Displaced Palestinians gathered at a makeshift camp inside the Al-Shifa hospital gardens, where Mohammed is being treated. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

0800 7318496