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As bombing ceases, Gaza's rubble affirms misery

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — It was a day of digging and bitter discovery. Houses had lost walls, and the dead, after three weeks of war, had lost their faces. Families identified them by their clothes.

As the people of Gaza emerged from hiding Sunday, they confronted, for the first time, the full, sometimes breathtaking extent of the destruction around them wrought by the Israeli military. Bombs had pulverized the Parliament and Cabinet buildings, the Ministry of Justice, the main university and the police station, paralyzing Gaza's central nervous system and leaving residents in a state of shock.

Some places in Gaza City were bustling and matter-of-fact. Work crews in bright orange vests repaired power and water lines. Shops reopened. People lined up at bank machines.

Other areas ached with loss. In Twam in the north, thousands dragged belongings away from ruined houses, dazed refugees in their own city.

In Zeitoun, families clawed at rubble and concrete, trying to dislodge relatives who had died weeks before. The death toll kept climbing: 95 bodies were taken from the rubble.

More than 20 of them were from the Samouni family, whose younger members were digging with shovels and hands for relatives stuck in rooms inside. Faris Samouni, 59, sat alone, watching them. He had lost his wife, daughter-in-law, grandson and nephew, and he was heartbroken.

"Twenty-one are down there," he said, starting to cry. "One is my wife. Her name is Rizka."

The dead were badly decomposed, and families searched for familiar personal details that would identify them. One female corpse was identified by her gold bracelets. Another by her earrings. A third by the nightgown she wore. The smell of rotting flesh was suffocating, and as they got closer, the diggers donned masks.

At 10:55 a.m., the body of Rizka Samouni emerged as an Israeli fighter jet roared in the sky. Other corpses followed: Houda, 18; Faris, 14; Hamdi, 21. The smallest corpse that emerged, from a different family, was that of a 4-year-old.

"They killed the elders, the children, the women, the animals, the chickens," said Subhi, 55, Rizka's brother. "It's a nightmare. I never thought I would lose all of them."

Around noon, a worker from the Red Crescent ran up to the diggers. The Israelis had called, telling people to leave, he said. The families began to run, again.

"We have to go!" a woman shouted. "But where can we go? Where do we go?"

An Israeli military spokesman said the order had been issued because the Red Crescent had not coordinated its movement in advance. Later, permission was granted and the diggers returned to exhume the remaining bodies.

One of the areas worst hit was Twam, a neighborhood north of Gaza City, which by Friday afternoon had turned into a disorganized mass move. Donkey carts lurched over torn-up roads, spilling pillows and bedding into the dirt. People dragged bed frames and mattresses out of bombed-out houses. Small boys carried bookshelves. Curtains tied in giant sacks held clothes. Decorative cloth flowers fluttered from a half-closed trunk.

"It's madness," said Riad Abbas Khalawa, who was carrying a computer in one hand with his brother, who was carrying the other side. "Now our home is gone. There's no place for us to sit together as a family."

The question of what they thought was Israel's goal elicited a response from the entire throng listening to Khalawa.

"It's a war against us as people," a man shouted. "What happened to Hamas? Nothing!"

fast facts

Israeli exit begins

Israeli troops began to withdraw from Gaza on Sunday after their government and Hamas militants declared an end to a three-week war. Neither side achieved long-term goals. Tension eased in southern Israel, the target of Palestinian rocket fire, even though Hamas launched nearly 20 rockets in a final salvo before announcing a cease-fire. Three Israelis were lightly wounded, while two Palestinians were killed in last-minute fighting, medics said.

Diplomats in action: The task of preserving the fragile calm falls to world leaders. More, 8A

fast facts

Leaders gather

European and Arab leaders raced Sunday to lay groundwork for a longer-term agreement to prevent new fighting. Delivering humanitarian aid to rebuild the devastated Palestinian enclave emerged as a key goal from the summit in Egypt, along with choking off weapon smuggling into Gaza across Egypt's border and at sea — perhaps with an international naval force. But the 1 1/2-hour gathering failed to deliver specifics on international monitors to prevent weapon smuggling. Israel wants monitors, but Egypt has refused to have them on its side of the border. France, Germany and Britain formally offered their help in stopping arms trafficking in a joint letter delivered Saturday to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mubarak, said a European diplomat involved in the talks.

Associated Press

As bombing ceases, Gaza's rubble affirms misery 01/18/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 18, 2009 11:26pm]

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