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For a 20-year-old engineering student in Gaza, everything has changed

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As Israel intensifies its military operations in Gaza, death feels close by for the people who are trapped there. The Israeli government has warned the people in Gaza, where Hamas is based, that it would respond with force to the deadly Hamas attack on southern Israel last month. And it has. The Israeli government urged civilians in the north to leave, to move south, but many people in northern Gaza say they have no way to leave and nowhere to go. And now the Gaza Health Ministry says more than 8,700 people have been killed there. Against that backdrop, our co-host Leila Fadel brings us this story of a student in Gaza who was trying to stay alive.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: This week, we introduced you to Shaimaa Ahmed. She's 20 and is living under those airstrikes in the north of Gaza. Now she says she fears Israeli troops are closing in.

SHAIMAA AHMED: Hello, Leila. This is Shaimaa.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

AHMED: As you hear, the situation now may not be the best situation to record anything ever. I don't even know how long I'm going to be able to stay in touch.

FADEL: Her voice memos pop up on my phone in batches. Under Israeli bombardment, communications go dark, return and go dark again. So she records them and waits for the minute or two of cell service she gets to send them out.

AHMED: I would have to hang outside the window so that I'll get some service and my messages would reach my family, who have been forced to go south. We weren't able to because we have nowhere to go.

FADEL: The Israeli military told the over 1 million Palestinians in the north to leave and go south for their safety. Some did and were still killed in bombardments. Others couldn't or wouldn't, afraid they'd never be allowed to return. The U.N. says that more than a million people are displaced in the Gaza Strip.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

AHMED: My cousin just went out this morning, and he saw the troops from a distance, and he told us how they looked. They're definitely very scary, and the bombs are just getting closer and louder.

FADEL: Just a few weeks ago, Ahmed was studying computer engineering at her university.

AHMED: I loved my friends. I loved the labs. I loved the professors. I just loved everything about it. When this attack started, I carried my books, I carried my stuff, and I was like, we're going to return after, like, a few days. But then we didn't move once. We didn't move twice. We got displaced about seven times. A house we were close to got bombed three times. So every time that happens, obviously, you're lifted off the ground. Your nostrils get filled with dirt and fine cement, and your ears start ringing and rocks fly through the windows. Glass is shattered. When you wake up from the shock, you basically start running.

FADEL: She says she misses her home in Caesarea, a town close to the border with Israel.

AHMED: It is a very beautiful neighborhood. One thing we did over the summer was redecorate a room. My sister and I had saved up. We gave it the best makeover, and we were so excited to have finally made it happen. And right now our house has been reduced to rubble. Everything we know is now gone - my university gone, my neighborhood gone. There is no food, no water. My cousins - in the morning they go outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

AHMED: This is just a usual sound. It's not even close. Anyways, my cousins leave every morning around 5 in the morning to take their turn in the line for bread. And people are fighting for some bread, and that is just so miserable to see. For people to fight over bread, can you even imagine the situation we're living in? It's just - I swear, it - we barely have water to clean ourselves. There is no food, no water. Electricity - no, that's a pleasure. We barely charge our phones using the solar panel that our neighbor has. It is a struggle to get the basic human needs. And now, today, we've heard about a new massacre.

FADEL: When she sent this voice memo, Israel had dropped bombs on a refugee camp. The attack left a massive crater, flattened buildings. The next day, Israel hit the camp again. The Israeli military says the strikes killed two Hamas commanders. There are videos of people digging through the rubble for their loved ones with their bare hands.

AHMED: This is a call. This is a call for anyone who can - anything to do, just anything to stop whatever we're going through, because it's really just so hard to live through. Oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

AHMED: If I want to describe what the situation is like, I would say it is basically a living hell. I'm just so tired.

FADEL: She sends one last message.

AHMED: Right now as I record to you, our area's being severely bombed. We're preparing our things. We might be displaced again. So I'm not sure how long I'm going to be able to stay in contact if we move. We're going to have to move in between the tanks so that we don't get shot at or bombed at on the way.

FADEL: At 3:28 p.m. on Tuesday, I lose contact with Shaimaa Ahmed, and as this airs, I still can't get in touch. 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.