Jabalia, Gaza – As soon as she heard that a fire broke out in the building where her sister lived, Aya Abu Raya ran down the street towards it, shouting, “My sister, my sister.”
When she got there, all she could do was watch the fire consume the building where her sister and extended family used to live.
“I was screaming hysterically. My sister and her children are gone. People around me are trying to reassure me and tell me they will be fine.” Aya, 23, told Al Jazeera. “I’m telling them how are they going to be okay when you see these terrible flames?”
Her older sister Areej, 36, died in the fire along with her husband and her sister’s five children – four girls and a boy. Areej’s mother-in-law, Yosra Abu Raya, and father-in-law, Maher Abu Rayya, and their children and grandchildren were also killed in the fire.
A total of 21 people died from the fire tore through a four-story apartment building in the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday night.
Gaza’s Interior Ministry said an initial investigation found that a large amount of gasoline had been stored at the site, prompting a fire that quickly engulfed the building.
Hamas, the force that governs Gaza, said an extensive investigation was underway to determine the cause of the fire.
“Areej is my only sister, and her children are just like mine. I visit her almost every day at home. We plan to visit them today because her husband, Maher, came home from a trip a few days ago.” Aya said.
“What happened was a tragic tragedy by all standards. No one can save them. Life in Gaza is oppression after oppression.” she added.
The bodies of 21 victims were buried in a mass funeral after Friday prayers.
On Friday, the community where the fire occurred was shocked and authorities issued an official statement of mourning.
In the house where the women were waking up, Yosra Abu Raya’s older sister, Khitam Abu Raya, 56, was clearly stunned by the deaths of so many of her family members.
“I have no words to describe our shock last night.” The woman could barely speak. “I have lost my dearest brother, his wife, his sons and daughters, and their children, including my 7-year-old niece, Dima.”
“It was as if our fate in Gaza was to live in more and more misery,” she said.
Outside the burned building, several nearby residents gathered from early Friday morning until late at night.
Ahmed Ezzedine, 30, was one of the first on the scene when the fire started.
“I was sitting with my family when I heard screaming and begging like I was at home. I immediately went out of the house to check and found a child and a woman screaming upstairs in the neighbor’s house, calling for help in the midst of a sea of fire.”
“It was a sight we will never forget. The child and the woman disappeared a few minutes later in the fire,” he said, adding that he and other neighbors tried their best to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher.
Eventually, civil defense teams arrived, Ezzedine said, but the fire continued to spiral out of control for about an hour and a half.
“If this fire happened in a developed country, it would be under control within minutes,” he said. “Unfortunately, the capabilities in Gaza are completely declining in all service and government sectors, and as a result we are losing more victims due to the inhumane conditions here.”
‘The place is uninhabitable’
Saqr Ali, 40, who lives in the house adjacent to the fire, said the tragedy showed “Gaza has become a cemetery for residents and is uninhabitable”.
“I was not at home when the fire broke out, as I was with my family for the weekend, but shortly after I received a call that the Abu Raya family’s house next to mine was on fire. ‘ said Ali. I immediately returned to my home.
Civil defense teams climbed to the roof of Ali’s house, trying to get into the burning house, but to no avail due to the lack of ladders and necessary equipment.
“Whatever the reason, the inhumane conditions people live here force them to do, such as hoarding fuel and gas due to the crisis of closures and power outages.”
“It is true that the incident has nothing to do with politics, but it reflects and is the result of many years of continuous blockade against us,” Ali said.