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One man's search for his father in mass graves at Gaza's Al Shifa hospital

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been 2 1/2 weeks since Israeli forces ended their raid on Gaza's biggest hospital, where they say Hamas fighters had regrouped. NPR correspondent Aya Batrawy reports on mass graves found at that hospital and the search for missing loved ones there. A warning - this story includes graphic descriptions of death and violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACTOR HUMMING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Tractors are digging out bodies from Al-Shifa hospital's courtyard, where recovery crews tell NPR two mass graves have been found with 35 bodies in them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Some were patients buried with medical waste and cannulas still in their arms. But in Gaza city, there are no labs to run DNA tests on the bodies. Instead, people look for personal items to try and identify the missing.

(CROSSTALK)

BATRAWY: Bashir Jaradah is searching for his 49-year-old father here. In his hand - in his left hand, he had a watch, Jaradah tells the search and recovery crew. His underwear was blue and striped white like this, he gestures.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: They think his is body No. 18. Jaradah says he was in the intensive care unit with his father, who was connected to an IV drip, when Israeli forces stormed the hospital last month. The soldiers ordered everyone except medics and patients to evacuate. Jaradah didn't want to leave his father alone, so he stayed behind with four other guys.

BASHIR JARADAH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says Israeli forces came into the ICU and shot three of them in the head and then ordered him to leave the hospital.

MO-TASEM SALAH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Dr. Mo'tasem Salah (ph), a member of the emergency committee at Gaza's health ministry, tells NPR from Al-Shifa's courtyard that some of the bodies exhumed show signs of execution. He says these individuals were stripped of their clothes and have signs of gunshots to the head. Other bodies were torn or crushed by the bulldozers that buried them. Israel's military says, quote, "200 terrorists were eliminated" during the raid on Al-Shifa and that no civilians were killed or harmed. It says the raid targeted Hamas militants using the hospital and storing weapons there. The World Health Organization says the hospital is now an empty shell and strewn with unexploded munitions, slowing down recovery efforts. The WHO says at least 21 patients died during the siege due to a lack of care. Jaradah's father was one of them. He identifies his father's body from his boxers, which were striped and purchased abroad.

JARADAH: (Through interpreter) There's nothing harder than seeing your father thrown into the ground. There is nothing harder than that - nothing.

BATRAWY: Gaza civil defense spokesman Mahmoud Bassal tells NPR 381 bodies have been found in and around Al-Shifa hospital since Israel's raid ended. He says around 160 others, most of them women and children, are believed to be dead and trapped under the rubble of nearby homes hit by Israeli airstrikes or burnt during the siege, when soldiers went door to door in nighttime raids in the streets around the hospital.

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BATRAWY: Al-Shifa was Gaza's biggest and most advanced hospital. The World Health Organization was able to send a team there several days after the raid ended and witnessed bodies lying partially covered on the ground, exposed to the heat. They say the hospital's main wards have been burnt. Walls were torn down, and incubators and other equipment destroyed, leaving people in north Gaza with just a handful of partially functioning hospitals.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACTOR HUMMING)

BATRAWY: In Al-Shifa's courtyard, the stench of decomposing bodies is overpowering. Everyone wears masks. Hungry stray dogs gather around the bodies being unearthed. With little equipment, the crews used these dogs to find where there could be more bodies buried.

Aya Batrawy, NPR News in Dubai, with reporting from Omar El-Qatta in Gaza city and Anas Baba in Rafah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.