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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org
Rafah in Gaza in September 2017, above; Mohanned Younis, below left