'It felt like a grave': Trapped under the rubble in Gaza
Some of the most harrowing testimony of war is connected to the collective targeting of civilians inside their homes.
A different kind of war, according to survivors, is lived under the debris of buildings destroyed from the skies.
On the first anniversary of Israel’s May 2021 military campaign on the Gaza Strip, Middle East Eye spoke with those who spent hours under the rubble of their homes before being pulled out.
Omar Abu al-Ouf is the only survivor of his extended family, all 17 of whom were killed after their home on al-Wehda street in central Gaza City was targeted on 16 May.
'I was trying to scream to help them find me, but my voice had an echo that was leading them in the wrong direction'
- Omar Abu al-Ouf, Gaza bombing survivor
“I was sitting with my parents, siblings and grandparents when the bombing intensified at midnight,” the 17-year-old told MEE.
“We ran to the corridor thinking it was the safest spot in the house, my father was running right behind us, but the bombing was very fast and an air strike hit the home before he could reach us.
“In the blink of an eye, I found myself lying on my stomach with a concrete pillar around five centimetres above my back. I could not move or see anything, but I was trying to breathe through a small hole I found in the ground. It felt like a grave,” Abu al-Ouf said.
The teenager spent 12 hours under the rubble. Trapped under the walls of his home, he had to listen to his family dying.
“The first one to pass away was my 12-year-old sister Tala. I could tell that she died after 10 to 15 minutes because she was very small and thin.
"She was lying under my arm; I could not see her but I could tell she was scared because I heard her breathing very fast before she stopped moving,” he recalled.
“A few moments before she passed away, I tried to comfort her. I knew she wouldn’t make it so I asked her to pronounce the Shahada (testimony of faith). She did and I could no longer hear her breathe. I knew then that she had died."
Tala was one of 11 children aged between five and 15 who were receiving treatment for trauma by the Norwegian Refugee Council before they were killed. A total of 66 children were among the 256 Palestinians killed during the 11-day-attack.
“After Tala passed away, I could hear my mother moan, I didn’t understand what she was saying but I think she was pronouncing the Shahada too,” Abu al-Ouf continued.
‘He asked me to forgive him’
Abu al-Ouf’s 17-year-old brother Tawfiq was also trapped.
“My brother was the only one who lived the long 12 hours under the rubble with me,” he said. “He was calling my name every five minutes and asking: ‘Omar are you still alive?’ In his last moments, he asked me to forgive him and pronounced the Shahada. He knew he wouldn’t make it."
When Tawfiq's body was retrieved, "the forensic pathologists said he had passed away long ago, but this is not true, he was talking to me all the time and only died a few moments before the civil defence [pulled him out].”
Abu al-Ouf said that because of the intensive bombardment and the lack of equipment, it took the civil defence hours to find out where he was and pull him from the rubble.
“I was trying to scream to help them find me, but my voice had an echo that was leading them in the wrong direction,” he said.
“When they finally managed to pull me out, I was taken to the intensive care unit, where the doctors took a urine sample from me that was totally black due to the huge amount of dust and sand I had inhaled and swallowed through the only hole I found under the rubble.”
Abu al-Ouf is the son of Dr Ayman Abu al-Ouf, who was killed along with his wife and other children during the attack.
His neighbours, Zainab and Osama al-Qolaq, and their father Shukri, also fought to stay alive for 12 hours before the paramedics managed to pull them out.
Zainab, now 23, lost 22 members of her family, including her mother, her only sister, and two of her brothers, in addition to cousins, uncles and grandparents.
“I can never describe the feelings and the thoughts I had throughout the 12 hours I spent under the rubble. I’ve never talked to anyone about it, no one knows what was going through my mind at that moment,” she told MEE.
“After I was rescued, I thought that I would fill books with the memories and the experience I went through, but it turns out I cannot say one sentence about it.”
After her home collapsed, Zainab got stuck under a heavy wall but managed to call an ambulance and talk to a paramedic, who later became a friend.
“I was lying on my stomach. The only thing I could move was my hand. I called an ambulance and a paramedic talked to me for a few moments to find out where I was.
"My mobile battery died after three hours, and I was screaming until I completely lost my voice. It was very dark down there; I could not tell if it was morning yet. I was out of breath and inhaling dust and sand,” she said.
“When the civil defence arrived, I couldn’t speak because my voice had disappeared, but I could feel the bulldozer approaching me. It was a horrible moment as I was helplessly shaking and could feel it about to crush my body. At the last moment, the paramedic shouted telling them to stop.”
'The feeling is indescribable'
A few minutes before Zainab was rescued, her father Shukri was pulled out by another paramedic.
“When the paramedics arrived, they were calling our names to see if anyone was still alive. I shouted my daughter’s name, I told them I was Zainab so that they would believe she was still alive and keep searching for her,” Shukri said.
“The feeling you would have while being under the rubble struggling to be seen and heard is indescribable. It’s a mixture of horror combined with the smell of death and the noise of bombing still shaking the rubble above your head,” the Palestinian father continued.
“When you are stuck down there, you cannot focus on one thought, you get waves of thoughts about everyone and everything in life and death.
“I was mostly asking myself where I was, what happened, and whether we were alive or dead. You don’t have an answer to these simple questions when you’re there in the wreckage.”
Shukri said the scariest moment was not just being under the rubble, but thinking that the worst was to come.
“The most horrible feeling was hearing the massive sounds of bombing while I was under the rubble, and realising that it might still not be over, that I might have to experience a different kind of suffering, but with my body stuck under my walls this time,” he said.
“I could never imagine that I was going to live after that moment, I was preparing myself for death when the paramedic managed to reach me. When they pulled me out, I felt my feet hitting the body of one of my family members. I don’t know who it was but the body was right behind me.”
After he managed to rescue Shukri, the paramedic lost consciousness due to a lack of oxygen under the rubble.
'Then their voices stopped'
The al-Qolaq family home is located in the residential block on al-Wehda street that was bombed on 16 May. Forty-two Palestinians died in a single night, among them 11 children.
In the same neighbourhood, Riad Eshkuntana and his daughter Suzi were the only survivors from a seven-member family hit by Israel’s bombs.
Riad spent up to 10 hours under the rubble, hearing his wife and children calling his name for help before they died.
“I was watching the television in the living room and my wife and children were sleeping in the room next to me. I saw a red light before the television fell down and the walls started leaning in. It was a horrible scene,” Eshkuntana told MEE.
“The apartment collapsed and I fell down with it. A few moments later, I heard the voice of my eight-year-old daughter Dana calling ‘baba’, I shouted back ‘Yes baba’, then my other daughter Zeina, two-and-a-half years old, started calling my name. I was trying to comfort them by shouting back, but then their voices stopped and I knew they had died.”
Eshkuntana was lying on his side, with his right arm and leg stuck under the rubble.
“For the 10 hours I stayed there, I thought that my leg and arm were amputated because they were totally numb and I couldn’t feel them. I thought that it was only a matter of time before I died as I thought I was bleeding heavily, especially that I had an injury in my head that was bleeding on my face and eyes,” he said.
“The pain in my body was unbearable. I tried to sleep a little to forget about it, but I couldn’t. My neck and head were hanging as I was lying on my side, there was a big hole in the ground under my head and I couldn’t rest it on anything. For 10 hours, I was struggling to keep holding my head up while I thought I was bleeding to death.”
‘I tried to control my breath’
Three days before the bombardment of al-Wehda street, on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, Israeli jets followed the same strategy, flattening a whole residential block in the north of the blockaded Gaza Strip.
Taher al-Madhoun, a 28-year-old doctor, was with his father and aunt when their home was targeted by several air strikes.
“When the bombing started, I couldn’t stay in one place, I couldn’t control my body as it was flying from one spot to another, getting smacked into the walls and ending up on the ground,” he told MEE.
“I ran to one of the rooms with a window overlooking the street to see what was going on. Once I opened the room’s door, I saw the street right under my feet; the whole side of the building was gone. I closed the door and knew it was the end. It was at this point where I started to panic,” he said.
“Once I realised the house was going to collapse, it had already started collapsing. I couldn’t feel the ground under my feet, I held my father’s and my aunt’s hands tight and we fell down with the house.”
Madhoun used his experience as a doctor to keep himself calm and assess the situation.
“Once the house collapsed, I tried to check my body and see if my father and aunt were still alive. I was half lying on my back, with both my legs and one arm stuck under the rubble. With the one hand that was still free, I reached into my pocket to get my mobile and turned on the flashlight,” he recalled.
“I looked at my father to see if he was still breathing, but he wasn’t moving. I then looked to my aunt; she was in a terrible situation but managed to tell me that my father seemed to have died. The mobile then started ringing but I was trying not to speak as I tried to control my breath and heartbeats to prevent myself from losing consciousness.”
Around half an hour later, the civil defence arrived and Madhoun tried everything he could to call for help. “I took a wooden stick that was beside me and started hitting the ground to make a noise. When the mobile rang, I didn’t pick up so that its ringtone would lead them to our place.”
When the paramedics managed to pull them out after four hours, Madhoun’s aunt had already passed away. His father was gone as well.
'It was completely dark'
Near Madhoun’s home, Khaled Muqaiad, 26, was stuck alongside his mother, brother, sister, and her children under the rubble of their home.
His sister, who had fled with her family after her own apartment was bombed, struggled to keep her children alive under the debris.
“Once the house collapsed, it was completely dark, I could not see anything except my brother Ahmed who was beside me. My mother and my sister as well as her children were all literally under the ground floor,” Muqaiad said.
“It took my mother eight minutes to wake up after we all started calling her name until she finally answered. My sister was trying to comfort her children while we were desperately waiting for someone to realise we were still alive,” he continued.
“Through a very narrow hole in the debris, I managed to see the civil defence coming. I started shouting and making a noise until they could identify our location. It took them around 90 minutes to pull us out.”
Since they were pulled from the rubble, Muqaiad’s six-year-old niece and five-year-old nephew have completely lost their ability to speak.
“We took them to several speech therapists. They all said it’s a result of the shock and deep trauma they have experienced,” Muqaiad said.
“We still talk about this experience every day, in every family gathering, no matter how much we try to avoid thinking about it, we end up recalling the smallest details. Once you live this nightmare, you’re not the same anymore.”