ANKARA, Turkey — Mira Nijim, 9, was still in a wheelchair. Her left leg — mangled in the airstrike that killed her brother, sister and mother — was held in a cast buttressed by metal joints and rods. But in a pastry shop in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, this week, Mira; her surviving sister, Miral, 14; and their father, Mahdi, managed some smiles.
It was a miracle they are alive, Mahdi, 42, told NBC News. “They are the only survivors.”
On Oct. 26, an Israeli airstrike brought down the apartment building where they were staying with relatives in Khan Younis, Gaza’s second largest city. Dozens of people were killed, Mahdi said, including his wife, Mayada, 41; their daughter Maria, 12; and their 5-year-old son Ahmed.
More than two months after their deaths, Mahdi is still accounting for their losses: their presence, of course, and the life they were building together, as well as their memories, their dreams and their wishes, Mahdi said. “Everything is gone.”
Mahdi had left the apartment just before the strike to collect food aid at a nearby school, no more than a three-minute walk away, he said, when he saw a bomb falling from the sky. By the time he arrived at the apartment — where he and his family had been staying after they evacuated their home in Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza — it was reduced to rubble, a scene of chaos and confusion that made it hard to believe his family had survived.
In the interminable hours that followed, Mahdi remembers wishing he had died with them.
But his daughter Miral was pulled from the rubble and an NBC News crew filmed her rescue. She was dazed, covered in dust and had blood streaming down her face.
She asked if her father was alive. The medic replied he was, but he didn’t really know.
“They bombed us while we were baking bread and we were about to eat,” Miral told NBC News. She described a disjointed series of impossible sensations: the floor dropping out beneath her, like an “elevator going down,” she said. “Then the whole house fell on me.”
“I couldn’t move or lift up the rocks,” Miral said. “The house’s pillar fell on me, and it was big. I couldn’t move it.” She was conscious, she said, and remembered thinking “they would never be able to pull me out because they don’t have any tools.” She couldn’t work out how long it took — Was it days? Was it hours? — before she was rescued.
Miral suffered fractures to her clavicle and skull.
Her sister Mira recalled she was talking to another girl who suddenly disappeared as the house collapsed and they were subsumed by the rubble. “I was screaming, saying ambulance, ambulance, until the ambulance arrived,” Mira said.
After the strike, Mahdi wandered in a daze, eventually making his way to Nasser Hospital, where he found Mira. Her legs, he said, were “almost distorted.” She had an open wound and two fractures in her leg.
Two days after she was admitted, doctors installed a metal plate into her lower-left leg. Five days later, Mahdi said, the flesh was mottled around the stitches on her leg, and she had developed a bone infection.
“We know that bone infection is brutal. Infection is hard to cure,” he said. “Her legs looked very horrific.”
While they were in the hospital, Mahdi said his older brother Mahmoud, 51, overheard a Turkish delegation looking for injured children to evacuate from Gaza for medical treatment, starting a series of events that ultimately led them to Ankara, Turkey.
In early December, Mahdi said he got a call from his nephew in Sweden who told him his name was on a list of people allowed to leave the enclave. He couldn’t believe it. “I asked him, ‘What list?’ I did not do anything.”
After his nephew messaged him a picture of the list, Mahdi made the short journey by ambulance to the Rafah border crossing in southern Gaza with Miral and Mira. About 2,100 sick and injured people have left Gaza through the Rafah crossing, Khaled Zayed, head of the Egyptian Red Crescent in North Sinai, told NBC News, making Mira and Miral part of a very small group.
Without his nephew’s intervention Mahdi said he wouldn’t have gone to the crossing because “I wasn’t aware of it.”
When the Turkish representative came to check the names, Mira was registered to travel, but Miral was not, meaning Mahdi was faced with the heartbreaking decision of having to choose between his daughters.
“I said it’s fine,” Miral said, adding that the most important thing for her was that her sister was “treated and walked again.”
“She sacrifices for her sister’s sake,” Mahdi added. But he said he “insisted we go together.”
His daughter, he said, is “a part of my heart — how could I leave it?” If they had denied Miral, they would have all returned to Khan Younis, Mahdi said. “We die together, or we leave together.”
With the help of an Egyptian border guard who pleaded their case, Mahdi said both girls were allowed to leave Gaza and board a plane to Turkey’s capital, Ankara.
After they arrived on Dec. 18, Mahdi said Mira underwent surgery at a Turkish government hospital where doctors removed the metal plate, which Mira’s body was rejecting, from her leg and set her leg in a cast. After a month in hospital, Mahdi said they were relocated to a nearby hotel to help her recuperate.
From the security of Ankara, the family had begun the task of gathering what they could of what was left of their dreams.
“If I want to return to Gaza, where should I go?” Mahdi said. “Life is destroyed in Gaza.” He wondered if maybe they could go to the U.S.
“My glimmer of hope in the future is my daughters,” Mahdi said. “I hope to see them in a better place. I wish they can continue to finish their mother’s dream.” Mayada had wanted her daughters to become doctors.
“I wish I could see Mira, a doctor, one day. And everyone would talk about Mira, a star,” he said. “My dream was to see Ahmed one day become a professor, but it did not come true. Ahmed is gone; I only have them.”
As for Mira and Miral, their wishes were simpler: Both wanted to go back to class.
“I want to go to school to study, to write. I have a lot of things that I want to write,” Mira said.
But Miral is still trying to imagine a future from a present that’s been torn asunder by death, destruction and absence. “How could the schools return when there are no students to attend?” she asked.