Picking through the rubble of his destroyed home, Khaled Nabhan lifts a doll that had belonged to his granddaughter and kisses it.
Toys and memories are all he has left of his beloved grandchildren, 3-year-old Reem and 5-year-old Tarek, who were killed last week while they were sleeping in their bed.
Their home was brought down by what Nabhan said was a nearby Israeli airstrike in the Al Nuseirat refugee camp in southern Gaza. Nabhan has only just managed to return, following the pause in fighting.
Speaking to CNN from the ruins of his home, Nabhan described the final evening he had with his grandchildren, breaking down in tears as he recalled how they begged him to take them outside to play. He had refused because of the danger from Israeli airstrikes, he said.
“They kept asking for fruit but there is no fruit because of the war,” he said. Clutched in his hand was a tangerine that he’d given Reem as a treat, but that she never had the chance to eat. “I could only find them these tangerines.”
The family was asleep when the airstrike hit. Khaled said he woke up screaming for his children and grandchildren, struggling to walk through the dark and the wreckage to find them.
“I couldn’t find anyone, they were buried underneath all this rubble,” he said, standing on a bed in a room full of debris.
Nabhan showed CNN videos and photos of the family in happier times, of the children singing, laughing and playing. In one clip, Nabhan throws his granddaughter into the air and catches her while Reem giggles with delight. In another image, Nabhan grins while riding a bicycle, his granddaughter sits on the handlebars wearing a pretty yellow dress and white flowers in her hair.
The two were inseparable, he said. With their father abroad working, the family lived with their grandfather and he was Reem’s whole world.
Her favorite game was pulling his beard and he would pull her piggy tails, he said.
“I’ll let go, if you let go,” she says giggling in a video.
In the battered bedroom of their house in Gaza, Nabhan showed CNN where his daughter Maysa — Reem and Tarek’s mother — was sleeping when the house collapsed. She and her sister survived but were seriously injured.
Speaking to CNN from a relative’s house in Gaza where they are recuperating, Maysa said she remembered screaming and something heavy pinning her down.
“I heard Reem screaming next to me, I told her there is something heavy on top of me, I can’t reach you. I said my final prayers and next I woke up in the hospital,” she said.
Maysa woke up to the news her young children were gone. Their lifeless bodies were found together under the rubble.
“At the hospital I was just numb. I hugged them, I wanted to get as many hugs as I could. No matter how much I hugged them I didn’t get enough,” Maysa said.
For nearly seven weeks, most people in the Gaza Strip have been just trying to survive, focusing on the basics: finding shelter, fleeing the fighting, getting access to food and water.
The pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas has given many families in Gaza the chance to go outside, buy supplies and return home to retrieve belongings or even bury the bodies of their loved ones.
For many Gazans like Nabhan, the truce has also deepened the heartache as they take stock of their new, devastated surroundings. The weeks of airstrikes and fighting have left entire neighborhoods levelled to the ground and many are now able to see the full scale of the devastation for the first time.
More than 14,800 Palestinians, including 6,000 children, have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its offensive in response to the Hamas terror attacks of October 7, according to figures from the Palestinian Ministry of Health in the West Bank, which draws its data from Hamas-run health authorities in the Gaza Strip.
Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said Gaza is “becoming a graveyard for children,” adding that “The nightmare in Gaza is more than a humanitarian crisis. It is a crisis of humanity.”
His comments came four weeks after Israel declared war on Hamas, following the Islamist militant group’s deadly October 7 terror attack that killed 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, and saw about 240 others kidnapped and taken back to Gaza – the largest single day attack on Israel since the country’s founding in 1948.
The temporary truce has also brought joy as those hostages released by Hamas as part of the deal agreed last week finally returned to Israel and reunited with their families in heart wrenching scenes. Others still face an anxious wait for news of the fate of their loved ones, including mutliple children, still held captive by militants in Gaza.
Grieving grandfather Nabhan says his grandchildren were too young to understand the war they lived and died in. He is not a fighter, he said, and his family had nothing to do with the war.
Now his grandchildren will never be able to dress up, play, or eat their favorite treats.
Nabhan was seen around the world in a widely shared video of his moment of grief last week as he kissed his lifeless 3-year-old granddaughter goodbye.
“I used to kiss her on her cheeks, on her nose and she would giggle,” he said. “I kissed her but she wouldn’t wake up.”
In another social media video, the two children’s bodies lay prepared for burial in white shrouds while Nabhan fixes Tarek’s hair.
“I combed his hair like he would always ask me to, like a photo he would always show me,” Nabhan said. “He loved his hair like that, now he’s gone.”
From his ruined home, Nabhan searches through his damaged possessions and bundles up armfuls of colorful toys — the loss etched into the lines of his face.
“I was wishing, hoping that they were only sleeping,” he said. “But they weren’t sleeping, they are gone.
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