When you wake up to air raid sirens, you don’t immediately realise they are, in fact, air raid sirens, especially when you are half in your sleep, more irritated than alarmed, by the alarms. And also not when you’re living in Jerusalem where such sirens are unusual even during terror attacks. What’s usual, in fact, are random alarms going off in downtown neighbourhoods like mine, shattering the quietness of Shabbat weekend mornings. All one is left to do is mutter a curse and try to go back to sleep, or simply grow immune towards the intrusion.
This time though something rang ominous, and even as we tried to fight our drowsiness, in a few seconds we knew that these were Hamas rocket alerts. With barely any time to process this, we ran out of the door of our apartment and took shelter in the stairs, as the sirens grew louder and covered the air like a sinister cloak. We waited and waited to hear the boom of the Iron Dome interception—there were probably ten as far as I recall.
News started trickling in soon, and in a matter of seconds, our phone screens filled up with headlines of horror, as we made our way back inside our flat. Hamas had infiltrated the southern border towns of Israel and had launched a brutal attack of proportions no one saw coming. Branding this attack as Operation Al Aqsa Flood, named after the mosque in Jerusalem, revered as the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, Hamas militants had captured at least one military base, several kibbutzes and entire neighbourhoods in Southern Israel, open firing at a desert music festival, taking close to a thousand people hostage in their homes, kidnapping some of them to Gaza, while murdering and butchering others.
All this amidst a barrage of rockets aimed at southern cities all the way up to Jerusalem in the centre. Over 5,000 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel in 20 minutes. As we tried to read through the magnitude of the massacre, now and again we had to take cover when the air raid sirens went off. This went on till about noon, by which time Israel had declared war.
In a city like Jerusalem that is not at the epicentre of the disaster, it feels a little strange trying to go about your day with sirens in the backdrop. Friends and family, who have been relentlessly checking in, ask why not stay put in the shelter. Why go about your day at all? Firstly, our building, like most buildings in this city, does not have a shelter. Typically, Jerusalem has not been a prime target of Hamas rockets largely because of the Al Aqsa that’s located in the heart of the Old City.
In 2021, during the last major Hamas-Israel clash, when the barrage of rockets at Israel continued for almost a month in Tel Aviv and bordering cities, only once did the alarms go off in Jerusalem. So, unlike the southern cities, bomb shelters are a rarity in Jerusalem. Some new constructions come with a fortified “safe” room, known as ‘mamaad’, but most residents here take recourse in the stairs – the idea is to stay away from windows, and glass surfaces and stick to interior walls of your building as much as possible.
The silence that follows the blaring sirens is almost as ominous as the sirens themselves. When the sirens go off, no matter how calm and rational one tries to be, there is a definite shift in energy in the body in those moments—certain faculties go numb while others remain on alert. When it all goes quiet, the body and mind try to reorient themselves back to ‘normal’. In that daze that comes from a mix of fear and resignation, you feel there is nothing left for you to do other than resume life. And so we did, several times over during that day.
Over the next few days, we got used to this strange cycle of oscillation and vacillation between self-preservation and resuming your day after a terrifying pause.
But how does one resume anything really when in the thick of the ghastly pictures of violence that kept unfolding with every ticker on the TV screen and every story and update on Instagram and Telegram channels. The barbaric revelations of each day seemed worse than the day before, even as the impossible Israel-Palestine debate descended into whataboutery on every platform from primetime news to social media. As Israel began its counterattack under the name Operation Iron Swords, Gaza City turned into rubble with Israel dropping 6,000 bombs over six days, cutting off water, fuel, and electricity to the region, shrouding over two million civilians in a darkness no human can imagine.
While Hamas exacted revenge on Israeli civilians and soldiers for the actions of the extreme right Israeli government, Israel too did the same, unleashing itself on Gazans to punish their de-facto government, Hamas. They seem to have at least that in common. The Gazans, meanwhile, without homes or anywhere to run, continue to fight death between being human shields for Hamas and collateral damage for Israeli forces.
As I write this piece on Day 7 of the war, I’ve heard several personal accounts of survivors of the Hamas attacks, and people known to those who didn’t make it or are still missing. Someone’s elderly parents were rescued by IDF soldiers from terrorists in their own home in a kibbutz, while in a neighbouring home, someone’s close relatives were burnt alive when they refused to step out. Another person got to know their grandmother was killed when a Hamas terrorist uploaded the video on the deceased’s page.
As the horrors keep mounting on both sides, and statistics throw numbers trying to outweigh one side over another, the fact remains that tragedy and butchery of such proportions are incomparable. Figures, footages, and agenda-driven news bulletins emanate only empty echoes in the face of such dehumanisation.
Less than 80 km from me in Gaza, ice- cream trucks are doubling up as morgues because hospitals have run out of space. In the southern Israeli towns, soldiers and rescuers confess that they haven’t seen a bloodbath of such proportions in all their years of service. Buildings are crumbling like a house of cards, we are losing count of dead babies and the elderly and fleeing people and dying people, barely visible through the opaque clouds of destruction but whose cries of despair and desperation can be heard over bombs and gunfire.
Since the war started, I have replied to every ‘are you okay?’ message, with a ‘yes, I’m safe’ adding a ‘so far’ as a nervous afterthought. It’s not as though I’m anxious or scared all the time, but every time I wake up from sleep, for a few moments I’m thinking ‘sirens’ even though there aren’t any. There haven’t been any for some days now.
I have two more days left in Jerusalem, where I have lived for four years, a city that appears held together by a miracle, perhaps orchestrated by the gods of the three Abrahamic faiths it is home to. My departure isn’t a consequence of the war, but it’s painful for me to leave this place so different from how I found it. I feel like I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to this city that has given me so much in the past few years – two wars and a pandemic, aside. I couldn’t get to take those last few walks in my favourite neighbourhoods or click those last few pictures or relive some mundane routines. These thoughts seem pitiful compared to the aftermath of destruction thousands are having to live through, as we speak.
The noose is tightening on this land. But even now, as I am also in some ways running for life, hoping to catch that plane and fly out of this country, I am not leaving without hoping to return. I count the moments to my departure while thinking of what a friend said: If you couldn’t say goodbye, maybe it’s not goodbye yet.
Kusumita Das is a senior journalist