn’t take anything with us, just some medication because I had had open heart surgery. So we walked – women, children, and elderly – as we kept walking, the bombing got closer to our houses. Whenever we passed a house, it was destroyed behind us.

The bombardment continued to Rono Mosque near Al-Shifa Hospital. When we were under the mosque, a bomb hit its minaret. Thousands of people were in the street. Some of them came from the hospital too. Many elderly people were with us. There were 160 people from our family in the street, and from our extended family, there were around 4 or 5 thousand.

We all started walking. When we reached the Al-Shifa there were thousands of people there. Most of them were residents from around Al-Shifa Hospital, or people who were seeking shelter inside the hospital who fled because the hospital was targeted.

We reached Dola interchange, some five to six kilometers we had already covered. We saw a scruffy-looking bus, but it was working, and we asked the driver to take us to the Dola interchange. He asked for 80 shekels, and we were approximately 40 people. We agreed on 80 shekels to take us to the Dola roundabout near Salah al-Din. We reached the Dola interchange, and we got off the bus, and we walked approximately one kilometer after the Kuwait roundabout, and we saw huge crowds, you know, don’t say hundreds or 1000s or 10s of thousands, there were hundreds of thousands of people and horrific scenes – women 80 and 90-year-olds, old men of 70 and 80 years old, some of them were wounded, some carrying children. We kept walking until we met a donkey and cart, and the owner said 20 shekels, so we loaded everything onto this cart – women, children, all our luggage, everything that we could get on the cart. Halfway up, the donkey was struggling, so the driver asked us to push. So we pushed it for the sake of helping the elderly and the children. We pushed until we were within 100 meters of the Israeli IDF. We got down, and we were asked to show our IDs. I picked up my grandson and played with him in order to assure him and for him to be assured by me. We walked within 10 meters of the soldiers. They said, “Stop.” We stopped. We saw three tanks move in front of us. Once they passed, we were told to walk on.

We only had one suitcase each. There were bodies everywhere. Some decomposed, some were charred. We saw a car with a person inside it dead. His bottom half was intact, his upper half was decomposed. Horrific scenes, enough to make a stone cry. Enough to make a stone cry. We left the area with the tanks, and we moved to Wadi Gaza Bridge, and they said to us now you are in a safe zone. From the area with the tanks to Wadi Gaza, my grandson was crying, he was hungry. There was a small wall, and we let his mother use it to hide behind it so that she could breastfeed him and stop him crying just for a few minutes, about five minutes. In general, we felt easier and a little bit calmer after my grandson was fed. We continued walking in an enormous stream of humans in a column

On the bridge, we were not allowed to stop. It was forbidden to stop, in fact, one of the old women with us, who was married to my relative, she was 86 years old, her name was Kefah Bakr. She fell down from fatigue and died, she couldn’t survive the journey, the walking. She was kinda lucky because she died 10 meters after passing through the Israeli IDF-controlled area, and so she was taken to hospital.

Back in the tank area, you’re not allowed to look left or right. You must keep looking straight.

Question from Mohammed Ghalayini, a volunteer with Amplify Gaza Stories: Were the instructions from the soldiers given by loudspeakers?

Answer: No, the instructions were passed from one person to another. The people in the front were instructed to do something, and they would tell it to someone behind them and so on, and the instructions would be spread to all the others.

Many of the old people fell down and were left. People would walk past them. One person dropped his suitcase. His name Alaa Abu-Stata. He bent down to pick up his suitcase, and he was shot dead. Many of the old women couldn’t withstand this hard work, and they fell down to the ground. No one dared to stop to help them, they would shoot dead all those who would help her. So we had to sacrifice one old person to save 10 or 20 others from being shot or humiliated. I saw four cases, one person was called by name by loudspeakers. They stripped him down naked, and he was arrested, and no one knows where he has been taken. No one knows anything about him. This is what I have seen at a distance of 100 meters, and others have seen similar cases of arrests.

We kept on walking until Burej. Imagine! From Al-shati’ to the bridge – something like 15 kilometers. At Burej, there were no cars, only lorries. One lorry driver came along, and I told him we wanted to go to Khan Younis or the Hamad area. He said 300 shekels. I said, never mind just get us out of here. We reached Hamad, and we had another torturous journey at Hamad.

Question: Did you find accommodation in Hamad?

No, we couldn’t find any rooms. We spent three nights sleeping rough on the floor, unprotected, under the skies—cold nights. On the third night, only on the third night, we switched on spotlights to repel insects and flies from the eight and nine-month-old babies. On the 4th day, we managed to sort out the situation. We broke a partition that belongs to the council – some 4 meters square, and we put 40 people in it. This was my project. I made a makeshift tent from it with used plastic sheets, and six families were able to shelter there.

Since 12:00 yesterday, we haven’t been able to find a piece of bread. We have one meal a day – for two reasons: to avoid going to the toilet and because we can’t find any food. It’s a hunger war. No tinned food. We went to all the supermarkets and could not find anything. Women slept in the same clothes they left home with. This water I was given by Abu Mohammed. We were subjected to pain, suffering, anger, humiliation. I can’t talk anymore about this.

Since this story was recorded, Baker, his family, and thousands of others seeking refuge were again forced to leave their shelter in Hamad City, Khan Younis, on December 2 after receiving an evacuation order from the Israeli military.

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