Israel-Gaza war: Unknown fate of six-year-old Hind Rajab trapped under fire

Hind Rajab

By Lucy Williamson

BBC News, Jerusalem

The voice on the other end of the line was small and faint; a six-year-old’s voice, crackling on a mobile phone from Gaza.

The tank is next to me. It’s moving.

Sitting in the emergency call-centre of the Palestinian Red Crescent, Rana tried to keep her own voice calm.

“Is it very close?”

“Very, very,” the small voice replied. “Will you come and get me? I’m so scared.”

There was nothing Rana could do except keep the conversation going.

Six-year-old Hind Rajab was trapped under fire in Gaza City and begging for help, hiding inside her uncle’s car, surrounded by the bodies of her relatives.

Rana’s voice was her only fragile link with a familiar world.

Hind had set off from her home in Gaza City earlier that day with her uncle, aunt and five cousins.

It was Monday 29 January. That morning, the Israeli army had told people to evacuate areas in the west of the city and move south along the coast road.

Hind’s mother, Wissam, remembers there was intense shelling in their area. “We were terrified, and we wanted to escape,” she said. “We were fleeing from place to place, to avoid the air strikes.”

The family decided to head for the Ahli Hospital to the east of the city, hoping it would be a safer place to shelter.

Map of Gaza

Wissam and her older child began making their own way there on foot; Hind was given a place in her uncle’s car, a black Kia Piccanto.

“It was very cold and rainy,” Wissam explained. “I told Hind to go in the car because I didn’t want her to suffer in the rain.”

As soon as the car left, she said, they heard loud shooting coming from the same direction.

As Hind’s uncle drove towards the city’s famous al-Azhar University, the car is thought to have unexpectedly come face to face with Israeli tanks. They pulled into the nearby Fares petrol station for safety, and appear to have come under fire.

Inside the vehicle, the family called relatives for help. One of them contacted the emergency headquarters of the Palestinian Red Crescent, 50 miles (80km) away in the occupied West Bank.

It was now around 14:30 (12:30 GMT): operators at the Red Crescent call-centre in Ramallah called the mobile phone number for Hind’s uncle, but his 15-year-old daughter, Layan, answered instead.

In the recorded phone call, Layan tells the Red Crescent staff that her parents and siblings have all been killed, and that there is a tank next to the car. “They are firing at us,” she says, before the conversation ends with the sound of gunfire and screaming.

When the Red Crescent team ring back, it is Hind who answers, her voice almost inaudible, drowned in fear.

It soon becomes clear that she is the only survivor in the car, and that she is still in the line of fire.

“Hide under the seats,” the team tell her. “Don’t let anyone see you.”

Operator Rana Faqih stayed on the line with Hind for hours, as the Red Crescent appealed to the Israeli army to allow their ambulance to access the location.

“She was shaking, sad, appealing for help,” Rana remembered. “She told us [her relatives] were dead. But then later she described them as ‘sleeping’. So we told her ‘let them sleep, we don’t want to bother them’.”

Hind kept asking, over and over again, for someone to come and get her.

“At one point, she told me it was getting dark,” Rana told the BBC. “She was scared. She asked me how far away my house was. I felt paralysed and helpless.”

Three hours after the call began, an ambulance was finally despatched to rescue Hind.

In the meantime, the Red Crescent team had reached Hind’s mother, Wissam, and patched her phone line into the call.

She cried more when she heard her mother’s voice, Rana remembers.

“She pleaded with me not to hang up,” Wissam told the BBC. “I asked her where she was injured, then I distracted her by reading the Quran with her, and we prayed together. She was repeating every word I said after me.”

Hind's grandfather, Bahaa Hamada
Image caption,Hind’s grandfather, Bahaa Hamada, said Hind spoke of seeing an ambulance in the distance

It was after dark when the ambulance crew – Yousef and Ahmad – notified operators that they were nearing the location, and were about to be checked for entry by Israeli forces.

It was the last operators heard from their colleagues – or from Hind. The line to both paramedics, and to the six-year-old girl they came to rescue, disconnected for good.

Hind’s grandfather, Bahaa Hamada, told the BBC that the girl’s connection with her mother lasted a few moments longer, and that the last thing Wissam heard was the sound of the car door being opened, and Hind telling her that she could see the ambulance in the distance.

“Every second, my heart burns,” Wissam told the BBC. “Every time I hear the sound of an ambulance, I think, ‘maybe it’s her’. Every sound, every gunshot, every falling missile, every bomb – I wonder if it’s heading for my daughter, if she’s been hit.”

Neither Red Crescent teams in Gaza, nor Hind’s family, have been able to reach the location, which still lies inside an active combat zone controlled by the Israeli army.

“It’s hard at night,” the call operator Rana said, “when you wake up and hear her voice in your ear, saying ‘come and get me'”.

We asked the Israeli army for details of its operations in the area that day, and about the disappearance of Hind and the ambulance sent to retrieve her. We asked again 24 hours later, and they said they were still checking.

“Where is the International Court of Justice? Why are presidents sitting in their chairs?” Hind’s mother, Wissam, asked.

A week on from her daughter’s disappearance, Wissam sits and waits at the Ahli hospital, day after day, filling the absence with a resolute hope that Hind will be brought back alive.

“I’ve brought her things, and I’m waiting for her here,” she said. “I’m waiting for my daughter any moment, any second. I’m begging from a broken mother’s heart not to forget this story.”

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