Jan 22: Amer’s story: They killed me three times

Al Helou family - Amer and Shireen on the right

Al Helou family – Amer and Shireen on the right

Ramatan TV, nine floors up and open 24 hours, was the last bastion of internet during the strikes. We knew the place because we got asked in for interviews, and then called a few press conferences there, for example announcing that internationals would be riding with ambulances. We began to hang around in the corners at other times, hoping no-one would mind us hitching a ride on the wifi.

Instead of complaining about random internationals cluttering up the place, Ramatan journalists wholeheartedly adopted us, brought us tea, gave us blankets if we needed to stay the night. Now most nights at about 9pm, you’ll find some of us there being fed a small feast in the kitchen.

I forgot that I didn’t like journalists much, because these guys are firstly Palestinian, and their reporting is compassionate. Now journalists are flooding in through Rafah (though I do like some of them) I was reminded. Two days ago a recently arrived Channel 4 guy came into Yousef’s office on a deadline, wanting to know how many children died in the UNSRA schools. Youself said “Two children at one school. Forty five people at another…”

“But how many of them were children?” he insisted.
“Forty five people altogether,” Yousef said, thinking he’d misunderstood.
“No,” Mr Channel 4 said irritatedly, “I want to say the number of children.”
“Oh £*$&%*&@$ @*%@&*£.” I said, and stomped off, remembering my former journalist feelings.

Yousef Al Helou has the end office in Ramatan. His TV speaks English sometimes, and he’s always willing to pool information and help us figure out what is going on. Today he took me and E to Zaytoun to hear the story of his cousin’s family. When we arrived, I realised we were only two houses from the first house we’d evacuated people from on the Red Cross evacuation I went on. I would have walked past Amer and Shireen Al Helou’s house that day. But by then it was empty and broken, because the day Amer told us about was January 4th.

Sleeping under stairs

Sleeping under stairs

Amer is 29. 14 people from his family were in the house that night, and they were all trying to sleep under their stairs as some sort of shelter. Even though the stairs were partly open to the back yard, the F16 attacks on the house made downstairs seem the safest place. The house now has holes from shell blasts and thousands of pock-marks from the three inch nails that the shells were filled with.

“We hadn’t known how bad it would get,” said Amer. “Or we would have left our house and gone somewhere else. But we thought our area was a quiet area. And then that night we thought they would go past us at the front. But they came from the back.” Amer didn’t know it yet, but his brother Mohammed had already been killed elsewhere that day, struck by drone rockets.

army shooting in house just before 6am Jan 4

army shooting in house just before 6am Jan 4

The Israeli soldiers came to their house at about 5.30am, after the house had been shelled for 15 hours, and immediately opened fire on the family, killing Amer’s father with three shots. Then they told the family to leave. Amer had called an ambulance (which had to turn back after being shot at) and was refusing to leave his father’s body but the soldiers said they would shoot him if he stayed, so they fled 300 yards up the dirt track behind their house, at which point they were shot at again by another group of soldiers. This time Amer’s brother Abdullah was shot, Amer and Shireen’s 6 year old daughter Saja was shot in the arm, and their 1 year old daughter Farah was shot in the stomach. They spent the next 14 hours sheltering behind a small hill of dirt, while the wounded bled, and were not allowed to access help though the soldiers were aware of the injuries. Having no other way to comfort her small daughter, whose intestines were falling out, Shireen breastfed Farah as the little girl slowly bled to death.

After 14 hours, at about 8 in the evening, the soldiers sent dogs to chase them out of their shelter and dropped phosphorous bombs near them, but due to the wounded family members and having bare feet in an area of broken glass and rubble, escape was difficult. The army took the three wounded and put them behind the tanks, and captured Amer, but the rest of the family managed to get away and call the Red Crescent. The ambulance that eventually reached the injured people 7 hours later (driven by my medic friend S) took an hour to find them, and by this time Farah was dead. (When I heard Amer’s story I realised S had already told me about collecting “a small shaheed” from this area.)

Amer was held for 5 days in army custody (the first 3 without access to food, water, or a bathroom), beaten and tortured, and questioned about resistance activity which he knew nothing about. When he was finally released on the border, the army sent two known collaborators to escort him, so it would look to the resistance fighters like he himself was a collaborator. But the fighters knew who he was and that he was not a collaborator. He tells us:

“I had my four children young, and they gave me the most happiness in my life. I took such good care of them. I didn’t let them just play on the street, we had a big living room in our house with toys for them, we would invite all the neighbours’ children to come play there with ours, so that we could be sure they were all safe. I always drove them to and from school, I didn’t even let them walk. Whenever I was depressed, I would gather all my kids, pile them in the car, take them somewhere nice like the park or the beach, and then to see them happy and having fun would make me happy again.

Now my remaining children will not go to sleep without their shoes on, because they think we will have to run for our lives again.

We love life as the Israelis do. Are they the only people allowed life? They killed me three times that day, first when they killed my brother, then when they killed my father, then when they killed my daughter. We looked for my father’s body later; they had buried him under rubble, eventually we found his foot sticking out. Sometimes now I think we have to leave Gaza, to join my brother in South Africa. Sometimes I think, no – Gaza is worth fighting for, this is our home.”

Amongst their crumpled belongings, next to the spot Amer’s father died, the family gives us tea. Shireen solicitously dusts the sand off my back. We ask them how it is they have not gone crazy from the pain of these events. “It’s not us, it’s God who gives us peace and strength. Without this I would be dead too. What happened to my family was like a horror film.” says Amer. He shows us photos of Farah (whose name means “joy”) and Saja on his phone. “I don’t think I can have any more children. I am too broken inside.”

Abdullah

Abdullah

The family is not living in the house right now, they are split between different homes, and Abdullah is in hospital in Egypt. Amer is wearing Abdullah’s jacket, complete with bullet holes. “It is hard to be here again in this house after what happened. But your presence has lifted my spirits.” he tells us.

Back at Ramatan, I hear one of the journalists talking. “I couldn’t protect my children – this is my responsibility, and I couldn’t.” He says. “My daughter asked, what is it like to die? I told her, it’s just like closing your eyes.”

Farah beside her uncle Mohammed

Farah beside her uncle Mohammed

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9 Responses to Jan 22: Amer’s story: They killed me three times

  1. beatrice says:

    Heartbreaking.

  2. clara says:

    I’m crying and are tears of sorrow for what the family had to soffer, for their beautifull daugter, father and brother, I can not stop them and while they are follwing down, I feel angry at the indefference of this news expecially in the news.
    Why they are not listening to your voices that are the voice of the Palestinians?
    Nobody is saying this is a Massacre and yet it is.
    I pray the Palestinians will one day soon have back their land and live in peace, dignaty and see their children became adult , fathers or mathers and grow old with serenity.
    Must of all I pray that we open our eyes and see with their eyes, hear with their ears and cry with their tears.
    We all are Human we all are one.
    May they have the strenght to carry on and may their country be rebuilt and may their olive trees grow once more for them

  3. LFB says:

    Through you, and your reports, we learn of this long agony: it means we can continue to urge all the powers that be to help, to press for a Just peace, and to work for the survival of these brave people. and through you, we can send our support, our warm wishes, and our tears, to all the people you speak to, so that they know we have paid attention, not ignored what is going on, and that we really do passionately care about their future. Please pass on our sympathy, and the feelings that go beyond words, from one heart to another grieving heart. Bene

  4. Lizette Tejada says:

    Weeping as I read, I’m glad Shireen was at least able to comfort her daughter by nursing. I cannot imagine this family’s pain. Prayers…

  5. The whole world is watching.I pray there will be justice……..

  6. no words says:

    fucking bastards

  7. berieved says:

    Thank you for the work you and other volunteers are doing down there. You are our only source of news. Shame on the “journalists” ! Tell Amer and his family that they are not alone in their mourning. Together we grieve with them, this is mourning for humanity, as well as mourning for little angels just born and lost so quickly. May Israelis realize that they are killing humanity not just people, before it fires back to them.

  8. tijana says:

    i am all in tears, i didn’t want to believe that horrors were happening out there. i have a 1 year old son , so i was just looking at him, sleeping like a lamb and i imagined to look at him die in front of my eyes and not being able to do anything. i will tell everybody i know this story and i will try to help in any way possible. may Allah easen the pain of this family and others and punish those that try to kill them and injure them. war is about taking over land but not through killing civillians, women and children…?israelis already killed humanity. i saw one israeli soldier on youtube saying: i am just protecting my parrents on the other side. oh yeah? how? but destroyin other people’s lifes? is his mother feeling threatened? how? is she proud of her son’s doings?

  9. Abbie says:

    When we found Ramatan live web cam, we were amazed that nobody had shut it down! Every night and day, we sat at our desks with the web cam open just watching and listening to what was going on. Watching the bombings, the phospherous falling, hearing the drones at night, and I cried for every man woman and child, trapped, laying there at night listening to the explosions, not sleeping, waiting and wondering will they be next.
    I admire each and every one of you, risking your lives, to help other and to try and make the world see what is going on in Gaza. Israel is a bully, I don’t understand what hold they have over the rest of the world, I can’t understand what allegiance the US and UK to Israel, that they can turn the other cheek and let this happen.
    If it were the other way round, I’m sure both the US and UK would both be in there guns blazing to protect Israel!
    I am so sorry……..

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