• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

A young Gaza journalist documented her home’s beauty and destruction


Dec 28, 2023


(Video: The Washington Post)

Before the war, Plestia Alaqad didn’t think much about her Instagram feed. She posted a few photos of herself next to the Mediterranean, holding her friend’s son, petting her dog, Luki. She uploaded a photo sitting in a cafe (“Happy and carefree era,” the caption read) and from an early-morning bike ride (“Catch sunrises, not feelings”).

When she imagined her future as a journalist, which was constantly, she thought about ways to bring the world’s attention to the Gaza she loved. But there was no rush. She was 21. There was time to figure out her career.

Then she woke up on Oct. 7. On her phone, she scrolled through news stories and posts about Hamas’s attack in southern Israel.

She considered how Israel might react, and what she should do next. She had graduated with a degree in new media and journalism in Cyprus a few months earlier. On Oct. 8, she was meant to start a job as a content creator for a Palestinian nongovernmental organization.

Instead, Plestia began wandering the streets of Gaza and recording what she saw, posting videos and photos to Instagram and TikTok. She had about 3,700 followers on Instagram then, many of them friends and family members. On Oct. 9, she recorded a video as she walked through her building, showing how families were sheltering away from the windows. Then an enormous blast went off, sending a plume of dust and smoke into the air.

“I was trying to explain things, but I think you can hear them now,” she says in the video.

And then: “I’ll go check on my parents.”

(Video: Plestia Alaqad/Instagram)

The world’s attention turned to Gaza during the early days of the war. But Israel’s blockade made it impossible for foreign journalists to enter. Palestinian reporters and photographers have been providing the only window into the carnage.

All of a sudden, Plestia was one of the few young reporters documenting the biggest story in the world.

On Oct. 9, she and her family fled their home in Gaza City and began sheltering in a hospital. The next day, she recorded a video as she went to check on what was left of their building.

(Video: Plestia Alaqad/Instagram)

The street was covered in debris. She walked past ruined buildings before arriving at her own front door. Inside, she turned her camera to show the rubble. And then she tried to find a way to preserve some hope for her followers, and for herself.

“It’s important to clarify that my house was not completely bombed,” she says in the video. “It can be fixed.”

But not long after, she and her family fled Gaza City, heeding warnings from the Israel Defense Forces.

Her uncle in the United Arab Emirates managed to get through to Plestia’s mother over the phone. He wanted to check on the family — but also to tell Plestia that her video had gone viral. She now had half a million Instagram followers.

In her videos, Plestia was soon wearing a blue helmet and a protective vest that said “Press,” which she had borrowed from a local media organization. She was no longer only recording her own life, but documenting scenes of destruction and heroism from across Gaza.

She began driving around with two other journalists who filmed what they saw: 10-story buildings whose top floors had crumpled like newsprint; wounded children whose parents were missing (“If you know who they are or you are their parents, they are in the hospital,” she wrote).

“Can you imagine that I lived my whole life here in Gaza and I can’t even recognize the streets right now?” she says in a video posted on Oct. 13.

(Video: Plestia Alaqad/Instagram)

By then, she was getting hundreds of thousands of new followers a day.

But there were also things she didn’t post. As more journalists were killed and as her profile rose, some of Plestia’s friends asked her to delete photos she had uploaded of them from before Oct. 7. She started to worry that if she was targeted, her family might be killed, too.

“Should I go back to where my family is, or should I stay away from them? Am I being selfish?” she began to ask herself, she told The Washington Post in an interview.

At the end of each day, her colleagues dropped her off at a cousin’s house where she and her family had sought shelter. She slept on a mattress on the floor. Her mother tried to cautiously talk her into staying inside.

“How about you take a break,” she would say.

When Plestia was growing up in Gaza, her mother, Rana, was constantly trying to shield her daughter from the horrors that sometimes descended on the strip.

When there was bombing, her mother would say, “It’s far away” even if it wasn’t. Sometimes, when airstrikes began, her mom would insist that it was just a thunderstorm.

Mostly, that strategy worked. Plestia loved growing up in Gaza. She modeled traditional Palestinian dresses and taught classes to other Palestinians at the Press House. She filled piles of notebooks with poems and diary entries.

As the Israeli military campaign wore on, Plestia’s work continued. She filmed people baking bread on the floor of their homes after Gaza’s bakeries were bombed. She walked into an area where Palestinians were seeking refuge and a group of children rushed to hug her.

(Video: Plestia Alaqad/Instagram)

A few weeks into the war, she had more than 2 million followers, then 3 million. She considered the responsibility that came with that audience. But she was exhausted, barely sleeping, increasingly certain that she would be killed. People began recognizing her in the streets and asking her to tell their stories.

(Video: Plestia Alaqad/Instagram)

One night, she walked into a hospital and saw a woman who had lost three of her limbs. Only one of her hands remained. Plestia introduced herself and explained that she wanted to document the woman’s injuries.

“Oh, I follow you,” the woman said.

Sometimes she would flick through her own Instagram feed and it felt like she was looking into a stranger’s life. There was no sign of the Gaza she had known before the invasion.

On Nov. 11, she wrote: “Most of my memories in Gaza are gone. My favorite restaurants, cafes, and stores all gone. Most of my friends’ houses all gone as well. For my house, I’m not sure if it’s partially demolished or if all of it is gone by now.”

She tried to restore some balance to the version of Gaza she was documenting. She posted a video of a woman who had evacuated with three birds and two tiny turtles, one of whom she had named Plestia.

(Video: Plestia Alaqad/Instagram)

Plestia’s aim was to share a more intimate glimpse into Gazan life. But the number of casualties soared. By early November, about 10,000 people had been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

It was at around that time that Plestia learned her uncle had secured visas for the family in Australia.

Once her name was placed on a list at the Rafah crossing, they would need to leave in 12 hours. Did she even have a choice?

“I felt guilty. Why do I get to leave and others don’t?” she told The Post. “Why is it only people with passports or relatives abroad that can escape a war zone?”

She thought about her mission to document Gaza, about leaving that mission behind.

“But I decided I would feel more guilty if my family was killed because I decided to stay.”

So she crossed into Egypt.

A few days later, she was in southeastern Australia.

(Video: Plestia Alaqad/Instagram)

For the first few days, it was difficult to look at the news. The chasm between the tranquility of her uncle’s house in Australia and the devastation in Gaza was too much to bear.

But she needed to know what was happening. So she turned on her phone and began to scroll through the Instagram photos of those who had stayed behind.


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