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An Audio Diary of Despair

Tasneem Ismael Ahel’s audio messages typically arrive all at once.

Sometimes there are 16 files. Sometimes there are 24. Sometimes there are just five.

The messages are often stuck, trapped for days in electronic transit because of a communications blackout imposed by Israel when it cut off electricity in Gaza, silencing voices from the besieged enclave.

That is, until a fleeting Wi-Fi signal appears.

For many Palestinians in Gaza, sporadic access to WhatsApp is one of the few outlets for sharing firsthand accounts of the war happening around them: raw reflections on death, despair and shattered dreams sent via audio messages from a territory under siege.

For two weeks in mid-October, Tasneem, a 19-year-old college student from Gaza City, documented how her hometown was transformed under Israeli bombardment, sharing daily updates with The New York Times in the form of an audio diary.

Tasneem’s account offers a window into the unimaginable ways her daily life intersects with the horrors of war: her sister Malak’s somber birthday; the scarcity of feminine hygiene products; the killing of a friend; the desperate search for shelter under bombardment.

This round of fighting began when a Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 in Israel killed at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians. In response, Israel’s military unleashed a bombing campaign on Gaza, subjecting Tasneem and residents of Gaza — half of them under the age of 18 — to an unprecedented number of deadly airstrikes for the territory.

Over 6,500 Palestinians have been killed so far, the Health Ministry in Gaza says.

Tasneem wants to study dentistry abroad and to simultaneously pursue writing, painting and singing.Credit…via Tasneem Ismael Ahel

The war isn’t Tasneem’s first. Or her second.

It is, in fact, her fifth. And, she fears, this time around, she will die.

Tasneem is among a generation that was born under siege. Those conditions continue to trap her, her parents, her five younger siblings and nearly two million Palestinians in a sliver of land.

She has never set foot outside Gaza, and she fears she never will.

Tasneem was raised in Al-Rimal, an upscale neighborhood in Gaza City, and attended one of its top colleges, Al Azhar University, until it was bombed in the first days of the war.

Despite the physical limitations imposed on her, Tasneem has always aspired for a life beyond the fence and concrete borders that surround her.

Her dreams for her future blend a dual passion for science and art: She wants to study dentistry abroad and to simultaneously pursue writing, painting and singing.

Tasneem poses for a photo near the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza. This is the teenager’s fifth war in the enclave.Credit…via Woroud Alqassas

In any other context, she would be a competitive candidate for an American Ivy League institution.

But with each war in Gaza, dreams, like buildings, often turn into rubble.

In the past two weeks, Tasneem and her family have had to flee their apartment and move in with her uncle. Parts of her neighborhood, destroyed in the war of 2021, have been flattened again, and her beloved university campus is now closed.

Increasingly, Gaza City is transforming into a ghost town.

Israel has ordered the mass evacuation of residents north of the city — saying anyone who remains will be considered a “terrorist” — and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been forced to flee south.

Tasneem and her family have chosen to stay in the land of their ancestors. But it’s not just nostalgia that’s keeping them in the city that may become a front line in a ground invasion by Israel’s armed forces.

The southern region of the Gaza Strip has come under daily bombardment, too. And, at times, the roads have turned into a death trap for evacuees.

There are also more practical reasons for staying: Tasneem and her family cannot afford the cost of travel, nor can they guarantee they can find a place to sleep for the 16 relatives who are huddled into one apartment.

For now, at least, they’ve decided to stay. Even as the war seems to inch closer.

On Wednesday, Tasneem described heavy bombardment outside her uncle’s apartment, a reminder of just how close Palestinian families live to the deadly explosions in Gaza.

On a rare occasion, Tasneem did not send an audio message. She resorted, instead, to brief notes written in her native Arabic.

5:23 p.m.: “We are under a ‘fire belt’ attack right now.”

5:23 p.m.: “Strikes are coming one after the other.”

5:24 p.m.: “We still don’t understand what is happening.”

5:24 p.m.: “We’re currently on the second floor of the building.”

5:24 p.m.: “It’s beyond horrifying.”

Neil Collier contributed reporting from Cairo. Christina Kelso contributed production from New York City, and Abeer Pamuk contributed production from San Francisco.

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