A picture and its story: Gaza girl survives Israeli strike that shattered her family and home

Published May 17, 2021
Rescuers carry Suzy Eshkuntana, 6, as they pull her from the rubble of a building at the site of Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City, May 16. — Reuters
Rescuers carry Suzy Eshkuntana, 6, as they pull her from the rubble of a building at the site of Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City, May 16. — Reuters
Riyad Eshkuntana kisses his daughter Suzy's hand as they are treated at a hospital after being pulled from the rubble of a building amidst Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City, May 16. — Reuters
Riyad Eshkuntana kisses his daughter Suzy's hand as they are treated at a hospital after being pulled from the rubble of a building amidst Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City, May 16. — Reuters
Palestinian girl Suzy Eshkuntana, 6, is treated by a medic at a hospital after being pulled from the rubble of a building amidst Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City, May 16. — Reuters
Palestinian girl Suzy Eshkuntana, 6, is treated by a medic at a hospital after being pulled from the rubble of a building amidst Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City, May 16. — Reuters

Six-year-old Suzy Eshkuntana woke up alone in Gaza’s largest hospital where she was rushed by rescuers from the rubble of her home, which had been wrecked by a pre-dawn Israeli strike that killed her mother and all four of her siblings.

The young girl, trapped for seven hours under the debris, was reunited in Shifa hospital with her father, who was also being treated for his wounds.

"Forgive me, my daughter. You screamed to me to come to you, but I couldn't come," Riyad Eshkuntana told her after medics brought them together in adjoining beds.

The Palestinian family's home was hit in Israeli air strikes early on Sunday on Gaza City, a wave of attacks that Gaza health officials said killed 42 people including 10 children and raised the death toll in Gaza from a week of Israeli bombardment to 192.

Israel says it is attacking the Islamist Hamas movement that controls the densely populated Gaza Strip and that along with other militant groups has fired hundreds of rockets towards Israeli cities.

Those rocket barrages have killed 10 people in Israel, including two children, according to Israel. They have also sent millions of Israelis scrambling to "safe rooms" and shelters as rocket warning sirens go off at all hours of the day and night.

"The reason we have these casualties is because Hamas is criminally attacking us from civilian neighbourhoods," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US broadcaster CBS.

The strike on the Eshkuntana home was in the same area as an Israeli strike on a militant tunnel system in Gaza, claims the Israeli military. The collapse of the tunnel system caused the houses above to collapse and led to unintended civilian casualties, the military said. However, since the latest series of Israeli assaults, a huge majority of those killed have been innocent civilians and crucial infrastructure, such as roads leading to hospitals, has been destroyed.

Dozens of rescue workers, police officers, relatives and neighbours gathered at the wreckage of the Eshkuntana house during the search and rescue operation.

After several hours workers under the collapsed walls began to chant "Allahu Akbar" — God is greatest — a signal that someone would be brought out alive.

Suzy, covered in dust and too weak to raise her head, wept as she was taken to an ambulance.

Anxious relatives

At the hospital, relatives anxiously asked for details as the casualties arrived.

"Is this Yehya? It is Yehya?" cried women and men waiting at the reception hall, shortly before medics told them that the four-year-old boy, Suzy's brother, was dead.

Two of the women fainted.

Minutes later, the body of a girl was rushed in. "They brought Dana. Dana, Dana, are you okay?" they asked. But the young girl was also dead, along with another brother and sister.

Seeing Suzy with her eyes open brought a brief moment of joy before she was quickly taken away for X-rays. Doctors said she was bruised but had no severe injuries, and she was brought to a hospital bed next to her father.

Riyad Eshkuntana said he had believed his family were secure because there were doctors living in the same building, and he had put the children in what they believed to be a safe room.

"Suddenly, a strange rocket, like fire and flame, destroyed two walls," he told Reuters. The parents ran to check on their children when a second explosion hit, collapsing the ceiling.

"I heard my son Zain calling: 'Daddy, daddy'. His voice was okay, but I couldn't turn to look at him because I was trapped," he said.

When rescuers first called out for survivors, Eshkuntana was too weak to shout back, but when someone returned half an hour later he was able to get their attention.

Lying on the hospital bed next to his surviving daughter, his head bandaged, he said at first he had wanted to die.

“I was filled with all the anger of the universe, but when I heard that one of my daughters was alive, I said thank God because this girl might capture some — even a little — of my daughters’ smile because she is their sister.”

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