Dreams Buried in Rubble: The Bombing of Saint Porphyrius Church
Last August I toured Saint Porphyrius, Gaza’s oldest active church. On October 19, I was stunned to learn it was bombed in Israel’s massive airstrike campaign.
My visit to Saint Porphyrius was hosted by a group of young writers from a mentoring program called We Are Not Numbers, (WANN). The organization, founded in 2015, matches Palestinian writers with native English-speaking mentors. Every one of these writers has survived multiple Israeli assaults and has powerful personal stories to share, not just about war but also about their daily lives and aspirations.
I joined the group expecting a serious day of writing activities, but they wanted to take me on a lively tour of the Old City and show me “what is beautiful in Gaza.”
The writers had never visited the ornately decorated Greek Orthodox Church, rebuilt by crusaders in the twelfth century. Gleaming with intricate gold artwork and lushly drawn paintings, the church contains the grave of Saint Porphyrius and an elaborate wooden case that holds his forearm bone, next to a table of flickering candles.
Westerners may be surprised that Gaza has been home to Christian as well as pagan, Jewish, and Muslim communities over its 5,000-year history. The Strip has flourished as a port and center of commerce, seafaring activities, and the spice trade. Despite the fact that 70% of Gazans now are refugees from the 1948 war and have lived under occupation since 1967 and an intense 16 year blockade, Gazans are highly educated and fully literate. I was inspired by the writers’ enthusiasm, dreams, and eagerness to share their city with me, despite their traumas.
Now with 1,400 Israeli and foreign nationals and over 6,547 Gazans killed, two thirds women and children, and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis unfolding, the young writers talk only of pain. WANN mentors receive brief messages intermittently on email, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram: “We are slowly dying and the world is watching.” “Can you kindly publish the attached stories if I die?!” They describe the constant sound of drones, massive bombardments, long breadlines. “We are breathing our last breath.” They talk of digging out lifeless neighbors from piles of rubble, of babies burnt “like charcoal’” the desperate search for water, the feeling of a nearby blast, the air dense with smoke and debris, the fear of becoming yet another dead bride.
As Israeli forces bomb Hamas, they are also bombing the water and sewer facilities that these young writers rely on, the farms that feed them, the schools and universities they attend, their homes, and the hospitals, ambulances, governmental buildings that serve them. Israeli leaders have referred to Gazans as “human animals,” Knesset members have stated, “The children in Gaza have brought this upon themselves!” The government called for over 1 million people to move south “for their safety” and then bombed fleeing caravans and the southern cities of Rafah and Khan Younis. No one is paying attention to the West Bank, which is now under military closure with a spike in Jewish settler attacks and killings, abetted by the Israeli army.
A land invasion has not yet started, but the Israeli military is clearly intent on destroying as much of Gaza as possible with little regard for the safety of the civilian population, half of which are innocents under 18. The bombing of universities, houses of worship, and historical landmarks, the risks to elders who have no health care and are more vulnerable to dying, not only obliterates institutions and society, but is also a form of epistemicide, the killing of the ability to know about a people, its history, culture, and aspirations.
UN Secretary-General Guterres traveled to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt to urge its immediate opening and access to humanitarian aid. “The barbaric attack by Hamas needs to be condemned […but …] cannot be a pretext for a collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
Three young writers have died and several have lost entire multigenerational families to Israeli bombs. I mourn not only for their lives, but for their youthful dreams destroyed.