, Gaza Strip
(AP) — My colleagues' yells woke me up, and the pounding of my heart drowned out the racing of my mind: What was going on? Had someone been injured, or worse, on the streets of GAZA CITY?
It was 1:55 p.m. on Saturday, and I had been napping on the upper floor of the two-story penthouse that had served as The Associated Press
’ offices in GAZA CITY since 2006. This was not unusual in recent days; since the fighting started earlier this month, I had been sleeping in our news bureau until early afternoon, then working through the night.
I dashed downstairs, where I saw my coworkers wearing helmets and protective vests and yelling, "Evacuation! Evacuation!"
We ran down the stairs from the 11th floor and are now looking at the building from afar, praying that the Israeli army will eventually withdraw. https://t.co/WU2eLEX7kn— Fares Akram (@faresakram) May 15, 2021
The Israeli military had targeted our building for destruction and had given us a brief advance warning: they had taken out three buildings this week, warning residents and occupants to evacuate sometimes minutes in advance. I was told quickly: you have 10 minutes.
What did I need? I grabbed my laptop and a few other electronics. What else? I looked around at the workspace that had been mine for years, brimming with mementos from friends
, family, and colleagues, and chose just a few: a decorative plate with a picture of my family. A coffee mug given to me by my daughter, who has been living safely in Canada with her sister and my wife since 2017.
I started to leave, but then I looked back at this place that had been my second home for years, realizing this might be the last time I saw it. It was just after 2 p.m., and I looked around. I was the only one there.
I donned my helmet and took off running.
I and my colleagues evacuated safely, leaving behind our best memories, as smoke rose from what was the building housing
our @AP office in #Gaza moments after Israeli jets destroyed it. Thank you for all your wishes. I'm sorry I can't respond to inquiries now as we are overwhelmed pic.twitter
.com/5ccRQggckD— Fares Akram (@faresakram) May 15, 2021
After the most tense of days in the community where I was born and raised and now cover the news — in the community where my mother, siblings, cousins, and uncles live — I am finally home. I wish I could say I am safe here, but I can't. There is no safe place in Gaza.
My family farm on the northern outskirts of Gaza was destroyed by an airstrike on Friday, and my GAZA CITY office — which I thought was safe and would be spared because the offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera
were on the top floors — is now a pile of rubble and girders and dust.
Many Gazans have fared worse: at least 145 people
have been killed since Monday, when Hamas
began firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, which has pounded the Gaza Strip with strikes; eight people have been killed in Israel, including a man killed on Saturday by a rocket that hit Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb.
As I ran out of the office, the clock in my head felt deafening. I ran down the 11 floors of stairs and into the basement parking garage, only to realize that my car was the only one there. Everyone else had evacuated. I threw my belongings in the back, jumped in, and drove away.
When I felt I was far enough away, I parked the car and got out, making sure I had a clear view of my building, and found my colleagues nearby, who were watching, waiting to see what happened next.
Nearby, the owner of our building was on the phone with the Israeli military officer who had told him to get the place evacuated. The owner was pleading for more time. No, he was told, that won't be possible. Instead, he was told: Go back into the building and make sure everyone is out. You have 10 minutes. You'd better hurry.
I turned toward our building, praying that it wouldn't happen. I thought about the families who lived on the upper five floors, below the media
bureaus and above the offices on the lower floors. What would they do? Where would they go?
Other journalists gathered near the edge of safety, bracing for what was to come, while my brave video colleagues tended to their live shot.
Then, over the next eight minutes, there was a small drone airstrike, followed by another, and then three powerful F-16 airstrikes
At first, it appeared to be layers of something collapsing; I imagined a bowl of potato chips and what would happen if you slammed your fist into it. Then the smoke and dust enveloped everything; the sky rumbled; and the building that was home to some, an office to others, and both to me vanished in a shroud of dust.
I still had a key to a now-defunct room in my pocket.
Standing about 400 meters (yards) away with my colleagues, I watched for a while and tried to process everything as the rubble began to settle. White smoke was overtaken by thick clouds of black smoke as the structure crumbled, with dust and pieces of cement and shards of glass scattered everywhere.
If I had an hour, I would have grabbed all of my hundreds of mementos that were now in splinters, including the 20-year-old cassette recorder I used when I first became a journalist.
While I was deeply saddened, I was also grateful — as far as I knew, no one had been hurt — neither my colleagues nor anyone else — and that would be confirmed in the coming hours, as more information became available and my bosses at AP condemned an attack
that had “shocked and horrified” them.
I wondered how long I should stay and watch, and that's when my years of instinct kicked in — the instinct of covering up so much violence and sadness in my home.
Our building had been demolished and would not be rebuilt, and other events were taking place that I needed to cover. You must understand: we journalists are not the story. Our priority is to tell the stories of others, those who live their lives in the communities we cover.
So I stood there for a few moments longer, watching the end of the place that had shaped so much of my life, and then I began to awaken from this nightmare.
I thought to myself, "It's done; now let's figure out what to do next; let's keep covering it all." This is history, and there are more stories to tell; and, as always, it's up to us to figure out how as the world shakes around us.
The Associated Press' Fares Akram is a journalist based in Gaza.