-By Eva Bartlett I first heard of the “Atatra baby” when Red Crescent medics and volunteers brought the burned, mutilated corpse back, weeks after its death. Nameless, it was only known that the baby was from the northwestern region that had been completely inaccessible for the duration of the Israeli land invasion. The volunteers present when the infant was brought in described their revulsion at her charred skin, her lower body which had been eaten by stray dogs. I first met the Abu Halima family in the burn unit in Gaza’s Shifa hospital. The various family members suffered serious and deep chemical burns which Dr. Nafez abu Shabaan, head of the burn department, had attributed to white phosphorous burns. “It is unlike any burns we have treated,” he had said. “The burns go to the bone, and smoke for hours after treatment.” The various members of the family had disfiguring burns, one of whom –a woman of 21 –had 43% of her total body surface area burned, her3 year old daughter with 22%. Visiting the Atatra region the other day, I made the connection between the baby girl, the Abu Halima family, and the house an a-Sifa (in Beit Lahiya) resident asked me to visit. It wasn’t until the sister of an Abu Halima family member had recalled her version of their tragedy that I made the connections between these different stories which were in fact all one collective, sordid story. The family consisted of: Sa’dallah Abu Halima, 44, deceased, father of many children; Sabah Abu Halima, 44, badly burned, wife of Sa’dallah; Daelat Matter Abu Halim, sister of Sabah Abu Halima, 44, mother; Muhammad, 24, son of Sa’dallah; Ghada Abu Halima, 21, badly burned, wife of Muhammad–update: she died months later of her wounds; and many children, 4 deceased and many badly burned. Daelat recounted what happened the day of the shelling. Israeli tanks had already built up in the area and had begun shelling. “Everything was here that day: tanks, F-16, Apaches, war-boats…I was running from my house to my neighbour’s house, because of the tanks. But then I heard the tank shelling near our houses and wanted to know if our house or my sister’s house had been hit. My husband said it was too late, ‘whoever is dead is dead. The Israeli army will kill you if you return.’ I didn’t listen to him, I ran to my sister’s house.”
‘Omar said: “The whole house was filled with fire and black smoke, different than normal smoke from a fire. It was hard to breathe and swelled our throats.” On the 2nd floor, at the door to the children’s room, Daelet pointed to where Sabah and her 1.5 year old girl, Shahed, were huddling. “She was killed right here,” the sister continued, describing Shahed’s lifeless body as “limp like a puppet, and burned”. She said, “We kept pouring water on her body but it was still on fire. We wrapped her in blankets, and when we later unwrapped the blankets her corpse was still smoking.” Some of the other children and their father, Sa’dallah, were next to the children’s room, all at the end of the hallway. It was an area they thought was safer, far from windows, less chance of injury from shattered glass or Israeli bullets.
Two shells fired from Israeli tanks burst through the ceiling metres away from them, one immediately after the other. One of the shells was white phosphorous, which ignited the bodies of those sheltering below, not immediately killing all of them. Mohammed’s wife, Ghada, was sitting with her 3 year old daughter Farah, both miraculously surviving the shelling and fire, but with disfiguring and painful burns on their faces and all over their bodies. ‘Omar, another son, 18 years old, was downstairs when the shells hit the house. ‘Omar ran up to help. He explained how ambulances and rescue personnel were prevented from reaching the area because of the ongoing firing from Israeli soldiers in the tanks.
Matar and Muhammad, two cousins living in the house behind Abu Halima’s, tried to help evacuate the injured and the dead. The majority were piled into a wagon pulled by a tractor, and some of the others were put into a car. The convoy headed down the road and were near a local UN school when Israeli soldiers stationed there began firing upon them. ‘Omar continued the narration: “They shot my 2 cousins in the chest and hit me in the shoulder. Israeli soldiers ordered my brother Muhammad to take his clothes off. After they’d searched and humiliated him, he was ordered to put his clothes back on and ‘leave this place, leave the dead people. Take the injured and go.’ We ran away, leaving 3 of the dead bodies in the tractor, and leaving Matar and Muhammad dying.”
The injured had to walk half an hour before close enough that a passing car found and took them to Shifa hospital in Gaza, hours after their attack. Sa’dallah, I later learned, died instantly, decapitated, his wife Sabah testified, saying also that Zeid (11), and Hamzah (10) died from the flames, and ‘Abd a-Rahim (13) was killed while praying. Baby Shahed’s body, when it was finally recovered, had been found by dogs. The 5 bodies were all so burned, decomposed, and torn apart that the remaining pieces fit into 1 grave.
No scrap of dignity was allotted to the dead. Nor to the living. The house was occupied and desecrated by Israeli soldiers, as was the house of Muhammad and Matar. Some of the graffiti penned by Israeli soldiers included: “Your underwear is good,” which the family had tried to scrub off. In Matar’s house significant shelling and shooting ripped into walls and windows. Much more graffiti in Hebrew stained the walls. A sketch of a nude woman.
And pledges: “If we missed (left) one of the house corners undestroyed, we will get back to you the next operation!” “It will hurt more next time!!!” How could it possibly hurt more?
Matar’s mother pointed out the vandalizing of and theft from her home: “They (the Israeli soldiers) took everything they wanted from our house. They cleaned the house out. The furniture you see here now is from other people.” Soldiers are known to have set up camps in some of the regions they occupied, taking furniture from homes and leaving it used and ruined at these camps. “We don’t sleep at night, we’re not safe,” she continued, adding, “We wish there was only daylight, because at night we are still terrified.”
She came back to her grief. “Imagine seeing your child shot before your eyes. They broke my heart.” She said she’d been down the road when the youths and her sister’s family were targeted. “They tried to save the people,” she said of her sons. “I heard a lot of crying, screaming. We left the house, saw the bodies of Sa’dallah and his children. We called Red Crescent to get the bodies, but they couldn’t get past the tanks. Other people from this area tried to reach them, but Israeli soldiers shot at whoever got near to the house. Ten more people were injured,” she said.
Because of the army’s attacks on civilian homes, because of their obstruction of medical crews, because of their firing on civilians trying to reach the wounded, those injured who might have survived with medical treatment instead bled to death or died of injuries sustained in the bombing. “My sons bled to death. They (Israeli soldiers) are terrorists. They used white phosphorous, shot civilians, robbed houses…” Outside the Abu Halima house, clay-like tufts –when pounded, allowing oxygen into the core –sizzled and re-ignited into the chemical fires they had been 23 days earlier.