Ma’an: “We could hear their bodies burning” Testimonies raise fears over chemical weapons

15 January 2009

From Ma’an News Agency

Gaza – Ma’an – Everything was on fire; houses, sheds, trees.

Bombs, too, were everywhere, and with them came the white clouds. White phosphorous, the doctors are now saying, but that’s disputed in Israel.

But for sure it was a night of terror. We were terrified. We thought we were going to burn to death.

Bombs were everywhere. That’s what 27-year-old Fadia Al-Najjar kept saying. She’s from Khaza’a; she was telling us what kind of horrific night she and her family had just gone through.

While explaining what had happened, Fadia stood next to her paramedic husband Ghanem, now surrounded by other medics, desperately struggling to save his life after he was caught in an airstrike unlike he had ever seen before.

Ghanem was incapacitated while on duty trying to bring injured Palestinians to the hospital. There had been calls reporting mysterious white smoke in the latest airstrike, and Ghanem was dispatched to attend to the wounded. He was on duty when he inhaled some of the smoke.

“The shelling with phosphorous bombs started in Khaza’a. Two of the bombs hit the area around our house,” Fadia explained. She recalled how the fire spread quickly throughout the home, and white smoke billowed out the windows.

“Neighbors were screaming, asking for help; the fire was changing,” she remembers. “I woke up my kids, got them to my parents’ house, hoping to find a safer place.”

“But the real catastrophe was two hours after we had moved to my parents’ house; bombs hit their home too and the fire spread everywhere. The top floor was burnt completely.”

It’s not just her husband Fadia keeps watch over. In fact, the young mother has to split her time among the hospital’s many wards. Her children have also been hospitalized.

“They wanted to burn us alive inside the house. There were 40 of us in there. Men, women, children,” she recalls of the second bombing. “We could hear their bodies burning.”

“We didn’t know where to go. Our house, my parents’ house, my in-laws’ house? All were burnt, damaged, destroyed. But where can we go in this weather? It’s very cold.”

Zakaya

Another relative, 51-year-old Zakaya, said she struggled to make sense of the chaos and confusion of trying to find her injured family members at Nasser Hospital in the northwest of Gaza City.

Zakaya told Ma’an that she barely remembers what happened, “but at about 10:00pm we heard explosions in several areas of Khaza’a, coming closer and closer.”

“We live so close to the border wall [targeted by Israel], so we were just so afraid; our fear reached a maximum level.”

“The children were asleep, so I tried to wake some of them because I felt our home was no longer safe,” she says. “And all of the sudden bombs fell all over our two-story house.”

“White smoke filled the house, and suddenly fires were spreading inside,” Zakaya explained while checking on her children at the hospital’s intensive care unit.

“We started screaming; we were so scared. I started to get the kids outside but the bombing went on and six more bombs fell on our house.”

After the sixth bomb hit the home Zakaya and those her family was able to get out of the home were forced to abandon those left in the building. The fire was too hot and the smoke too intense and no one could get back inside.

“The smoke was spreading so fast; we couldn’t see through it. We couldn’t see, but we could hear.” From the windows of the burning home the cries of her children and cousins filled the streets. “The cries were not just from my home, but from the neighbors’ house too.”

Paramedics arrived and evacuated some of the last who were rescued from the building. They braved the smoke and were able to rescue a few others before the entire building was engulfed in flames.

Adel

According to 48-year-old Adel Kdeih, the night was calm before the bombs hit. Now that he knows what it was, that it was phosphorous, “it just makes the situation that more horrible.”

Kdeih came hurrying to the hospital to check up on his children injured by the phosphorous, but he also remembers how tired he was. He was in great shock, numb, when he told Ma’an how the “dozens of incendiary bombs fell on civilian houses.”

“We could hear women and children screaming in fear,” he says.

Many of the bombs fell on the courtyard of his house. “I hurried inside the house to wake up my twelve children. I was able to evacuate the house with the help of paramedics and others from the [Hamas-run] civil-defense team.”

“When I was evacuating the house I saw a lot of houses and fields being burnt, too,” he recalls.

The doctor

Dr Yousef Abu Ar-Reesh, the medical director at Nasser Medical Center, said more than 90 patients were brought in for burn treatments Sunday night.

“Most of them were skin burns, lacerations and deep wounds. A lot of them came in choking, unable to breathe,” he explains.

He explained that as far as he can tell the Israeli army is using two kinds of bombs,”The first causes severe skin burns and leads to death, as with 41-year-old Hanan Al-Najjar here, and others.”

“The second kind leads to suffocation, congestion, the inability to breathe.”

Dr Ar-Reesh said that he cannot confirm that the bombs are white phosphorus, since there are no specialized laboratories in Gaza. The eyewitness reports and the type of injuries he has seen in the hospital, however, worry him.

“What is certain” he said, “is that the Israeli government is using a new kind of bomb and explosives that Palestinian medics have never even heard of.”

“Not even the Arab medical teams who just arrived can give us any support,” he says.

The doctor pointed out that the wounds and burns are “terrible and horrific.”

“And they can lead to death, as with Hanan Al-Najjar, who burned to death when a shell directly hit her body.”

When asked if Israel is deliberately using weapons that are illegal under international law for use against civilians, Dr Ar-Reesh chooses his words carefully: “I can’t rule that out.”