'We overcame but never forgot': Samouni family recount 2009 war

Survivors gather in Gaza City to remember 48 family members killed in Israel's Operation Cast Lead attack in 2008-2009.

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    In total of 48 members of the Samouni family were massacred by Israel, including 10 children and seven women in January 2009 [File: Reuters]
    In total of 48 members of the Samouni family were massacred by Israel, including 10 children and seven women in January 2009 [File: Reuters]

    Gaza City - Surviving members of the al-Samouni family gathered in Gaza City, commemorating the 10th anniversary since the horrors of Israel's 2008-2009 offensive ruptured their lives forever.

    On the morning of January 4, 2009, 16 members of Talal Hilmi al-Samouni's family evacuated to the first floor of their home in the al-Zaytoun neighbourhood, south of Gaza City, after an Israeli missile struck the third floor.

    According to Palestinian rights group al-Haq, the shelling intensified resulting in three other Samouni families - Ibrahim al-Samouni (12 members), Rashad al-Samouni (11 members), and Nafiz al-Samouni (10 members) - seeking refuge in Talal's home.

    Later the same day, Israeli forces approached Talal's house and ordered the congregated families to move to another home, that of Wael al-Samouni (11 members). The men were ordered to lift up their shirts on their way out.

    A poster of al-Samouni family members killed by Israeli forces on January 5, 2009, in Gaza [Maram Humaid/Al Jazeera]

    The result was 60 people under one roof without access to water or electricity, which had been cut off since the start of the offensive, named Operation Cast Lead, on December 27. Dozens of Israeli soldiers and tanks also surrounded Wael's house.

    The following day, January 5, after a lull in fighting, one of the Samounis decided to venture outside of the house to collect water. He was shocked to find they were still encircled by soldiers and tanks and dashed back inside.

    "Five minutes later, the tanks shelled a missile into the house and injured seven people," al-Haq recounted. "Only three minutes later the Israelis aimed another missile close by, which killed many al-Samouni family members - predominantly children and women."

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    Some 22 family members, many of them wounded, left the house raising white banners and carrying four bodies.

    The Israeli army opened fire. But they continued to walk until an ambulance rescued them. Israel had prevented medics and ambulances from accessing the site.

    The most harrowing detail of the massacre, however, was when the Red Cross was finally permitted to enter the house, three days later. They found 13 injured family members, including eight children, who spent days without food or water, surrounded by the bodies of their parents and relatives.

    In total, 48 members of the Samouni family were massacred by Israel forces, including 10 children and seven women.

    Three years later, an Israeli military investigation concluded the army did not commit any crimes and was not responsible for the al-Samouni family deaths.

    'Never forget'

    Zainab al-Samouni was 12 when the killings occurred.

    "It was my first time seeing Israeli soldiers," she said. "I felt terrified. They were tall with their faces masked with black paint and heavily armed."

    "The passage of time can't heal my open injury. My parents bled to death. Many of my injured relatives died after the Israelis prevented their evacuation to hospital. 

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    "I will never forget. I lost my father and my mother, two brothers, along with cousins and uncles who were killed.

    "The weather that day was very cold, and there was no food to feed children or blankets," Zainab recalled. "On January 5, the home where we had gathered was bombed with more than six missiles. I couldn't see anything from the dust and fumes. I only could see blood all around me."

    She said her 17-year-old brother went missing.

    "After the war ended, we found him buried under the rubble of our home, which was razed by Israeli bulldozers. He was tortured, his hands handcuffed behind his back and executed from point-blank range," she said.

    Zainab's youngest sibling was her two-year-old sister.

    "I was young but I took care of her. I was a child raising up a child," she said.

    Zainab al-Samouni with her three children at her home in Gaza City [Maram Humaid/Al Jazeera] 

    "At every sad or joyful moment, I remember my parents. On my engagement day, on my wedding day, on the days of delivering my children, I yearn to feel my mother's hand helping me and holding my children."

    Zainab is now 22 years old. She is currently a university student, married and mother of three. She wakes up at dawn every January 5 and prefers to spend the day alone in her room, recalling the traumatic events.

    "I hate December, I hate January," she said. "I hate everything reminding me of these days."

    'Hard to overcome'

    Mona al-Samouni, Zainab's cousin, was 10 years old during the Cast Lead Operation. She is now married and is a mother of a five-month-old daughter.

    "I lost my parents in the war, along with two nieces and other relatives who got bombed in one room. I was very close to my parents as I'm the youngest child," she said.

    "After their death, I felt the world closed in front of me. I couldn't enjoy anything afterwards," Mona told Al Jazeera.

    "On every occasion, I miss my mom and dad. Every Eid, I woke up crying imagining that they may come back and spend some time with me," Mona recalled, tears falling down her face.

    "I saw my mother's head bleeding and my father was lying on the ground in his blood. The smoke was thick. I was screaming and crying with horror. My cousin tried to pull me out to run away, but I was crying, 'I want my mom, I want my dad'."

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    Mona, her brothers and other relatives walked barefoot, their clothes torn and stained with the blood of their family members, until they arrived in Gaza City.

    After Israeli military's withdrawal at the end of the war, Mona's family went to see what happened.

    "My uncle didn't allow me to come with him. I saw the photos on TV. The hardest moment was when I saw them removing my father's body from the rubble. Israeli bulldozers had deliberately destroyed the home over the bodies."

    "It was hard to overcome. We took a long time to engage in normal life. Our area was full of green lands and farms. It was like a heaven, but after war it turned into a ghost town," she added.

    "The absence of my father and mother made any joy or any success in my life incomplete," Mona said, holding her baby.

    "I hate the very name of war. I wish my daughter and other children will live a safe life. Enough of wars."

    Zenaat al-Samouni, 44, is a mother of eight whose husband was executed by Israeli forces and watched her five-year-old son bleed to death.

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    "We were about 20 members gathering in one room on January 4. Suddenly Israeli soldiers broke into our home. My husband, Attia al-Samouni, went out to talk to them. They killed him with a barrage of bullets in front of our eyes."

    Zenaat's daughter, Amal, who was nine years at the time recounted the moment of her father's killing.

    "I was terribly shocked. I started to scream. My father was drenched in his blood. Then Israeli soldiers randomly shot on us in the room."

    Six members of the family in the room were injured by Israeli gunfire, including Zenaat's five-year-old son Ahmad with two rounds to his chest and one in the head.

    "I was screaming out loud. My husband was killed and I was losing my little boy who was bleeding in my own hands. Israeli soldiers didn't allow us to move or to get out."

    Hours later, Zenaat and her children managed to go to the nearby home of a relative, where she tried to save her injured son Ahmad."He was asking for water. I tried to stop his blood flowing out of his injuries. We tried to call ambulances, but all of them could not reach the area.

    "The next day at dawn my son Ahmad succumbed to his wounds," she said, bursting into tears. "He died in my hands."

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    Amal was in her uncle Wael's house with 59 other family members and could not leave after Israel fired missiles at the building, which was reduced to rubble over the heads of the al-Samounis trapped inside.

    "I was wounded by shrapnel in my head and buried under the rubble. I was lying between injured and the blood of my deceased relatives," Amal said.

    After four days, the ambulance personnel managed to come to the area and evacuated Amal.

    "I woke up in the hospital, but I was blind as a result of the shrapnel. After a week of treatment, my sight returned," she said.

    "Until now, I feel traumatised remembering the murder of my father and my brother and the four days I spent under rubble. We overcame, but never forgot."

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    Gaza: Human Shields

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News