Amal Samuni and the Seven Slivers of Shrapnel

There is a certain number I intentionally don't answer when it appears on my phone. I'll take five deep breaths and then call back. Sometimes I'll even wait two or three days before returning a call from Zeinat Samuni. This is because I know the topic will be her 11-year-old daughter Amal, and the six or seven slivers of shrapnel in her head. Something new always comes up during every conversation about Amal. Each conversation about Amal, with her clear face and pensive eyes, always remains suspended in my thoughts like a sack full of stones.

A month ago - five conversations ago - the latest report was that Amal was suffering from an inflammation, and the doctors at Shifa Hospital in Gaza had written a prescription for some sort of medication for it. A laconic medical report from April 2009 from the pediatrics department at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, states that there is no infection and surgery to remove the slivers is not recommended. Such a procedure would be too risky, the doctors told the child's grandmother, who had accompanied her on the 10-hour journey form Gaza to Tel Hashomer (including a seven-hour wait at the Erez checkpoint). The doctors in Gaza concur with this opinion.

Four conversations ago, the news was that an MRI had revealed another piece of shrapnel, which had not been discovered in the previous examination.

Three conversations ago, I was told the girl could actually feel the fragments moving. "Here, it's right under the skin," she showed her mother with her finger, and screamed "Ow!" when the finger and the slivers met.

Two conversations ago, it emerged that an aid organization - the Palestinian Children Relief Foundation - is also familiar with Amal. Based on the documents, their doctors have also recommended that surgery not be performed. One of their medical teams is set to come in from abroad and arrive in Ramallah in May. Will the Israeli security establishment allow it to enter the Gaza Strip? This is not certain. Will it allow Amal and Zeinat to exit and travel to the West Bank for another examination? Is it worth the bureaucratic hassle required to cross the 70 kilometers, only to hear the same answer as before?

In the prior conversations, a lot of changes had also taken place. A new school year. A new teacher and classmates. But they did not understand - because they did not know - why the child wasn't playing with the other girls. This lack of understanding resulted in Amal returning home feeling hurt. And this lack of understanding made her limitations that much greater. She cannot jump, she is not able to concentrate on her studies, there is nowhere to escape from the headache and from the pain in her eyes. It's colder in the winter, making the pain greater. It's hotter in the summer, making the pain greater.

The amplified heat and cold have been constant companions ever since the family returned to its repaired house in the Zeitun neighborhood on the eastern side of Gaza City. But both "house" and "repaired" (a novelty in and of itself) are in fact overstatements.

During last year's Operation Cast Lead, a force from the Givati Brigade occupied the neighborhood and set up a number of surveillance and shooting positions there. When it departed, it had destroyed 24 houses, a mosque and some chicken coops, and had uprooted plantations and orchards that had been the families' sources of income. Judging from the two walls that remained standing, apparently even Zeinat Samuni's undamaged home had been nothing more than a combination of a tin shack, an asbestos shack and a concrete structure. But it did have at least three or four rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom.

Because building materials are unavailable in Gaza (Israel does not allow them to be brought into the Strip and ordinary people cannot afford what little material comes in through the tunnels), Samuni's brother improvised. He collected bricks, iron and wood from demolished houses and added sheets of plastic handed out by the Red Cross. From the descriptions, it's hard to imagine how eight people are now living together in one room, open to the wind and the rain in winter and stifling hot in summer. Every soul in that room is living, in his or her own way, with the 4th and 5th of January, 2009. Every soul has his or her own nightmares. Every nightmare is new.

Reminder: On January 4, a force from the Givati Brigade stormed into Zeinat Samuni's house - where 18 people had been gathered, most of them children, the youngest a two-week-old baby girl. The father, Attiyeh, a 46-year-old farmer and laborer, approached the soldiers and tried to talk to them in Hebrew. For reasons still being clarified by the Israel Defense Forces, or maybe not, the soldiers shot Attiyeh at close range, killing him as his children and two wives, one of whom is Zeinat, looked on. Her son Ahmad, 4, was also wounded in the shooting. The soldiers allowed them all to leave the home (without Attiyeh's corpse) and move into one of the houses at the far end of the neighborhood. But the soldiers did not allow Palestinian and Red Cross teams to enter the neighborhood to treat the wounded. Little Ahmad bled to death in his mother's arms on the morning of January 5.

The day before, when the Samuni family left their home, Amal had chosen to go to an uncle's house. There, the IDF soldiers ordered the family and other families that had gathered there to move into another building in the neighborhood. The uncle's three-story home became a military base. Hence, on orders from the soldiers, about 100 members of the family - among them Amal - were crowded into a single-story concrete structure very close to the improvised Givati base. They thought they were safe there.

On the morning of January 5, again for reasons the IDF is investigating, or not, the house they were gathered in was bombarded three times. It is unclear whether it was hit by rockets from the air or by shells fired from tanks in the area. Twenty-one people were killed. Some of the wounded who were thought to be dead - among them Amal - lay among the corpses for several days. Reminder: The IDF did not allow medical teams to reach the area immediately.

In our second to last conversation, Zeinat said: "I envy anyone who only had her home destroyed and whose husband and son are still alive. If mine were killed, at least they could have spared my home." Her statements always depict the facts in a new way.

During the last conversation, she again wondered whether the movement of the slivers of shrapnel are a sign that it is now possible to surgically remove them. Whatever the doctors say, the inflammation proves that the child's body is rejecting them.