A survivor of the bombings in Gaza: “The wounds of the war have healed, those of memory are still open” | International

Palestinian Riad Eshkumat, who lost his wife and four children in an Israeli bombardment, in an image from May 21, 2021 (right) and in another a year later.
Palestinian Riad Eshkumat, who lost his wife and four children in an Israeli bombardment, in an image from May 21, 2021 (right) and in another a year later.

Riad Eshkumat no longer has a lost look like a year ago, when he had just been rescued from the rubble of the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza, bombed by Israeli aircraft. 43 people died in a single night when three residential buildings collapsed. The victims included his wife and four of his five children, ranging in age from two to 12. Susi, his other daughter, who was seven years old at the time, also survived after being buried for more than 10 hours. “It’s as if neither of us were alive anymore,” he admitted on May 21 last year, shortly after the ceasefire between the Israel Army and Islamist militias in Gaza went into effect.

“The wounds of the hand and head have healed these months, those of memory are still open,” recognizes Riyadh a year after the tragedy that caused 260 deaths in Gaza, including 67 children, and devastated more than 1,700 houses. He downplays the physical consequences he suffers on his back and one hand to focus on the main reason for his existence at 44 years old. “My daughter is undergoing psychological treatment after the loss of her mother and her brothers. She has not recovered from the trauma and wakes up at night fearing that she will also be left without her father ”, details the tribulations of the little girl, now in the second year of primary school.

Daily life has picked up a certain pulse in the impoverished Palestinian coastal enclave. But the engineer Yusuf Sarhan, responsible for the reconstruction of Gaza, experiences each new Israeli offensive (2008-2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021) as a punishment from Sisyphus. “Last year was one of the most intense and destructive wars,” highlights the Palestinian Deputy Minister of Public Works. More than 1,700 homes were totally or partially destroyed, according to data collected by the United Nations. “So far we have only rebuilt 270,” says Sarhan.

“More than 20,000 flats suffered minor damage. Here more progress has been made, with 70% repaired”, he celebrates before becoming gloomy: “But we don’t have the funds to continue”. Egypt and Qatar promised to contribute 500 million dollars (475 million euros) each. However, the Palestinian engineer warns that a year after the war only 5% of what was promised has been disbursed. The rest of the announced international donations have been symbolic. United States: $28 million channeled through UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. Japan and Germany: each six million dollars.

Israeli bombing of the building in the capital Gaza where the Al Jazeera chain and the Associated Press agency had their offices, on May 15, 2021.
Israeli bombing of the building in the capital Gaza where the Al Jazeera chain and the Associated Press agency had their offices, on May 15, 2021.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“Susi misses a family that no longer exists,” Riad shakes his head with a touch of despair. “At first, life had no interest for me, it had left me with a very bitter taste. Not anymore”. She shows images of the little girl on her mobile playing with a kitten or dressed in her best clothes for the recent Eid el Fitr party, at the end of Ramadan. “She is having a very bad time, full of fears,” laments Riad, who has remarried to give her daughter a mother. “I want a normal life, and that she can have other siblings,” recounts the complex reconstruction of her existence, this hairdresser who worked in the same neighborhood that was devastated. He is now a security guard at night in a hotel, so he can spend more time with her daughter. She has just received a house thanks to the help of a South African NGO.

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“The European Union has not sent a single euro. Billions are coming to Ukraine,” he grumbles. Sarhan, deputy minister in the government that Hamas exercises de facto in Gaza since 2007. “After 15 years of isolation and four wars, we feel we suffer from double standards. Instead of investing in peace in the Middle East, we continue to be forgotten, ”she laments.

The construction works of the so-called Egyptian City, which will house hundreds of homes, remain semi-paralyzed in Jabalia, north of the Gazan capital. Sarhan blames UNRWA for the delay in reconstruction planning, while accusing Israel of pressuring major donors not to move forward with their projects. He is silent about Cairo, the great patron of the Shadow Strip. “We are now worse off than a year after the 2014 war. If there is no investment in keeping the hope of the Palestinian people, another conflict will be inevitable. And we are already fed up with wars”, she adds.

Awake while his family slept

Shortly after the early morning start of May 16, 2021, a Saturday at the end of Ramadan, Riyadh was awake while the rest of his family slept. The five children rested together in the same room, the furthest from the facades and the one considered safest in the house. His world came crashing down. “I was conscious under the rubble for more than 10 hours until I was rescued. I thought I heard one of my sons asking for help, but his voice was cut off”, he recalls with anguish.

Israel pounded whole areas of Gaza with artillery, missiles and half-ton bombs with the intention of destroying the Hamas urban network of tunnels, dubbed the Metro, in the Rimal district of Gaza. When this correspondent visited the place where the Eshkumat family’s house was located shortly after the ceasefire, he only observed rubble and burst sewers. It was the deadliest attack on civilians recorded in the last conflict. The Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Court has already incorporated it into the investigation of war crimes committed in the Palestinian Strip. Palestinian militias fired thousands of rockets towards Israel, causing 13 deaths.

“A year goes by quickly, even though it has been the longest in my life, to try to continue in this world, in which I continue only for my daughter,” Riad confesses his pain broken by the bombs after 12 years of marriage and five children. “I was in love with my wife; ours was not a conventional marriage. I remember a happy life, ”continues his story, again with a lost look. “Then everything fell apart. He couldn’t believe what was happening. Israel is one hundred percent responsible for what has happened to me, although I do not seek apologies or compensation. We survived two of seven by chance. Such are the things of God. I have a family again, but the void left by the death of those I loved the most has not been filled,” concludes Riad.

More than 2,500 Gazans gathered on Sunday near the port of the enclave’s capital to commemorate the anniversary of the end of the last war in an act that was more festive than political. Women with Palestinian flags and pensioners filled the room. “The defense of the holy places in Jerusalem is a red line for Hamas, and Israel knows it,” warned Ahmet Bahar, an international advisor to the Palestinian Parliament based in Gaza, a body that has been powerless for three decades at the end of the celebration. gather all its deputies. “The message is very clear,” this Islamist with polite gestures stressed in English before the announced march of tens of thousands of Israeli extremists through the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem within a week. A year ago that was precisely the trigger for a war whose wounds have not yet healed.

Bookseller and publisher Samir Mansour stands in front of the remains of his bookstore, destroyed by an Israeli bombardment, in May in Gaza.
Bookseller and publisher Samir Mansour stands in front of the remains of his bookstore, destroyed by an Israeli bombardment, in May in Gaza.Marcus Yam (Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Bombed-out bookstore reopens

The reopening of the Mansour bookstore, the largest in Gaza, which was destroyed by bombs in May last year, is one of the few good news on the anniversary of the conflict. The professor of Psychology at the University of Gaza Mohamed Helo, 67, has just bought a book on the Iraqi mystic Ibn al Yusía. “He explained to us 500 years ago how we have to relate to others while respecting his thoughts,” explains this professor emeritus in the new facilities of the bookstore, inaugurated two months ago near the campus. “We missed it so much,” he nods. “We lack many things in Gaza, but books are food for the soul.”

An offer of between 250,000 and 300,000 copies has been renewed on the shelves of Mansur. “We have the complete works of the Turkish writer Elif Shafak in English. I have read all her novels,” boasts Huda Sliman, 20, an engineering student who works part-time in the foreign language book section. The best seller in the new headquarters? “Novels, academic texts and the Koran”, specifies the young bookseller. An international citizen crowdfunding campaign has contributed to reopening the emblematic Mansur bookstore in record time, while the infrastructure reconstruction works get bogged down in the midst of the world’s oblivion.

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