Starvation Begins to Bite in Rafah

by Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman, published on Electronic Intifada, December 19, 2023

It was 6:00 am on 15 December, when my mother woke me to take our turn in the line at a nearby bakery, 15 minutes away on foot.

There are two lines, one for women and one for men. My mother was number 29, I number 30. We had arrived before the bakery opened to ensure our turn.

The number of waiting men soon tripled, far surpassing the number of women. The bakery’s proprietor decided that every customer could purchase just 10 pieces of bread each, since hundreds were already queuing by the time he opened at eight.

There were six employees in the bakery, including the proprietor. Each one was assigned a certain task.

One rolled the dough into balls and placed them in a wooden tray. Another moved those trays to a third employee, who fixed the dough before it was baked and divided into portions. A cashier took money.

I stood in the queue for six hours. One advantage of getting there early was that I managed to grab a chair for my mother, who cannot stand for extended periods as she has severe pain in her legs and back.

After four hours of standing, I felt lightheaded. I couldn’t see anyone in front of me and was barely able to keep myself from collapsing. Did I feel this weak because I was starving or because I was thirsty?

Exhaustion

I had gone to the bakery on an empty stomach. I had eaten my last meal, a can of peas, 18 hours prior.

I am used to it now, in this, the third month of Israel’s genocidal aggression. I eat only one meal, usually around midday. It’s hard to find food in Rafah’s stores and markets. Israel continues to prevent the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and only a trickle of food for the more than 1 million displaced people in Rafah enters any given day.

Supermarkets are empty. There is no food – not even snacks and beverages – on their shelves, and they stay open only to sell internet bundles.

There are also no longer any vegetables or fruit available in the markets. Rafah’s marketplaces typically depend on the produce harvested in the fields on the eastern boundary of Khan Younis. However, these lands are now off-bounds to farmers.

Back at the queue, I managed to leave my place for a moment to get some falafel and water from nearby stores. The sustenance cleared my head, and my mother and I eventually managed to get our bread.

That alone, after six hours, felt like an achievement. And it doesn’t always work out that way. My brother-in-law did not manage to get to the front of the queue in time a day earlier, and we missed out on any bread that day.

When we got back to the flat where we are seeking shelter, I had to lie down. My feet were red and swollen. Luckily, my father had managed to get some painkillers a while back, so he gave me those. The pain still took hours to dissipate.

Desperation

The struggle for food has grown acute. Israel cut food, water, electricity and fuel supplies early in the attack.

At first there was still flour in the marketplace and bakeries were still working, selling a rabta of bread, 30 pieces, for $1.90, same as it cost before the war.

But as the south started filling with those displaced from the north, the wait began to get longer. And as individuals ran out of fuel to cook with, more and more people began to rely on the bakeries.

Some resorted to wood fires to make bread. Costs began to rise steeply, and a single rabta became unaffordable for most people, deprived of work and any income.

A month into Israel’s aggression, my father began to see that he could no longer afford to come to the bakery at the usual time. Some were starting to queue as early as 2:00 am. By then, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, had distributed flour to bakeries, stipulating that they now sell a rabta for just $1.10, affordable to most people.

During this period, we bought a rabta twice a week, as one was enough for three or four days for my 10 family members – my sister Samah, her three kids, her husband Abed, and my parents.

By then, my dad would go get a number at the bakery at 2:00 am and wait until sunrise when Abed would take over for another three hours to get the bread. Sometimes he returned empty-handed as either his patience or the flour ran out.

Deprivation

My father also registered us with an UNRWA school for flour. It took two weeks, but eventually he secured the family a 25 kg bag. It was a joyful moment that we thought might at least secure us all bread for a while.

It only brought more torment.

When my dad received the flour, I went to a Rafah market to buy salt, yeast and coal to make bread. But there was no yeast and no salt. I returned home carrying only a bag of coal, whose price had nearly doubled at that time.

It took days of me searching in every market in Rafah before I managed to get hold of a small packet of yeast, the price of which had risen four-fold, from just above a dollar to $4.30. Salt has become even more expensive. One kg now costs $5.40, 20 times its normal price of 25 cents.

At that point, we had adjusted to eating meals without bread, typically rice, canned peas and pasta. We’d try to ensure that my three nephews and my sister – whose youngest, Muhammad, is just three-months-old – had two meals a day each. The rest of us would share one meal along with a few biscuits. Occasionally we could get falafel.

We tried to keep Fridays – the weekend in Gaza – special, as much as possible purchasing rice with chicken when available.

This gave some stability to the children. Aya, one of my nephews, said Fridays allowed him to remember happy weekends before the war, when chicken and other meats were freely available.

Starvation

The flour lasted three weeks. Then we had to get back to lining up outside the bakeries.

But in the past week, Rafah’s bakeries have gradually closed. The last bakery finally shut on 16 December. There is no longer, it seems, any flour in the Gaza Strip.

Yesterday, we wasted a whole day searching Rafah’s neighborhoods for a bakery, a shop or just someone selling some bread.

We had just given up when, at sunset, we saw a group of people gathering around a fire inside an UNRWA school. There, a man was making bread on an open fire. I was over the moon when I managed to purchase enough bread for my family for three days.

I don’t know what awaits us after these next three days. The bakeries are closed. The stores are closed.

We go to bed hungry. We wake up hungry.

UNRWA has begun distributing flour again. But when is it our turn? What will happen to us if they run out?

I fear that if we die, we will die of starvation before we can secure any flour in Rafah.

Editor’s note: This is Rafah, on the Egyptian border just across from the miles of trucks mostly not allowed to pass the border.  What does this situation say about the circumstances further from the border crossing.


Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a journalist living in Gaza.

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