'I just want to go home to my village'
Mahmoud Abdelrahman Hamdan is an 82-year-old Palestinian refugee living in the Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.
For decades, he has dreamed of returning to his original hometown, Almoghar. Speaking to The New Arab on the eve of the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, Mahmoud put it simply: "I want to go home to my village."
Before the Nakba, Almoghar was a village around 12km south of Ramla. You are unlikely to be able to find it on a map today.
Life in Almoghar
Mahmoud has five grown-up children, and many, many grandchildren. Though he is elderly, he is in good health and speaks clearly.
"Back in Almoghar, people lived peacefully and happily, with no major problems. I remember those days, when my neighbours and I enjoyed watching weddings in the village. By then, a wedding lasted four to five days, and young men used to dance the Palestinian Dabka, while food used to be served."
Before he was a teenager, and a few years before the Palestinian Nakba erupted, Mahmoud joined a group of the village's youths at a British mandate-run government post, close to the village.
"By the age of 12, I remember that the British mandate government recruited many locals at some government posts, including a government-run restaurant, nearby. I myself worked in washing dishes. Until today, I remember a few words and sentences of the English language."
On the farm
Mahmoud's father, Abdelrahman, was a farmer. "My father and my grandfather owned a piece of land, two acres and a half. Back then, my father used to plant crops including watermelon and sesame. At our home in Almoghar, we had two cows and some cattle, from which we used to produce some milk and eat some meat," the aging Palestinian refugee recalled.
Important occasions looked different before the Palestinian Nakba. Mahmoud cited the example of the holy month of Ramadan during those years. "Following the iftar meal during Ramadan fasting days, youth of the village gathered in a big hall, made of straw, to chat and drink coffee. I remember that I used to play in the neighboirhood. One of the main meals during Ramadan was dates, mixed with some water. Other dishes were fatta, rice mixed with meat, and couscous or maftoul."
Mahmoud, flanked by two of his grandsons in the Maghazi refugee camp, spoke to The New Arab about the day he and all villagers of Almoghar were forced out of the village.
"During that day, we heard that nearby villages, including Aqer, were attacked by Israeli militants. Our village had nothing to do with weaponry, and we were forced to leave under intensive Israeli fire. I remember that we all headed for Ashkelon city in the west, and myself and my family took refuge in a plantation that belonged to Sayed Abu Sharekh, a Palestinian family from that same coastal town. About two months later, Israeli militants attacked Ashkelon itself, and we were forced to leave for a nearby town called Barbara.
|For now, as the Arabs offer peace to Israel, I would like to say that nothing could compensate me the loss of Almoghar|
"Finally, we moved to the Gaza Strip, right here into this Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. Our plight had started."
It is a suffering that has lastest decades so far. And Mahmoud blames the Arab world.
"Arabs must have moved long ago to prevent the creation of the state of Israel. For now, as the Arabs offer peace to Israel, I would like to say that nothing could compensate me the loss of Almoghar."
The Palestinian Nakba or "catastrophe" is commemorated each year, when the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians from 450 Palestinian villages and towns in historic Palestine is remembered.
Eastern Batani was another of the villages from which Palestinians were displaced. Some 40km north of Gaza, it had been home to Etaf Misleh, a woman now in her early 80s.
|Etaf Misleh fled her village with her family, carrying what clothes they could [Hussam Addabakka]|
Now living in the same refugee camp as Mahmoud, Etaf Misleh, a grandmother to dozens of grandchildren, can still clearly remember life back in the eastern Batani village.
"It was a real life over in Batani, before the Nakba," she tells us. "I remember very well that my father used to own dozens of cattle and a few cows. When someone visited our family, my father slaughtered a sheep in welcoming and serving food to the visitor. Such hospitality and dignity, back in Batani."
Etaf recalled some of the famous dishes her mother used to serve on their table in Batani. "One of the most famous dishes there was the fatta. During those days, our vegetables were seasonal and therefore we used to dry tomatoes, for example, for a few months, in order to use them during winter times."
Women back then wore long traditional dresses, heavily embroidered. Eyaf said that women used to gather separately from men during weddings and sang folk songs such as Ya Zareef Altoul ["You're always cute"].
In 1948, the year of the Nakba itself, Etaf was forced - along with her family and all other families of the eastern Batani village - to leave the village as they were, taking nothing but some clothes.
"I remember that my father, my uncles and some others, were talking about Israeli militants' atrocities in the Palestinian Deir Yasin village, that was not far from our village. As the village was a farming place and people had no weaponry or armament, the villagers were forced to leave amid those fears and shootouts by Israeli militants, nearby."
|I would like to send out a message to the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that Netanyahu must recognise our right to our homeland, Palestine|
As the attacks increased, Etaf and her family had no choice but to leave everything behind and flee to the Maghazi refugee camp.
"I would like to send out a message to the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that Netanyahu must recognise our right to our homeland, Palestine. Then, Palestinians can live together with anyone in peace and stability, the way they used to live, before the Nakba. I recall very well that a Jewish family had a farm, just near my father's farm land and, sometimes, the Jewish land owner and my father exchanged morning or evening greetings," Etaf told The New Arab.
For 69 years, Palestinian people in the occupied Palestinian territories - the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank - as well as those in refugee camps in nearby Arab countries, including Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and a few million more Palestinians living further afield in the global diaspora, mark the Palestinian Nakba - when present-day Israel was created on the ruins of displaced Palestinian towns and villages.
There are around 13 million Palestinians around the world. And 1.5 million of them are squeezed into the Gaza Strip.
"I want to go to my village," Mahmoud repeated. "I just want to go home."
Rami alMeghari is a Palestinian freelance journalist living and working in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter: @writeralmeghari