Healing in post-war Gaza

The emotional weight a photojournalist endures in covering conflict can be suppressed, but it can never be understated. And the commitment to highlighting the spirit of survival in the victims of the conflict can never be overstated. For American photojournalist Heidi Levine, that emotional toll has been severely challenged over her nearly 30 years documenting the Palestinian-Israel conflict. In the past year, she has done her work while also facing the almost simultaneous passing of two family members–her grandmother and father–while on assignment nearly 8,000 miles away from home.

Levine has been weaving in and out of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for nearly three decades. In the last five years alone she has seen and covered three wars in Gaza. Last summer’s 50-day war between Palestinians and Israelis that created nearly 40,000 tons of rubble and led to over 2,000 civilian deaths was especially vicious, and took a devastating personal toll on the veteran photographer. Levine spent the last half a year since the war began photographing displaced Palestinians trying to rebuild their lives as internal violence increases.

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On July 16, 2014, Levine was in her room across from the Gaza port transmitting photos when a blast interrupted. Rushing to the window, she saw only the smoke billowing into the air from the explosion that had killed four Palestinian boys who were playing soccer on the beach just moments before. “I grabbed my camera,” Levine told In Sight, “and while rescue workers were evacuating the four bodies, I found a fifth curled up next to a still smoldering hut.” The experience would be one of many tragedies that Levine would encounter, including  the untimely death of a fellow photojournalist and friend.

“In the last weeks of the fighting, a friend and colleague from Italian AP (Associated Press), video journalist Simone Camilli, asked me for the phone number of a Hamas bomb disposal squad so he could cover the story I’d already photographed a few days earlier. I happily helped him out and and made plans to meet at the end of the day for a glass of lemonade. Two hours later he was dead, killed when the bomb the squad was trying to dismantle went off. Not a day passes without me wishing I had never found that phone number in my scribbled notes.” That explosions also left Levine’s friend of 15 years and AP photographer Hatem Moussa from Gaza was critically wounded.

In the midst of covering the daily bombings, Levine, an American, learned devastating news from family back home in the U.S.

“On day 40 of the fighting, I received a phone call in the middle of the night: my grandmother had died in Boston. I was her eldest granddaughter and she had always been like my best friend my entire life. A text message on the day of her funeral read that the cease fire broke down and the fighting resumed. I felt guilty mourning her death, especially without having any time to process what I had witnessed during the war.”

Levine returned to Gaza after just two weeks in the U.S only to receive yet another call from her son notifying her that her father had fallen ill. Soon after she arrived in Maryland, he passed away. Levine would again return to Gaza, fueled by her own need to deal with such loss, and continue documenting the victims. Among them were a father, Nabil Siyam, and his only surviving child, Badruddin, 5, after his wife and four other children were killed during a drone strike near his home in Rafa. Nabil lost his arm and his son lost a kidney. Another man, Wael Al Namiah and his family were hit by an Israeli air strike  on one of the darkest days during last summer’s war, called ‘Black Friday,’ when over 50 Palestinians were killed in the Rafa area of southern Gaza.

“These cases and others highlight what still shocks and amazes me after so many years, and what my ongoing project tries to capture. They epitomize human resilience, they depict the process of emotional and physical healing that makes itself felt there in Gaza, even as the threat of yet another military conflict looms.”