First Day

It is 10:40 on a sunny and warm Saturday morning, and time for my walk through Gaza. I take a break from people’s chattering and from traffic noise and listen to my iPod. The streets are crowded, as they always are on the first day of the week. Despite the embargo, students, salesmen, taxi drivers, police—all have things to do. I am always fascinated by the human will to go on with life despite the absence of what most people understand as normal circumstances.

I listen to Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” and smile, knowing that my friend, Smadar Perry, will soon be listening to the same tune. Smadar is a journalist at Yediot Ahronot, the Tel Aviv-based daily. She called on Friday, asking for my favorite song, because she was to be a guest at 11 a.m. on a radio station there and wanted to talk to her listeners about our friendship, and to play the music. But at a traffic light I switch to Mamma Mia!—a soundtrack for a faster and more determined pace. At 11:15 a.m., Israeli bombs begin falling, close by; bombardment is suddenly the new norm.

For a second I am frozen, then ask loudly: “Where are they bombing?” Nobody knows. And nobody knows which building will be hit next. I ask a couple, “Is there any Hamas leader living in this building?” “No!,” they reply. I run toward a cloud of smoke. One-way streets become two-way; parents run into schools to collect their kids. I jump into a taxi that is headed toward the main hospital, and ask the driver why he is going in that direction when everyone else is heading the other way. His son is a policeman, he explains. He wants to see if he is okay. “Israel is launching a war against Hamas—do you blame Hamas?” I ask him. The driver’s answer is to begin to sob.

The moment I step out of the car, something hits my head: it is the body of a policeman being carried by two men toward the emergency room. His legs are deeply cut. Another car stops with two more policemen, both missing their legs. I run to the emergency room but am blocked by what seems like dozens of bodies on the floor near the entrance—brains out, legs gone, no signs of life—all in civil police uniforms. In the corner I see a policeman who is injured but alive, and step over bodies to reach him. Several Hamas security members rise up, shouting at me to get out. I say, “You have a job to do and I have a job, too.” They leave me alone.

I’m lucky that I passed by that police station before it was bombed, I tell myself. I’m lucky, too, that I didn’t arrange to meet with the head of the police that day, since I am staring at his body. I head to the morgue, where more than a hundred bodies are laid out—I see an infant and a dead child in a school uniform—and where families are coming to search for loved ones. At these moments, you don’t want to ask questions; you just observe and write down the words that come from people’s mouths.

I had observed the First Intifada, covered the Second Intifada, and covered the internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah, but this is different. I find my driver and make sure he has enough fuel to help me cover the war.

People want to talk. There are those who support Hamas, and those who do not. There are others who monitor what people say. I need to be quick and patient and respectful. The story is all around me.

Israel did not let any international journalists into Gaza, so I feel the weight of responsibility, the need to explain to the world what is happening. And that is one of several kinds of pressure: I want to maintain my credibility, so I work hard not to exclude any element of the story. I deal with Hamas watchers and fighters, which I know how to do. I feel the pressure of possible death from Israeli drones, F16s, helicopters, and tanks.

There are moments of fear, when I file; for a few seconds, I think, What if Israel does not like what I say? There is so much pressure from all sides—Israeli, Palestinian, American. I don’t understand why some reporters become “politically correct” in front of American officials.

Taghreed El-Khodary is a correspondent for The New York Times based in Gaza. She has reported for the paper since 2001.