Last year, Mahmoud al-Naouq, a Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor translator at our Gaza office, translated a booklet produced by Euro-Med Monitor and United Nations Women Palestine. The booklet included nine paintings and texts painted and written by Zainab al-Qolaq, a 22-year-old young woman who lost 22 members of her family and remained under the rubble for 12 hours after an Israeli air strike targeted her home during Israel’s military offensive on Gaza in May 2021.
Although Mahmoud was a very fast translator (he used to translate several pages from Arabic to English in one hour), translating the nine short texts where Zainab described her feelings about losing almost her entire family and remaining under the rubble for hours took Mahmoud around 10 days to finish. He burst into tears several times while translating and spent hours just staring at a single sentence. He said he could not imagine the pain Zainab went through being bombed inside her own home and breathing under the rubble for hours, not knowing if she would survive to tell her story. Around 17 months later, Mahmoud, his father, brother, sisters and 13 nieces and nephews were bombed inside their home in the central Gaza Strip just as Zainab was. Mahmoud, however, did not survive to tell his story.
Three days before his home was flattened, Mahmoud had texted me, “Thank God you are ok, I sent you [a message] on Twitter to make sure [you were ok] but no one replied. Where are you now? If you [fled] to Deir al-Balah here and there is anything I can do, call me.” He offered me help since I live in Gaza City, an area that Israel told residents to evacuate, while he lived in the central Gaza Strip, an area Israel asked residents to seek refuge in. Mahmoud and 18 members of his family, including 15 children, were some of the 60 percent of victims who were killed in the so-called “safe area”.
Displaced, with no Internet connection and very limited access to phone calls, our team in Gaza learned about Mahmoud’s killing around eight hours later—after he lived the previously unimaginable pain that Zainab had experienced. His body had remained under the rubble for a couple of hours until the Civil Defense could retrieve it.
The first thing that flashed through my mind when I heard the news was the scene of Mahmoud entering my office, sitting in the chair in front of my desk, narrowing his eyes and saying, “Modira [Arabic for boss], I know I’m late in handing in the translation of Zainab’s texts, but I just can’t. Each word takes me hours to translate, to choose the right and precise vocabulary that best describes what she felt.” He told me this was the most sensitive text he was ever assigned to translate. And then I thought, when the bomb struck his bedroom—where he used to tell me about stray cats coming to visit him through his window—and when he felt the blast, and saw the ceiling and walls collapsing over his head, when he ended up under the rubble just as Zainab did and was thinking, Why?, did he finally find the right vocabulary to describe this feeling? Was he satisfied with the vocabulary he chose for Zainab’s texts? Or did he find out that the scene needed a more powerful, less “internationally accepted” vocabulary?
Mahmoud the human: I have known Mahmoud since he was a high school senior. Shy and hesitant to make eye contact, he came to our office to visit his older brother, our colleague Ahmed al-Naouq, who is a co-founder of Euro-Med Monitor’s project We Are Not Numbers (WANN). Founded in 2015, the project aims at coaching young Palestinian victims of the Israeli occupation to write their own stories behind the numbers in the news, as a way to challenge the mainstream Israeli and international narratives that address the decades-long suffering of millions of Palestinians with the mere use of numbers. Ahmed worked relentlessly to support and train young Palestinian men and women to challenge this narrative, to speak to the world and tell the stories of each of their loved ones, and to affirm Palestinians’ right to be seen and heard as humans with names, faces, dreams, and stories.
Painfully ironic, the news about the wiping out of Ahmed’s family came as follows: “20 Palestinians of the same family were killed in an Israeli air strike on their home in the central Gaza Strip." No names, no stories. Only numbers.” What the news forgot to mention is how ambitious and hardworking Mahmoud was, how he started volunteering at Euro-Med Monitor when he was a university student, and how he proved himself dedicated enough to be employed by our organisation and began his dream career in translating human rights reports—those very reports that condemn the killing of civilians and their families. Mahmoud translated hundreds of reports and drafted dozens of statements containing quotes from UN and international bodies that have blatantly failed him and contributed to the silencing of the voices he was devoted to translating.
Before giving Israel the green light to kill Mahmoud by letting it get away with its aforementioned crimes, the world had already failed him several times. A few years ago, Mahmoud lost his cancer patient mother, who vainly submitted several requests to the Israeli authorities to grant her a permit that would allow her to receive chemotherapy treatment in the occupied West Bank. She was denied multiple exit permits, and was left to die slowly in Gaza.
On the balcony of our office overlooking the sea of Gaza, Mahmoud and I once sat to eat the Korean noodles he loved. It was the first time he opened up to me. He finished the noodles and put his plate the side, stared at it for seconds, and then started talking about his mother's death. He told me how his loss still affected him a few years later, about his feelings of guilt from not being able to ease her pain, and how he needed psychotherapy to overcome the trauma. It was the first time I saw him cry. Those who knew Mahmoud know very well that it is not common to see him cry, despite the very sensitive, compassionate soul that he clearly was. But he had also grown resilient with each life challenge.
When he aimed for something, he made sure he achieved it. Over the past three years, Mahmoud did not lose hope despite multiple failed attempts to get a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in human rights outside of Gaza. But what the news anchors who announced the killing of “19 Palestinians” did not celebrate was that Mahmoud had finally gotten a scholarship, and that he had jumped with joy like a child when he received the approval email, only a few weeks before his killing.
The 25-year-old young man with a heart as big as his dreams had also just finished preparing a crowdfunding campaign to provide relief support for displaced families whose homes were destroyed during Israel’s ongoing offensive. Under intense Israeli bombardment, and only two days before he was killed, he had finished writing the campaign message and had already begun contacting crowfunding platforms to run the campaign. For years, Mahmoud worked relentlessly to support others and improve himself, with big dreams and precise goals for his life, he planned for his future as if he did not live in Gaza, as if he would not be bombed inside his home for merely being a Palestinian.
To the loving memory of Mahmoud, the “not just a survivor” as he loved to call himself, to the human with the kindest heart I have known: We cannot and will not forget, and we will not forgive.