‘In Egypt Now. Free!’ First Evacuees From Gaza Feel Relief and Gratitude

After surviving more than three weeks of war in Gaza, Nadia Salah, 53, and her eldest daughter went to Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt on Wednesday. They said goodbye. Then Ms. Salah watched her firstborn cross to safety without her.

Her daughter, Lama Eldin, was born 30 years ago in Bulgaria, where the family owned a cafe, and she has Bulgarian citizenship, allowing her to leave Gaza along with some 7,000 other people with foreign citizenship or other legal ties to the outside world. But Ms. Salah, her husband and their 20-year-old twins do not. They had to stay behind.

“It’s very difficult, but she should go,” Ms. Salah said in a phone call from the city of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, holding back tears. “To be safe.”

Ms. Eldin was among the first few hundred people to leave Gaza since the war with Israel erupted nearly a month ago. Weeks of intensive negotiations among Israel, Egypt, the United States, Hamas and Qatar, which often acts as a diplomatic intermediary for Hamas, had yielded an agreement for the dual citizens, foreigners and their families, as well as Palestinian staff of international organizations, to leave Gaza through Egypt.

But reaching safety was hardly as simple as showing up at the border, foreign passport in hand, as several evacuees described in interviews with The New York Times.

Some of the would-be evacuees repeatedly went to the Rafah crossing over the last three weeks after hearing it might open, only to find the gate shut. Rumors and confusion abounded as news spread that the crossing was open this week, prompting many people to head there even though they were not yet scheduled to depart. The lack of internet and spotty phone connections meant some people may not even have heard that they were on the list to leave this week.

Once the appointed day came, the evacuees first had to find a car with enough gas to move. Then there was the ride to the border through the gray, shattered streets, which took what felt like forever. Then the long line of people, all quietly impatient, followed by hours of waiting in the departure hall of the border crossing.

Next came the nerve-racking moment where officials checked travel documents against a list of people who were allowed to leave. Then the bus ride from the Palestinian side to the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, followed by more waiting and more document-checking in the arrivals hall.

Finally, they emerged through a dun-colored archway with an Egyptian flag rippling over it, and they were in Egypt — safe. Safe, after more than three weeks in which every day, they had thought that they might die.

“In Egypt now. Free!” Ramona Okumura, a Seattle resident who was volunteering in Gaza for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund when the war broke out, texted a Times journalist on Wednesday evening.

More than two million people remain trapped in Gaza with no prospect of escaping the hunger, thirst or Israeli bombardment they have endured since Oct. 7, when the decades-old conflict exploded again with an attack by the armed Palestinian group Hamas on Israel that killed more than 1,400 people. An all-out Israeli military campaign against Gaza followed soon after.

But on Wednesday and Thursday, several hundred people managed to get out.

On Wednesday came about 345 dual citizens from Bulgaria, Finland, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan and elsewhere as well as employees from around the world of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and other aid groups. About 400 Americans were authorized to cross on Thursday, along with about 200 people from Africa, Asia and Europe.

In Gaza, “you feel that human beings’ lives are so worthless,” said Ala Al Husseini, 61, an Austrian-Palestinian dual citizen who evacuated on Wednesday, expressing gratitude that he was able to leave.

Weeks of Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 9,000 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s health ministry, among them multiple dual citizens. On Thursday, the sound of a nearby airstrike rattled the evacuees waiting to cross at Rafah, and a piece of shrapnel appeared to fall on the metal canopy of the terminal area.

Unless the evacuees were within walking distance of the Rafah terminal, getting out of Gaza came down to whether they could find a car with enough fuel — and a driver brave enough — to bring them to the crossing. Israel’s near-total siege of Gaza Strip is preventing fuel from entering the territory and limiting water and food to aid shipments that fall far short of the population’s basic needs.

In addition to the shortage of fuel, communications were down early Wednesday morning, making it impossible for Mr. Al Husseini to find a cab to the border. When he eventually found someone who gave him a ride, both he and the driver were terrified driving through Gaza’s empty streets, wondering if they could be killed in an airstrike just because they were passing a place that Israel might consider a military target.

“Reaching Rafah crossing was the most dangerous trip in my entire life,” Mr. Al Husseini wrote in a text message from the bus that ferried him from Rafah to Cairo, the Egyptian capital. “You could be collateral damage any time,” he added later by phone.

With no fuel to be had, some arrived on foot instead, others by donkey cart, lugging all the baggage they could. Then, they crowded in to wait, the mood tense, if edging toward relief.

So much depended on the bureaucratic minutiae of passports and visas, on the long, unwieldy list of names that determined whether someone could cross — and, perhaps, whether she or he would survive.

Adal Abu Middain, 18, an Egyptian, made her way to Rafah on Thursday morning with her sister, an American citizen, and other relatives, hoping to evacuate after three previous attempts. Somewhere during that time, an Israeli airstrike had destroyed their home, she said.

Though most of the family was approved to cross, Ms. Abu Middain said they all had to turn back because her 6-year-old niece, Maha, who she said also had U.S. citizenship, was not on the list of names compiled by foreign embassies and approved by Israel, Egypt and Hamas. They could not leave her.

“She’s just 6 years old. How is she going to travel alone without her family?” she said. “She can’t eat by herself. She can’t go to the bathroom by herself.”

At roughly the same time, halfway around the world in Colorado, three weeks of agony were coming to an end for Danny Preston. His mother, Dr. Barbara Zind, a Colorado pediatrician, was volunteering with the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund when the war erupted.

When she heard the border might open for foreigners weeks ago, Dr. Zind, 68, was so optimistic that she could leave that she gave away much of her clothing to others who would need it more. She spent the rest of her time in Gaza sleeping in jeans in the basement of a United Nations building, the parking lot of a U.N. school and the kindergarten playroom of another building, her son said.

She and her group had come close to running out of food and water twice before being resupplied, the first time by a Nigerian team from Mercy Corps, the second by a member of her group who volunteered to make the dangerous drive to northern Gaza to get more food after the rations had dwindled to about 900 calories a day per person.

On Tuesday night, she and her group of volunteers heard from the U.S. State Department that they should head to the border by 7 a.m. This time, it felt real.

It helped a little that they could see things happening by midmorning. Ambulances were transporting critically injured Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt for treatment. Officials were scanning documents.

Roughly seven hours later, she was through the border crossing, getting in a car bound for Cairo.

“So tired,” Dr. Zind texted her son on Wednesday night from the Egyptian side of the crossing. “Didn’t eat all day until I got a Coke and chips” while waiting to be processed on the Egyptian side, she added, joking: “Will have to detox when I get home.”

Mr. Preston said his mother regularly volunteers in Gaza, the West Bank and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. When he asked her how she felt about leaving Gaza behind at a time of great need, she responded that her work treating chronically ill children was now impossible, given the shortages of nearly everything.

But she was already planning to come back to Gaza when she could.

“I know that this is what she does, and I’m really proud of her for it,” he said. “And I don’t know if I would be able to talk her out of it.”

Ameera Haroudacontributed reporting from Rafah, Gaza, Iyad Abuheweila from Cairo and Anna Bettsfrom New York.

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