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A very different Ramadan in Gaza

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Ramadan is a month of fasting when observant Muslims willingly deprive themselves of food and water during the day. Their sacrifice is then rewarded after sundown with a feast among family and friends. But this year in Gaza, their fasting is involuntary. NPR's Aya Batrawy brings us voices from Gaza during this holy month. And a warning - this report includes the sound of gunfire.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: It's dawn, and another daylong fast is about to begin...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

BATRAWY: ...Except instead of the call to morning prayer, the silence is broken by gunfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

BATRAWY: This isn't the first war in Gaza during Ramadan, but this is like no war Gaza has ever seen. Nearly all of Gaza's 2.2 million people are displaced, and most are now squeezed into the southern border town of Rafah.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: A traditional mesaharaty, a Ramadan drummer who wakes people to eat before the sun rises, roams the streets and chants...

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: ..."We came to Rafah, and God is protecting us."

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: "We want to live."

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Through interpreter) People have been fasting since before Ramadan. There is no food or anything to drink. I am one of the people. I swear on this morning call to prayer, all I have had is half a loaf of plain bread until now.

BATRAWY: With the sun now rising over Gaza, that half-loaf of bread is all he'll have eaten for 24 hours until he breaks fast at sunset. Hunger is ravaging Gaza. The U.N. says people are at risk of famine.

(CROSSTALK)

BATRAWY: Amid the huge crowds in tents in Rafah is Umm Malik Abu-Ayda, a 33-year-old mother of five baking bread in a clay oven. This Ramadan, she's also caring for a child who's the sole survivor of an airstrike that killed his parents and four siblings. She says people talk about this holy month, but how can there be Ramadan for a kid who has no one to care for him or prepare his meals?

UMM MALIK ABU-AYDA: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Umm Malik recalls past years when she'd visit family and siblings in the evening, carrying gifts after nightly Ramadan prayers. But now, she says, everyone is mourning family who've been killed. Gaza's health ministry says at least 31,000 people have been killed, most of them by Israeli airstrikes, and the living remain desperate for food.

ABU-AYDA: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Umm Malik longs for a bowl of salad. She says she's tired of feeding her kids canned food full of preservatives. She recalls what she used to prepare during Ramadan, a rich tapestry of Palestinian dishes.

ABU-AYDA: (Through interpreter) Soup, fattoush salad, chicken in cream sauce with rice and fried sambousek. And kibbeh has to be on the table, too, and the hibiscus juice and other juices. This has to be on the table.

BATRAWY: There's no electricity in Gaza, and gas cylinders aren't widely available. NPR producer Anas Baba notices a smell coming from this public clay oven Umm Malik is using.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: Oh, my goodness. I saw them burning inside. Tires - the tires, the tires that's just, like, the car tires.

BATRAWY: There are hundreds of aid trucks with fuel, food, medicine and other basics waiting to cross into Gaza, but Israel controls the borders, and nearly all have been sealed since the Hamas attacks October 7 that Israel says killed 1,200 people. Israel blames Hamas for siphoning off aid that does enter Gaza. But even one of Israel's fiercest supporters, President Biden, is calling on Israel to allow more aid into Gaza. The U.S. is now airdropping food into northern Gaza, where the health ministry says nearly 30 people, most of them children, have already died of hunger. And it's here in Gaza City where Rachid Ambar, a 40-year-old father, doubts he can observe this Ramadan.

RASHID AMBAR: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: "We're not letting our kids fast," he says. They've already gone one to two days without food and have eaten animal feed and leaves. A sack of flour in Gaza City costs $420, an impossible sum for families who haven't worked since the beginning of the war. People here say they've reached breaking point, 34-year-old Alaa Matar explains.

ALAA MATAR: (Through interpreter) We were waiting for a cease-fire this Ramadan, but it looks like the leadership doesn't want it. The Israeli leadership, Hamas leadership, the Palestinian leadership - they don't want it.

BATRAWY: Matar says he got a sack of flour from an aid truck recently, but people beat him, threatened him with knives and pointed a gun at his head. He had to leave the flour right there, returning empty-handed to his hungry family.

MATAR: (Speaking Arabic).

BATRAWY: Aya Batrawy, NPR News, with reporting from Anas Baba and Omar El Qattaa in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.