Portraits of Gazans and the Destruction of the Israel-Hamas War


Declan Walsh and

Samar Abu Elouf, a photojournalist, spent weeks documenting five Palestinians in Gaza whose lives had been shattered by the war. Declan Walsh is an international correspondent for The New York Times.

A toddler, a teenager, a mother, a photojournalist.

Their lives were ripped apart in one of the deadliest and most destructive wars of the 21st century.

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, now in its fourth month, is often conveyed in stark numbers and historical comparisons: Some 27,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza health ministry. Nearly two million are displaced and more than 60 percent of residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed in a territory smaller than Manhattan.

Yet the lives behind those statistics are often hidden from view. Internet and cellphone services are frequently cut; international reporters cannot enter Gaza except on escorted trips with the Israeli military; and dozens of Palestinian journalists have been killed in a military campaign prompted by the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.

Samar Abu Elouf, a photojournalist for The New York Times, spent weeks following a handful of Palestinians who seemed to have lost everything: a boy with charred limbs, a journalist who lost four of his children in an Israeli strike, an orphaned toddler who may never walk again.

Then The Times evacuated Ms. Abu Elouf and her family in December as the Israeli ground offensive extended across southern Gaza.

Since then, Gaza has spiraled toward famine. Some residents say they are eating grass and animal feed to survive. Giant bombs fall near the last functioning hospitals. Torrential rains pound disease-ridden tent camps. Exhausted medics make harrowing choices.

Through it all, Ms. Abu Elouf has tried to stay in touch with the people she photographed, but some can no longer be reached.

Their stories, like that of Gaza itself, are still playing out.

At first, rescuers thought Melisya Joudeh was dead.

They pulled her inert body from the rubble of her family home, 10 hours after the building was crushed by a devastating strike on Oct. 22. At the hospital, she was put it in a tent filled with corpses.

But an hour later, 16-month-old Melisya began to whimper and splutter. A clamor erupted and she was rushed into the hospital for emergency treatment, said Yasmine Joudeh, an exhausted aunt who was keeping a bedside vigil for the girl days later as she dozed in a pink bunny shirt.

She was one of just three survivors from what relatives and local journalists said was an Israeli airstrike.

Her mother, expecting twins, had gone into labor hours before the strike on their house and was pulled dead from the ruins still clutching her belly, Yasmine said. Melisya’s father and brother were also killed, as were her grandparents, five uncles, two aunts, their spouses and dozens of cousins, she said, in all about 60 people from the Jarousha and Joudeh families who had lived in that housing compound for decades.

Children account for about 40 percent of those killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Gaza authorities and international organizations. Melisya cheated death but instead joined the 19,000 children that the war has left with no parents or with no adults to look after them, according to UNICEF.

And she will be scarred for life. Weeks earlier, Melisya had taken her first steps, her aunt said. They were probably her last.

Bomb fragments severed her spinal cord and paralyzed her from the waist down, doctors said. But a few weeks after she was wounded, Melisya was discharged. Doctors said they lacked medicine to treat her and needed her bed for newer casualties.

Yasmine took Melisya home. She considered the orphan a blessing from God, but caring for her was still difficult.

Melisya screamed when her wounds were being washed. And at night, she woke from her sleep crying out “Mama!” or “Baba!”

Oct. 7 began as a day of joy for Safaa Zyadah.

Just hours before midnight on the 6th, she had given birth to her fifth child — a girl she named Batool — at a hospital in Gaza City.

But as she cradled her newborn, the noises of war crashed into her ward.

Ms. Zyadah, 32, who had lived through several wars in Gaza, hoped this one might end quickly. But as she returned home later that day, it became clear this time was different.

The walls of her home trembled as Israeli warplanes roared overhead, dropping bombs in retaliation for the Hamas-led attack which Israel says killed about 1,200 people on Oct. 7. Ms. Zyadah and her husband gathered their five children, the eldest age 13, and began to run.

In the early weeks of the war, they changed houses several times, sheltering with relatives until fighting or Israeli warnings forced them to move on. As the family scurried through the streets, she said, they saw fighter jets firing on targets and spotted corpses strewed on the roadside.

They finally halted at a makeshift U.N.-run camp in the city of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza. It was crowded and dirty, but supposedly safe. Cramped into a tiny tent, her family began to organize their lives as best they could. A few days later, she cradled Batool as she spoke to The Times, grateful they had survived.

“We are tired of running,” she said. But their respite was short-lived.

In early December, Israeli troops entered Khan Younis, hoping to flush out the Hamas fighters they said were hiding among civilians. Fighting raged around the perimeter of the U.N. camp, which housed 43,000 people, sometimes piercing it.

On Jan. 24, several shells hit a U.N. shelter in the camp that housed about 800 people, killing 13, the United Nations said. The White House said it was “gravely concerned” by the episode.

It was unclear whether Ms. Zyadah and her family were affected. They could not be reached by phone recently.

Confronting the pain of others is central to the career of Mohammed al-Aloul, 36, a photojournalist who for years has framed Gaza’s strife in his viewfinder.

But on Nov. 5, the pain came for him.

It was etched on Mr. al-Aloul’s face as he clutched the swaddled remains of his son, killed in what Gaza authorities said was an Israeli airstrike. And that pain roared through him again that same day when he stood over the bodies of three of his other children who, it turned out, had died in the same attack.

Falling to his knees, he wept.

“God help me endure this pain,” he said.

After Oct. 7, he hardly saw his own family, dashing from the scene of one bombing to another, shooting video for the Turkish state-run media agency, Anadolu. But he missed his five children badly, he said.

Before the war, they would join him after work to watch soccer games on television at home, cheering and screaming “gooaal!” along with the commentators. Once fighting started, he wore his son Ahmed’s baseball cap to work.

“It carried his smell,” he said.

On Nov. 4, after spending a rare night at home, Mr. al-Aloul said his 6-year-old son, Kenan, had begged him not to go. But he left, and as he was documenting displaced families the following day, a friend called.

There had been a strike near his home in central Gaza. What followed was a frantic blur, Mr. al-Aloul said.

He scrolled through social media and called friends as fragments of news came through.

Finally, at the hospital, he learned that Kenan and three of his other children — Ahmad, 13, Rahaf, 11, and Qais, 4 — were dead, as were four of his brothers and some of their children and neighbors. His wife was seriously wounded.

The sole survivor among his children was his youngest son, 1-year-old Adam, whose face was lashed by shrapnel.

“He’s all I have left,” Mr. al-Aloul said days later, clutching the child to his chest.

Now, Mr. al-Aloul’s family is in Turkey, where his wife is undergoing treatment for her extensive wounds.

Wisal Abu Odeh, 34, fainted after standing in line for an hour to use a bathroom. Life was hard for everyone in the dirty, cramped camp for displaced people in Khan Younis. But she was five months pregnant.

“Sometimes,” she said in November, “I think it would have been better to die in my house.”

Before the war, Ms. Abu Odeh was thinking about decorating a Spiderman-themed nursery for the baby boy she was expecting. After the fighting began, she worried about making it through her pregnancy alive.

Conditions are dire at the U.N. camps that house most of Gaza’s displaced people. Diarrhea, respiratory infections and hygiene-related conditions like lice are soaring, the United Nations says. Thousands of people often share a single shower or toilet.

Amid all of that chaos live about 50,000 pregnant women, and about 180 give birth each day, the U.N. estimates. Basic care is unavailable. Cesarean sections are sometimes performed without anaesthetic. Many women give birth in tents or toilets, according to Doctors Without Borders.

Ms. Abu Odeh said she was sleeping in a space with 14 other girls and women. Stricken by hunger and fear, they sometimes felt tensions explode. She had seen women punching or pulling hair in disputes over food or water — or jumping the line to go to the bathroom.

Lately, the fighting reached her camp and she could not be reached by phone.

Mohamed Abu Rteinah, 12, doesn’t remember much of what happened when a blast crushed his home on Oct. 24. One minute, he was having tea for breakfast as his grandmother read the Quran. The next minute, he was running and screaming, his limbs seemingly on fire, he said.

His mother, Ula Faraj, 33, said she recoiled in horror when she first saw the burns that cover about 30 percent of his legs. His 8-year-old sister, Batool, had similar injuries.

It was unclear who fired the munition that struck their home in the southern city of Rafah, although Gaza authorities and The Associated Press reported Israeli airstrikes in the area at the time. Many of the tens of thousands of bombs dropped by Israel since Oct. 7 were supplied by the United States, including 2,000-pound “bunker busters” that have killed hundreds in densely populated areas.

Human rights groups say those weapons could implicate American officials in war crimes. Israel says it respects the laws of war and takes precautions to limit civilian casualties in its war against Hamas. President Biden, who once warned Israel it was losing support for its “indiscriminate bombing,” says he is urging Israeli forces to minimize those casualties.

Veteran doctors say the extent of pediatric burns in Gaza is distressing, especially when the territory’s collapsed health system can barely treat them. Only basic painkillers were available to treat Mohamed and Batool, their mother said at a hospital in Khan Younis. Gauze, ointment and clean water were in short supply.

She could barely watch, she said, as her children wept when doctors tried to clean their wounds.

Weeks later, the family managed to leave Gaza for emergency surgery in Cairo — and on Wednesday, they were evacuated to the United Arab Emirates with other wounded children from Gaza for further treatment.

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