Jabaliya, Gaza – As soon as she heard the news that a fire had broken out in the building where her sister lived, Aya Abu Rayya ran down the street and shouted, “My sister, my sister.”
When she arrived, all she could do was watch as the flames consumed the building where her sister and extended family had lived.
“I screamed hysterically. My sister and her children were gone. People around me tried to calm me down and tell me it would be okay.” Aya, 23, told Al Jazeera. “I said to them, how come they are all right when you see these horrible flames?”
Her sister Areej, 36, had died in the fire, along with her sister’s husband and five children – four daughters and a son. Areej’s mother-in-law, Yosra Abu Rayya, and father-in-law, Subhi Abu Rayya, as well as their children and grandchildren also perished in the fire.
A total of 21 people were killed as fire tore through the four-story residential building in the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday night.
Gaza’s interior ministry said an initial investigation revealed large quantities of gasoline were stored at the site, fueling the fire that quickly engulfed the building.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, said an extensive investigation is underway to determine the cause of the fire.
“Areej is my only sister and her children are like my children. I visit her home almost every day. We were planning to visit them today because her husband, Maher, came home from a trip a few days ago. Ay said.
“What has happened is a catastrophic tragedy by any standards. No one could save them. Life in Gaza is oppression upon oppression.” she added.
The bodies of the 21 victims were buried in a massive public funeral after Friday prayers.
On Friday, the community in which the fire took place was in shock and authorities issued an official statement of mourning.
In the house where women were in the morning, Subhi Abu Rayya’s sister Khitam Abu Rayya, 56, was visibly stunned by the deaths of so many members of her family.
“I can’t put into words our shock last night.” said the woman who could barely speak. “I lost my dearest brother, his wife, sons and daughters and their children, including my seven-year-old granddaughter Dima.”
“It’s as if we in Gaza are destined to live in more and more pain,” she said.
Several local residents gathered outside the burnt-out building from early Friday morning until late at night.
Ahmed Ezzedine, 30, was one of the first on the scene when the fire broke out.
“I was sitting with my family until I heard sounds of screaming and pleading as if it were in my house. I immediately left my house to check on the matter, and found a child and a woman screaming on the top floor of our neighbour’s house, asking for help, amidst the flames around them.
“It was a scene we can’t forget. The child and woman disappeared into the fire minutes later,” he said, adding that he and other neighbors were desperately trying to put out the fire with extinguishers.
Ezzedine said civil defense eventually arrived, but the fire remained uncontrollable for about an hour and a half.
“If this fire had occurred in a developed country, it would have been contained within minutes,” he said. “Unfortunately, capacities in Gaza are completely declining in all service and government sectors, and as a result we are losing more casualties due to inhumane conditions here.”
Saqr Ali, 40, who lives in the house next to the fire, said the tragedy shows that “Gaza has become a graveyard for its inhabitants and an unlivable place.”
“I was not at home when the fire broke out as I was out with my family enjoying the weekend but it wasn’t long before I received a call saying that the Abu Raya family’s house next door to my house was on fire was standing. said Ali. “I immediately returned to my home.”
Civil defense crews climbed to the roof of Ali’s house in an attempt to enter the burning house, but to no avail due to the lack of ladders and necessary equipment.
“Whatever the reasons, the inhumane conditions in which people live here forced them to adopt practices such as stockpiling fuel and gas due to the crises of closures and blackouts.”
“It is true that the incident has nothing to do with politics, but it is a reflection and result of years of continuous blockade against us,” said Ali.