I read this transcript before I left home; the cold facts ran through me like a virus. It is a radio communications exchange by the Israel Defense Forces, Gaza, October 2004. Four days later, crossing into Gaza, I’m still shivering: what the hell is this place we’re going to?
Soldier on guard: “We have identified someone on two legs
100 metres from the outpost.
Soldier in lookout: “A girl about 10.” (By now, soldiers in the outpost are shooting at the girl.)
Soldier in lookout: “She is behind the trench, half a metre away, scared to death. The hits were right next to her, a centimetre away.”
Captain R’s signalman: “We shot at her, yes, she is apparently hit.”
Captain R: “Roger, affirmative. She has just fallen. I and a few other soldiers are moving forward to confirm the kill.”
Soldier at lookout: “Hold her down, hold her down. There’s no need to kill her.”
Captain R (later): “…We carried out the shooting and killed her… I confirmed the kill… [later]… Commanding officer here, anyone moving in the area, even a three-year-old kid, should be killed, over.”
A military inquiry decided that the captain had “not acted unethically”. He still faces criminal charges. Two soldiers who swore they saw him deliberately shoot her in the head, empty his gun’s entire magazine into her inert body, now say they couldn’t see if he deliberately aimed or not; another is sticking to his damning testimony.
Every weighty bag of flour for Abu Saguer’s household must be broken up and lugged across the 200 yards of wasteland. Everything must be carried. We are smoking apple-flavoured shisha in the courtyard after a lunch his wife made of bread, tomatoes, olive oil, olives and yoghurt, all from the small plot left to him. “Take some puffs so you can write,” he says. He speaks with great urgency and my pen lags behind. On November 7, during Ramadan’s month of fasting, a three-tiered perimeter of razor wire was laid, encircling his house. This forced him and his family to use the military access road, walking his children past tanks to get to school. It’s a much longer and more dangerous route. After a week of this he was shot at from the watchtower. Abu Saguer gathered his wife and children, then they sat down in the road. All afternoon they sat.
“I didn’t care if they crushed us there and then. I wanted a resolution,” he said. Jeeps passed, nothing happened. After dusk they went in to break their fast. The next day a senior officer approached them in the road.
“What’s the problem? Are you on strike? What is it, are you upset?”
“A lot, a lot, a lot.”
“Are you upset with us?”
“I’m upset with the whole lot of you.”
“You’re forcing my wife and children to walk in front of tanks and bulldozers â€” I want a donkey and cart.”
“Big donkey or small donkey?”
“Big, to pull a cart.”
“Impossible.” (Abu Saguer, his eyes twinkling, smoke streaming from his nose and mouth, says: “If they’d said yes, I’d have bought a very big donkey to bite his nose, and donkeys that bite are very inexpensive.”)
“Give me a gate, then.”
“We don’t have gates.”
“I’ll make one.”
He makes a gate from two pieces of wood and a wire grill. They ask him to buy a padlock. He buys one. A soldier supervises as he cuts through the bottom tiers of razor wire (they won’t allow the top one to be cut) and he installs his little gate. “If the gate is left open and anything happens, we will shoot you.”
Sue Mitchell, the MSF psychologist, asks: “What’s it like for you to tell this story?”
“I release what I have in my chest,” he says. “I can’t sleep. I woke this night at 1am. I thought it was sunrise. I woke the kids and told them to go to school. I look around and see that my life has been ruined. I’m like a dry branch in the desert.”
Psychologists have been visiting the family since shortly after the occupation of their house began. Each time, they have to apply for access to Israeli authorities; it’s usually granted three times out of four. Sue, a 41-year-old Australian, has a wonderfully gentle presence. She quietly steers her patients to and fro between the pain of their memories and a recognition and acknowledgment of their dignity, courage, generosity and good humour in the face of this desperation. She encourages them to voice their fears, tell their stories and, particularly with the children, act out their experiences.