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A Gaza woman describes trying to keep her family safe — and alive

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now for the story of one woman in the Gaza Strip. For now, the fighting there is paused. And today Hamas released 16 hostages as Israel releases Palestinian detainees. Israel says it is fighting Hamas in response to its killing 1,200 people on October 7. But people living in Gaza, where officials say more than 13,000 have died, they say it feels like a war against Palestinian civilians. NPR's Aya Batrawy kept in touch with a mother in Gaza as she tried to keep her family safe and alive.

EMAN ABU SAEID: Here in Gaza, seconds - seconds between life and death. You can't expect when - how long will you live?

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: That's Eman Abu Saeid, an architect, social worker and a Palestinian mother of two. She was still in her home in Gaza City when I called her on October 9. She's one of the people I'd been introduced to over the phone as I was searching for people to talk to in the Gaza Strip about life during this war, but already life as she knew it had changed.

E ABU SAEID: My sister was calling me right now. She called me to bring her - send her some clothes for her kids.

BATRAWY: Abu Saeid comes from a family of 11 siblings. She told me one of her sisters was displaced and needed to borrow clothes from her children - Joudi, 12, and Ziyad, 11.

E ABU SAEID: I couldn't explain it. I couldn't explain the situation in Gaza. It's catastrophic. And, you know, there are things that happen in war in Gaza that you can't know from news. You need to live them to understand them.

BATRAWY: Like how hard it is to protect your children from the horrors of war and the smell of death and bombs all around. Her kids were terrified of the buzzing of Israeli aircraft and the crashing boom of airstrikes, the bombardment from Israeli naval ships off the coast.

E ABU SAEID: From the sea, from the air, from everywhere. Many of the buildings surrounding us have been bombed by F-16s, so, you know, you don't - we're trying to escape, but we don't - where to go.

BATRAWY: Just two days into the war, the building next to hers had already been hit by a bomb.

E ABU SAEID: We woke up with the dust bombing on our faces and bodies and smelling of gunpowder and dirt. My kids crying and shouting all the day because of the bombing from the F-16 war airplanes from the Israeli occupation. And we feel helpless, afraid.

BATRAWY: Israel blames civilian deaths on Hamas, saying it operates in civilian areas by using people for cover. But Abu Saeid rejects this argument and says Israel's actions against Gaza go much further, including a 16-year blockade since Hamas took over. Her children never had a chance to see life outside Gaza.

E ABU SAEID: They didn't see anything outside Gaza except killed, murdered, electricity off, no food. What about our civilians and our children - kids in Gaza Strip? What about them? Do you wait for the Gazans to fight for their rights and to get back their rights, to live in dignity? It's the simplest requirements of our kids and our people here in Gaza. They need to move freely. They need to have adequate services, water, electricity, as anyone in the world. That's it.

BATRAWY: She listed all the wars and conflicts her children had already survived.

E ABU SAEID: 2014, 2021, 2022, 2023 - aggression on Gaza. Yes.

BATRAWY: She told me about specific scenes of death in Gaza during this war - of mothers and children being pulled out of the rubble as (speaking Arabic) - Arabic for body parts. She didn't want her kids to see that.

E ABU SAEID: Kids are dead, mothers dead. They are just full of dust. They are like (speaking Arabic). They are - yes, it's a horrible, horrible, horrible things to see here in Gaza. And try - I try to make my kids safe.

BATRAWY: She ended up moving with her kids and her husband to her parents' home in an area Israel told people to flee to. Then, on October 31, airstrikes destroyed the five-story building, according to witnesses. Abu Saeid and her family were killed. Eman Abu Saeid was pulled from the rubble in body parts, just like the scenes she'd been trying to shield her children from. Her two children, Joudi and Ziyad, and her husband, Iyad, also died. In all, 23 members of her family died in that attack, including her parents, five siblings, other relatives and 12 children in total from the family. Her brother Mohammad Abu Saeid in the U.K. confirmed the details of her death and how hard it's been.

MOHAMMED ABU SAEID: You know, Eman is a very kind person. Oh, my God, she's - she has this really big heart. But we never expected that the whole building will be flattened. This is something we never expected - never came to my mind. Mentally, it's very, very damaging. I don't know. Ten years, I was praying that - to Allah, you know, to reunite with my family, and - but this will never happen.

BATRAWY: In our conversations, Abu Saeid had told me that she saw the Hamas attack on Israel as, quote, "a very natural response to what Israel had done since 1948." She said she knew Americans wouldn't understand this about an attack that killed women and children and took hostages.

E ABU SAEID: Is it only the right for Israel, the occupation, to defend themselves? What about the Gazans? What about them? What about them? Who will defend them?

BATRAWY: Just days before her death, Eman Abu Saeid wrote there was no longer internet to call me and that her home that she'd left in Gaza City had been bombed. She said Gaza is bleeding.

Aya Batrawy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.