Page last updated at 21:24 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

Bowen diary: A father's loss

BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen is writing a diary of the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Helmi al-Samouni kisses his son Mohammed goodbye
Helmi al-Samouni kissed his dead son Mohammed goodbye


Back on 6 January I wrote in this diary about one of the most affecting pieces of video I had seen coming out of Gaza.

For me, it is still the most memorable single image of the war. It showed a young Palestinian father kissing his dead baby son goodbye. He was murmuring farewells to his boy and I defy anyone to view it and not be profoundly moved.

He kissed the boy's face, and kept murmuring "you're gone, you're gone"

I was frustrated that I did not even know the names of the man and his son.

Despite Israel's decision to ban foreign journalists from crossing into Gaza, I think the BBC did some very good journalism during the 22 days of war, not least because we have two great Palestinian producers in Gaza, Hamada Abu Qammar and Rushdi Abu Alouf.

Israel did not stop the truth coming out but it did force us to cover the war in an incomplete way. The pictures of the man and his baby son had come from one of the brave Palestinian cameramen who were working for the international news agencies Reuters and APTN. Agencies are news wholesalers who sell news pictures and stories to broadcasters like the BBC. We could not have functioned without them at the height of the Gaza war.

But I wanted to know more about the man, much more.

After a couple of days in Gaza I can tell you a great deal about him. His name is Helmi al-Samouni and he is 27. His son was called Mohammed. He was six months old and he was dead because he had been shot in the head by an Israeli soldier. Helmi's wife Maha, 19, was killed shortly afterwards, he says, by a rocket launched from a helicopter, which also killed his parents.

I mentioned the Samouni clan's experience in this diary yesterday. A woman called Zeinat (Helmi's aunt) said she had seen soldiers shoot dead her husband and four-year-old son.

I didn't realise then that Helmi, whom I met yesterday, was the man who had been kissing his son goodbye so tenderly. It was only when I went back to the office and looked at the original pictures that I realised that he was the same person. He has grown a beard and in a couple of weeks looks about 10 years older.

We have been trying to put together his story.

They had been herded into a building in their home of Zaytoun, just outside Gaza City, by Israeli soldiers. Survivors say that as many as 29 people died in brutal, inhuman circumstances, and the Israeli army is already facing accusations that its soldiers committed war crimes that day.

The incident was first reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross when the war was still going on. Now that the Israelis have pulled out, journalists and human rights investigators are all over Zaytoun. When I have all the details, I will write more about what happened to Helmi Samouni on the worst day of his life, the last day for his wife and child.

The Israelis, who are fond of saying that they have the most ethical army in the world, say that they are investigating too.

I asked a former military man who is here working for a human rights group what he thought of the way that the Israelis had left the house that they were using as a base. He was not impressed by the way that soldiers had defecated on the floors of some rooms, even though there were functioning lavatories. (There's evidence it was soldiers, by the way, which in the interests of taste I will not set down).

My military friend told me that fouling their own base showed a lack of discipline. So did leaving behind pieces of kit, bodywarmers, and heavy tools which were abandoned when they pulled out.

I could see the logic of some of their actions, which look as if they can be justified on military grounds. They pulled up floor slabs to fill sandbags from the earth under the house. Presumably they did not want to take the risk of going outside to do it. Holes have been smashed in the walls to create firing positions.

But other things look like out-and-out vandalism. Very typically for Palestinians, different generations of the same family lived on different floors of the same house.

Helmi told me that the soldiers had thrown children's furniture out of one of the flats in the house. I looked out of the windows and saw broken chests of drawers and clothes strewn over the sand outside. Other rooms have been smashed up, clothes pulled out, cupboards broken.

It is clear that in Zaytoun civilians were not treated with respect, and that many of them - as many as 29 - died in circumstances which should worry the Israeli army very much.

And I am glad that I can finally put a name to a face.

Other previous diary entries by Jeremy Bowen:

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