Series of Personal Testimonies, Reveal How One Year after Operation Cast Lead, Life in Gaza is Not Back to Normal
Day 16: White Phosphorus Attacks
At app. 2:30am on 11 January 2009, the Ar-Rai family house in the densely populated Tel Al-Hawa neighbourhood in Gaza District was hit directly by a white phosphorous shell. When white phosphorous comes into contact with human flesh it causes painfully intense and deep burns that are hard to extinguish. The Ar-Rai family members in the house at the time were severely injured, sustaining third degree burns that local doctors in Gaza were unable to treat. Hiba, 22, believes that her two children, Leila, now 8, and Khadr, now 4, have been permanently psychologically affected by the attack. Al Mezan interviewed Hiba and the children's grandmother, Leila, 50, about how the children are is coping, almost a year after the shells fell on their home.
"We couldn't see anything in the house at first; everything was so bright; everything was on fire. The children were wearing socks and the socks were lit up and on fire. They just kept screaming and screaming," recalls Leila. "Hiba started running around in panic, trying to find a way out of the house."
Trapped in the Fire
In a sworn witness testimony given to Al Mezan in February 2009, Khadr Ar-Rai, 54, Leila's husband and the children's grandfather, explained that the white phosphorous shell had fallen on the staircase of the house from the southeast, scattering fireballs in every direction. Some of the fireballs had stuck to the walls and the whole family was trapped inside the burning building. They managed to escape through a north-facing balcony and lay injured for hours pleading with Red Crescent teams to come to evacuate the wounded. They were informed that ambulances couldn't reach them because of the Israeli tanks in the area.
They were eventually evacuated at around 8am the following morning. Most of the family members were hospitalised for several weeks in Shifa hospital in Gaza City where doctors, unfamiliar with the consequences of white phosphorus weaponry, were unable to effectively treat their burns. They were then transferred to a Medicines San Frontiers (MSF) hospital for between a month and two and a half months.
Hiba is very worried about the long-term psychological impact of the attack on her children, especially Leila, her eldest. "A year later, physically, she's almost recovered," she explains, "although the bones in her feet were injured in the attack and it still hurts her to wear proper shoes. We had to send her to school wearing slippers for months and this made her feel very ashamed. She didn't want to go and we had to walk her into the classroom and persuade her to sit down on her chair."
Leila's teachers have told Hiba that her performance at school has deteriorated significantly since the attack. "Her teachers have told me that Leila is now very quiet in class and won't join in. She seems to be vacant nearly all of the time. I know that every mother thinks that her children are smart, but Leila really was before the attack. She nearly always used to get full marks in class but now she gets 13 or 14 out of 20."
Mummy left me in the fire
Hiba's children received some psycho-social care from local charities following the attack, but since this stopped, Hiba has been at a loss as to how to help her children recover. "I don't know what to do and I don't know who to ask for help," she explains. "Leila still wets herself at night and she's afraid of everything now. She's even afraid of me, her own mother, and just starts shaking and shivering for no reason. She won't go up to the roof to play and if the TV is too loud she runs out of the room. Khadr also gets very nervous now and has lost a lot of weight. He started to talk in his sleep after the attack and I don't know what he is saying. A few weeks ago there was a wedding party with fireworks. When the children heard the bangs, they became really distressed. I don't think the children will ever forget what happened to them, even Khadr who was only three at the time. When people come over to visit, Khadr still tells them, 'Mummy left me in the fire and ran away. That's really hard for me.'"
According to Human Rights Watch, Israel's extensive use of white phosphorous in densely populated neighbourhoods violated international humanitarian law which requires taking all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians and prohibits indiscriminate attacks.