A sui­cide in Gaza

As Gaza mourns the pro­test­ers killed this week, Sarah Helm re­ports on the sui­cide of a tal­ented young Pales­tinian writer, crushed by the de­spair of liv­ing as a pris­oner

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When Mo­hanned You­nis, a 22-year-old stu­dent, re­turned to his home in a rel­a­tively pros­per­ous part of Gaza City one night last Au­gust, he was in an ag­i­tated state. He had been de­pressed, his mother, Asma, re­called. But she was not too wor­ried when he locked him­self in his room. A tal­ented writer whose short sto­ries, many posted on his Face­book page, had won a wide au­di­ence, Mo­hanned was about to grad­u­ate in phar­macy, ex­pect­ing ex­cel­lent grades. In his writ­ing, he gave voice to the grief and de­spair of his gen­er­a­tion. Only books gave him some es­cape. He of­ten shut him­self away to read and write, or to work out with his punch bag.

The next morn­ing, Mo­hanned didn’t stir. When Asma, helped by her brother As­sad, broke into his room, they found him dead. He had as­phyx­i­ated him­self.

Such was Mo­hanned’s so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing that news of his death re­ver­ber­ated across Gaza and beyond with a flood of shock, sad­ness and ad­mi­ra­tion. “He was a fighter who only had his sad sto­ries to fight with,” was one of many com­ments posted on Face­book. But the very pub­lic mourn­ing for the death of a tal­ented young writer meant that Mo­hanned’s sui­cide was not just one more tragedy in a ter­ri­tory where thou­sands of young lives are cut short. Now it was im­pos­si­ble to deny what many had been whis­per­ing: the mis­ery of the siege and de­spair for the fu­ture, es­pe­cially among the most tal­ented young Gazans, was lead­ing to a dis­turb­ing up­surge in sui­cides.

Hor­ri­fy­ing events in the Gaza buf­fer zone over the past week have fo­cused world at­ten­tion on the suf­fer­ing and des­per­a­tion of Gaza’s Pales­tini­ans, as tens of thou­sands have risked their lives to protest against their im­pris­on­ment be­hind Gaza’s fences and walls. Since the start of the Great March of Re­turn, a se­ries of protests that be­gan at the end of March, more than 100 peo­ple have been killed, mostly by Is­raeli snipers ranged be­hind the perime­ter fence.

Of­ten it has looked as if these pro­test­ers were lit­er­ally throw­ing them­selves in front of Is­raeli bul­lets. In the early days of the protests, I spoke to young peo­ple on the buf­fer zone who said they didn’t care if they died. “We are dy­ing in Gaza any­way. We might as well die be­ing shot,” said a teenager, stand­ing at the border near the city of Khan You­nis. He was with friends who felt the same, in­clud­ing one who had al­ready been shot in the leg, and was in a wheelchair.

If the world’s cam­eras were to move a lit­tle deeper into Gaza, into the streets and be­hind the doors of peo­ple’s homes, they would see the des­per­a­tion in al­most ev­ery home. Af­ter 10 years of siege, the 2 mil­lion peo­ple of Gaza, liv­ing packed on a tiny strip, find them­selves with­out work, their econ­omy killed off, with­out the bare es­sen­tials for de­cent life – elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter – and with­out any hope of free­dom, or any sign that their

sit­u­a­tion will change. The siege is frac­tur­ing minds, push­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble to sui­cide in num­bers never seen be­fore.

Until re­cently, sui­cide has been rare here, partly due to Pales­tinian re­silience, ac­quired over 70 years of con­flict, and strong clan net­works, but mostly be­cause killing one­self is for­bid­den in tra­di­tional Mus­lim so­ci­eties. Only when sui­cide is an act of ji­had are the dead con­sid­ered mar­tyrs who go to heaven; oth­ers go to hell.

In nearly three decades of re­port­ing from Gaza, I al­most never heard sto­ries of sui­cide be­fore 2016. At the start of that year, nine years into the full-blown siege, a Bri­tish or­thopaedic sur­geon vol­un­teer­ing in Gaza’s al-Shifa hos­pi­tal told me that she and her col­leagues were see­ing a num­ber of un­ex­plained in­juries – which they be­lieved had been caused by fall­ing, or jump­ing, from tall build­ings.

By the end of 2016, sui­cides were hap­pen­ing so of­ten that the phe­nom­e­non had started to be­come pub­lic knowl­edge. Fig­ures quoted by lo­cal jour­nal­ists sug­gested the num­ber of sui­cides in 2016 was at least three times the num­ber in 2015. But ac­cord­ing to Gaza’s health pro­fes­sion­als, while fig­ures cited in the me­dia do in­di­cate a sub­stan­tial rise, they vastly un­der­es­ti­mate the true rate. Sui­cides are “dis­guised” as falls or other ac­ci­dents, and mis­re­port­ing and cen­sor­ship are com­mon be­cause of the stigma against sui­cide.

How­ever, since 2016, there have also been a spate of self-im­mo­la­tions across Gaza, in which men set them­selves alight for all to see.

“We didn’t have these cat­a­strophic events 10 years ago,” said Dr Youssef Awadal­lah, a psy­chi­a­trist in Rafah, a city on Gaza’s border with Egypt. Men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als and rel­a­tives of the de­ceased blame the ef­fects of the siege, which they say is far more dam­ag­ing to the well­be­ing – men­tal and phys­i­cal – of the pop­u­la­tion than suc­ces­sive wars have been.

Men and women of all age groups, from all so­cial back­grounds, are vul­ner­a­ble to sui­ci­dal im­pulses, say doc­tors in Gaza. On a sin­gle day in March, a girl of 15 and a boy of 16 both hanged them­selves. Among the dead are men who de­spair be­cause they can’t sup­port their fam­i­lies; women and chil­dren who are vic­tims of abuse, of­ten in sit­u­a­tions of se­vere poverty and over­crowd­ing; and even pregnant women, who say they don’t want to bring chil­dren into a life in Gaza. In April, a woman who was seven months pregnant slit her wrists.

Among the most vul­ner­a­ble of all are Gaza’s bright­est stu­dents, some of whom have killed them­selves just be­fore or af­ter grad­u­at­ing. In March, while in­ter­view­ing a bank­rupt busi­ness­man in his home, I saw a pho­to­graph of a smart, be­spec­ta­cled young man, promi­nently dis­played – in such a way that I as­sumed he had been a “mar­tyr”, some­one killed in the con­flict. But his por­trait dis­played none of the iconog­ra­phy as­so­ci­ated with the mar­tyr posters that are vis­i­ble all over Gaza. I had a trans­la­tor with me, and he recog­nised the picture: the busi­ness­man’s son had been one of his clever­est friends at univer­sity. “He hanged him­self,” said the busi­ness­man. “He saw no fu­ture in Gaza.”

Months be­fore the as­ton­ish­ing scenes of car­nage ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Great March of Re­turn, the story of Mo­hanned You­nis had drawn par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion. This was not only be­cause his writ­ing, with its imag­i­na­tive de­pic­tions of Gaza’s half-life, was ad­mired – but be­cause af­ter his death, some be­gan to de­scribe him as mar­tyr. His mother told me: “He is more than a mar­tyr.”

Friends said he had fought the en­emy with his pen, and had died a vic­tim of the siege. On his death Mo­hanned also won warm praise for his courage and his writ­ing from many of his so­cial me­dia fans, and even, in a eu­logy, from the Pales­tinian min­is­ter of cul­ture, Dr Ihab Bseiso. Bseiso, a mem­ber of the sec­u­lar Pales­tinian Author­ity that holds power in the West

Bank, ap­peared to im­ply he con­sid­ered Mo­hanned a mar­tyr, say­ing he had “no need to apol­o­gise for his early de­par­ture”. His sto­ries would never be for­got­ten, he added: “You will re­main one of the giants of our time, Mo­hanned”.

But this dis­cus­sion of Mo­hanned’s “mar­tyr­dom” has spread fear in Gaza, par­tic­u­larly among par­ents who worry that their own chil­dren might do the same if they thought they could avoid hell. One fa­ther of two grad­u­ates told me: “We see our chil­dren through school and univer­sity, and they have worked hard and are ea­ger to en­ter the world and get jobs and be nor­mal – then noth­ing. If sui­cide is to be con­sid­ered a ‘no­ble’ death, more might choose that way. It is very dan­ger­ous.”

One of Mo­hanned’s favourite writ­ing spots was the gar­den cafe at the Marna House ho­tel, in a quiet cor­ner of Gaza’s leafy Re­mal dis­trict. The Marna has long been a favourite with foreign visi­tors who of­ten do­nate books to the ho­tel li­brary – an­other at­trac­tion for Mo­hanned who, in be­sieged Gaza, strug­gled to find books to feed his vo­ra­cious read­ing habit.

Dur­ing his time as a stu­dent at the nearby al-Azhar Univer­sity, Mo­hanned would be seen, tall and skinny, among the throng of stu­dents who came pour­ing out into the streets of Gaza City af­ter lec­tures. Dodg­ing cars, horses and carts, he would peel off from the crowd – some­times to the phar­macy where he worked part-time, or to a cafe, of­ten the Marna. Or­der­ing a cof­fee, he would take a seat in a quiet cor­ner, light up a cig­a­rette, plug in to charge his phone and start com­pos­ing sto­ries.

With two hours’ elec­tric­ity a day, plug­ging in is a lux­ury in Gaza. But the Marna has a gen­er­a­tor, like most places with a pro­fes­sional clien­tele. Doc­tors, jour­nal­ists and teach­ers come here to min­gle, puff on a hookah pipe or watch Barcelona on the big-screen TV.

Few stu­dents could af­ford the Marna; as an only child, Mo­hanned was “spoilt” by his mother, his friends teased. But friends, teach­ers and cus­tomers in the phar­macy all knew him as “a good guy, a kind guy” and as “a sad guy”. Some saw the scars on his wrists as well – signs of ear­lier sui­cide at­tempts. His sto­ries showed he was just like ev­ery other young per­son in Gaza, be­cause he so elo­quently de­scribed their own feel­ings. In one story he wrote: “When you live in a house you love and don’t leave it you won’t have a prob­lem, but if you’re locked in­side the house against your will you sense paral­y­sis and de­spair.”

He wrote of his per­sonal sad­ness. His par­ents di­vorced when he was a child, and Mo­hanned felt re­jected by his fa­ther. His read­ers could re­late to this pain too, be­cause ev­ery fam­ily in Gaza is bro­ken: most have had mem­bers killed in the con­flict, and many have also been separated by years of ex­ile, or torn apart by im­pris­on­ment. Thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans are to­day locked up in Is­raeli jails.

He had a large fe­male read­er­ship: women were drawn to his par­tic­u­lar melan­choly. “He could write about the ab­sur­dity of all our lives – the hu­mil­i­a­tion, as well as the tragedy. He knew this was a fake place,” said one young woman I know, who had es­caped through the tun­nels into Egypt in or­der to take up her Amer­i­can schol­ar­ship. “It’s nor­mal,” she laughed.

“It’s like this,” said Mustafa AlAs­sar, a 17-year-old Gazan who wants to study in­ter­na­tional law but can’t, as there is no such course in Gaza, and he can­not leave. “You sud­denly re­alise you can’t be the per­son you want to be in Gaza. And you can’t show any­one out­side who you are, be­cause you can’t get out. So you can’t be the per­son you want to be.”

Mo­hanned didn’t get an­gry, but in­stead fell into the com­mon state of de­spair. He would never throw a stone, and nor would most of his con­tem­po­raries. “For what?” they would ask. “To get shot? Who would care?”

Be­fore head­ing home, Mo­hanned might check out new donations to the Marna’s eclec­tic li­brary, per­haps dip­ping into Nelson Man­dela’s Long Walk to Free­dom or a well-thumbed Agatha Christie.

Nes­tled among the crime fic­tion ti­tles were a few less lit­er­ary vol­umes: dusty back copies of UN re­ports on Gaza. If Mo­hanned had picked one up, he might have seen an anal­y­sis, dat­ing back to 2002, of a wave of sui­cide bomb­ings dur­ing the blood­i­est months of the sec­ond in­tifada. Ac­cord­ing to Eyad Sar­raj, a charis­matic Gaza psy­chi­a­trist, who in 1990 founded the Gaza Com­mu­nity Men­tal Health pro­gramme, sui­cide at­tacks were pro­lif­er­at­ing be­cause of a sense that hope­less­ness kept get­ting worse, which pro­duced “a de­spair where liv­ing be­comes no dif­fer­ent from dy­ing”.

“As a lit­tle boy, he loved to lis­ten to sto­ries,” said Mo­hanned’s mother, Asma, sit­ting in the liv­ing room of the fam­ily home. A tri­an­gle of sea was just vis­i­ble be­tween the houses at the bot­tom of the road. His grand­par­ents told the best sto­ries, about Jura, once a pros­per­ous fish­ing vil­lage, where the fam­ily had lived for cen­turies.

Dur­ing the Arab-Is­rael war of 1948, which brought about the cre­ation of the state of Is­rael, Mo­hanned’s fam­ily, along with more than 750,000 other Pales­tini­ans, were driven out of their homes, and have never been al­lowed to re­turn. The vil­lage of Jura, long since de­stroyed by Is­rael, now lies un­der the port of Ashkelon, vis­i­ble from the beach be­low Mo­hanned’s house.

“I told him sto­ries of our or­ange or­chards, our fes­ti­val, how I ran around and swam into the waves,” said Mo­dalala, his 88-year-old grand­mother. Mo­hanned’s grand­fa­ther would tell him about his own fa­ther, who was raised when Pales­tine was part of the Ot­toman em­pire – how ed­u­cated he was, how he worked in the sul­tan’s court and trav­elled over­seas. “He told Mo­hanned he wanted to go home to his vil­lage be­fore he died,” said Mo­dalala, “but he died in Gaza, and Mo­hanned was very sad.” Later Mo­hanned would write about Jura, and about “a golden-haired boy who would leap so he could reach the win­dow and see the sea”.

“I think lis­ten­ing to sto­ries, and later writ­ing them, was his way of deal­ing with sad­ness,” said his mother. As­sad, his un­cle, who helped raise him, said he was also good at maths. “He loved to solve prob­lems. He al­ways wanted to do things him­self – to ex­per­i­ment.”

In 2007, Is­rael en­forced a full siege of Gaza, block­ing move­ment across its borders for peo­ple, fuel and food – ev­ery­thing ex­cept min­i­mal hu­man­i­tar­ian aid. It was in this choke­hold that Mo­hanned You­nis, still only a teenager, found his voice – telling the world what it was to live be­hind the ever higher prison walls.

Mo­hanned was 13 when the siege be­gan. His fam­ily had moved to Gaza City, which his mother hoped would be safer and of­fered more choice of schools for Mo­hanned, who was writ­ing and read­ing more and more. His tal­ents were first spot­ted at a chil­dren’s char­ity in Gaza City called the Qat­tan Cen­tre, where he won first prize in a story-writ­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

Many of his early sto­ries are tales about a strange and sin­is­ter place, which he rarely names, but that we know is Gaza. In a story called Ge­og­ra­phy, his nar­ra­tor sets out like a caged an­i­mal to “comb Gaza’s borders inch by inch”. Ghosts some­times appear, and he won­ders if death has set them free or if “death has shack­led them too”.

Un­der Ha­mas, life in Gaza was fast re­turn­ing to the cul­tural dark ages. Strict Is­lamic codes were im­posed, in­clud­ing the clo­sure of the­atres and cin­e­mas, the out­law­ing of hard-won free­doms for women – veils were now al­most oblig­a­tory – and other re­pres­sive so­cial stric­tures. To some, Ha­mas rule be­gan to seem like a siege within a siege.

As Mo­hanned pre­pared for univer­sity, he found his own free­dom through writ­ing and read­ing. He taught him­self English, hop­ing to study English lit­er­a­ture, and although his mother per­suaded him in­stead to study phar­macy, lit­er­a­ture re­mained his first love.

Find­ing books was dif­fi­cult; of­ten the best way was to get them smug­gled through the tun­nels. “He was very se­cre­tive about his books and kept them in his room,” said Asma, of­fer­ing to show us the room where Mo­hanned spent his time, and where he died.

“Noth­ing has changed since his death,” said Asma,

‘Wait­ing for the fu­ture they have pre­pared for, but can­not have, be­comes im­pos­si­ble to bear’

open­ing the door on to a small room with a bed and a desk dis­play­ing tro­phies he had won for his writ­ing. There were ted­dies on a chair, a box­ing glove. From the wardrobe Asma took a grad­u­a­tion gown; she at­tended Mo­hanned’s grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony in his place two months af­ter his death.

We opened a cup­board and out spilled a tor­rent of books. There were nov­els – Dos­to­evsky, Dick­ens – and phi­los­o­phy – Wittgen­stein for Be­gin­ners, Hegel, Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Re­al­ity. Most were Ara­bic trans­la­tions, some were in English. Per­haps Mo­hanned read each page of this vast col­lec­tion, or per­haps he just liked to pos­sess them, it’s hard to know. But sit­ting here in­side these four walls, ac­com­pa­nied by Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, Sopho­cles and Mah­moud Dar­wish, he was able to break out of Gaza’s walls and con­nect with a wider world.

The war of 2014 was the most destruc­tive of three Is­raeli on­slaughts Mo­hanned lived through. More than 2,200 Pales­tini­ans were killed, in­clud­ing at least 500 chil­dren. Now he was writ­ing more and more about the dead, some­times per­ceiv­ing safety in death, and he wrote of “feel­ings of loss and of safety, or run­ning away and seek­ing refuge of drown­ing and sur­vival, feel­ings of sim­ple sui­cide”. But like many oth­ers, in the shock that fol­lowed the bom­bard­ment, he saw cause for hope.

Such was the de­struc­tion in 2014 that the world started to pay at­ten­tion. There was hope among Pales­tinian hu­man rights lawyers that they could bring a war-crimes case against Is­rael. The then UN sec­re­tary gen­eral, Ban Ki-moon, de­clared that the siege must end and that the world should pay for Gaza’s homes, reser­voirs and fac­to­ries to be re­built. The peo­ple had al­ready started: I saw young men clam­ber­ing over tot­ter­ing con­crete, fill­ing a don­key cart with stones. They were clearing their or­chard to plant cle­men­tine saplings, and re­build­ing their bombed juice fac­tory.

In the glare of global me­dia at­ten­tion, thou­sands of would-be jour­nal­ists in Gaza seized their chance to livestream their own nar­ra­tive from the rub­ble to the out­side world. Stu­dents who had been awarded schol­ar­ships to foreign uni­ver­si­ties stood on street cor­ners hop­ing to catch word that cross­ings were open­ing so they could rush out to take up their places. Mo­hanned en­rolled at the French cul­tural cen­tre, hop­ing to study lit­er­a­ture in Paris.

But a year later, the clemen­tines were dead, and the juice fac­tory owner sat be­side a UN food box. More than 80% of peo­ple were now de­pen­dent on food aid.

Be­hind closed doors, par­tic­u­larly where bombing had been heavy in 2014, I saw blighted lives. A young mother opened a toy cup­board that had been hit by a shell. She looked at me as shat­tered pieces spilled out. A young man sat star­ing at a blank screen in the long hours when there was no elec­tric­ity. And the world had turned its back again.

For the first time in all the years I have been re­port­ing from Gaza, I en­coun­tered chil­dren beg­ging, heard talk of pros­ti­tu­tion, and saw ev­i­dence of wide­spread drug ad­dic­tion and do­mes­tic abuse, of­ten in homes where as many as 10 peo­ple lived in a sin­gle room. They had not been re­housed since the 2014 bom­bard­ment. In this dev­as­ta­tion, there was ev­i­dence that Is­lamic State was gain­ing sup­port. A group of Is­lamist mil­i­tants threw an ex­plo­sive de­vice at the French cul­tural cen­tre where Mo­hanned was study­ing.

The in­ter­na­tional me­dia had lost in­ter­est, apart from oc­ca­sion­ally pre­dict­ing a new in­tifada. When I asked young men in Ja­baliya refugee camp – where the first in­tifada started – if this were pos­si­ble, they laughed, say­ing the wall was higher and was be­ing sunk un­der­ground to stop the tun­nels. No­body could re­sist any more. I asked if a new Man­dela was likely to appear in Pales­tine. “If he did, the Is­raelis would shoot him,” said one.

The fail­ure of Ha­mas’s and Fatah’s lead­ers to pro­mote the Pales­tinian cause, or even to im­prove or­di­nary Pales­tini­ans’ lives – they were too busy squab­bling among them­selves as Is­rael’s siege tight­ened – dis­gusted many. Of the Is­raelis, Mo­hanned wrote: “At least they re­spect their own peo­ple, whereas we crush ours.

But they drove us from our land!” In one story, a boy “proudly throws a stone at a check­point” but gives up, re­turn­ing home “to pur­sue his eter­nal curse here”.

Like young Ger­mans who died cross­ing the Ber­lin Wall, young Pales­tini­ans who died try­ing to es­cape by boat “were try­ing to reach cities where free­dom is a choice, not a do­na­tion or a gift”.

Dur­ing the spring and sum­mer, I heard more re­ports from doc­tors about sui­cides that were meant to look like ac­ci­dents. Not only were peo­ple jump­ing off build­ings, but doc­tors were see­ing vic­tims of what ap­peared to be de­lib­er­ate car crashes, and drown­ings that may not have been ac­ci­den­tal. Pa­tients would say their knife in­juries were the re­sult of “a fight”. I heard from wit­nesses about des­per­ate peo­ple who had walked into the buf­fer zone, hop­ing to be shot. A young woman I knew told me she had taken an over­dose be­cause she didn’t want to marry or raise chil­dren in Gaza.

The tough­est spir­its were break­ing. “Peo­ple of Gaza want to live but can­not,” said Dr Ghada al-Jadba, di­rec­tor of med­i­cal ser­vices for UNRWA, the Pales­tinian refugee agency. Youssef Awadal­lah, the di­rec­tor of the Rafah men­tal health cen­tre, threw back his head, feign­ing a choke. “It’s suf­fo­ca­tion. In fact, we are in a trap, not a siege,” he said, and clapped his hands to­gether. “Like Tom and Jerry.”

The rise in sui­cides is part of a much wider cri­sis of men­tal health in Gaza, he said. Al­most 400,000 chil­dren are said by Unicef to be trau­ma­tised and in need of psy­choso­cial sup­port. Drug ad­dic­tion, mostly to pow­er­ful painkillers, is rife. “The Is­raelis know this,” said Awadal­lah. “So the war be­ing waged now is de­signed to break our re­silience – not our re­sis­tance.”

Gaza’s men­tal health fa­cil­i­ties, al­ways rudi­men­tary, have been crip­pled by the siege. “A man killed his mother the other day be­cause he thought she was spy­ing on him,” said Awadal­lah. “An­other said the Is­raelis had put a sur­veil­lance de­vice in­side his head. But what can we do? We have no medicines and hardly any beds or psy­chi­a­trists.” He told me about an­other case in which a man stabbed his chil­dren be­fore set­ting him­self on fire: “When a man can­not sup­port his fam­ily, he suf­fers. If he reaches the point of burn­ing him­self, he is suf­fer­ing so much it no longer mat­ters to him if he goes to hell.”

Spread­ing his hands wide, Awadal­lah ex­plained why the young and very clever are among those most likely to kill them­selves. “The gap be­tween what they aspire to and what is pos­si­ble is big­ger than for most or­di­nary Sarah Helm is an au­thor and for­mer Mid­dle East cor­re­spon­dent peo­ple, and wait­ing for the fu­ture they have pre­pared for, but can­not have, be­comes im­pos­si­ble to bear.”

Over the sum­mer of 2017 , ev­ery­one in Gaza seemed to be wait­ing for some­thing. Can­cer pa­tients waited to hear if they could leave for emer­gency surgery “out­side”. The brightly dec­o­rated sea­side wed­ding lo­ca­tions waited for cou­ples to have money to marry. Ev­ery­one was wait­ing for elec­tric­ity.

Raji Sourani, head of the Pales­tinian Hu­man Rights Cen­tre, waited to hear if war-crimes charges would be heard, but was los­ing hope that it would hap­pen. “No­body speaks about the oc­cu­pa­tion. No­body speaks about the vic­tims liv­ing un­der oc­cu­pa­tion – it’s Is­rael who are sup­posed to be the vic­tims, and they have to be pro­tected from us. It’s Kafka,” he said at the time.

In his room, Mo­hanned was wait­ing for new books. On his list was Kafka’s The Trial, and Ham­let.

Mo­hanned talked about sui­cide. Yet he clearly still had hope, be­cause he also talked about get­ting en­gaged. En­gage­ment and sui­cide some­times seemed to go to­gether: the bank­rupt tex­tile man­u­fac­turer whose son had hanged him­self told me his son was to have been mar­ried the fol­low­ing week. And Mo­hanned was cer­tainly in love, said his mother: “We could see he was.” He wrote about a wed­ding in Jura, the prose im­bued with a sense of loss both for his old vil­lage and for his fu­ture mar­riage, per­haps be­cause he could no longer re­sist the pain of “the mul­ti­tude of con­tra­dic­tions ex­plod­ing in my head”.

In his last writ­ings, Mo­hanned is drawn to other peo­ple’s pain, find­ing it where it is most acute or most hid­den. He writes of a fa­ther whose daugh­ter is dy­ing some­where far away. The fa­ther says: “The feel­ings of help­less­ness kill me ev­ery day now.”

He also dwells on the degra­da­tion of check­points where a trav­eller is taken to “a se­cret room like a prison cell, with­out any form of life … where trav­ellers are de­tained just be­cause they are Pales­tinian. Why are cap­i­tal cities and air­ports de­nied to Pales­tini­ans?”

Shortly be­fore he died, he had made a fi­nal ef­fort to es­cape. His mother said he had ap­plied to Is­rael’s pres­ti­gious He­brew Univer­sity in Jerusalem to study lit­er­a­ture, and had been ac­cepted. But he was un­able to take up the of­fer, be­cause Is­raeli se­cu­rity re­fused him per­mis­sion to leave Gaza.

Still, Mo­hanned was fight­ing off de­spair, and “look­ing for beauty”, though he told fol­low­ers he was lis­ten­ing to Bach’s Come Sweet Death, Come Blessed Rest. Even as Mo­hanned en­tered his room that last evening and locked the door, he may not have been sure he would go through with it. From the po­si­tion of his body, it seemed to As­sad, his un­cle, that Mo­hanned had changed his mind at the last mo­ment, but too late.

In the weeks and months be­fore Mo­hanned’s death, his de­spair was ap­par­ently deep­ened by the re­al­i­sa­tion that his writ­ing could never make a difference; as he saw it, the Pales­tinian nar­ra­tive was con­trolled by out­siders. His sui­cide came not long be­fore Don­ald Trump recog­nised Jerusalem as Is­rael’s cap­i­tal, and ques­tioned the rights of Pales­tinian refugees to re­turn home.

One of Mo­hanned’s last sto­ries was called “The whale who locked my door with a tail”. The nar­ra­tor has a re­cur­ring dream in which small whales visit him and try to kill them­selves. He wakes up and won­ders why whales de­cide to die, say­ing: “It is said that whales take their own lives when they lose their sense of direc­tion, when they no longer know where to go.”

I asked Awadal­lah if he con­sid­ered Mo­hanned a mar­tyr. He thought a mo­ment and smiled, say­ing that Mo­hanned’s de­spair had caused a se­ri­ous men­tal ill­ness, and it was as a re­sult of this ill­ness that he killed him­self. In view of this, Awadal­lah hoped that Al­lah would look kindly on Mo­hanned and per­mit him to go to heaven, not to hell.

What could have been done to pre­vent Mo­hanned’s sui­cide, I asked?

“Noth­ing,” he said. “Only be­ing born some­where that was not Gaza.” •

In the UK, Sa­mar­i­tans can be con­tacted on 116 123 or email jo@sa­mar­i­tans.org. Other in­ter­na­tional sui­cide helplines can be found at be­frien­ders.org

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ASMA YOU­NIS

REUTERS/IBRA­HEEM ABU MUSTAFA; ASMA YOU­NIS

Rafah in Gaza in Septem­ber 2017, above; Mo­hanned You­nis, be­low left

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