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Gaza poet recalls treacherous evacuation from Gaza

MOSAB ABU TOHA: But it was a very strange day, one of the strangest days in my life.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

On the morning of October 7, as Hamas launched its attack on Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking 240 hostage, poet Mosab Abu Toha was getting ready for his job teaching English in Gaza.

ABU TOHA: Everyone was just looking outside the window and wondering what is going on.

SUMMERS: Eventually, videos of Hamas militants attacking nearby Israeli cities started circulating on social media. Immediately, Abu Toha's confusion turned into fear. What would Israel's response look like? The response has been one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history. Nearly three months into the war, which Israel says is aimed at destroying Hamas, more than 21,000 people in Gaza have been killed, according to the health ministry there - tens of thousands more injured, millions more displaced from their homes.

ABU TOHA: So on October 12, the Israeli army dropped some leaflets on my city, Bayt Lahm, ask - ordering us to evacuate our houses.

SUMMERS: So Abu Toha and his family left for Jabalia refugee camp, joining his grandparents. A few days after they evacuated their house, it was bombed. Then airstrikes leveled an entire neighborhood in Jabalia.

ABU TOHA: We had to run not because I want to save my life, but I want to put my children and also my wife in a safer place because I'm responsible for their safety.

SUMMERS: This time, they found refuge in a United Nations, or UNWRA, school-turned-shelter. That's where they stayed until receiving word that their names had made it onto the list of people allowed to cross into Egypt.

ABU TOHA: We took a donkey cart, and we headed on the Salah al-Din street in the hope of reaching the Rafah Border Crossing. So midway, about hundreds, maybe thousands of people were standing in the street, and there was an Israeli tank in the middle of the street. And I saw two soldiers on the tank, and there were some other soldiers on my right, about six soldiers pointing their guns at us. When I passed by the tank, I could hear an Israeli soldier calling people walking in the line by their description. When he called out to me, he said, the young man with a black backpack and a red-haired boy.

SUMMERS: Talking about you and your son there.

ABU TOHA: Yes. So the red-haired boy is my son, American son Mostafa. Put the boy down, and come here. And by the way, I was carrying my son in one arm, and in the other hand, I was holding his American passport. I mean, I was thinking, oh, he would see the American passport, and they would just allow us to go smoothly.

SUMMERS: But that's not what happened.

ABU TOHA: No, it wasn't what happened. So I dropped my son, and I dropped my bags, and I was separated from my family. And then I joined the line of the people who were called before me, and the calling continued. They called for some girls, for some women, some old people. It's not only young people like me, 31 years old, but there were some people in their 60s.

SUMMERS: What happened next?

ABU TOHA: They started calling our names. Then - so the soldier who was calling to me had another soldier pointing his gun at me. And then, two by two, they were asking us to walk with our arms raised and then to turn right. So as I turned right along with the other person, there was a second Israeli jeep with two snipers behind the hood and with a third one holding a megaphone. And he asked us for our names and then our ID numbers. And then he said, remove your clothes. I removed all my clothes except for my boxer shorts and then waited for a few seconds. Then he said, why did you stop? Continue. And then he ordered me to take off my boxer shorts. And that was the first time in my life I was naked in front of a stranger. And then he asked me about the documents I had, the passports. I said...

SUMMERS: Right.

ABU TOHA: ...This is my son's American passport, and these are our passports. We are going to the Rafah Border Crossing. And he said, I mean, in Arabic, (speaking Arabic) [expletive] - shut up, son of a. And then I was asked to wear my clothes again, and then I was later handcuffed and blindfolded. One of the Israeli soldiers who was putting my jacket and my watch in a plastic bag - he saw my wallet in my jacket. And he said, UNRWA. I said, in Arabic, (speaking Arabic) - yes, I'm a teacher. And he said, hey, son of a [expletive]. Shut up.

And then I was taken - I mean, a soldier grabbed me from the back of my neck, and he pushed me forward as if I was a sheep. And then he put me down to sit on my knees, and a soldier started to speak to me. He said, you are a Hamas activist. I said, really? I'm Hamas activist. No, that's not true. I said, do you have any proof that I am a Hamas activist? Do you have any photo, any video, any satellite image that shows I am a Hamas activist? And then he slapped me across the face. He said, me? You give me the proof. It was dehumanizing. It was a humiliating experience. I was kicked in my stomach. I was kicked in my face by Israeli soldiers who have no idea who I am.

SUMMERS: Mosab Abu Toha says he was then driven to a facility in Israel, where he describes being blindfolded and beaten during an interrogation. After more than 50 hours in Israeli custody, Abu Toha says he was released. In response to questions about Abu Toha's detention, the Israeli Defense Forces told NPR, quote, "detainees are treated in line with international standards, including necessary checks for concealed weapons. The IDF prioritizes detainee dignity and will review any deviations from protocols."

ABU TOHA: We are telling these stories because we don't need - we don't want them to happen again, not to us, not to others. We need to live in peace. This is what the Palestinian people are asking for. I mean, if other people are OK with what is happening to us to happen to them, I mean, then we are fine with it. But if you don't feel OK with this happening to you, why are you OK with it happening to us here?

SUMMERS: I cannot imagine being either in your position, in the conditions you've described to us, or being in the position of your wife, who...

ABU TOHA: Yeah.

SUMMERS: ...Did not know what had happened to you and was separated from you with your children. And I know that you didn't know it at the time, but your wife was working for your release, calling friends of yours around the world. They demanded that you be let go, and you were ultimately reunited with your wife, your children. What was that like?

ABU TOHA: Well, I was praying all the time. I never stopped the praying to God to keep me and my family safe and alive. I knew that the whole world would oppose the bad treatment of me, I mean, because I have many friends in the West. And here, I'm asking the whole world, do you know that there are other people who are as talented as I am, who are as smart as I am? I mean, my life is not more precious than the lives of many other people. I mean, survival is not an individual act. It is a collective one. I'm not surviving because I'm here safe with my wife and kids in Cairo. No, I'm not surviving. I will feel safe when everyone in Gaza - my parents' family, my family, my friends, my neighbors, my students, about whom I have no information - I need to know that these people are safe.

SUMMERS: Mosab Abu Toha wrote about his experience for The New Yorker. Thank you, and I hope that you're able to get in contact with your family soon.

ABU TOHA: Thank you so much, and I hope my voice can be heard by as many people as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCEL KHALIFE SONG, "ODE TO A HOMELAND (TOUSBIHOUNA ALA WATAN)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Kathryn Fox
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.