Eman Mohammed with her daughters, Lateen and Talia
As a photojournalist, stepping into war isn’t a dilemma for me. It is my instinct to grab my cameras and run out to document the man-made misery, the horrors of war, each and every time hoping humanity will get the lesson.
But nothing prepared me to understand how to raise children in a war zone — not even having been a child in one myself.
I grew up in Gaza. When I was in school, I spent my days walking to and from class, avoiding the streets that were normally targeted by airstrikes. On my summer holiday, I stayed indoors for fear of meeting the same fate as the families who dared to visit the beach and were killed by missiles while they enjoyed their barbecue.
Despite my best efforts to give my daughters a different life, I have found myself in the exact same situation my mother was in 16 years ago when airstrikes hit Gaza. I was 10 years old, and the strikes haven’t really stopped since.
After covering two wars in Gaza, I shifted my whole life. I moved with my American husband to the United States, to try to give my two daughters — Talia, who is three, and Lateen, who is one — the universal dream of peace. But as I drifted into a suburban life, I also longed for my sweet mother and my home. I longed to smell the roses while walking on the beach. So I took my daughters back to Gaza to visit their grandmother, and now I find myself again at ground zero, trapped between airstrikes and the unknown.
Now, seeing my two daughters staring at me in shock, calling my name in fear, asking to come with me when I leave on assignment to photograph the airstrikes or their aftermath, my heart refuses to believe I could have possibly risked the lives of my two angels by bringing them here. They don’t understand why their little adventure to see grandma escalated into war so quickly and so dramatically, or why they can’t get a hug from daddy, but only get to see his face through the cold laptop screen.
The ones who write the rules of war are the ones who never experience it. If you haven’t tasted the pain of losing a loved one, the urge to run away when there is no way out, or the need to jump out of bed to hold your kid and cover her ears because a war plane just offloaded its rockets around your house — then you have no idea what life in Gaza is like.
Talia is convinced that an angry, bad bird is making the noises. Each time she hears an explosion, she yells back, telling the bird to go home. My younger daughter doesn’t understand what’s happening. Sometimes she cries. Sometimes she is quiet and looks around. My mother is a pharmacist and these days she is on the emergency schedule, working every day. When I am out covering the funerals and the bombings, I leave the girls with her. I try to leave very early in the morning so I can come back early and spend time with them. Or I leave late so I can spend time with my daughters before I go out.
In the field, I capture a mother mourning her three-year-old girl. It fills me with pain — the daughter is the same age as my baby — but the mother lost her child and I am able to go back home and hold mine.
As a photojournalist, there was distance between my subject and me. Now, as a mother, when I turn on the TV and see a mother in another war zone crying her heart out, or an anxious mother in Israel, I can only wonder: Whose war is this? When things get darkest, I wonder: Will I be next? Will I be the next mother crying over the dead body of her baby? My trust in humanity fades away, and I sink into tears of rage and weakness.
I don’t fear for my life in the same way as I do for my daughters’ lives. They didn’t choose this. They deserve decades of happiness, life and joy. I was pregnant with Lateen when I covered the 2012 Gaza war, hoping it would be the last one.
My daughters have no shelters to run to. Israelis hide in shelters in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Haifa. But Gazans have none; Israel has banned cement from entering, with minor exceptions, since the siege was imposed on the strip seven years ago. Gazans succeeded in smuggling some through underground tunnels from Egypt. But it was barely enough to rebuild their destroyed houses.
Meanwhile, Talia’s bad birds keep flying. I’m torn between spending time with my children and documenting mothers grieving their losses, waiting like thousands of other peaceful civilians for a glimpse of hope from underneath the rubble.
Eman Mohammed is a photojournalist documenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.