‘We didn’t expect to find bones’: Inside one Gaza family’s nightmare

‘We didn’t expect to find bones’: Inside one Gaza family’s nightmare

The stench of death filled the halls of Gaza City’s Ahli Arab Hospital.

Bodies – many already decomposing – lay in heaps on the floor, next to injured patients writhing in pain.

Amid the chaos and suffering, one of Naifa Rizq al-Sawada’s relatives was methodically searching for signs of the family’s 92-year-old matriarch.

Naifa had gone missing more than two weeks earlier, in late March, after the Israeli army raided the family’s home near another Gaza City health complex, al-Shifa, and ordered everyone to leave.

Naifa hadn’t been seen since, and Israel’s intense military assault in northern Gaza had made gathering information on her whereabouts next to impossible.

“Did anyone arrive here that fits her description?” Naifa’s relative recalled asking hospital administrators after reaching Ahli Hospital, insisting on seeing any bodies resembling the elderly woman’s slender frame.

“‘Uncover this one’ – that’s a man. ‘Uncover this one’ – that’s a little girl. ‘Uncover this one’ – that’s a child,” said the relative, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity due to a fear of reprisals.

“I went to a different department, all the same – indescribable scenes that I will never forget.”

The al-Sawada family home in Gaza City
The al-Sawada family’s home in Gaza City, in early April [Courtesy: Ayman Ayyad]

The family’s sombre search finally ended days later when, after returning to the seven-storey Gaza City building where Naifa was last seen, they uncovered charred bone fragments they believe belong to her.

“They gathered the bones in a shroud and dug a grave next to my nephew who was killed earlier in the war and buried Mum,” Maha al-Nawati, Naifa’s daughter who was displaced from northern Gaza last year, told Al Jazeera.

“Despite the pain, we were grateful and happy that we found her and gave her a proper burial ourselves.”

Yet while the family says knowing that Naifa was no longer suffering brought them a sense of relief, the circumstances surrounding her death remain unclear.

Al Jazeera has spoken to witnesses, rights advocates and family members to try to piece together what happened to Naifa – a case experts say is a stark example of the brutality of Israel’s war on Gaza.

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