How Gaza war changed this 22-year-old Palestinian journalist's life

Palestinian journalist Plestia Alaqad had once wanted to show the world how beautiful Gaza is despite the aggressions. However, after October 7, Alaqad found herself not just reporting the war, but living it

By Sugra Khanwala

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Plestia Alaqad. Photo: Supplied
Plestia Alaqad. Photo: Supplied

Published: Fri 15 Dec 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 15 Dec 2023, 10:27 PM

Not too long ago, Plestia Alaqad had been living a different life, working as an HR professional for a marketing agency. In her free time, she would use Instagram to photograph everyday life in Gaza. Her aim then was to tell the world that there was more to the region than aggressions and war. But October 7 changed the trajectory of her life. Alaqad who’d enjoyed quite a following on social media was approached by foreign press to report on the war, a mantle she took on bravely.

One of the clips filmed by her, depicting a series of strikes hitting close to her building, even went viral. And while the 22-year-old has managed to move out of Gaza now, the trauma of reporting on a horrific war is deeply etched in her mind. In an exclusive conversation with Khaleej Times, she talks at length about what she saw on ground, the roles journalists are playing in bringing forth the correct narrative, and why even in these dark times, Gazans’ generosity of spirit is a lesson for mankind. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Q: You have been reporting from the ground in Gaza. Under normal circumstances, ‘how are you’ would have been a normal question. But now, it feels strange to ask this to someone from Gaza.

No one actually has an answer to this question because it feels as though everything has been imposed on us — life, emotions. We may be physically alive, but no one is mentally alright. Everyone is just waiting to see what will happen the next second, there is a fear of the unknown. Even though I am away now, I am afraid of what will happen next, who will I lose.

Q: What exactly is happening on the ground right now?

The situation is terrible. If you don’t die because of an airstrike, you will die of starvation, you will die from the cold there. There are many reasons why you would die in Gaza right now, even when there isn’t an attack taking place. Think about it: it’s scary how there is no clean water and people are having to drink rain water.

Q: A lot of countries, including the UAE, are sending humanitarian aid to Gaza. Is it reaching the common man there?

There has been nothing in the markets. If you want to buy food or other supplies, you will not be able to find it. You can’t find bread, you can’t find cheese. You can’t find items of basic necessities. Gaza is fully dependent on the aid that enters from outside. It certainly helps but you cannot imagine how densely populated Gaza is, so the aid is not enough for everyone.

Q: Is there any particular moment that has really affected you during this time?

Everything that has happened has affected me in different ways. But children are worst affected. Many of them are injured, some of them live in the hope that their parents have not died; in fact, some of them do not even know if their parents are dead. They only have doctors and nurses looking after them. I feel everything that I saw, everything I witnessed, everything I reported on has impacted me deeply.

Q: How difficult is it to find hope in the midst of such a crisis?

It’s always a rollercoaster of emotions. Sometimes, I feel hopeful. On other occasions, I watch news and don’t feel so optimistic anymore. Strangely, all the things that I have seen in Gaza have also given me hope. For instance, sometimes, my colleagues and I would go for hours searching for food in the markets, basically anything to eat. Then we would go to a tent to cover a story. Believe it or not, but there are people who do not have anything who have offered us something to eat. Such generosity of spirit gives me hope. People have limited access and yet everyone is trying to help everybody with the limited resources they have.

Q: Mental health is the worst casualty of such conflict. But when you are a journalist documenting a war, how do you emotionally cope with what you are seeing unfold right in front of you?

I don’t feel I have the time to emotionally cope with the situation. It’s scary to witness such intensive bombing — the sounds, the cries for help. I do not think I am mentally healthy because even though I am away from Gaza, I am constantly trying to follow up to know what is happening. Now, I don’t know if most of my friends and extended family members are alive or not because I cannot reach them. We have not been allowed the time to cope with, or even feel, our emotions.

Q: A couple of weeks ago, we at Khaleej Times wrote a story on how the Palestinian diaspora is experiencing survivor’s guilt. Are you experiencing something similar knowing that you could make it out of Gaza but your friends and family couldn’t?

Of course. Anybody who has empathy would experience survivor’s guilt. What I hate about this situation is that I was put in a position where I had to choose between leaving my country or ensuring my family’s safety. I probably would have felt more guilty had I continued to stay in Gaza and my family would have been impacted because of my work as a journalist.

Q: Describe a memory or an event that represented the strength of the people in Gaza as a community.

I love how every woman was acting like a mother. For example, there were many kids at a hospital who were without parents or extended family, and no one could recognise them. One fine day, we saw a woman walking up holding a child. She identified herself as a neighbour of that child’s family and said they are under the rubble, presumably dead. She took the baby with her because the child was all alone.

I love how everyone needed someone to look after them, and in the end, we all ended up looking after each other.

On another occasion, my colleague Mohammad and I were reporting on a story from the church when we heard a bombing taking place closeby. We went there and found two little kids. They were crying because they had to evacuate their house. And because they had to leave instantly, they didn’t have slippers on their feet. We spent a couple of hours the next day searching for slippers for these children, and finally gave it to them since we had their contact information. It is this simple act of kindness that makes me hopeful.

Q: You are all of 22. On your birthday a few weeks back, you posted a video saying you are four aggressions and a war old. How has living through violence shaped you as a person?

I am not the same person anymore, I am not what I used to be prior to October 7. There are parts of me that are gone. I don’t view life the same way I did before. Everything has changed, to be honest. But I didn’t have the time to just sit with myself and reflect on everything that happened and let my emotions out. I don’t have the privilege of doing that yet.

Q: How were you prioritising your safety while reporting?

That’s a good question. In the initial days, I prioritised our safety. Our life is more important than any picture or story we need to publish — that’s what my team and I agreed on. We decided we would always wear the press vest and helmet; we knew we had to stay away when there was a danger in a specific area. For example, if certain area had been bombed, we knew we could not immediately report from that site because there would be a spate of bombings. I used to keep my press vest and helmet on constantly, even sleeping in them. Eventually, I realised it might be riskier to wear them and openly identify myself as a journalist, so I stopped. I realised there is nothing like staying away from danger because you can literally be sleeping at night peacefully, and then get bombed and wake up to your hand on one side, or cut in pieces or die under the rubble. You don’t know what to expect.

Q: Any instance when reporting turned out to be particularly challenging?

The most challenging stories were ones where I was reporting the displacement and, of course, the hospital. There were times when I hated my job because it entailed listening to stories of children being injured. I hate how helpless I was as a journalist, and all I could do was report. I just wanted them to finish so that I could hug them.

Once, I went to interview a 13-year-old girl, but I just couldn’t finish the interview. I just wanted the interview to get over and talk to her one-on-one. She’d got displaced five times, and every place she went to, bombing happened soon. Once, she was in the bathroom of a hospital when bombing happened and the ceiling fell on her. Imagine how traumatised this 13-year-old would be.

Q: Do you think journalism can make a difference in a situation like this?

Of course. I believe our voices as Palestinian journalists are powerful. Our camera is powerful. If it wasn’t, then why would our journalists be targeted?

Q: Do you think anything is being underreported or not being reported at all?

Yes, I was on the ground for 45 days or so, and what was reported is not even 20 or 30 per cent of what’s happening, and that’s not because the journalists are not good, but because of the limited resources we have. For instance, if your phone dies, it’s hard to charge your phone. It’s hard to charge camera batteries. It’s basically difficult to have access to any tools that help in filming and reporting. And we don’t always have Internet connectivity. So of course, what’s being reported is not everything. And, you know, it’s always different when you’re on the ground. Videos and images do not capture the reality the eyes witness. And you can’t always film and work on stories because you don’t always have your phone or cameras or your batteries or the resources.

Q: Are there any particular changes or improvements you hope to see in how media is covering Gaza right now?

I’ll actually change the question to what I see different in media coverage of aggression. This time, things are different because people are seeing the truth more clearly as they’re relying on social media, and not mainstream media outlets. People are relying on independent journalists reporting from the ground. So, that’s helping them in seeing the truth.

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