On the Ground

We call this place the ‘Gates of Hell’: where we try and identify the bodies left by Hamas

At a military base outside Tel Aviv, refrigerated containers are filled with the corpses of those massacred by Hamas. Those responsible for identifying the remains tell Kim Sengupta about the struggle in dealing with the maimed bodies they have seen. Both young and old

Wednesday 25 October 2023 18:27 BST
<p>Scores of bodies are being kept in shipping containers waiting to be identified</p>

Scores of bodies are being kept in shipping containers waiting to be identified

When she looks at dead children, which has been every day, Ilana Engel tries not to think of her four-year-old boy. She should shut herself to personal feelings, she says. But that is something she finds very difficult to do.

Dr Engel, a dental specialist, is among a team trying to identify victims of the murderous rampage when Hamas militants, and their camp followers, came across the border into Israel 19 days ago. The task is extremely challenging because many of the bodies have been shredded by bullets and grenades. Some have been mutilated after death or dismembered with body parts arriving in sacks.

Working on the remains of the young is hard both professionally and emotionally.

“That happens even with cases we can’t really deal with”, she says. “Babies. We don’t work on babies because they haven’t yet grown teeth. But these little bodybags come in, and they lie in these big stretchers, and you don’t know the ages of those inside until you open the bags, and then you see them...” Her voice trails away.

“There are children whose bodies have suffered great damage, they are fragile and of course what happens to their bodies is terrible when extreme violence is used on them.”

After a brief pause, she wipes her eyes and tries to continue in a matter-of-fact voice: "The thing with very young children is that some of them haven’t had dental work done. So, we try to find matches, with siblings, family members if the remains had come in the same batch. All the agencies get involved, and we’ll often find a way with cross-checking.

“We have elderly people as well. One was of a 70-year-old woman who was burned beyond any recognition. But she had two implants and a crown in her mouth, and through these we eventually found her dentist and got a name and could then... once we get the identity we pass it on to the families. It helps with closure, I think.”

The temporary mortuary was set up at the car park of the Shura military base in Ramla, near Tel Aviv, three and half hours after the first reports of slaughter by Hamas started. It ended with a death toll of 1,400. Another 222 people were abducted and taken back to Gaza. Even now, corpses are still being found in places where the killings took place.

Dr Ilana Engel, a dental specialist working to identify bodies recovered in the wake of the attack by Hamas

People are still missing. A facility has been organised for families to contact officials. “We want people to come with as much information as possible”, says Dr Engel. “They can come with photographs, toothbrushes or hairbrushes that can be used to harvest DNA samples; of course if they can provide dental records that makes it easier.”

The officials at the mortuary say they felt numb when the corpses started to come in. They had to shake themselves out of a state of shock. Multiple bodies came in one sack. Some were of mother and child together; the mother hugging the child, trying to protect in their last minutes of life.

“We call this place the gates of hell,” says Gilad Bahat, a senior officer in the Israeli police’s investigation and intelligence department. “I have been in the police service for more than 27 years. I have been to a lot of terror attack scenes. I have seen a lot in my life, many bodies, but never have I seen such sights.

“We are trying to identify the bodies as fast as we can, but also accurately as we can, because we don’t want the families to bury a body that is not their relative. We are insisting every body is identified and it takes a lot of time because it’s very hard to do it," he adds.

“I don’t want to distress the families by talking about some of the injuries. We have been offered psychological counselling. I can’t sleep for more than a few hours at night. I’m not sure we’ll be able to understand what happened here.”

Israeli police officer Gilad Behat, left, with Dr Michal Levin-Elad

Dr Michal Levin Elad, head of the department of national forensic investigations of the Israeli police wants to stress the importance of people knowing what was involved. “You open this bag and you see this mess of green, black stuff. You have got to make yourself put your hands in the bag because you need to recover the DNA evidence, that’s essential," she says.

“All of the forensic investigators here are used to seeing sights of people being shot, people who have killed themselves. So we thought we were prepared for something like this as well. But what we have seen is very much beyond all of that.”

Dr Elad goes on to say: “We have seen children decapitated and dismembered. I have seen babies in such a state of deterioration I have never seen before.” She does not elaborate on the alleged decapitations and dismemberment. No evidence is offered to support the claim.

Foreign nationals were among those killed in the attack, among them 12 from Britain. Sergeant Major Natah Katz, from the military’s team of body collectors, describes finding the bodies of a group of Thai workers.

“They had each been shot through the head at close range. It looks like they were executed. Why do that? What harm did they do? How are they involved in what is taking place here in the Middle East?” he says. “I can only think there was a kind of bloodlust got hold, killing for the sake of killing.”

For Dr Engel, the motivation behind what happened, the political ramifications, are things she will reflect on in the future.

“But I do think a lot about the children. I see them and I wonder what happened here? How did someone so little die? Were they scared? What happened to their parents? But then I have to put these questions out of my mind and get on with my work.

“When I go home, I hold my boy close, remember the day, and think to myself, I am the lucky one, we are the lucky ones. That’s all I can do at the moment."

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