The five-year-old boy sits up in his wheelchair, not smiling, but alert and looking around curiously. The left side of his face is smooth, but the right side still bears scars from the burns he sustained when suspected Jewish terrorists firebombed his home in the West Bank village of Duma on July 31, 2015.
Ahmed Dawabsha is the sole survivor of the attack, in which he lost both his parents and his 18-month-old brother. After almost five months in hospital, where he was admitted with second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body, most but not all of his wounds have closed, says his grandfather.
On Tuesday, he took his first few steps with assistance.
“His condition is improving, thank God,” the boy’s grandfather, Hussein Dawabsha, says in fluent Hebrew.
On Wednesday, Ahmed was moved from the burn unit to the rehabilitation department of the Children’s Hospital of Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan.
“He will get physical therapy there,” says Dawabsha. “We have a long road ahead. It’s not a matter of a day or two or even a month; it will take a long time.”
After the attack, Ahmed was hospitalized for three weeks in intensive care, a hospital spokeswoman said, with “very serious injuries.” In August he was transferred to the regular children’s ward and then underwent a total of 10 surgeries, including skin grafts. The spokeswoman says he could spend another six months to a year in the hospital, where his wounds will continue to heal and where the boy will get intensive physical therapy and occupational therapy.
“He needs to learn to walk again and feed himself again. He was in very serious condition. Sheba Medical Center will continue to do everything we can to bring him back to an independent life.”
During the day, Ahmed’s room is bustling with visitors: family, friends, Jewish human rights activists and Israeli Arabs who have come to offer moral support. But at night, only his grandfather sleeps by his side.
That’s when the questions start.
“He says, ‘Where is my father? Where is my mother. Why aren’t they coming?’”
Early on, Hussein Dawabsha made a decision not to tell Ahmed what befell his family before he regains his health and strength.
“If I tell him these things, he will probably break. I can’t do that.”
Instead, Ahmed believes that his parents and brother are still alive. He knows that his house was burned down but he thinks that his father is refurbishing it in anticipation of his eventual return home. He believes he has been sending some of the many toys he receives to his little brother and talks about how they will play with the toys together.
Ahmed’s mood is reasonably good, says his grandfather. He plays and smiles sometimes, especially when he goes outside in a little car. He has grown attached to some of the frequent visitors and talks to one or two other kids on the ward. At the same time, Ahmed often cries from the pain of the burns and must endure frequent injections.
“But he doesn’t protest. He says, ‘I will put up with anything, just so I can go back home.’”
What Dawabsha most dreads is when he and his grandson are alone together and he starts asking “why?”
“I am afraid of that question,” says Dawabsha, who not only has to conceal the truth, but doesn’t know how to answer it himself.
“I look at kids and I see they have a mother and father and I look at Ahmed and I think, why is he in this situation? Why is he with me and his grandmother and the visitors? I cry when I see this but I can’t cry next to him.”
Asked about Israelis who had raised money for Ahmed, like the Tag Meir anti-racism organization which has raised NIS 366,000 (about $100,000) in a crowdfunding campaign, Dawabsha said that he had been advised not to accept the money.
“It’s very nice, but we didn’t want to take the money. I have a lawyer and the lawyer said not to.”
Inside the room, an Israeli Arab visitor from Lod says angrily, “you see this?” pointing to the still visibly wounded boy, “this is the outcome of the occupation.”
“Tell her,” he urges Hussein Dawabsha, “that this is what happens when you have an occupation.”
But Dawabsha shakes his head, not wanting to discuss politics.
“Are you happy they caught the suspects?” he is asked, in reference to recent claims by the Shin Bet security service that it had made arrests and achieved several breakthroughs in its investigation into the attack.
“What do you want from a man who lost his family?” says Dawabsha. “They burned my family. You want me to be happy? What do I have to be happy for?”