They would never reach their destination.
The full picture of the tragedy that befell the family is still incomplete. Some details could not be confirmed. What is less controversial is that their car caught fire; the parents and most of the children were killed; a 6-year-old girl sometimes asked to be freed; paramedics were dispatched; then contact was lost.
The Washington Post recreated the events of that day by interviewing three family members, five members of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and reviewing audio of telephone conversations between dispatchers and children in the a car The family’s story is symbolic of the continuing dangers civilians face in northern Gaza – even as Israel says it is ending its military mission there – and the depth of isolation from outside world.
When asked several times, the Israel Defense Forces said, “We are not familiar with the incident described.” The Post provided specific coordinates and additional details to the IDF on Tuesday morning and has not received a response.
In the PRCS operations room in Ramallah, the landline was ringing. It was 2:28pm when Omar al-Qam, the lone dispatcher on duty that day, woke up.
From 2,000 miles away, in Frankfurt, Germany came the steady voice of Mohammed Salem Hamada: “My family members are trapped in Gaza City,” he told Omar. “They were driving a black Kia Picanto and the car was targeted. Some of the people inside were killed.”
Mohammed gave Omar the phone number for his 15-year-old niece, Layan, who had called her uncle in southern Gaza to sound the alarm. The uncle, who was struggling with irregular cell service, called his cousin in Germany, hoping that he could get help.
The uncle added what Layan said: The Israeli army had opened the family’s car. Her parents and four siblings were dead – Sana, 13, Raghad, 12, Mohammed, 11 and 4-year-old Sarah.
Layan told her uncle that she was bleeding. And that Hind’s cousin, 6, was the only other survivor.
Omar, in Ramallah, called Layan. She was afraid.
“They are shooting at us,” she said into the phone. “The tank is next to me.”
“Are you hiding?” he asked.
Then came a great fire. Layan screamed. The line went dead.
In panic, Omar said he went to find his colleague, Rana Faqih, in another room. He was shaking, she remembered.
Rana said she walked back to his chair in the recreation room and stood next to him as he dialed again.
This time it was Hind who answered.
“Are you in the car now?” he asked her.
“Yes,” came the small voice on the other end.
Rana took the phone, telling the 6-year-old that she would stay on the phone until help arrived.
Hind’s voice was so quiet that it was impossible to make out her answer.
“Who are you with?” asked Rana.
“With my family,” Hind told her.
Rana asked if she had tried to wake up her family. Hind replied: “I tell you they are dead.”
Rana asked her how the car was hit.
“Tank,” said Hind. “The tank is next to me … it’s coming towards me … it’s very, very close.”
Rana’s voice was strong, clear and confident. Hind was weak and trembling. Rana urged her to keep talking. They prayed together. Rana read to her from the Quran.
Don’t cry, she told the little girl, although Rana was also fighting back tears.
“Don’t be afraid,” she told Hind. “They’re not going to hurt you. … Don’t leave the car.”
Minutes passed. Hind seemed to drop the phone. The silences were longer now.
“If I could get you out I would,” said Rana. “We are trying our best. “
Rana was crying now, but she tried to keep her voice steady.
“Come, please,” said Hind. Again and again: “Come get me.”
There was a distant fire behind him.
“Come and get me,” repeated Hind.
Rana, 37, has worked in Emergency and Disaster Management with PRCS since 2009. She had faced situations like this before, she said, but never with a daughter this young.
Her colleagues had found the car in an area near Al-Azhar University. An ambulance there, within a closed military zone, would require permission from the IDF. It was a process that involved several groups, communicating over unreliable phone lines. The dispatchers knew it could take hours.
“We have received hundreds of calls from people who are trapped,” said Nebal Farsakh, a spokesperson for PRCS. “People just want help to evacuate. Unfortunately we don’t have a safe entrance.”
Operators told the Post that they arrived around 3 pm to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, which coordinates the safe passage of paramedics with COGAT – a branch of the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Fathi Abu Warda, a consultant at the Palestinian Ministry of Health, confirmed that he received a welcome light from COGAT to send an ambulance to the area. COGAT did not respond to questions from Am Post, referring them to the IDF.
The operators said they tried to keep the focus on Hind. Nisreen Qawwas, 56, head of PRCS mental health department, took the lead.
“She practiced deep breathing exercises with us, and I told her we would be with her, second by second,” Nisreen recalled.
But Hind started to become distant, said Nisreen, and she hung up many times, becoming sad that no one came for her.
Finally, operators said they reached Hind’s mother, who was taking refuge elsewhere in Gaza City, and put her in the call.
“Her mother’s voice really made a difference,” Nisreen said. “Every minute she said to her mother, ‘I miss you momma.'”
“Her mother told her, ‘You will be with me in a little while, and I will arrest you,'” Nisreen recalled.
The Post was unable to reach Hind’s mother in Gaza City, where communications are limited.
At 5:40 pm – three hours after the phone first went off in Ramallah – the dispatchers said they received a call back from the Palestinian Ministry of Health. The ministry informed them that they had received permission to send paramedics to Hind. The Israeli authorities had given them a map to follow. PRCS sent the nearest ambulance, 1.8 miles away, to the scene with two paratroopers.
Nisreen said she tried to keep Hind involved. They were talking about the sea and the sun and her favorite chocolate cake.
But everyone said that the little girl was fading. She said that her hand was bleeding, that there was blood on her body. It was dark now. She was hungry, thirsty and cold, she told her mother.
Dispatchers said the paramedics radioed as they approached the vehicle. The team in Ramallah encouraged them to move forward, slowly, Nisreen said.
At that time, dispatchers said, there was a “heavy gun.” The line with Hind was lost.
Hind’s last words, Omar said, were, “Come and take me.”
That was at 7pm on a Monday. There has been no word from Hind or the ambulance crew since.
Miriam Berger, Sufian Taha and Louisa Loveluck in Jerusalem contributed to this report.