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

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle