Amer al-Helo smiled wanly while saying he is broken inside. Twenty days after Israeli soldiers shot dead his 55-year-old father and his one-year-old daughter in front of him, also shooting his oldest daughter in the elbow and his brother in the shoulder, the pain of the 29-year-old had not diminished. Then again, he’d only just recovered the rotting corpse of his father six days earlier; his entire area of Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood had been cut off from ambulances and emergency teams until Israel unilaterally declared an end to the extensive bombing of Gaza and pulled ground troops out of occupied areas on 18 January.
“It was a nightmare,” al-Helo said of the experience. From the afternoon of 3 January until 5am the next day there was “non-stop shelling in our area. We had F-16 firing missiles out front, tanks shelling all around.”
Al-Helo explained how the family endured the early days of air and land shelling, remaining in their home as they believed it was the safest place to stay. Nonetheless, they’d taken precautions.
“We were sleeping there,” al-Helo said, pointing at a tight space under the stairwell on the west side of the house. “It was the most protected place from the shelling. There are no windows there, and everywhere else in the house our windows had shattered. But we didn’t expect the Israeli ground troops to enter.”
At 5:30am on 4 January, the Israeli foot soldiers did enter. The family of 14 was still huddled under the stairwell when Israeli soldiers stormed the outer gate.
“My father opened the back door and stepped out. They shot without warning. He died immediately,” said al-Helo.
The soldiers then ordered the rest of the family to leave the house. “Get out, get out,” al-Helo said they screamed. When he tried to remain in the house with his father Fouad’s body he said the Israeli soldiers told him “If you stay here we’ll kill you.”
They left, trying in vain to find shelter. “We were knocking at the doors of people’s houses along the road, desperate to get in. Everyone was afraid to open, or had left their home,” said al-Helo.
The terrified family had only walked a few hundred meters down a back lane before Israeli snipers began shooting at them, hitting one-year-old Farah in the abdomen. The girl, whose name means “joy,” didn’t immediately die, instead suffered for the next few hours, intestines falling out. Her mother, Shireen, breast-fed her in a desperate attempt to comfort the baby.
The couple’s six-year-old daughter, Sejah, and Amer’s 23-year-old brother, Abdullah, were also hit, in the elbow and back, respectively, Abdullah’s bullet piercing his right lung.
With the renewed shooting, the family scrambled behind a dirt mound Israeli bulldozers had created and huddled there for safety. “We were there for about 14 hours,” al-Helo said, “then they released the dogs.” Incredible as it seems, al-Helo stated that at around 8pm Israeli soldiers sent dogs to frighten the family out from behind their earthen shelter.
Al-Helo related his confusion and frustration at Israeli soldiers who upon capturing the family finally offered basic first aid for the injured — what he says was iodine and bandages.
“Why did you kill my father, my daughter?” al-Helo remembers shouting at them instead of gratefully accepting the late aid.
The surviving members said at that point, Israeli soldiers took the injured away, keeping them hidden behind a tank for another eight hours while a Red Crescent ambulance searched for them. Shireen al-Helo confirmed that the non-injured were ordered away, and that it was in total about 23 hours before the injured received medical care, nearly one day after Fouad and Farah had been shot. Finally, she related, soldiers allowed the ambulance near enough to take away Abdullah and Farah.
At the same time when the two injured were detained and the rest of the family sent away, Amer al-Helo was abducted by Israeli soldiers who blindfolded and handcuffed him. He said he was taken away to “somewhere in Israel,” where for five days he was held and interrogated. “For the first three days I wasn’t given any water or allowed to use a toilet. They asked me questions like ‘where do the fighters fire from? Where’s Gilad?’” referring to the Israeli soldier captured two years earlier along the border with Gaza.
Finally, after five days of captivity, during which al-Helo said he could only think about his dead daughter, father and older brother, Israeli soldiers brought him back to the border and released him.
The brother in question, Muhammad, had been killed earlier on 3 January by two drone missiles. The first seriously injured him and the second hit him as he tried to crawl away.
Days later, an emotionally-drained al-Helo retold his story, ending the testimony with his homecoming two weeks later.
Returning the day after Israel’s unilateral ceasefire, the al-Helo family found a house reeking of death and destruction.
Only then did they find the body of Fouad, Amer al-Helo’s father. For two weeks, the Red Crescent and rescue services were prevented by Israeli forces from reaching the body, as was the case in most areas in Zeitoun, eastern Jabaliya, northern Gaza, northwestern Gaza and elsewhere. Although the family continued to appeal to the Red Cross to coordinate with Israeli officials, it wasn’t until Israel declared its cessation of shelling that they could begin to search for Fouad. They finally found his decayed body in a lot filled with rubbish across the road.
“We looked for eight hours and couldn’t find him,” al-Helo said. “Finally, we saw his foot sticking out of the cacti across the road. They had buried him with rubble and dirt.”
The entire three-story house was tarnished from direct hits by Israeli missiles, riddled with gunshot holes throughout the building, and sniper holes bored into different walls overlooking strategic points outside, to the filth the occupying soldiers had left inside. No room in al-Helo’s house was left undamaged.
A broken clock still hanging on a bullet-riddled wall silently testifies the time at which Israeli soldiers shot up that particular room: shortly before 6am, shortly after having shot Fouad dead.
Amer al-Helo said that the Israeli soldiers stole money, phones, gold jewelry and anything valuable from the home. Not only that, but they destroyed al-Helo’s livelihood; the delivery van he had used to earn a living, sits a burned-out shell in front of the damaged house.
“We don’t stay here at night now,” al-Helo said, gesturing at the ruined walls and clothes strewn on the floors. “It’s too painful to be here. We’re staying with relatives in Shejaiye [neighborhood].” His house in shambles, the stench of death still pungent, and the fields across the road torn up from invading Israeli tanks and bulldozers, it will be a long time before staying in the house could be easy.
Sitting on chairs outside the ravaged house, just meters from where Fouad was shot dead, Amer al-Helo began to speak of his children while his uncle served tea.
“The only thing that makes me happy are my children. When they are happy, it lifts my heart. I used to pile them into the car and drive them to the beach,” he said, smiling sadly. “I had said that Farah was our last child, I’d said ‘we are blessed, we have many children,’” he recalled.
With one less child al-Helo hasn’t changed his decision. “We won’t have any more. Why would I have another child? So the Israeli soldiers can kill them?”
A shattered al-Helo added, “You couldn’t ask me anything more painful: to see my father shot before me, my daughter. To hear her cries. They killed me three times those two days, you know: first they killed my brother, then my father, then my daughter.”
All images by Eva Bartlett.
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities and four months in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing. She is currently based in the Gaza Strip after having arrived with the third Free Gaza Movement boat in November. She has been working with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza, accompanying ambulances while witnessing and documenting the ongoing Israeli air strikes and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.