IT IS a scene all too familiar in Gaza — an ambulance screeches to the front of the hospital and paramedics dash out, screaming for help. Crowds surge forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the victim. Suddenly, a paramedic holds something above his head and, for just a second, the crowds fall back, aghast at the horrific spectacle.
Held above his head is the blackened, bloated corpse of what appears to be a little girl. Her charred clothes are fused to her body and her limbs are in tatters. She has no legs.
The girl’s story never made the headlines; the pictures were too gruesome to air on Western television. Even Arab channels, notorious for showing graphic images of the Gaza conflict, balked at the photographs and most decided not to run them.
Had it not been for a local Palestinian camera crew at the hospital, her horrific experience would have gone untold.
Paramedic Ali Khalid describes it as the most traumatic thing he has ever seen.
He has been a paramedic in Gaza for more than 20 years and admits that the sights of injured and dead children haunt him.
“This girl and other children, I will never forget. I want to forget children being decapitated and burnt, but when I eat, sleep and walk, the picture of this girl is in my thoughts,” Khalid said this week.
Saheed abu Halima, who was 18 months old, was from Al Atatra, north of Gaza City, which experienced some of the heaviest Israeli bombardments.
The shell of her home still stands, but like the family of 11 that once lived there, it is shattered.
Only five of the nine children survived. As Israeli rockets rained down on Al Atatra three weeks ago, Ali abu Halima, six, said his father huddled together the children in the passage, thinking it was the safest place.
But Saed abu Halima was wrong. A rocket struck above their heads, decapitating him and one of his sons, and killing the other. The rest of the family were engulfed in flames.
As Daulat abu Halima, Saheed’s aunt, explained, the tragedy did not stop there.
“We loaded the family into two trailers pulled by tractors to take them to hospital. The first trailer made it through but the second was stopped by Israeli soldiers. They shot the driver and we all fled.”
During their operations in Gaza, the Israeli army restricted people from driving on roads and in some cases created roadblocks to cordon off areas from which they believed rockets were being fired.
Only days later were Palestinian paramedics able to reach the children. What they saw was horrific. It appears Saheed’s body was dragged off by dogs that gnawed away her legs and most of her lower abdomen.
Speaking from her hospital bed at the Al Shifa hospital, her mother, Subah Abu Halima, said: “I loved her the most. She was my favourite. She was the only girl.”
The 45-year-old mother has extensive chemical burns over most of her body, burns her doctor believes were caused by white phosphorous shells, the same burns that covered her daughter’s face and chest.
“After the rocket struck, there was fire everywhere. I tried to get to her but I couldn’t see anything. I heard her screaming ‘Mummy, mummy; hot, hot’, but I couldn’t reach her, and her cries stopped,” sobbed Abu Halima.
In life, Saheed was unnoticed and in death she is little more than a statistic. Her body, burnt almost beyond recognition and her flesh devoured by scavengers, was too horrific for people to see. But this image tells the story of one of about 380 Gazan children killed in the 22-day war between Israel and Hamas.
Israel claimed that the children were killed because militants fired rockets from civilian areas. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert even apologized to the people of Gaza for the innocent loss of life. But for many families, like the Abu Halimas, these words ring hollow.
(Dated: January 2009)