“We have no bathroom, how can we wash ourselves? How can we go to school looking like this?”, implored 13 year-old Shaima al Samouni. It’s a pertinent question, given that schools reopened two days ago for the first time since the Israeli attacks on Gaza started.
With 29 family members killed during the attacks on the Zeitoon neighbourhood in Gaza city, however, it seems a strange concern. But life marches on, and the other children have gone back to school. Tugging at the clothes they were wearing, the children explain that, now, three weeks after their homes were destroyed, what they’re wearing is all they have. And, it seems, they’re not going to school wearing that.
They take us across the dirt, to a half-bombed house. On the way, we walk over the foundations of what used to be the house of Majid al Samouni and his family. The children stop to show us a drum of olives (zeitoon) that was destroyed. We pass by the carcass of a large sheep. Shot by the Israeli army. They show us their two pretty donkeys. “Donkeys quais”, I say in broken Arabic, relieved that they’re not taking us to more animal corpses. There used to be nine donkeys, they explain. But the Israeli soldiers shot seven of them. Then my colleague points out the gaping hole in the shoulder of the brown donkey – also shot by the Israeli army. Donkey mish quais.
One of the young girls, who is nine years old, is desperate for me to understand the extent to which their lives were destroyed. Not in terms of life lost, but livelihood. “Bas al shugul – al ard. Bas” (The land is the only work we have), and the land is totally destroyed. The children catalogue the types of fruit trees they had – lemon, guava, orange, mandarin, and the ubiquitous olive. They don’t talk about the battery-chicken shed that is crushed, chickens still in cages. When i finally ask just how many chickens there were, I find it difficult to believe the answer – two thousand chickens.
Her older cousin goes to great lengths to tell me repeatedly, at every opportunity, that they were just farmers, not Hamas. I know, i reply.
Inside the half-destroyed house, there is a clamour to show all of the atrocities crowded into one small space. Some of the children explain that their mother had given birth during the bombing, how they had to burn a knife over a candle to cut the umbilical cord. And about how their two-year-old sister was wounded on her face - lacerations from her eye across and down her cheek. Others point to where shells entered the house, some still stuck in the walls. They tell us how the soldiers had occupied the house, after the family had evacuated it. How they came back to find everything on the ground, including the Qu’ran. Then, worse, how one Qu’ran had been defecated on. Haram, was all I could say. I took photos somewhat helplessly, of everything they showed me. I’m well-practised at documenting damage Israeli soldiers have done to Palestinian homes. And the families always seem to feel better if you take photos of everything. But the ridiculousness of what I was doing - taking photos of small holes in walls when half of the house was missing - hit, and I put the camera down.
A couple of the children – the ones who had been telling me that they were all farmers, and just farmers – led me around the corner to a house they said belonged to Arafat al Samouni. The house was levelled, just a small tarp erected in the middle of the debris. “Sleep here” one of the children informed. 10 people killed in that house. Just one left, seemingly. Haram.
I wanted to ask the children about their parents. I know at least some of them have surviving parents, saw them with their mother. Heard them talk about her. But I’m too scared to ask. I don’t want to hear a small child have to tell me that its parent or parents are dead. There’s so much i can’t bring myself to ask. I’ve taken a lot of reports in Palestine. I know how it goes. What you need to ask. What information is vital. I know it so well I don’t even need to think about it. I can ask with sympathy about how Israeli soldiers invaded a family home; beat people; abducted their children. But this is something else entirely. Here and now, such questions seem vile. I just want to hang out with the children. Let them show me what they want to show me. Listen to them talk.
While we’re hanging out with these kids, our friends encounter one of their cousins who watched both of her parents die when Israeli soldiers bombed a house that they had told everyone from neighbouring houses to shelter in. Later, watching the video they took, we’re all shocked by the confident way Mona talks about the night when so many from her extended family were killed. About how she watched her parents die, before the rest of the family ran from the house, in all directions, whilst they were being fired upon by the soldiers. How composed she is as she recalls how they ran to her school, which she had previously believed was a long way from here house. How she couldn’t believe she had walked all that way. How it didn’t seem like a long distance. And about how here grandparents told her that it was because they were scared and running that she didn’t notice the distance.
We’re not the only foreigners visiting this area – the al Samouni family have become famous for the tragedy they’ve endured. Teams of international journalists traipse around the dirt mounds and debris, making it seem like a macabre tourist attraction. “This is why the children don’t seem sad”, a local friend suggests later, while we watch Mona’s video. “When all the journalists leave, then they will feel sad”.
Driving back down the road towards Gaza city, we pass building after building bearing signs of shelling and bombing. Metre-wide holes punched through walls – some covered in plastic; a few already bricked in; most still open wounds in the masonry. It looks to me as though tanks drove down the street we now drive on, pausing to shell every apartment block and house they passed. As though for fun. It’s an idea I can’t get out of my mind. The possibility that a large proportion of what the al Samounis and other families in Gaza have endured over the past month was done for kicks haunts me.