Israel's war casts dark shadow on Ramadan in Gaza

The joy normally associated with this holy Muslim month has disappeared from people’s faces. Al Majalla speaks to displaced Palestinians who barely have enough food to feed their families.

Palestinian children carry traditional "fanous" lanterns in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on the eve of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan on March 10, 2024.
Palestinian children carry traditional "fanous" lanterns in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on the eve of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan on March 10, 2024.

Israel's war casts dark shadow on Ramadan in Gaza

The advent of Ramadan normally transforms Gaza’s bustling markets into vibrant hubs of festivity. Crowds throng to buy goods to observe and celebrate the Muslim sacred month.

Vendors showcase an array of products, from bright lanterns and decorative garlands to dates, Qamar al-Din, pickles, nuts, spices, vegetables, meats, and a diverse assortment of juices.

Every stall is brimming. The streets and homes twinkle with lanterns in myriad sizes and shapes, illuminated by the warm glow of coloured lights. Normally.

This year stands in stark contrast. It is very much a departure from tradition. Where once the goods were abundant, now they are scarce. Where once the homes were lit, now they lie in ruins.

A Palestinian girl sells goods next to buildings destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Rafah, February 21, 2024.

Where once these vibrant communities met to decorate and come together, now they are scattered and lost amidst the ongoing conflict with Israel, now in its sixth relentless month.

Then and now

At the Rafah crossing with Egypt, on the south-east frontier, thousands have erected tents, a testament to months of unrest. They watch as trucks laden with humanitarian aid—food and medical supplies—make their way into the Strip, hoping for a modest share.

The joy that once lit the faces of children has been replaced by the solemnity of survival.

As the sun casts its rays, women wash clothes and bake bread over fires outside their temporary shelters, a poignant symbol of resilience amidst despair.

Sumaya Al-Sersawi, 44, a mother of nine and a refugee from eastern Gaza City to southeastern Rafah, is struggling to provide for her family. She scrapes together just enough canned food and flour for one meal a day.

"Today, we had three cans of tuna for lunch," she says. "We weren't full, but I told my children to fill up on bread."

Today, we had three cans of tuna for lunch. We weren't full, but I told my children to fill up on bread.

Sumaya Al-Sersawi, a mother of nine

Sense of abandonment

Basic necessities are scarce here. People like Sumaya have no means to buy even the minimum supplies. I ask about preparation for Ramadan. Her frustration is palpable.

"What preparations? What Ramadan?" Her voice is a mix of anger and despair, her face caught between fury and sorrow. The question has touched a nerve.

"We're invisible here," she says. No one notices us. No one cares if we live or die if our children go to bed hungry."

Her words underscore a profound sense of abandonment and the harsh reality of trying to survive in an environment that has pushed her and many others to the brink. Sumaya's husband stayed behind in Gaza City. His fate is unknown to his family.

In years past, he would decorate their home with Ramadan lanterns and luminous wires, weaving them around the windows to light up the night and bring joy to their children.

This year, Sumaya and her children miss him, their home, and their former lives.

"All I wish for is to return home, to find out what happened to my husband, to be reunited with him," she says. "Then, we can think of Ramadan."

What preparations? What Ramadan? No one cares if we live or die or if our children go to bed hungry.

Sumaya Al-Sersawi, a mother of nine

From many to one

Her sentiment is echoed by neighbours in the displacement camp. They share her sadness and anger over the conflict and its devastating impact on the Gaza Strip.

Five months of war have wrought destruction across cities, camps, and neighbourhoods, leaving more than 30,000 dead, more than 10,000 missing, and tens of thousands injured, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Wandering through the displacement camps that now span the city of Rafah, I seek signs of Ramadan's approach. In the centre, I see one vendor selling small lanterns and colourful decorative cords.

The stall is not doing a roaring trade. The steep prices being charged are far beyond the reach of most people here. The shoppers are almost all displaced. War has taken their jobs and other sources of income.

The stark contrast between the festive preparations of the past and the current situation underscores the deep loss and ongoing struggle faced by Gazans.

Those looking at the small selection of lanterns and colourful paper decorations do so with a look of longing.

Many pass by without inquiring about the price. What would be the point? They walk on, empty-handed.

Salem al Rayyes/Al Majalla
Most displaced people in Rafah do not have the money to buy the minimum amount of Ramadan supplies.

First, we eat

Amidst this scene, I caught an exchange between two men. One wanted to bring joy to his granddaughter by buying a lantern. The other's response was laden with the weight of their reality.

"Walk away," he said. "We need to eat first."

Initially reluctant to engage in conversation and even hesitant to share their names, one of the men eventually introduced himself as 'Abu Ibrahim.'

In his 50s, displaced from Gaza City, he finally spoke. "We stand at God's mercy. We once earned our living painting houses. Now, there are no houses to paint. No income, no homes, yet still the war shadows us."

He reminisced about past Ramadans spent in the markets, securing supplies and decorations, including lanterns for his seven grandchildren.

"These children are God's blessing. Once, I struggled, but I found joy in raising my family. Now, surrounded by my grandchildren, I am confronted with our powerlessness."

His words found echoes across Rafah: the desire to maintain traditions and foster a sense of happiness overridden by the stark reality and necessity of survival and of having to eat.

"Do you think I don't want to buy them lanterns?" he asked me, a sense of futility clear in his voice. "How do I? We barely manage to get food, mostly from aid."

Do you think I don't want to buy my children lanterns? How can I? We barely manage food.

Abu Ibrahim, Displaced father from Gaza City

Festivities faded

As I move through the displaced communities in the west of Rafah, searching for any signs of the forthcoming Ramadan or any semblance of preparations to welcome it, I stumble upon a modest but heartwarming sight.

A family displaced from the east of Khan Yunis has adorned the entrance of their tent with colourful and decorative paper cords.  A simple, handmade paper lantern and another string of similar design lighten the interior.

It feels like a small gesture of resistance against the despair, an attempt to preserve some sense of normality and festivity.

Dina Al-Amour, 32, shared her past enthusiasm for the Ramadan season. She bought various-sized lanterns to decorate her home both inside and outside, all to delight her only child and celebrate the spirit of the holy month.

That spirit is supposed to be one of joyous celebration, preparing sumptuous meals, and cherishing the family gatherings during iftar and the evenings that followed.

"This year is different," she laments. "The war has inflicted profound losses. Relatives, friends, and neighbours are all gone. We lost our home; now we live in a tent with strained finances."

A man stands next to barbed wire near a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on February 28, 2024.

Bringing back memories

Dina admits she was not thinking of doing anything until her nine-year-old son asked, "Don't we want to buy lanterns, Mama?"

She says she felt he deserved joy despite the circumstances. "I felt great joy for my son as we made the lanterns and hung them," she says.

"The topic was difficult for me. It brought me back to the days of my childhood when my brothers and sisters and I used to do that."

She says they used to make lanterns out of tin cans and put candles inside. She recalls going out into the street to play with neighbours' children.

She says her childhood was simpler but happier, spent among the family and friends. Children in Gaza today, by contrast, have lost their childhood amidst the devastation, killing, and homelessness. The war has stolen their joy.

Ramadan amidst loss

While I talked to Dina, several displaced children gathered around me. I asked them about lanterns and coloured decorative wires, but none had them.

One child, aged 10, tells his uncle he wants to fast. "I didn't buy lanterns because I lost two of my brothers (in the war). I used to play lanterns with them. How can I buy a lantern and play with it alone without them?"

This Ramadan is different. Many relatives and friends have been killed. Our home was destroyed. We live in a tent with strained resources.

Dina Al-Amour, Displaced mother in Rafah

Across Gaza, children and families cannot celebrate Ramadan and perform the rituals that they have been accustomed to because the Israeli war continues.

It is stealing their smiles, dreams, hopes, and innocence, just as it has stolen their relatives and loved ones.

On these children, war has imposed rituals of a different kind, mostly related to killing, violence, loss, and displacement.

Ramadan? What Ramadan?

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