CNN — Nowara Diab was trying to drown out the sounds of airstrikes by listening to music, but it was not enough to shake the unsettled feeling in her gut.
Then her phone rang. It was a friend, who said they had heard that Maimana Jarada – Diab’s best friend – and her family had been killed by Israeli bombardment.
Her stomach was in knots as she felt herself panicking. Diab called Jarada’s number repeatedly but when there was no answer, it dawned on her that it was true – Jarada had been killed.
The 20-year-old says she broke down in tears as she felt the walls close in around her. The pain was even more intense for Diab because she had learned only 10 days earlier that another friend, Abraham Saidam, had also been killed by Israeli airstrikes.
“Living without them is the worst thing I’ve ever felt,” Diab said. “My heart aches every single day thinking that they’re not here and they’re not going to be here for me anymore, it pains me.”
She recalls how she froze in disbelief and started crying when she received the text message about Saidam.
“My mother looked at me to ask me what was wrong. I just covered my mouth with my hands and I was silent, everything was a blur and I was in complete shock.”
Despite repeated telecommunications blackouts amid Israel’s siege, Diab has managed to speak to CNN from Gaza through voice notes, text messages and videos about the life and friendships she has lost since October 7.
As Israel’s war approaches its fourth month, sustained bombardment by Israeli forces in Gaza has had a devastating impact on civilians there. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the “utterly unacceptable” killing of civilians, renewing calls for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” to relieve the suffering of Palestinians in the strip, after the death toll surpassed 25,000, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.
Throughout Israel’s war, launched in response to the October 7 Hamas attacks, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has repeatedly said that it only targets Hamas fighters, not civilians.
The enclave is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with about 2.2 million inhabitants.
At the outset of the war, Diab watched as bombs fell near her home in Gaza City. She and her family knew they had to leave for their own safety.
“That night was dreadful, it was so scary, I was sure I was going to die,” she said.
After fleeing multiple times, Diab and her family are now staying in Rafah, southern Gaza, and are among the nearly 1.9 million people displaced across the territory, according to data from the United Nations’ Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The Israeli bombardment and the ensuing humanitarian crisis have made the situation in the enclave unbearable, with the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, saying conditions for children are a “living hell.” The UN agency has described Gaza as the most dangerous place in the world to be a child and said the ongoing violence is exposing young people to devastating emotional trauma and psychological harm.
Walking through the streets, Diab said, she looks at the faces of fellow residents of Gaza and sees nothing but sadness and pain.
She says losing her best friends and being forced to leave behind the life she’s known has impacted her own mental health.
“I’m unable to feel anything, I don’t feel happy or sad or anything,” she said. “I don’t know why but all of this has consumed my energy, I cry every now and then but not the way I used to cry before, it’s very brief.”
Before the war, Diab was in her final year of college studying English and French literature at Al Azhar University. Like most young people, she enjoyed spending time with her friends and eating tasty food in the city.
Sometimes, when Diab closes her eyes, she can still remember the faint smell of her family home in northern Gaza, destroyed by bombing since October 7. “Even the flaws hold memories,” she said. “If my little sister drew something on the walls, it made my mother mad but it still holds a memory.”
Diab says she longs for the kind of problems she had before the war, like missing the bus for college or being bored in lectures. “I’m not able to do this anymore because my college was bombed, my house was bombed and I lost my best friend,” she said.
Diab describes her situation as worse than a nightmare because she’s unable to wake up from it.
“I laugh at myself when I say ‘my life’ now, because this is not my life, this is far away from my life,” she continued. “This is a sneak peek into hell.”
There’s rarely a moment when Jarada and Saidam leave Diab’s mind, she says, and she thinks of them whenever she looks through photos on her phone or sees other people with their friends.
“I just need her (Jarada) more than ever right now, but I know that she is in a better place,” Diab said.
“And I know that Abraham is happy now, I just know it, but I miss them.”
Diab and Jarada were childhood friends, with shared humor and interests creating a bond like that of sisters. In a video shared with CNN, the pair sit next to each other, giggling and lip syncing to a viral Tik Tok sound that originated from a Saturday Night Live skit about friendship.
“How would I even begin to describe Jarada? She’s just unique, a beautiful soul and a very artistic person,” Diab told CNN, adding that Jarada had “the biggest heart ever” and would create pictures for her.
Jarada painted a sunflower for Diab’s birthday last year. Diab says she accepted it unaware that this would be her friend’s last gift to her before she died at age 20.
When Diab and her family fled Gaza City, she had to leave the painting behind.
At college, Diab’s interest in the arts drew her to participate in a theater group, where she became good friends with Saidam after initially thinking he was quiet.
“He even looked like an introvert, but then we found out he’s an extrovert and was so funny and so exceptional,” she said.
Diab recalls how they both participated in a play based on Homer’s “Odyssey.” Saidam played King Odysseus and would make everybody laugh, she said.
The day Diab learned of her 27-year-old friend’s death, she cried a lot, but resolved to be strong because there was nothing more she could do, she said.
In Rafah, all Diab tries to do is to survive another day, she said, searching for essential items like cooking gas and water, both in very short supply.
“Can you imagine if you live your life without water? The most basic thing, just to drink, just to keep living,” said Diab. “Now everyone is being killed and if you’re not going to die from (airstrikes) we’re going to die from being hungry or thirsty.”
But despite everything that is happening, she says she will never forget the generosity and kindness of neighbors where they’ve sought refuge in Rafah and Khan Younis.
A neighbor in Rafah would give them plates of food and let Diab’s family shower at her home. “To see someone giving so much like this under these circumstances is surprising and she’s so nice,” Diab said.
“(Another family) came over and offered water to shower and to charge our phones and within an hour, our phones came back fully charged,” she said – no small thing in Gaza, where fuel shortages mean electricity is hard to access.
Although aid has entered the enclave, it has done so under challenging conditions and the UN has repeatedly warned that the volume getting in remains “woefully inadequate.”
Diab says extreme thirst has driven her family to drink water suitable only for laundry or showering.
Families across Gaza are having to consume unclean water because of Israel’s siege, adding to the risk of ill health. Earlier this month, UNICEF warned that the intensifying conflict has threatened the lives of over 1.1 million children, putting them in a deadly cycle of violence, malnutrition and disease.
With airstrikes pummeling southern Gaza, Diab fears for her safety in Rafah, saying there’s not an inch in the enclave which is truly safe, despite Israel’s declaration of a safe zone and regular announcements of times when they will stop bombing so people can move safely.
And although she wishes the war to be over, she lacks hope for the future.
“We’re going to see Gaza City wiped out, we’re gonna see it with our own eyes, which will be heartbreaking,” she said of any future return to her home.
“Imagine going back, after all of this is over and there’s going to be nothing to go back to, not a college, not a house, nothing. So even when this is over, there is more agony and pain waiting for us.”