When Rami Mahmoud left his family’s home to buy food, his wife, Elham Maged, stayed behind to pray. When he made his way back through the narrow, tightly packed nearby streets of northern Gaza’s Jabalya Refugee Camp, he returned to a scene of complete chaos. An Israeli airstrike had smashed into the center of the densely populated community, tearing a deep crater into its heart. Their apartment had vanished.
Scanning the devastation, Mahmoud suddenly noticed a single finger reaching up between the rubble; it was Elham. Miraculously she had survived. But his relief at finding her alive was brief. Two of their children, they would soon discover, were dead. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Two weeks on from the horror of that day, the couple are more than 200 miles southwest of Gaza City, inside Cairo’s Nasser Medical Institute in neighboring Egypt. The wreckage and chaos of their shattered home was replaced by the cleanliness and order of this foreign medical facility, the noise of rockets and explosions exchanged for the benign, insistent hum of traffic crawling through Egypt’s bustling capital.
But safety and care does not bring comfort; they are still haunted by grief. “My daughter, just an hour before she died, she called her best friend and said, ‘I feel like something is going to happen to me. Can you take care of my mother and visit her often?’” Elham told us.
“My son is a handsome boy, he was in high school, he used to go to the gym and lift weights, and he is tall and well built,” she continued, tears streaming down her face. “He liked to look good. He got a haircut two days before he was killed, in the middle of war. He said, ‘even if I die, I want to die looking good.’”
Mahmoud shared family photos with us. Their daughter, just 15, her wide, clear eyes and delicate features framed by a headscarf; their son, 17, carrying a small boy on his back, a warm smile shining from beneath his tousled black hair.
“God created them, God took them,” his wife said. “I just want to go back to the rest of my children. There is no internet there, so I don’t know anything about them. I know they are with their grandfather somewhere safe, hopefully, but we have no way of reaching them.”
Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed more than 12,000 Palestinians since October 7, including an estimated 5,000 children, according to the Hamas government press office. Israel says its airstrikes intend to target Hamas commanders and infrastructure, following the militant group’s October 7 terror attacks, which left 1,200 people dead in Israel and saw about 240 taken hostage.
Families flee south
The Israeli military has focused its ground operations in northern Gaza – where Rami and Elham lived – and where it claims to have now seized control. Gaza civilians in the north have been ordered to evacuate southward, but airstrikes do not spare that part of the densely-inhabited enclave, either.
Muhammed Wadea blames himself for following the Israeli evacuation orders, telling CNN that he made the decision to heed the IDF’s warnings and move his family out of their home to head south.
On October 16, he and his young children found themselves in the southern city of Khan Younis, where another apparent Israeli strike tore into the building in which they were sheltering.
Today Wadea’s 9-year-old son, Abdelrahman, shares a hospital room at Nasser Medical Institute with his 14-year-old sister. Both children sustained multiple injuries in the strike – broken bones, skin torn from their bodies, shrapnel lodged in flesh.
Abdelrahman recalled that one moment he was sitting on a sofa eating potato chips with his cousin, the next he awoke beneath rubble and surrounded by carnage.
There was no warning, nor was there any sign of Hamas where they were staying, Wadea said, standing restlessly by his children, pain etched on his face as he wrestled with heartbreaking guilt. He began to weep as he spoke.
“I hope that Abdelrahman’s siblings are fine and alive,” he said. “May God have mercy on them. I have nine children. My eldest, Riham is 18, she is married. My youngest is 4 years old.”
Both Wadea and Mahmoud’s families left Gaza through Rafah Crossing, the only way out of the Palestinian enclave since Israel sealed other exits after the October 7 attack.
Displaced in Egypt
A limited number of injured Palestinians and foreign nationals have been allowed to flee Gaza into Egypt through Rafah, following a deal brokered by Qatar between Israel, Hamas, and Egypt, in coordination with the United States.
Nasser Medical Institute is one of 37 hospitals that have been readied to accept injured evacuees from Gaza, Egypt’s health minister, Dr. Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, told CNN.
More than 1,100 beds, 1,700 ICU units, as well as facilities such as incubators, have been set aside, he explained. As of this week more than 200 places have been filled, but the trickle of those able to cross the border since November 1 remains slow.
On Friday, more than 550 foreign nationals and 45 injured Palestinians, along with 40 companions, left Gaza through the crossing, an Egyptian border official told a journalist working with CNN in Rafah.
Among those making the treacherous journey is one particularly vulnerable group. Last week, Egyptian officials were expecting three dozen newborn infants to be evacuated to Egypt after being born into the harshest of environments at Al-Shifa hospital.
At Al-Shifa hospital, the IDF’s controversial operation to uncover what both Israeli and US intelligence insist is a Hamas command and control center has seen electricity dwindle to exhaustion – and with it the critical ability to pump oxygen into incubators, vital to the survival of these helpless newborns.
Thirty-one babies were evacuated from Al-Shifa hospital on Sunday to the southern Gazan city of Rafah; Palestinian authorities said several newborns had died due to power outages and a shortage of medical supplies.
On Monday, 28 babies arrived in Egypt from Gaza at the Rafah crossing, according to an Egyptian government official. One baby was discharged in Gaza and went home with his parents to their temporary shelter, while two others stayed in the ICU unit of the Emirati hospital in Rafah, Gaza.
Israel’s siege of Gaza has included a near-total blockade of food, water and electricity, with exceptions for what the United Nations has called a “trickle” of humanitarian aid. Conditions in Gaza have grown desperate as fuel supplies dwindle, forcing the closure of 26 of the enclave’s 35 hospitals.
Ghaffar told CNN last week that Egypt was poised to receive these tiny, delicate souls headed on the fraught route to the Rafah border crossing, but as the clock ticked, the atmosphere was growing ever more tense. “Time is important,” he said. “Every single minute that we’re not getting them in… the chance of losing their life is very high.”
The subtext was clear; in these bleakest, darkest of hours, some tragedies are playing out beyond the reach of those who might be able to avert them.