BBC 2024-02-26 22:32:06


‘Who will call me Dad?’ Tears of Gaza father who lost 103 relatives

Ahmad al-Ghuferi missed the bomb that obliterated his family.  

When 103 relatives were killed in a strike on their family home in Gaza City, he was stuck 50 miles (80km) away, in the occupied West Bank town of Jericho.

Ahmad had been working on a Tel Aviv construction site when Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October – unable to return to his wife and three young daughters because of the war that followed, and Israel’s military blockade. 

He spoke to them at the same time every day, when the phone connections allowed, and was on the phone to his wife, Shireen, as the attack happened on the evening of 8 December.

“She knew she would die,” he said. “She told me to forgive her for anything bad she might ever have done to me. I told her there was no need to say that. And that was the last call between us.”

A large bomb attack on his uncle’s house that evening killed his wife and his three young daughters – Tala, Lana and Najla. 

It also killed Ahmad’s mother, four of his brothers and their families, as well as dozens of his aunts, uncles and cousins. More than 100 dead in all. Over two months on, some of their bodies are still trapped under the rubble.

Last week, he marked his youngest daughter’s birthday. Najla would have turned two. Ahmad is still trying to grasp the loss.

Unable to hold his children’s bodies or be at their hurried burials, he still speaks of them in the present tense, his face motionless beneath the rolling tears.

“My daughters are little birds to me,” he said. “I feel like I’m in a dream. I still can’t believe what’s happened to us.”

He has removed pictures of the girls from his phone and laptop screens, so as not to be ambushed by them.

He has been left to piece together the story of what happened from the accounts of a few surviving relatives and neighbours.

They told him that a missile had first struck the entrance to his family’s house. 

“They hurried out and went to my uncle’s house nearby,” he said. “Fifteen minutes later, a fighter jet hit that house.”

The four-storey building where the family was killed sat around the corner from the Sahaba Medical Centre in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighbourhood.

It is now a mound of splintered concrete, the rubble shot through with bright dots of colour: a green plastic cup, shreds of dusty clothing.

The crumpled frame of a silver car, its windscreen twisted into a grimace, sits nearby under overhanging concrete rocks.

One of Ahmad’s surviving relatives, Hamid al-Ghuferi, told the BBC that when the strikes began, those who ran away up the hill survived, and those who sheltered in the house were killed. 

“It was a fire-belt,” he said. “There were strikes on the four houses next to ours. They were hitting a house every 10 minutes.”

“110 people from the Ghuferi family were there – our children and relatives,” he said. “All but a handful of them were killed.”

Survivors say the eldest victim was a 98-year-old grandmother; the youngest a baby boy born just nine days earlier.

  • Why are Israel and Hamas fighting in Gaza?
  • Gaza Strip in maps: How life has changed

Another relative, a cousin who is also called Ahmad, described two big explosions from an air strike.

“There was no advance warning,” he said. “If [some] people hadn’t already left this area, I think hundreds would have been killed. The area looks totally different now. There was a car park, a place to store water, and three houses plus one big house. The blast obliterated a whole residential area.”

Hamid said the survivors had worked until the early hours of the morning to retrieve the bodies from the rubble.

“Airplanes were hovering in the sky, and quadcopters were firing at us as we were trying to pull them out,” the cousin Ahmad said.

“We were sitting in the house and we found ourselves under the rubble,” Umm Ahmad al-Ghuferi told the BBC. “I was thrown from one side to the other. I don’t know how they got me out. We saw death in front of our eyes.”

Two and a half months on, they’re still trying to reach some of the bodies buried beneath the rubble. The family have collected money to hire a small digger, to chip away at the debris.

“We retrieved four bodies [today],” Ahmad told the BBC, “including my brother’s wife and my nephew Mohammed, who was pulled out in pieces. They had been under the rubble for 75 days.”

Their temporary graves lie in a piece of empty land nearby, marked by sticks and plastic sheeting.

Ahmad, stuck in Jericho, has not visited them.

“What did I do to be deprived of my mum, my wife, my children and my brothers?” he asked. “They were all civilians.”

We asked the Israeli army about the family’s allegations that it was targeted by air strikes. In response, the army said it was not aware of the strike in question, and that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) took “feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm” in its war with Hamas.

There was intense fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas gunmen in the area of Shejaiyya, a few blocks south of the al-Ghuferi house, in the days immediately before and after Ahmad’s family were killed.

In a daily update on 9 December, the army said that it had “identified a number of terrorists armed with anti-tank missiles” approaching troops in Shejaiyya, and called in a helicopter strike on them.

It also said fighter jets had been striking terror targets in the Gaza Strip, as ground operations continued.

The area of Zeitoun, where the family house once stood, is now the focus of fresh operations by the IDF.

In Jericho, Ahmad still sometimes calls his surviving relatives in Gaza. But after months of being trapped outside his beloved home and desperate to return, he is no longer sure if he will ever go back.

“My dream was shattered in Gaza,” he said. “Who should I go back for? Who will call me Dad? Who will call me darling? My wife used to tell me I was all her life. Who will tell me that now?”

Hungary’s parliament clears path for Sweden’s Nato membership

Sweden has cleared its final obstacle to joining Nato after Hungary’s parliament voted to ratify the bid.

The Nordic nation applied to join the defence alliance after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Every member must approve a new joiner, and Hungary had delayed, accusing Sweden of being hostile to it.

But last week Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the two countries were now “prepared to die for each other”.

All Nato members are expected to help an ally which comes under attack.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said it was a “historic day” and a “big step” for Sweden to abandon 200 years of neutrality.

“Sweden is an outstanding country, but we are joining Nato to even better defend everything we are and everything we believe in,” he said.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Hungarian decision made the alliance “stronger and safer”.

The parliament’s approval must now be signed by the president – after which a formal invitation is sent to Sweden to join the 31-member group.

The process usually lasts a few days.

  • What is Nato and which countries are members?
  • Who is Viktor Orban, Hungarian PM with 14-year grip on power?

Mr Orban is a nationalist politician with close ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. He has often blocked EU efforts to send military aid to Ukraine.

Sweden is one of the EU countries which have accused Hungary of backsliding on the EU’s democratic principles.

In turn, Mr Orban’s spokesman Zoltan Kovacs accused officials in Sweden of sitting on a “crumbling throne of moral superiority”.

Last week, however, Mr Orban hosted his Swedish counterpart Ulf Kristersson and announced his support for Sweden’s membership.

Monday’s vote of Hungarian MPs was almost unanimous – 188 to 6.

In his speech, Mr Orban sharply criticised unnamed Nato allies for exerting pressure on his government to end the 21-month delay.

“Hungary is a sovereign country and does not tolerate being dictated to by others, on the content or timing of decisions,” he said.

Turkey had been the other Nato country to withhold approval of Sweden’s application in a row over what it called Sweden’s support to Kurdish separatists. It eventually lifted its veto in January.

Sweden and its eastern neighbour Finland, both long considered militarily neutral, announced their intention to join Nato in May 2022.

Finland formally joined in April last year, doubling the length of the alliance’s border with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his army into Ukraine in 2022 in the expectation it would check Nato’s expansion and weaken Western collectivism.

In fact, with the addition of Sweden and Finland, the opposite has happened.

Trump appeals fraud case as $112,000-a-day interest accrues

Donald Trump is appealing against a New York judge’s ruling that he must pay $454m (£360m) in penalties and interest in a civil fraud case.

This month’s judgement was $355m, but the amount has soared with interest, which will keep accruing by at least $112,000 per day.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has said if Mr Trump does not pay, she will seek to seize some of his assets.

He was found to have inflated property values to obtain better loan terms.

Judge Arthur Engoron also banned the former US president from doing business in the state for three years.

  • Donald Trump must pay $354m in fraud damages. How could he do it?
  • Donald Trump hit where it hurts most in New York fraud ruling

Monday’s appeal from the Republican presidential frontrunner means yet another legal case of his will drag further into election season as he prepares for a likely rematch against Democratic President Joe Biden in November.

Mr Trump had said all along he planned on appealing against the ruling, calling it a political witch hunt.

His lawyer, Alina Habba, said on Monday they hope the appeal court “will overturn this egregious fine and take the necessary steps to restore the public faith in New York’s legal system”.

In their court filing, the attorneys said they were asking the appellate division to decide whether Judge Engoron’s court “committed errors of law and/or fact” and whether it “abused its discretion” or “acted in excess of its jurisdiction”.

The former president’s lawyers have also argued that he was wrongly sued under a consumer-protection statute typically used to rein in businesses that rip off customers.

Mr Trump’s legal team has previously challenged rulings by Judge Engoron at least 10 times, including a gag order.

The appeals process could last a year or longer.

Mr Trump could be granted a pause on collection of the judgement if he offers up money, assets or an appeal bond covering the amount owed. It is unclear what route he will take.

Mr Trump’s two adult sons and co-defendants, Donald Jr and Eric, were ordered to pay $4m each and are barred for two years from doing business in New York. They have maintained there was no wrongdoing and joined their father’s appeal on Monday.

Adding to the drain on his cash reserves, the ex-president was last month ordered to pay $83m after losing a defamation case to E Jean Carroll, a woman he was found to have sexually abused.

According to a Forbes estimate, Mr Trump is worth about $2.6bn. Though it is unclear how much cash he has on hand, he testified last year he has $400m in liquid assets.

The civil trial that began in October focused mostly on determining penalties against Mr Trump since Judge Engoron had already ruled the ex-president liable for business fraud.

He faces another case in his hometown of New York City next month. In those criminal proceedings, it is alleged that Mr Trump falsified business records to conceal hush money paid to an adult film star before the 2016 election.

On Monday, the Manhattan prosecutor who is bringing that case asked a judge for a gag order on Mr Trump.

The district attorney’s office said such a measure was needed to protect jurors, witnesses and court staff from Mr Trump’s “long history of making public and inflammatory remarks”.

Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, called the request an “unconstitutional infringement” Mr Trump’s rights.

He reiterated the former president’s claims that the indictments against him are partisan attempts to prevent his re-election.

Premier League: Bowen hat-trick helps West Ham to win over Brentford – reaction

West HamWest Ham United4BrentfordBrentford2

The Mediterranean’s ancient same-sex haven

M

My first visit to the island of Mykonos 20 years ago was something of a revelation. Thanks to its seemingly endless queer beaches and bars, I felt a level of freedom as a young gay man that I hadn’t previously experienced, despite growing up in London. But like the UK and elsewhere, Greece’s LGBTQ+ community has fought a long road to equality, which culminated just this month. 

Following a landmark vote in parliament this month, Greece has recently become the first Christian Orthodox-majority nation to legalise same-sex marriage, and the first country in south-eastern Europe to have marriage equality. 

According to Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the new law, which also allows same-sex couples to adopt children, will “boldly abolish a serious inequality”. Greece now joins 35 other nations around the world to allow same-sex marriage. It ranks 11th on the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index, which measures countries’ LGBTQ+ equality – four spaces higher than the UK at 15, but well below Malta, at number one.

But despite lagging behind other nations that embraced marriage equality years earlier, same-sex relations have been a common and documented part of Greece’s cultural fabric from the beginning.

Frescoes, vessels and other artefacts of courting same-sex couples have been recovered throughout Ancient Greece (Credit: Alamy)

As early as the 8th Century BC, the ancient lawmaker Philolaus of Corinth, who himself had a male lover, created laws in support of same-sex male unions. By the 7th Century BC, there were at least five different varieties of same-sex relations in Ancient Greece. The Sacred Band of Thebes was an elite military unit comprised of 300 male lovers in the 4th Century BC who courageously ended Spartan domination. And millennia after writers and philosophers such as Plato were busy contemplating same-sex love, many vessels and statues on display in museums and sites in illustrate aspects of homosexuality in Ancient Greece.

In 1951, Greece became one of the first European nations to decriminalise same-sex relations (the UK waited until 1967; though in both countries, lesbians were neither mentioned nor acknowledged). Greece legalised same-sex civil unions in 2015, and in 2021 Nicholas Yatromanolakis became the nation’s first openly gay person to serve as government minister.           

“Greece has made some progress in LGBTQ+ rights over the past decade,” said Konstantinos Menelaou, the founder of Athens-based art collective The Queer Archive. “There have been notable improvements in legal protection, public attitudes and visibility. However, we still suffer from discrimination, violence and stigma. There’s room for improvement.”

Menelaou’s pioneering organisation is designed to bolster and support LGBTQ+ arts and culture across Greece. “Our aim is to fight stereotypes, document queer history and develop inclusive areas for expression, visual arts, performance, film. We give a platform to marginalised voices, combat erasure and discrimination, and promote the idea of a balanced and equal society.”

Athens is home to a vibrant LGBTQ+ scene (Credit: Alamy)

As well as the Queer Archive, which hosts regular pop-up exhibitions and curatorial collaborations, Athens boasts many thriving venues for LGBTQ+ travellers, some of which are located in the former industrial district Gazi. Menelaou recommends Koukles for “the best drag shows and atmosphere”, the queer dance club Smut, The Big Bar “for bears and bear enthusiasts” and Ohh Boy for coffee and cakes. “The queer community of Athens has to deal with brutal heteronormativity on a daily basis,” Menelaou added. “But we know how to party!”

Lesbos-based writer and yoga instructor Clare Hand is also a fan of Athens’ LGBTQ+ scene. She recommends the lesbian-owned pop club Noiz and “Beaver Co-op, founded by eight women, a peaceful cafe with parties, readings, poetry and activist gatherings”.

Hand’s point about activism is important to the LGBTQ+ community in Athens. “Greece is a conservative country, you feel the reins and the ropes of family, and family values, binding queer people. It’s not just about getting married and having kids here: to be queer in the capital city you really need to be an activist.” 

According to Hand, the nation’s second city, Thessaloniki, also has a vibrant, if smaller, queer scene that’s worth visiting. She recommends the long-running gay club Enola, which has been open since 2008, and the city also hosts its own International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.

A statue of Sappho stands in the village of Mytilene in Lesbos (Credit: Alamy)

The big news, however, in 2024 is that Thessaloniki is set to attract global attention as it hosts Europride (21-29 June). A major highlight will be the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival’s Citizen Queer, which will screen 25 LGBTQ+ documentaries over the course of the week. 

But Hand’s favourite queer scene in Greece is on the rugged island that birthed the word “lesbian”: Lesbos. “When I first landed on that tiny island the feeling was extraordinary,” she said. “In particular Eressos, the town where Sappho, [the Archaic Greek poet who inspired the word “sapphic”] was born, which is why it’s been a mecca for queer women for half a century. It’s the complete epicentre of queer, or sapphic, life: one of the most affirming experiences you can have is to be in the majority for more than a night, for more than an allotted window of time. You realise there are more lesbian bars and cafes in Skala Eressos than anywhere in the world – even LA, New York, London.”   

A big annual event on the island is the Queer Ranch Festival (28 May-1 June 2024) run by a local collective who own the bar-restaurant Ohana Saloon. Another must is the International Eressos Women’s Festival, held each September. “For over 20 years, [it’s been] an important meeting space for queer elders who’ve been visiting the island since the 1970s.”

Back in Mykonos, on that first visit two decades ago, I remember being thrilled to discover its genesis as a queer haven also dated back to the ’70s, the result of Jackie Onassis’ patronage lending it a certain glamour. By the 1980s, it had transformed into an increasingly gay destination, with one of its most well-known bars named after her. It, too, hosts a large annual gay festival, Xlsior (22-28 August), with around 30,000 attendees. 

And now, in 2024, you could even tie the knot on one of Mykonos’ many queer beaches. As Menelaou said, “The same-sex marriage bill partly achieved what should have been for granted: the legal recognition and equality for LGBTQ+ individuals. Hopefully, it will challenge stigma and promote inclusivity.”

— 

Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.