It all started on January, 5th 2009, around two in the morning, the eighth day of a ferocious war the ‘Israeli Defense Forces’ waged against heavy-populated Gaza strip of more than one and a half million Palestinians packed in three-hundred-and-sixty square kilometers of the coastal area, south-east of Palestine— now, known as ‘The Palestinian Territories’— and it claimed the lives of more than fourteen hundreds of civilian residents. This was but another brutal episode in the long series of a well-performed twenty-two episodes of a tragic, really tragic, play spitefully called ‘Operation Cast Lead’. Its heroes, or anti-heroes in a time when utter confusion prevailed, are the Palestinian children, women, elderly people, and resistance members while its anti-heroes are three: two men and a woman; they nodded the tragedy in the first place and then nodded off, not even questioned in the least.
We headed toward Al-Zaitoon Camp, east of the Gaza Strip to listen to Helmi Al-Sammuni, twenty-seven narrating what apparently has turned out to be nothing but a sad story to be recalled with all its minute details each time some foreigner or Arab journalist, seeking some word-press or other world-wide award, comes over to take pictures at one of the richest areas across the region in terms of photography. This sad story we also, not so differently, came to refresh in the memory of a bereaved Helmi who, in the wake of this tragedy, lost his father, his mother, his wife, and his only five-month-old son.
We arrived. It was around three in the afternoon of an unexpectedly-hot sunny day of February 14th. Helmi, alongside with Abu Taleb, forty-four, was working on a new small tent to erect right opposite what he described as ‘the crime scene’. “This spot is where twenty-nine of my relatives were killed, the same day, the same hour, the same spot,” said Helmi in a journalist-like style, pointing at an approximately twenty-square-meter open piece of land. Shaking hands with us, Abu Taleb said jokingly in an old-Palestinian-refugee dialect: “ktab jdeed Ah? bas halmara bedoon ajaneb. ahsan bardoo ha-ha tfadaloo tfadalo” Another book, ha? But this time, no foreigners, that is better; come on inside” Abu Taleb directed us into the half-erected tent.
Before January 3rd, the neighboring areas to Al-Sammuni Family of Abu-Jarad and other places thereabout were being so heavily bombarded at night that as the night slipped by, the family members would slowly but surly have stopped being apprehensive about what was going on about the area. This exact situation persisted for five successive nights since the Israelis launched their attack against the Palestinians; and meanwhile, the family members had unconsciously become familiar with it in the long nights of a cold winter of that year. On January 4th, however, around two in the morning, the family members, who had inhabited a three-storey building, now the only building still standing, sensed a looming danger as the continuing bombarding drastically intensified around the area, and the sounds of drones overhead mingled with numerous others of warplanes dropping bombs, artillery firing, and Apaches shelling penetrated their ears all night long. Helmi says: “We didn’t sleep all night long because of the continuing firing, and our children kept crying the whole night while sticking to their mothers.”
Helmi and his family were staying in the third floor when it was hinted that it was, then, a threatening situation and to spend the night right there in the third floor, being the top floor, would make a great danger, and Helmi and his family were in jeopardy. For that reason he decided to move down to the ground floor which was already jam-packed with more than one hundred members of an extended family.
Long dreadful hours passed by. A new morning. But, Helmi started his day in a way he would have given half of what he owned to avoid it. Some guy whom, to my surprise, Helmi could not recognize— but, he would definitely be one of his relatives – was calling out to him from a neighbouring ground house that his apartment on the third floor was now burning up and he would better rush to put the fires out, the apartment he had evacuated just a few hours ago. Helmi was not grateful, though. And this time he would have given everything he owned to avoid it, not the fire burning his apartment, but him tying to extinguish it.
“ya zalama ana basob mayya we en-nar betzeed” “I was pouring water, and that damn fire was just increasing. The more water I poured, the more the fire grew. I was totally confused and didn’t know what to do.” narrated a wide-eyed Helmi. Poor Helmi hadn’t a clue what a phosphorus bomb could do. He, like anyone in his position, could not figure it out that chemically one particle of Oxygen in water would actively interact with phosphorus and that would produce phosphorus pentoxide, more fire, to burn! That would produce more fire to burn the bodies, the flesh, of innocent people like Helmi, his wife, his five-month son, his father, and his mother. This is precisely how an evil policy is defined. That was a nasty policy; a mischievous exploitation of your one refuge and turning it into your bloody and cruel death.
“Water!” Helmi asked for some water and stopped to drink. I knew what he exactly asked for.
Desperately, Helmi left his apartment burning down and headed back down to the ground floor when on his way back, and through a gap in one of the house’s half-knocked-down walls, he stole a look: an army of soldiers swarming down across the area and another surrounding their building.
Hemi’s heart sank.
He rushed all the steps down to hide inside the apartment on the ground floor. As soon as he made it into the apartment, the door was shot open again as the soldiers were shouting at them some Hebrew words which later came to mean ‘get out of the house’. Hemi’s father, Abu-Salah, was the first to get out, followed by Helmi, his brother, Salah, before all of them were driven out of the house with the soldiers pointing their guns at them. “My father talked to them in Hebrew and told them we are civilians and hadn’t any kind of guns inside the house,” He said.
Most of the members of Al-Sammuni family are farmers and peasants; they feed upon agriculture and live in what is far more like a farm than a real house, regardless of the misleading description of a ‘three-story-building’. The green scenery is even still visible now all around their tents and little chambers. They had not the least involvement in any kind of military action. Nor did they have any political affiliation with either Hamas or Fateh or any other political faction. They didn’t stock arms which belong to Hamas inside their houses. Nor did they launch rockets onto Israel. They are mere peasants and farmers. And they made it clear they are none but civilians. As such, Al-Sammuni family would have been the last thing to cause to the Israelis any kind of trouble whatsoever. The war claimed to destroy Hamas destroyed a mere farmer called Wael Al-Sammuni. It took away the life of cute Rezqa, his fourteen-year daughter as it took away the life of little Fares, his thirteen-year son. That is possibly a complex equation you; and me, too, need some while to absorb: the equation of “Destroy Wael; destroy Hamas”
The fragile-looking soldiers, as Helmi put it, gathered all the family members, more than a hundred persons including all women and children, and directed them into the house of Wael Al-Sammuni which was less than fifty meters away from the three-story building on the other side of the back street– As Helmi was telling us the story, Wael was all by himself smoking a cigarette right outside the tent, next to him on a standing brick was a big mug of dark Arabian coffee. He must have enjoyed it.
Wael’s house, already described as ‘the crime scene’ by Helmi, was where all of them were packed to stay throughout the day. It was now mid-afternoon. And there were almost a hundred of them. It looked as though they were fated to have their day of judgment a little while earlier…it was their day of judgment.
“We moved into the house as ordered, and we sincerely thought they are not going to harm us because they knew that none of us was a militant, and we had no weapons stocked inside the house as they inspected it thoroughly” Helmi thought, loudly!
“NO! You were absolutely mistaken, brother!” I thought- to myself.
As the family members were wholly herded inside, tens of soldiers encompassed the house blocking their way from reaching food, water and even from using toilets. Loud explosions were constantly heard nearby. Commotion took over the place while the little children panicky cried. And their mothers were in no better condition that their children were. Afterwards, after what seemed to be ages of horror, night fell, just to make matters worse. “It was like adding more fuel to the fire.” A becoming-eloquent Helmi stated. “We had tried all the night to call the ambulance service but to no avail. Not until Mahmoud, my cousin, got an answer, but they told us that we were in a closed security zone, and that they can’t reach us.” Helmi got pale as he said this, I assure you. Meanwhile, the kids were now quiet as they gathered to their supper, home bread dipped in tea; although the kids almost certainly did not like their supper so much, they must have found an outlet in having it since it was the only activity where they could successfully forget about their fears, even if for moments.
It got darker and darker until it was impossible for them to see each other.
Baaam! Booo! Baaaam! Wheeeee Boooom!
Wheeeeee ….. Bam
The night passed slowly, very slowly.
Seven in the morning of Monday, the January 5th 2009. Wael, and his cousins, Salah, Iyad, and Mohammed made up their minds to cross the threshold into the small one meter-wide ‘garden’ to the inside of the walls. Not to launch rockets obviously, and not to throw the soldiers with stones either, but to collect some woods: some woods that would help them light a small fire and make it possible for them to cook, or rather make some hot tea for the morning meal- this time it would be bread dipped in hot tea. The four courageous men carefully stepped outside the door and went on collecting woods as fast as they could, but not fast enough to escape a first shell that directly targeted them. The shell hit Mohammed straight in the head, and he immediately dropped dead to the ground. Wael, Iyad, and Salah ran off under a heavy shelling that seemed to be coming from everywhere, but they could make it into the house. Mohammed later chanced to be achieving what some disgusting graphite, perhaps were then being gently drawn on the walls of the three-story house on the other side by the soldiers occupying it, harbingered,” One dead! 999, 999 to go!”
Meanwhile, it seemed that all hell broke loose while heavy firing continued indiscriminately targeting who was inside and the helicopters overhead shelled ceaselessly for more than a half-hour.
As I was jotting down my notes, I glimpsed Wael get up and step inside the tent. I could tell he wanted to take part narrating the events. “ya zalama Wallah masameer banat kalb betlef fe jesmi kanat” “Damned nails flew in every direction after each shell and I felt them tear my flesh from inside,” Suddenly Wael broke in, uttering his first words in anger. “It was horrible. I was stumbling over bodies, vision was blocked with heavy smoke, and crying was coming from here and there. How could I describe it to you? It was just horrible.” he continued, shooting me his biting smile.
Well, it was just horrible.
Things calmed down, and vision got clearer: blood, fire, burning; smoke, rising, bodies, lying all around the spot; children, tumbling and crying at their mothers’ bodies…
“I was hysterically trying to call the ambulance service, civil defense, or anyone who could get us of there, but each time I got the same answer, “there is no way we can reach you.” And so, we had only once choice before us.” said Helmi, in a curiosity-arousing style. Wael and the others had only one choice left to them. And they helplessly clang to it.
Wael, Iyad, Salah, Helmi, and many others who were fortunate enough to miraculously escape a close death just to drag their lives for a few more days, hours, or perhaps moments as was the case with Iyad, carried their wounded children, wives, and whoever they could on their arms, and, not wasting their counted breath, opted to break the shackles of their fears. Raising white flags, they stepped out of the house to meet their silly death; hopefully, in case they had another narrow escape, time would save them to reach the closest hospital while those on their arms still had the capacity to produce another breath. It was almost a half-kilometer away from the main street of Salah Ed-Din. As they walked on, the soldiers were taking their positions at the top-floor of the three-storey building and higher points elsewhere. All of a sudden there came the sound of straight shooting that seemed to be targeting them when Iyad immediately fell to the ground. From this point starts the story of Iyad. A man. A daring, unflinching man in his late-twenties who lost every thing but a willful courage through which he resolved to save others’ lives, although he’d already lost his. But uncontrollable ruthless power crushed him mercilessly. And he died like a man, like a real man.
Wael, who was hurrying alongside Iyad when he was shot, plainly by snipers stationed on the three-story building narrated what happened, “I was running besides him carrying my daughter on one hand, and my son on the other, both badly bleeding when Iyad’s mobile rang. All I knew, then, is that Iyad was lying on the ground, still embracing Nagham. I could not stop because the shooting continued targeting him,”
In fact, the soldiers did not target Iyad to kill him. They didn’t want him dead because if they did, they could have killed him on the spot, or at least they would have targeted his head, chest, anything, but not his leg! And to the extent that it would be disassociated form the rest of his body. This bunch of venomous soldiers thirsted for more blood; they desired to torture Iyad. They admired the view of him crawling. Yes, he crawled. He crawled not for his life but to save the life of little Nagham. When every body was gone, the scene was clear, and Iyad was all by himself on the spot; still crawling, the soldiers had the courage necessary to get out from behind the barricades they had erected to protect themselves form probably some invisible arms Al-Sammuni family had hidden somewhere. They got to Iyad, tied his hands and legs, which had not separated from his body yet, with metal wires, and got back to their positions getting ready to enjoy some last moments of Iyad crawling before he was dead. How defenseless those soldiers were! — Or is it ‘how calculating they were!’— Oh, yes, this was perhaps a precautionary measure in case Iyad would rise and attack them by some miraculous power. Why on earth should they get back to their positions? Why should they hide themselves behind vast barricades and mounds? Why should they deny themselves the pleasure of the view being watched from some closer distance?
Anyway, Iyad died, but Nagham lived.
From As-Shifa’ hospital, Al-Hilal hospital, Al-Quds hospital and others, Helmi, Wael and the other lucky ones were calling out for the Red Crescent, Red Cross, and whoever else they appealed for to rescue the injured and to get out the corpses of their relatives from under the rubble of the unfortunate house of Wael.
“It is a closed security zone …”
Not until the forth day came, the twelfth day of the war, January 9th, the ambulances were allowed to get through to the ‘closed security zone’ and ‘rescue’ the injured. Perhaps everybody inside was dead by then. None would have a chance to rescue after four days under the rubble. Many were still breathing, however, and they are still today— Most of them were little kids; some were now playfully running outside the tent; others were asking Saleh to take photos of them, and others were listening to their story from Helmi—Nagham was one of the former.
Eight days later, the war ended and the lucky ones could get back to their ‘houses’.
“We started pulling out the dead bodies from under the ruins and carrying them ourselves since there was no cars or ambulances. One after the other that we even started to lose count of the bodies” Helmi said half in jest.
Twenty-nine members of Al-Sammuni family lost their lives in the wake of Gaza War. Some lost their fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, cousins, nephews, nieces, grandparents, and grandsons. Two or more bodies had to be buried in the same grave due to the fact that Gaza residents, then, suffered a severe lack of graves only similar to Gaza’s present-day lack of drinking water, food, gas, fuel, building materials, stationary, and other basic needs. The story of Al-Sammuni family is never to come to an end. Their extraordinary striking persistence and determinacy are what made every other foreign journalists hail them as ‘heroes’. Erecting tents, cooking on fire, planting okra, and joking with each other are what remarkably featured their simple life, before and after their tragedy.
The Story of Ahmed Al-Saummi. (as told by his brother Mohammed, twelve years)
On the early morning of the fist day of the tragedy of Al-Sammuni family, a four-year-old Ahmed had to enjoy his usual breakfast— I believe there is no need to mention what kind of breakfast he had to have— singing what he used to daily listen to on ‘Toyor Aljannah’ (Birds of Heaven) and reciting ‘Qul Howa Allahu Ahad’ (Say: He is Allah, the One and Only)— some verses from the Quran— in a fashion that of a four-year-old child when, out of the blue, came the dreadful sound of powerful knocking at the door mixed with the harsh voices of soldiers shouting in Hebrew and coming from outside which would obviously mean ‘open up!’. Ahmed’s father, Atiyya, fourty-four years, had his children and wife clam down, got to the door and opened it. Attiya could speak Hebrew due to the fact that he was one of a large number of Palestinian workers who used to work inside Israel before the second uprising. “They asked him something in Hebrew which we didn’t understand at first, but later I knew it was about who the owner of this house is, and my father told them that this house belongs to him,” Mohammed said. “Then, I saw the soldier in front point his gun towards my father and he just shot him dead right in the head.” hastily uttering his words, Mohammed continued. Attiya died. And his children began crying wildly—almost hysterically. Little Ahmed, however, wouldn’t see his father being killed before his eyes and do nothing about it. Mohammed narrates, “My brother, Ahmed, came up to them and asked them loudly amid waves of wild crying, “Why did you kill my father?”– presumably in a child-like manner.
It must have been harsh on them. Little-Ahmed-confronting-the-Israeli-soldiers must have been a punch on the nose, a knock-out, for, if not the whole ‘IDF’ and those present at the scene, at least, for that (I refrain here from attributing this murderer by an word or phrase whatsoever) who killed his father before his eyes in cold blood— I wonder at this moment if this ‘cold blood’ would serve the meaning right. They should have killed him. And they did. ‘The same day, the same hour, the same spot’ as Helmi had put it earlier. Right next to his father.
Mohammed Rabah Suliman