Buried With Chocolate in His Hand
The three children took their bikes to buy candy. A tank chased them and fired two rounds at short range. Two brothers were killed, and the third brother was severely wounded. It's all there on the video..
5 July 2002
The bicycles with black ribbon-bedecked photos of the dead children.
(Photo: Miki Kratsman)
The video shows it all: Here are the three kids on their bikes, three black dots on the slope of the road, two on the right, close together, the third on the left, and a white car passes between them. A woman calls out something unclear, maybe a warning to the children about the tank; the car disappears down the hill, and then the tank suddenly appears from the corner on the left. First you see the tank's turret gun, then the base of the turret and then the tank itself, charging after three little kids on their bicycles a few dozen meters ahead. The picture freezes for a second to show the details better. Then suddenly the screen goes dark. Sound of firing. Boom. Lots of noise, dust and smoke everywhere, and that's it. The anonymous photographer stopped filming.
And now, the bicycles lie there in the yard, covered by a heavy woolen blanket as if to preserve them from the night's chill. Three bicycles. The large black bike is Jamil's; the medium-sized red one is Tareq's; and the little purple one is Ahmed's. The seat on the smallest bike is bent awry, the rubber that covers the handlebars on the big bike is torn, and there's a hole in the seat-covering on the medium-sized bike. Damaged only slightly, one might say. Black-beribboned pictures of two of the children are stuck on the handlebars of their bikes, photographs of the dead Jamil and Ahmed. Tareq, who's lying wounded in the hospital, his body torn by shrapnel, was riding with them on that black Friday on the way to the grocery store. His bike has no picture attached.
The boys' father sits in the house. A tall man with a mustache. For eight years, before the outbreak of the first intifada, he drove a bus for Egged, the Israeli bus company. Tears threaten to overwhelm him, again and again. On the table in front of him is a straw basket with a pile of the colored memorial placards with pictures of his two sons. A keepsake for every mourner. No organization's name is inscribed on these. The bereaved father refused to let anyone - Hamas, the Popular Front, Islamic Jihad, the Brigades - put their mark on the two innocent children riding their bicycles to the neighborhood grocery store to buy themselves some candy, during a break in the curfew, until the soldiers in the tank shot them from up close, killing two of them and wounding the third. They buried Ahmed with the chocolate bar he'd bought for himself clutched in his hand.
A north Jenin neighborhood among the orchards, Al Basatin. Relatively well-kept homes in neglected surroundings. Yusef Abu Aziz, the bereaved father, was born in Rafiah to a family that fled in 1948 from Sidni-'Ali on the coast at Herzliya. His wife, Hamda, was born in Jenin and he moved there to be with her. Hamda, her face downcast, hurries to her room and closes the door as one of the children turns on the video to show yet once more the dreadful film of her children's death, and she doesn't come out again.
Since leaving Egged, Abu Aziz has worked as a truck driver for UNRWA. The couple had seven children. Ra'ad, the eldest, a 22-year-old medical student at Cairo University, was called home when his brothers were killed. Ahmed, six, who was killed, was the youngest, born to his parents relatively late in life. Two sons work in construction in Ramallah, one had a stall at the market in Jenin, and the others are in school, except little Ahmed who was still in preschool.
On Friday, June 12, just two weeks ago now, they got up in the morning around seven as usual. All the children were home; there was a curfew on. Abu Aziz would always keep the door locked during curfews to make sure the kids didn't go out. Around 11:30 A.M., someone knocked on the door. It was Abu Aziz's young nephew, Wahel, who arrived on his bicycle from the city's eastern quarter with the news: The curfew had been lifted for a few hours. The father, skeptical, hurried to look out the window of the next room on the second floor. Indeed, the street was full of people and there were cars moving again. Yusef told the children there was no curfew now.
Ahmed asked for a shekel to buy some candy. The grocery store is about 200 meters from the house. Jamil, 13, and Tareq, 11, wanted some, too. Each of them received a shekel. Each one took his bicycle. "Buy it and come back quickly," the worried father instructed them, and went back to the television, where Brazil was playing England in the World Cup. A few minutes went by. It was Brazil 2, England 1, and suddenly the father heard a huge explosion from the direction of the street. Immediately there was shouting: "Get an ambulance, get an ambulance!" He rushed to the phone to call the Red Crescent. It never occurred to him that his children had been hurt, and he went back to watch the roundup of the game on television. This week he remembered only that Brazil had been playing, he didn't remember against whom. Another few minutes passed and someone from the street came to the door to tell him that his children were injured and had been taken to the hospital. No one mentioned deaths.
Outside, the curfew was reinstated and it was impossible to go anywhere. Abu Aziz phoned a friend, an ambulance driver with UNRWA, to come get him out of the house and take him to the hospital, a few minutes' drive away. When he got there, Ahmed was already dead, his little body shredded. Jamil was in the operating room, his body also torn up. The father saw only Tareq alive. Jamil died a few minutes later, on the operating table. Tareq also underwent an operation. At three in the afternoon, the curfew was lifted again and Abu Aziz went home with the bodies of his two sons. Their mother and siblings took their leave of the boys. The two of them were buried that evening in the Jenin cemetery. Together.
The children's ward at the hospital in Jenin: Tareq, 11, is in bed in a double room, tubes attached to his skinny, scarred body. No one was at his bedside when we arrived, accompanied by his oldest brother Ra'ad. Tareq has a hole in his abdomen and a hole in his lungs and a hole in his kidney, and a large hole in his left leg and a small hole in his right leg and another hole in his knee, and his spleen has been removed.
Tareq speaks weakly. What happened? "The doctor's car ran away from the tank and the tank shot at the car and we were riding our bikes and the shell exploded and threw me and my two brothers. I don't remember the rest." Ten days afterward, Tareq still didn't know that his two brothers had been killed. His father and his remaining brothers warned us not to let that slip. Ra'ad strokes Tareq's hand. In the last three years they've hardly seen one another, because Ra'ad is studying in Cairo. Jamil loved soccer, books and computers. He wanted to study medicine like Ra'ad who says now that Jamil was smarter than he is. Ahmed was in kindergarten. Tareq just finished fifth grade.
Friday of the previous week, Dr. Samer Al-Ahmed was released from the hospital and now he lies in bed in his spacious home, surrounded by friends taking advantage of a lull in the curfew to come and visit him. A week earlier, on that same black Friday, he was also in a hurry to get to the market and buy food, having heard that the curfew had been lifted.
On his way home, he was stopped by two military Jeeps at the town's refugee camp, and he and two hundred other people gathered there were told not to leave the camp. After about half an hour, the soldiers permitted him to go. Ahmed thought he was safely on his way home - "The captain told me I could go home" - when suddenly he saw a tank rumbling after him, a few hundred meters behind. Just to be on the safe side, he turned right at the next corner. Shots were fired from the direction of the tank at his car and Ahmed saw that he was bleeding from the abdomen. He stopped alongside a house and threw himself from his car into the street, calling for help. The tank came closer. Suddenly he heard a deafening roar. More than that he doesn't remember. He saw the children on their bicycles before the tank fired, but not afterwards. He says the tank shot two shells in the children's direction. A look at his Opel Astra station wagon suggests that only a miracle saved his life: The driver's seat is completely bullet-ridden and there's blood all over it.
The IDF spokesman, on the day of the incident: "An IDF force conducting house-to-house reconnaissance in the city of Jenin while looking for a munitions factory came upon a group of Palestinians disobeying the curfew and approaching them. The force fired two tank shells as a deterrent. Three Palestinians were killed by these shells and ten more wounded. An initial investigation reveals that the force acted in error. The IDF investigation of this incident is continuing."
The IDF spokesman, this week: "The incident is still being dealt with." Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer issued an apology. No one from the IDF came to the family's home; no one even bothered to watch the video.