After weeks of sharing cramped quarters with relatives during last year’s war between Hamas and Israel, 39-year-old Mohammed al-Selek thought nothing of it when he heard the incoming roar of two mortar shells. But once a suffocating cloud of acrid smoke filled the stairwell, his heart sank - the family’s home had been struck by Israeli fire.
Moments before, he had been enjoying a rare break, relaxing with a cup of tea and cookies as he marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The house was filled with his children, nieces and nephews, and al-Selek’s father had taken the restless kids to play up on the rooftop, where the family kept rabbits and chickens.
Infographic: Gaza's challenges
Infographic: Gaza's challenges
After the explosion, al-Selek and his wife ran up the five flights of stairs to the roof and found a sight he still struggles to comprehend.
“We found an unbelievable scene - my children along with my father lying on the ground,” said al-Selek, recounting the horror to an Associated Press crew that revisited the neighborhood recently.
Caught in a living nightmare, he saw the bloodied, mangled bodies of all three of his children, his 71-year-old father, Abdul-Kareem, and six other relatives lying next to the chicken coup and rabbit cages. Feathers and fur from the animals the children had begged their grandfather to see shortly before were strewn everywhere.
Al-Selek’s life changed forever that July 30.
The Israeli strike on his home in Gaza’s Shijaiyah neighborhood, just along the border with Israel, came at the height of the fighting and was one of the deadliest single incidents during the entire conflict. Two AP reporters arrived in Shijaiyah after the final barrage of mortar strikes subsided, leaving a scene of carnage and bloodshed.
During the 50 days of war, which started July 8, more than 2,200 Palestinians, including more than 1,400 civilians, were killed, according to U.N. figures. Seventy-three people, including six civilians, were killed on the Israeli side.
Because of the heavy casualty toll, Israel’s Military Advocate General launched an investigation into the Shijaiyah incident.
The report found that Israeli forces had come under mortar fire from Palestinian militants in the area. Without air surveillance available, they responded to the source of fire, launching a total of 15 mortar shells over an 18-minute period, according to the report. The probe cleared the military personnel of any wrongdoing, finding no evidence of criminal misconduct.
Amid the chaos on that Shijaiyah rooftop, al-Selek said he first found his 5-year-old son, Abdul-Haleem, still breathing among what he described as “piles of flesh with open skulls.” He rushed Abdul-Haleem downstairs and outside to an ambulance, then he ran back to the roof and repeated the grim task, carrying the lifeless body of his youngest son, Abdul-Aziz. Grief overcame him when he saw the remains of his 8-year-old daughter, Omeneya, but he could not carry her down.
As he stepped out of the ambulance for a second time to get back to the roof, a white flash signaled a new barrage of shelling. He was knocked down and the explosion severed his right leg below the knee. He thought he would die and he professed his faith before he cried out for help.
By the time the shelling stopped, at least 30 people were dead, including 10 members of al-Selek’s extended family - eight of them children.
There is strong evidence Hamas had used residential areas like Shijaiyah for cover throughout the fighting, and AP reporters witnessed rockets flying out of populated neighborhoods at times. The Israeli army says six militants were among those killed in that airstrike, a claim denied by local residents.
“This is one of the most horrible crimes in Gaza,” said Mohammed Al-Alami, a lawyer at the independent Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
In a recent report on the war, the U.N. Human Rights Council accused both Israel and Hamas of possible war crimes, claiming attacks by both sides had endangered civilians.
Nearly a year later, the people of Shijaiyah, one of Gaza’s most densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods, are still trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, especially in hard-hit areas near the Israeli border.
Families like the al-Seleks had thought they would be spared from the fighting - and even sheltered relatives from across Gaza because their block’s narrow alleyways were far from the front lines.
“Nobody ever thought this neighborhood would be hit and I just don’t know how it happened,” said Bilal Hmaid, who lost his 55-year-old father, Rajab, in the Shijaiyah shelling.
Bilal, 22, chokes up, remembering that day. Once his father heard the shells hit, he rushed out to help his neighbors, only to be wounded himself by another incoming shell, minutes later.
Gasping for air, Rajab lay among other victims, waiting for help. An AP reporter tied a tourniquet around his leg as water from a rooftop tank pierced by shrapnel pooled around them.
The smell of rust filled the air as blood mixed with petrol and dirt. The wounded cried out for help. Medics with stretchers struggled to navigate the uneven pavement, carrying out triage, selecting those who still had a chance and leaving those who were beyond help.
Rajab was taken to a hospital where he survived for five more days before he died of his wounds.
“People were coming to stay here, saying this is a safe neighborhood,” Bilal said. “But for months after the strike, the spirit of the community was gone.”
At the al-Selek home, the rabbit cages have since been replaced on the roof but the shrapnel marks on the walls have yet to be covered. A poster with the faces of the 10 al-Selek’s family members who died welcomes visitors into the narrow street.
Al-Selek is still struggling to start a new life. For the first six months, he barely slept. He sold his other apartment in Gaza City and moved into his father’s bedroom in the Shijaiyah family home.
His once solid frame is now sapped, his muscles atrophied after months in hospital. The new prosthetic leg he was given is too heavy for him, he says, preferring to make his way to and from work in his brother’s computer shop on his squeaky crutches.
He seems resigned to his fate.
“It was the darkest day of our life,” said al-Selek. “But life goes on. This is the fate of God. Life will not stop despite the loss of my leg and my children.”