Displaced Palestinians gathered at a makeshift camp inside the Al-Shifa hospital gardens, where Mohammed is being treated. Photo: Getty
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Under fire: what happened next to injured Mohammed and his family

Two weeks ago Donald Macintyre reported from Gaza on the plight of ten-year-old Mohammed Badran, blinded in an Israeli air strike. Here, he gives an update on his treatment. 

It was, said Dr Ghassan Abu-Sitta, one of the most difficult days he had spent in the operating room of the burns unit at Al-Shifa Hospital. It wasn’t just the severity of Mohammed Badran’s facial injuries, nor that, as the doctor soon discovered, the ten-year-old would need complex microsurgery unavailable in Gaza to replace his missing eye with a prosthesis. It wasn’t even that Mohammed did not understand that he had been blinded by the Israeli air strike on his family home in the Nuseirat refugee camp and kept asking the nurses, “Why have you switched the lights off?” It was that when Dr Abu-Sitta looked at the child – as he did for hours, while he carefully reconstructed his upper jaw with tissue from his back – he was continually reminded that Mohammed was the same age as one of his own sons.

That day, amid the chaos at the hospital in Gaza City, Dr Abu-Sitta told me that Mohammed’s whole family had been killed in the air strike. I reported it in this magazine – a single paragraph in a long piece. What neither of us knew then was that the reason Mohammed was alone in the burns unit was not that the rest of his family had been wiped out, but that they were either elsewhere in Shifa or at another hospital in Deir el-Balah.

In Gaza, however, happy endings are always conditional: six of Mohammed’s eight siblings were hurt, four of them critically. His 17-year-old sister, Eman, who had suffered severe leg injuries, was soon moved to the next bed. His mother, Taghreed, was able to stay with both of them.

But the story of the Badrans was not over yet. The day after I filed an update to let readers know the family was alive, it became obsolete: on 9 August, Mohammed’s father, Nidal, was killed in an air strike on a mosque in Nuseirat.

The 44-year-old was a policeman – and therefore on the Hamas payroll, as he had once been on that of the Palestinian Authority. He was killed, his brother claims, while preparing for dawn prayers. Residents near the mosque were warned by the Israel Defence Forces to get out and someone alerted the local imam, who then left. No one warned the other three men in the mosque at the time.

Whatever Nidal Badran was doing that morning, it is now almost certain he and the men killed with him were Hamas activists. Described by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights as “members of an armed group”, they may have belonged to Hamas’s military wing. Either way, the targeting of the Badrans’ house days earlier was surely no accident.

The unfurling fate of the Badran family goes to the heart of the debate around Israel’s actions in Gaza and the high number of children killed in air strikes there.

The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has identified 72 Gazan families of three or more people that have been killed in their own home in the course of Operation Protective Edge: 547 people in all, including 250 minors, 125 women under the age of 60 and 29 men and women aged 60 or above. Many of these families no doubt included at least one militant from Hamas or another armed group. In other cases, there is no evidence as yet that they did. B’Tselem and other human rights groups, such as al-Mezan and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, argue strongly that there is no justification for the high number of casualties among civilian relatives.

In the case of the Badran family, Israel appeared to recognise this. Last weekend it allowed Mohammed, Eman and their badly wounded 13-year-old brother, Ibrahim, out of Gaza through the Erez crossing after two Spanish charities offered to fund their evacuation. Their mother was refused a permit to cross with them; an aunt accompanied them instead. Mohammed has since had surgery at al-Khalidi Hospital in Amman and after two weeks doctors will assess if he still needs to travel to Spain for further treatment.

The Israeli military has repeatedly insisted that it does not target civilians, and it blames Hamas for operating out of civilian areas – which in itself is a violation of international humanitarian law. B’Tselem points out that the attacks on family homes contradict several principles of humanitarian law: the distinction between civilian and military targets; the idea that violation by one party does not reciprocally justify violation of it by the other; and, above all, “proportionality”. Responsibility for the “harsh consequences” of the air strikes policy, B’Tselem argues, rests with “Israel’s government and top military commanders who authorised it, despite the foreseeable horrific results”.

Mohammed Badran appears to be a victim of that policy. But at least he – and most of his family – are alive. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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