Heartbreak

One year later, a mother in Gaza grieves over the deaths of her son, nephews and grandson

Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of an Israeli airstrike that killed four children from the Bakr family while they played soccer on a beach

Um Atawf and her husband with 12-year-old Motasem. Behind them are posters of Ahed and Zakariya, two of the boys killed in the airstrike last year. (Photo by Anna Therese Day)

Trembling, Um Atawf bows her head as she welcomes us into her family’s home. She’s about to relive every mother’s worst nightmare: she’s invited us over to tell us about the day her son, grandson, and two nephews were all killed by two consecutive Israeli strikes while playing soccer on their neighborhood beach.

“The day started with him and ended with him … With my Zakariya, my youngest son,” Um Atawf begins, slowly pouring us small cups of sugary tea.

Her hands are shaking, spilling the tea across her delicate porcelain tea set. She apologizes profusely, she’s frustrated with her nerves she says, and politely refuses help: “You are guests in my home,” she insists, smiling through the stress — her entire body is shaking now.

A year ago this week, her youngest son, 10-year-old Zakariya, woke her to ask for a few shekels before he went out to play.

“I didn’t have any change, but Zakariya promised to return the extra shekels. He was our most obedient child, even though he was the youngest,” she recalled. “So I gave him the shekels and watched him leave with his cousins. They crossed the street, happily. They were giggling, ready to play, as all little boys do.”

That was the last time she saw Zakariya.

Hours later, the television broke the news that four Palestinian boys had been killed on the beach near their home. Um Atawf says she was immediately sick, struck with fear that it had been her boys. She rushed to the hospital, screaming in tears and begging for answers.

“I saw some neighbors when I entered the hospital. They were panicked too, but when they saw me, they just stopped and grew silent,” she recalls. “That’s when I knew … But no one would speak to me and give me answers. Just … complete despair.”

Through the chaos, Um Atawf found a Gazan journalist who told her the names of the dead: it was her nephews, Mohammad and Ismail, her grandson Ahed, and Zakariya. Another one of her sons, 11-year-old Motasem, was also in the hospital being treated for injuries he sustained in the strikes.

“It’s still too much,” she stops, dropping her head in grief. Tears stream down her cheeks; her husband takes her hand, his gaze fixed on the floor.

On July 16th, 2014, the four Bakr boys were hit by explosive rounds while playing soccer on one of Gaza’s most popular beaches. An initial strike killed one child, and a secondary strike killed three more children as the group of boys attempted to flee.

Last month, Israel exonerated itself of the incident, calling the attack “a tragic accident” but alleging “that the incident took place in an area that had long been known as a compound belonging to Hamas’s Naval Police and Naval Force (including naval commandos), and which was utilized exclusively by militants.”

International journalists on the scene do not recall militant activity on the beach the day of the attack. Furthermore, the area in question is one of the most popular beaches for Gazan residents in Gaza City, behind many of its nicest hotels and adjoined to a number of makeshift fishermen huts.

“The last war was especially cruel, but it was Ramadan and we want our kids to do normal things, to be with their friends, to play … To pretend they were not trapped in this place,” Um Atawf tried to explain.

This month, the United Nations released a report on its investigations into possible war crimes during the 2014 conflict. The report accused both Israel and multiple Palestinian militant groups of violating international law. Israel immediately dismissed the report, calling the investigation biased and criticizing the U.N. Human Rights Council that commissioned it. The Palestinian Authority is turning to the International Criminal Court, where it has submitted a formal complaint that includes the Bakr family’s tragedy.

“We are traumatized and just want some fairness. The justice might help us heal, help us to feel that we don’t need to live in fear for our children and that the Israelis can’t kill our children for no reason and get away with it,” Um Atawf pleads. “The pain for Gazans has become too much to hold. It’s war after war, with only the Israeli siege in between. But now, we need the world to stand by our kids.”

According to the U.N., 2,200 Palestinians were killed in last summer’s conflict. At least 1492 were civilians, and, according to Save the Children, 551 Gazan children were killed and one Israeli child. Seventy-three Israelis were killed, seven of whom were civilians.

The Bakr home is less than a mile from the Gaza Seaport and only a block from the beach where the tragedy unfolded. The men in the Bakr family are all fishermen and have been for generations. The Israeli naval blockade has devastated Gaza’s fishing industry, plunging many families, including the Bakr’s, into extreme poverty.

The Bakr living room is decorated with colorful ornaments and detailed sculptures of fishing boats. Motasem, their surviving son who sustained injuries in the attack, plays with a little blue toy ship and a fisherman figurine.

But the flat is crowded — 30 people in the Bakr family sleep in the main room each night — and the electricity cuts mid-interview, due to Gaza’s sporadic blackouts, leaving us in a heavy darkness.

“We live humbly in Gaza but we were not poor. We were impoverished by the Israeli siege,” Um Atawf insists in frustration, pulling 12-year-old Motasem into her arms. Motasem has been diagnosed with PTSD, and the Bakrs can’t afford his medication which costs 200 NIS (about $50) per week.

It’s Ramadan — the Muslim holiday season that once meant family time and delicious meals with loved ones. For the Bakrs, the holiday is now weighted with tragedy, the boys’ absence a painful reminder of loss and ongoing injustice.

“The world has seen the pictures of our boys, so I want them to know this: in Gaza, we don’t have nice playgrounds or the expensive toys for our children like in America. For our children, we just have the beach,” she explains slowly at first before more tears interrupt her message. “Our family lives on the beach, survives from the sea, we are simple fishermen and just want a normal life. Our children didn’t deserve this. What did Zakariya do? What did Ahed do? Ismail, Mohammed, what did they do to deserve this? They played soccer, they lived as normal children. That’s all they did.”

“I want American mothers to know about Zakariya. He was my youngest, the baby,” she continues, the words barely escaping as she weeps.

“Now he’s gone, and that’s all I have to say,” she stops abruptly. “I hope they understand what this loss has meant for us, what it’s meant as a mother, how it can destroy any mother.”

Anna Therese Day is an award-winning independent journalist. Follow her work in the field on Twitter and Instagram at @ATDLive and on Facebook.

Related video: Israeli Robi Damelin and Palestinian Bushra Awad talk about finding humanity in the enemy

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