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Shot by Israeli troops while getting aid, a boy in Gaza fights for his life

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of violence.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Nimer Saddy al-Nimer is 12. His first name means "Tiger" in Arabic. Wavy locks of sandy brown hair rest just above his large brown eyes. He's skinny and tall for his age. He calls himself a "soccer addict," he's a fan of FC Barcelona, and Lionel Messi is his hero. He'd pretend to be the Argentine superstar when he played pickup games with his friends in the alleys behind the mosque near his home in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City.

But that was before the war.

Nimer now lies inside a makeshift tent propped up by two-by-fours. The roof is a sheet of transparent plastic. The walls, old billboards and other scrap found here among the refugee camps of Rafah, on the opposite side of the Gaza Strip from his home.

Nimer is in pain. It comes in waves. He's just had surgery on his stomach, back, legs and hand to remove bullets. Each left long incision wounds lined with stitches and dried pus. Flies are drawn to them. When he takes too deep of a breath, his skinny frame convulses uncontrollably, like an electric shock shooting through his insides that makes him scream in agony. He cries out for drugs that will numb the pain, but there are none.

Health officials say Palestinian children in Gaza are suffering the most from the Israel-Hamas war, as it continues through its seventh month. A child in Gaza is injured or killed every 10 minutes, according to United Nations agencies, and many are facing starvation and scant access to aid and health care.

Nimer's uncle and grandmother soothe him by wiping the sweat from his feverish forehead. They're the only family he has here. His parents and siblings are in northern Gaza, which has suffered the brunt of Israeli's war on Hamas.

"Nimer is the oldest child in his family and before the war he was responsible for helping feed them," says his grandmother, Salwa Yusuf Mahmoud Mashaa. "He was always the first in his family to wake up to collect aluminum and copper in the streets before going to school so that his parents could sell the scrap metal for food."

After the war started, food was harder to come by for Nimer's family. To escape raids by Israeli soldiers, they moved to a nearby school-turned-shelter only to return home after the school was bombed in an Israeli airstrike. Through it all, Nimer was in charge of finding food.

"I'd wake up early and check with my friend, God bless him, who sometimes had money he'd give me and I'd buy food," Nimer says. "After a while, there was no food. A kilo of flour cost 150 shekels [about $50]. We couldn't afford that, so we had to start picking weeds from the ground."

Nimer says he and his brother gathered mallow, a medicinal plant, and he and his family mixed that with animal feed for nourishment. After weeks of this diet, they were starving. And that's why, on April 1 when they saw parachutes with boxes of food floating down to earth miles away in the distance, he, his father, and a few neighbors started running toward them. On the way, Nimer recalls that they stole a donkey cart to pass dozens of other people running to get to the boxes first.

But there was a problem: They were headed to Beit Hanoun, a town on the border with Israel and a stronghold of Israel's military. When they reached the boxes, though, Nimer says hunger overcame fear. He says about 200 mostly men and boys ripped the boxes open.

"There were so many people fighting for food," remembers Nimer. "It felt like all of northern Gaza was on top of the boxes. I took a bag of flour, a box of dates, a can of meat, a can of chickpeas and a pack of biscuits."

Amid the chaos, Nimer remembers hearing the familiar high-pitched whir of an armed drone, then the rumble of a tank. Behind that, he saw Israeli soldiers pointing guns at them.

Then the shooting began.

"They shot into the crowd, and I felt burns in my stomach and my back. I hid behind the donkey and I looked down at my stomach and saw the bullet had ripped my skin open and there was smoke coming out of it," says Nimer. "I stuck my hand inside the opening. And then I got shot in my thigh and I felt an electric shock go through my body. I screamed. I stayed behind that donkey until the shooting stopped."

Nimer and his father got separated during the incident. And he says the donkey was shot more than a dozen times and collapsed, dead.

The last thing Nimer remembers from that day, he says, is an Israeli soldier ordering him to get up. When he couldn't, he says the soldier kicked him in the head until he passed out.

He woke up in an Israeli military vehicle that took him to Soroka hospital in the southern Israeli city of Be'er Sheva.

For the next 10 days, Nimer's grandmother says his parents feared the worst. "His mother wouldn't stop crying until the next day when they found his clothes at the site of the shooting," she says. "They were stained with blood. They spent the next several days searching for him and they finally received a call from doctors telling them their son was in a hospital in Israel."

In his tent in Rafah, Nimer's pain has subsided for the moment and he slowly munches on an apple — the first good food he's had in weeks, he says. He stares through a hole cut out of his tent to the blue sky above. He says he still gets headaches from being kicked by that soldier. Medical records reviewed by NPR from Nimer's one-week stay at the Israeli hospital show Nimer has a fractured femur, fractured vertebrae, loss of motor function in his right foot and swelling along his sciatic nerve. The report says there are multiple foreign objects — shrapnel — in his abdomen and backside, and that after two surgeries, the entry and exit wounds of five gunshots to his stomach, thigh, back, foot and hand have been sutured.

Nimer says after his initial surgery, he was given the anesthetic ketamine, he slept and later woke up in a bed inside a new room with an iron door that had bars on it and could only be opened from the outside. Three other men were there with him — they were blindfolded and handcuffed to the floor. He realized this was a prison.

"Sometimes, the guards came into the room with dogs," Nimer remembers. "They scared me. They barked at and bit the three men on the floor, but they didn't do anything to me." He remembers guards wearing olive-colored uniforms entering the room three times a day to give him food. He says he was there for four days.

NPR reached out to Israel's military to confirm these details. In a statement, the military said: "After an examination, it appears that Nimer Saddy al-Nimer was never arrested, imprisoned, or held in any military prison system."

The Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet did not respond to NPR to shed light on Nimer's story.

On April 15, medical records provided to NPR show that Nimer was brought back to Soroka hospital to remove the sutures and dressings. An ambulance then took him to the Kerem Shalom border crossing in southern Gaza, where he was transported to a Palestinian hospital in Rafah.

The pain has returned, and Nimer squirms in his bed. His hair is soaked in sweat. He's run a high fever since he arrived here more than a week ago. His doctors in Gaza told Nimer's grandmother that his condition is serious and beyond their expertise to treat. They gave him antiseizure medication to control the uncontrollable fits he has, but his uncle and grandmother say it's clear Nimer needs more medical attention. They worry about the shrapnel left inside his body being dangerously close to his vital organs.

When the pain subsides, Nimer says he'd like to leave this place to find better medical care. "I lost my school, my friends, the whole world to me," he says from his bed. "I miss my mom and my brothers and sisters, and I worry about them because I'm not there to help gather food for them. My uncle helps me go to the bathroom and my granny feeds me, and if I want to get better, I need to leave this place."

But Nimer's biggest wish, he says, is for this war to end and for his injuries to be healed. He says he just wants to play soccer again with his friends.

Rob Schmitz reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Anas Baba reported from Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. Jawad Rizkallah contributed to this story from Lebanon.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Anas Baba
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