x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The scars that will never fully heal

Israel is resisting any independent inquiry into the Gaza invasion in January in which one family lost 27 relatives in a missile attack.

Surviving members of the Samuni family stand by the ruins of their home.
Surviving members of the Samuni family stand by the ruins of their home.

GAZA STRIP // Scars heal slowly. Just ask Mohammad Faris Samuni, who still carries his right arm in a sling and who needs a bone transplant if he wants to regain anything resembling full movement. But the process of healing is visible. When Mr Samuni, 24, regained consciousness on Jan 5, the day after Israel's ground invasion on Gaza began and moments after an Israeli missile had struck the house he and about 100 relatives and neighbours had been ordered to shelter in, his arm, he said, sported a hole "I could put my hand through".

Now there is a huge scar but no hole. As for the other scars, those that are not visible, they are the subject of much debate among the surviving Samuni family members, who lost 27 of their relatives in the missile strike. The story of the Samuni family has been told by various media. It is among the most horrifying incidents during Israel's offensive on Gaza earlier this year. It is one incident among many that Israel is resisting any independent inquiry into.

The story has not changed, however. The Samuni neighbourhood, called, as many neighbourhoods in Gaza are, after the family that primarily resided there, was invaded early on the first day of Israel's ground offensive on Jan 4. About 100 relatives and neighbours crowded into one house, only to be ordered into another once Israeli troops had secured the area. After a night of what survivors described as fierce gunfire and with no water and little food, one relative took advantage of a sustained lull in the shooting the next day to fetch water.

He returned without incident. Emboldened, another four set out to get firewood. A missile was fired at the four, killing one. The other three dragged themselves back to the house when at least one, maybe three more missiles, struck the building and the people inside. The first missile was separated from the last by only five minutes, say survivors. Twenty-seven members of the Samouni family died, some instantly, some in the three days that followed, when, after having let those who could walk or be carried leave the neighbourhood, the Israeli army prevented medics from reaching the area and the remaining survivors.

Salah Samuni, 33, lost his baby daughter Azza, who was two. His son, Ahmad, now five, keeps asking him to bring his baby sister back "from paradise", he said. "This kind of sadness will never be forgotten," he said. "To heal we need to forget. And sometimes, when we sit here now, talking, even joking, I forget for a while. But every night, when I go to sleep, I remember again. To heal, it is difficult."

The Samuni family has received some counselling, said family members. But that was mostly for the children. Some are still getting professional help, but most of the adults are more focused on their material needs. Only one house remains standing in the neighbourhood. The Samunis were farmers and their livelihoods, along with their land, lie in tatters. "People have been helpful. We have received food and money. In Saudi Arabia we were received as heroes," remembered Mohammad, who received medical treatment there. "But there is no work and no land, so it all goes quickly."

Mohammad also talked about forgetting, but said he never could. One member of the family who did not talk about forgetting was Muna Samuni, a striking 10-year-old, who lost both her parents on Jan 5. Of her close relatives, only her younger brother Omar, 5, survived. Muna gets angry when other relatives try to persuade her to let go. Salah's wife, Ola, the sister of Muna's mother who now cares for her, has been on the receiving end of one of Muna's tongue lashings, she said. "You may forget your daughter [Azza]," Muna had scolded her once. "I will never forget my parents."

"How can I forget all those people? The wound is too big," Muna herself said when she was reluctantly dragged to speak to yet another journalist. She readily admitted that, while she talks about what happens, more and more it now "annoys her" to speak to journalists. She brought out drawings she had made in the months since that day - some in school, some at home. Almost all have the same motif. Drawings of her parents, and her other lost relatives. One includes all 27, hand-in-hand, all angry, with a war plane hovering in the sky behind them.

"Red," explained Muna, "is for blood." Another drawing depicts a lotus flower with two petals, representing her parents. On the one representing her mother, is written, "Where is your mercy?" The young girl's refusal to forget seemed to galvanise her older relatives around her. "Healing" said Salah, "might come with justice. Those responsible for this crime must be held accountable and be tried." Israel, however, still refuses any independent inquiry into its army's conduct during its war on Gaza. Salah knows that accountability will not come quickly. Nor, as Muna so clearly understands, will healing come from forgetting, because "it is impossible to forget".