'I Said, Get Up, Mother. Then I Realized She Was Dead': Survivors of Israel's Gaza Strike Speak Out

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A neighbor told the B’Tselem field researcher that he went into shock when he arrived and discovered that the homes of Rasmi and Mohammed no longer existed.
What's left of the Sawarka family's home. A neighbor told the B’Tselem field researcher that he went into shock when he arrived and discovered that the homes of Rasmi and Mohammed no longer existed. Credit: Khaled al-Azayzeh / B’Tselem
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Noor Sawarka is an 11-year-old girl, in the sixth grade. On November 14, 2019, the Israeli air force killed both her parents, Yusra and Mohammed, and her two brothers Muaz, 7, and Waseem, 13,at their home in Dir al-Balah, a city in the central Gaza Strip. Her uncle Rasmi, his wife and their three children were also killed in the Israel Defense Forces attack. All told, nine members of the extended family were killed. Noor remains alone with her five siblings, some of them stepsiblings, orphaned, traumatized, homeless. Last week, she told Olfat al-Kurd, a Gaza-based field researcher of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, about the disaster that befell her and her family.

“I was at home that night. Everyone was sleeping and only I couldn’t fall asleep because of the noise of some airplanes. Afterward I heard tremendous thunder when they bombed our house. My sisters Nirmin and Reem were sleeping next to me. I ran outside fast – without seeing a thing, because the electricity was cut off by the bombing. I heard three bombings within a few seconds. At that moment I saw Nirmin, who also tried to escape but didn’t succeed, because both of her legs were hit.

“I moved away from the house and when the bombing stopped, I went back and started to look for my sisters. Instead of a house there were was a pile of ruins and large pits. I found Wissam, my uncle’s wife, and her children, and together we started to look for my sisters and my cousins. I found my sister Reem buried under sand. Her face was covered with blood. I tried to save her, to pull her out of the sand. I found my brother Salem and my sister Lama next to my mother, who recited the ‘Shahada’ prayer [the statement of Muslim faith], and then was silent. I tried to wake her up, I said, ‘Get up, Mother, get up,’ but she didn’t hear me. I realized that she was dead.

“Salem was crying. Afterward I found my father, who was bleeding. He asked me to call an ambulance. I ran to the warehouse across from our house and asked the owner to call an ambulance. He called, and I went back home – to our destroyed house, next to my father and mother, who were about 10 meters apart. Time passed and the ambulance didn’t show up. No one came to rescue us. I was so frightened. All the time I heard planes above us. I was afraid of them and I was afraid they would bomb us again.

“Afterward, an ambulance came to take us to the hospital, and people started to gather around the ruins of our house. The first ambulance took me, my uncle’s wife and her children. There was also a body in the ambulance that I didn’t recognize. My brother and my sisters were in a different ambulance. When we got to the Shuhada al-Aqsa Hospital [in Dir al-Balah], we were put on beds and were all examined. I wasn’t wounded, thank God. Salem had a serious knee injury and I stayed next to him. In the hospital I also saw my sister Lama, and that calmed me down a little. I stayed in the hospital until morning, and then I went to my grandmother’s house, my father’s mother. My sisters Reem and Nirmin stayed in the hospital. I didn’t find out who was killed until I went back: my mother and my two brothers, and also my aunt and uncle and three of my cousins. They told me that my father was very badly injured and had been taken to Shifa Hospital [in Gaza City]. When I heard all that I froze with shock – I didn’t cry and I didn’t shout.

Noor Sawarka, center, surrounded by surviving siblings and cousins. “They took everything that was beautiful in my life away from me. We became orphans.”Credit: Olfat al-Kurd / B’Tselem

“I felt numb, I couldn’t feel any emotion. Since the Israeli army bombed our house and slaughtered my family I haven’t cried, not even when I parted from the ones who were killed before the funeral. I only looked at them and felt deep sadness. I couldn’t believe what had happened to us. All the people who came to console us cried when they hugged and kissed me, and only I couldn’t cry.

“My father was in the hospital for about a week in critical condition. When I heard that he died, too, my body started to shake. I went into a terrible panic when I heard that. When I saw his body, so I could part from him, I ran away. I couldn’t look at him. Three weeks have gone by since they were killed. I miss them all very much, and especially my brother Muaz, whom I loved very much. We were very close.

'Since the Israeli army bombed our house and slaughtered my family I haven’t cried.'

“I keep walking back to the place where our house stood. I remember my brothers, Mother, Father. I remember how I would sit with my cousins, how we played together. The moments I had when the whole family sat around the table to eat. I remember how my mother always made sure that I and my siblings did our homework. I remembered my brother Waseem, how he would always win when we played and then would demand me to do everything he told me to do: ‘Bring me this and bring me that.’ We were the happiest family, and suddenly, in one blow, I lost my happiness.

“About a week ago, I went back to school. I received books, a schoolbag, a uniform, all new, because in the bombing everything was buried under the ruins. I can’t concentrate in my classes. I keep thinking about my family and about the disaster that happened to me. Now I am scared all the time, especially at night. When I hear the planes, I get very frightened. Why did they bomb us, children who were sleeping in their house? What did we do to them? We didn’t do anything to the Israeli army, which took my mother and my father from me, my brothers and my aunt and uncle and my cousins. They took everything that was beautiful in my life away from me. We became orphans.”

Noor’s grandmother Salmiya Sawarka is a widow of 76 and the mother of six children, who lives next door in Dir al-Balah. She lost two sons and two grandchildren in the November 14 attack. B’Tselem field researcher Khaled al-Azayzeh heard her story last week.

Waseem's picture is seen on his chair in his classroom in a school in the central Gaza Strip November 16, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Salmiya: “I woke up around 12:30 A.M. from very strong bombing. I, my daughter and my grandchildren went outside and sat in the lean-to next to the house. We were afraid the roof would fall in on us. Suddenly Dia and Yusuf, my grandchildren, arrived, wounded all over and screaming. They told us: ‘The plane bombed our houses and we can’t find Father or Aunt Maryam. Uncle Mohammed is wounded and is going to die. We called ambulances.’ When I heard that, I felt like I was going to pass out. I didn’t know what was going on around me. I started to knock on the neighbors’ doors and to scream: ‘My children are gone!’ They called ambulances.

“I had to pull myself together. I couldn’t walk. I stayed with the neighbors. They tried to calm me down and didn’t tell me who had been killed. At about 6 A.M. I went with them to the hospital in Dir al-Balah, but they wouldn’t let me get out of the car. They were afraid I would not be able to cope. Afterward they told me that my son Mohammed was moved to Shifa Hospital, but they didn’t tell me how many shahidim [martyrs] there were. Because they wouldn’t let me out of the car, I understood that my son Rasmi had been killed.

'Why did they bomb us, children who were sleeping in their house? What did we do to them?'

“Afterward I went home, and about 10:30 that morning, people started to come to our house, and with them the bodies of the eight shahidim also arrived: Rasmi, Maryam, Muhannad, Firas, Salem, Yusra, Muaz and Waseem. When I saw that, I collapsed and passed out. I woke up in the hospital. They looked after me there. They gave me oxygen and an injection to calm me, and I went home. I parted from my son Rasmi, from his wife and from their children, and from Mohammed’s wife and their children Waseem and Muaz. My son Mohammed was badly wounded and I hoped he would hold on and get better but on Friday, November 22, Mohammed also died as a shahid. I passed out again and was taken to hospital again. I am still drained, I can’t talk very much. When I think about what happened, I fall apart.”

Wissam Sawarka, 33, lost her husband, Rasmi, 46, in the air strike, when their house was bombed. The two had lived together with their own four children, as well as with her husband’s second wife, Maryam, and her two children; those two children and Maryam were also killed. Their home was a ramshackle structure with a tin roof and plastic sheeting that served as walls, in some places. The IDF claimed the tin shack was an Islamic Jihad “training facility.”

At 12:30 A.M., Wissam, too, heard a powerful blast and thought the house was collapsing on her and her family. She started to scream and called to her children and husband. She couldn’t see anything in the dark.

Palestinian mourners carry out the bodies of the Sawarka family, who were killed in Israeli missile strikes in Dir al-Balah, in the Gaza Strip, on November 14, 2019.Credit: Khalil Hamra,AP

“I looked for my children and finally found all of them outside the house,” she told B’Tselem’s Khaled al-Azayzeh. “Mohammed, Dia and Fahed were wounded from shrapnel. I was also wounded by a few pieces of shrapnel in my head and legs. I saw right away that Muhannad, 12, my husband’s son [by his divorced wife], whom I raised since he was a week old, wasn’t there. I started to ask where he was and to look for him. I found him in a pit covered with sand. I could only see his head. I started to clean the sand from his head. He wasn’t breathing and it was obvious he was dead. Afterward I went to the house of my brother-in-law Mohammed and found him and his wife there, both lying on the ground. My sister-in-law was dying, fighting for her life. Mohammed was wounded over his entire body. Their daughter Noor was standing next to them and crying for her parents.

“Suddenly I remembered my baby, Farah, 2 months old. I started looking for her everywhere – in the ruins, between the stones – but I didn’t find her. I couldn’t see a thing in the dark. I also tried to look for my husband and his [other] wife, but I couldn’t, because of the pile of sand and stones. I sent my son Dia, who is 10, to his grandmother’s house, to tell them what happened and to call an ambulance to rescue us. Afterward, the ambulances arrived and started taking away the wounded and the shahidim. I told the paramedics that I couldn’t find my 2-month-old baby. They found her under the sand. I was sure she was dead. I didn’t see her until I was at the hospital and I was happy to find out that she was alive. I was in the hospital for two hours with the children. They sewed up our wounds and sent us home.

'I told the paramedics that I couldn’t find my 2-month-old baby. They found her under the sand. I was sure she was dead.'

“We went to the home of my husband’s mother, and then I learned that my husband, his wife and their children had all been killed, and that my sister-in-law Yusra and her two sons had been killed and her husband was in critical condition. I started to scream. I screamed at everyone. I screamed about what happened to us. Why were we bombed? What crime did the children commit? Why were they killed? My children now live in great fear.

“The hardest was when they brought the shahidim home, so we could part from them. My heart burned from crying. I looked at Muhannad, my husband’s son, whom I raised as my own child, and I cried so hard. I parted from my husband, from his wife and from their children. Within an instant they went to the world of eternity; we lost them and we lost the house we all lived in together. Since the bombing, my daughters wake up at night frightened and they start screaming. Especially Rasmiya, who is 2 years old. They go to the ruins of our house and come back wrapped in sadness and loss. They lost their father and their siblings, the house that gave them shelter and protection. My life has become a great disaster. I live in a state of shock and great fear.”

A neighbor, Taleb Masmah, 46, married and the father of nine children, was one of the first to arrive at the scene of the bombing in Dir al-Balah. He immediately started to search for the wounded and dead. He told Khaled al-Azayzeh that he went into shock when he arrived and discovered that the homes of Rasmi and Mohammed no longer existed.

Taleb Masmah, a neighbor.Credit: Khaled al-Azayzeh

“It was a dark night. We found Mohammed’s boys, Waseem and Muaz, who had been killed and were buried under the sand, and Mohammed’s wife, Yusra, and Rasmi, who was lying a few meters away from his house. He was wounded in the head and he died. We found Maryam, Rasmi’s wife, their sons Firas and Salem, and Rasmi’s son Muhannad. All of them were buried under the sand, lifeless. We also found Mohammed, Rasmi’s brother, near his wife and their small children. He was wounded badly in the head, covered in dirt and unconscious.

“We also found Wissam, Rasmi’s second wife, who was wounded in the head and was lying on the ground, and next to her was Farah, her 2-month-old daughter. We found Rasmi’s children, Fahed, Fawzi and Rasmiya, thrown on the ground 50 meters away from their house. Some of them were screaming. To the west of Mohammed’s house, we found his children, Nirmin, Lama, Salem and Reem, who were partially buried under dirt. We pulled them out alive. We couldn’t find two of Rasmi and Maryam’s children – Firas and Salem. We kept looking until we found them at 7 A.M., buried under sand to the north of their home, lifeless. They were the last.”

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