The Scottish first minister’s mother-in-law has told of her devastation of the Israel-Hamas war and said she has “left her heart in Gaza”.
Elizabeth El-Nakla and her husband Maged were visiting family in Gaza when the conflict erupted on 7 October.
The couple from Dundee – whose daughter Nadia El-Nakla is married to Humza Yousaf – survived neighbouring bombings and were eventually able to make it back home to Scotland after four weeks of a “living nightmare”.
Speaking to Sky News, Ms El-Nakla said the ordeal still feels “very surreal”.
In an interview with Beth Rigby, she said: “I [wake] up in the middle of the night and I hear silence in the dark and then I remember I’m home and that I’m safe. And I feel very grateful for that.
“You really do think every day or every night you will die, and the family that are under your roof as well. And that’s hard to comprehend and hard to get over.”
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After two failed attempts, the couple were eventually able to enter Egypt via the Rafah Border Crossing on 3 November.
Ms El-Nakla said that was the moment she knew she was safe, but it was then when exhaustion hit.
“I hadn’t slept for nearly three weeks,” she said. “And you’re just so relieved, but you still don’t believe it, and you’re so exhausted.
“And then we get on the bus and you see all these happy children. We were given a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits.
“And it is such a relief, you can’t imagine, but again your heart is torn. I left my heart in Gaza – I didn’t bring it home with me.”
Nadia, her daughter who is a Dundee councillor, said she was “holding onto hope” but during the “darkest of times” she imagined that she may not see her parents again.
When the conflict began on Saturday 7 October, Nadia messaged her parents and said: “Your window is going to be small, you need to leave. It’s going to become really, really a bad, dangerous situation for everyone in Gaza.”
Ms El-Nakla said she was “horrified” by what she was seeing on the news.
She added: “I couldn’t believe it. And then when I saw people being taken… I’m old as well and to see people being bundled onto like tuk-tuks and motorbikes, to me that’s horrific. You just don’t do things like that.
“And then it dawns on you as well – ‘oh my god, the repercussions will be huge’. And you fear, not just for the people that are being taken, but also you fear for what’s going to happen.”
In telling her story, Elizabeth hopes people will listen
Before 7 October, Elizabeth El-Nakla was a grandmother, a retired nurse and the mother-in-law of Scotland’s first minister.
After that day, she became the most prominent British citizen trapped in Gaza. Millions of us watched the video Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s first minister, shared on social media where his visibly distressed mother-in-law said goodbye to her family and pleaded with the international community to help the Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
Grateful and relieved to be home, Elizabeth nevertheless is clearly still in great distress as she recounts her four-week ordeal and tells me she feels a great sense of guilt for not just her family but ordinary Gazans trapped.
Read analysis in full here
Ms El-Nakla said the bombing started on the Saturday evening.
During an attempt to flee to safety on 14 October, the couple were driven to the border by a 22-year-old neighbour.
“This is 15 minutes in a fast drive, 22 minutes on Google it tells you it takes. But to me, it could have been 15,000 miles it felt so far away,” she said.
They were told to turn back, and while on the phone to Nadia the line cut out following an explosion. Nadia said she “fell to her knees” and it took around 10 minutes for her to know her parents were still alive.
Nadia said that was her lowest point. “We then had to travel to Aberdeen because the [SNP] conference was about to start. So, I was crying the whole journey to Aberdeen.”
Nadia then received messages from her mum about Israel dropping bombs. Ms El-Nakla described the smell of the bombs and could hear the “sizzling”.
Nadia added: “At that point we were going down for dinner and I just broke down and said to Humza ‘I can’t. I can’t see people, I can’t be here, I can’t talk, I can’t make eye contact – I’m going to break’.
“That for me was the worst – worst day in terms of my own mental health and dealing with it.”
The 22-year-old neighbour who tried to drive the couple to the border was later killed in a bombing on his home, which claimed the lives of 24 family members.
The sole survivor, the man’s eight-year-old sister, suffered a broken spine and is receiving treatment in Egypt.
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Ms El-Nakla was in her kitchen eating pitta bread with Scottish jam when she saw a light with the suction of air. Instinctively, she took cover.
She said: “And then after that I didn’t feel scared. I felt nothing.”
Ms El-Nakla said outside “everybody was screaming, everybody was frightened”.
She said she felt very “mixed up emotions”, adding: “Relief it’s not you, but you know it’s someone else.”
She couldn’t sleep most nights, she added. “And I would sit on the edge of my bed and I would self-soothe myself and rock for six/seven hours.
“And when that sun rose in the morning, you were so glad to be alive.”
When the couple eventually crossed over into Egypt, Ms El-Nakla said you could see the “desperation” on everyone’s faces who were trying to flee.
Speaking of the conflict, she said: “I wouldn’t wish that situation on my worst enemy.”
Ms El-Nakla said she’s getting stronger every day, but added: “But unfortunately, until our family and people that we know and love and everyone in Gaza are safe, I don’t think we will get over it and I think my life has changed forever.”
The family are calling for a full ceasefire and a two-state solution.
But Nadia stated that Palestine is not a “world player”. She added: “We don’t really have any power. So, it’s now up to other governments. We’ve seen that through Qatar, we’ve seen that through the UK and the US, trying to have those conversations.
“But actually, what would that even look like?
“My mind, to be honest, on a personal level, my mind can’t go forward. I’m stuck day by day that I don’t know if my family are going to live and whether Palestine’s going to exist.
“For me to think about what happens after the war when we’re not hearing of a ceasefire, my life can’t go forward because it seems, it feels like, we’re being erased from the world.”