oPt

OPT - Cast Lead Aggression 1st Anniversary, Day 10: The As-Sammouni Family, Az-Zeitoun Neighbourhood, Gaza City

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Israeli forces shelled the house of Wa'el As-Sammouni in Az-Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City on 5 January 2009, a day after they had ordered dozens of people from the extended As-Sammouni family to shelter there. In addition to those killed instantly, several other family members bled to death in the following days as Israeli forces prevented ambulances from accessing the area. Young children lay next to the bodies of their dead mothers, siblings and other relatives for three days while the Red Cross tried to negotiate access. Despite the immense media coverage generated by this shocking incident, the Sammounis have received little assistance and are living in poverty in makeshift accommodation near the remnants of their former homes. Al Mezan interviewed Wa'el As-Sammouni's wife, Ibtisam, 31, and one of their young cousins, Ahmed Nafez Sammouni, 15, almost a year after the attacks.

Two of Wael and Ibtisam's children were killed in the attack: Faris, 13, and Rizka, 14. Two of their other children sustained permanent injuries. Ibtisam explains, "My 8-year-old, Abdullah's bones were crushed. Now he can't move his right arm and one of his feet. My 6-year-old, Mohammed, lost his right elbow. He can't move that arm now. I've had to put my children in a school for the disabled."

Trapped with the Dead and Dying

Several people, including Ibtisam, managed flee from the house when the shells exploded. "I couldn't find my children after the attack," she says. "I ran out and left them inside the house. I was sure they were dead. We were sure that everybody left in the house was dead. We called the Red Cross and told them to go to get the bodies." For three days, the Red Cross tried to secure permission from Israeli forces to evacuate the dead and injured while the victims slowly bled to death. Ahmed Nafez Sammouni, 15, one of Ibtisam's cousins, was one of those trapped in the house. "I was severely injured in my stomach by the shrapnel," he said, "But I remained conscious the whole time. My father wrapped something around my stomach and because I was able to move around I tried to bring food and water to the injured."

When the Red Cross finally secured access three days later, Ahmed was rushed to Al Quds hospital in Gaza City for surgery. As a result of Israel's tight blockade on the Gaza Strip - in its 18th month when Operation Cast Lead was launched - Gaza's hospitals were ill-equipped to cope with the massive influx of severely wounded. Ahmed's surgical operation subjected him to further trauma. "They gave me drugs to sleep," he explains, "But I woke up during the operation. I could feel them pulling out the shrapnel and I could hear them speaking but I couldn't scream. It was horrific, really horrific. I'll never forget those moments."

Ahmed was then transferred to Belgium for further treatment where he received better care, "They gave me all the right injections there and I didn't wake up during the operations. The treatment was much better and I was able to watch the news. I spent my time in Belgium watching people in Gaza being killed and injured. I was happy when I came back to Gaza though because I was one of the few who came back walking. I was scared I would be permanently disabled like so many of the others."

When Ahmed returned he was unable to catch up at school and subsequently dropped out. "The school year was almost over when I got back," he says. "I tried to go back for a while, but I couldn't follow in my classes and I failed the year. Now I just stay at home."

Living in Poverty

Ibtisam's life has been shattered as a result of the Israeli attack. "The Israeli forces destroyed our whole house and all of our land. We found nothing when we got back to the house, not even a single plate. We found an apartment for a couple of months, but we couldn't afford the rent. We spent the little money we had on some bricks and built a small room next to the rubble of our home. Bricks are so expensive here because of the Israeli siege." With the destruction of their land, Ibtisam and Wael As-Sammouni lost their only source of income. "We used to grow vegetables and sell some of them. Since the bulldozers tore up our land and buried the rubble in it, nothing will grow on it, nothing will come out. I've had to sell all of my jewelry to try to make ends meet. Even my small stud earrings," she says, pulling her scarf back to reveal her bare ears.

A year after the attack, Ibtisam and Wael's children have yet to recover. "Abdullah is still in so much pain," says Ibtisam. "It is very difficult for him to walk but the doctors won't operate because his body is still too weak. They say they will try when he's older, but now he's just too frail. Mohammed is better than Abdullah but he's also in a lot of pain. I'm also worried about their mental state. They think about their brother and sister who were killed every day and dream about them at night. The sounds of the planes terrify them now, even little Hamza who was just one-year-old when the Israelis attacked."

Ibtisam hopes that her family will be compensated for their loss. "We do want compensation," she says, "Even though we know that this won't bring back all the people we lost. But we need to plant some trees and rehabilitate the land so we can make a little money. We used to have big trees, but we'd be happy now if someone just gave us some small ones. I still think about what happened every single day. I wish things could go back to how they were before we were attacked."