Obliterated Families is an interactive web documentary telling personal stories of Palestinian families from the Gaza Strip whose lives were shattered during the Israeli military offensive in 2014.
The War on Gaza
What do you remember about the 51-day-long Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip in 2014? Maybe the numbers: 2,200 dead, 11,000 injured, 100,000 homeless? The war, so closely watched by the media, has been measured, numbered, counted. But the statistics do not reflect the loss of a loved one, the bombing of a family home, or the trauma that comes after the ceasefire. We took one of these figures and turned it into an intimate tale of sudden loss, pain, and the life in the aftermath. There were 142 families who lost three or more members, according to a UN count.
The survivors, too, remember numbers – the minute, the hour, the day, the month when the bomb hit their house. The time it took for the ambulance to reach them. The number of the injured and killed. What they remember haunts them: at night when there is no electricity, when trying to fall asleep, or just when they see a photo of their loved one, now gone.
Photo: Ala Balata is the sole survivor from his immediate family. In 2014 he lost his parents and all his seven siblings, killed in an Israeli attack.
How it started
We worked as a team during the offensive, with Anne photographing and Ala writing the stories behind the photos.
But our work together and our connection to Gaza started much earlier:
Anne: I started to go to Gaza in 2010, and from this point Gaza has become a big part of my work and my life. With time, I documented not only the suffering of a people living under the siege, but also daily life, and the vibrant artistic and alternative scene. Gaza is much more than we usually see in the news. Its thirst for freedom and life is contagious, and I made there many close friends. I kept insisting that Ala, my dear friend, comes along. She finally joined me in November 2012 - on the first day of the Israeli military offensive. Our work was hard, but I could not think of a better person to team up with. Sometimes I was rushing to take photos. Ala always slowed me down. “Wait, I want to get this story right” - she always said. That's why I could trust her. She would take an extra time to talk the story through with the person she interviewed, but also to connect on a human level. In 2014, I did not hesitate one minute when Ala told me that she was going back. I could not stay in Europe, while Gaza was being bombed again. I joined her and we worked again tirelessly - days and nights. When I returned in September, after the ceasefire, the Gaza I knew had been changed forever. I was shocked to see all the international journalists gone, while the real struggle of the people there just began: to rebuild their lives from the rubble of another war. Hence, I decided to commit myself to this long-term project.
Ala: When I say, I'm half Palestinian, friends from the Middle East are often bothered. “If your father is Palestinian, you are Palestinian”. I just smile at this comment. I grew up in Poland and long before we started to talk about Palestine at home, my father had told me “we are from the refugees, study hard, because when someone comes to kick you out of your home, your education will be all you can take with you”. He thought about his parents, forced by Israeli forces out of their village in 1948 and forbidden to ever come back. When I moved to Palestine in 2012 to report on the struggle for justice and freedom from oppression, I realized – a lot of Palestinian parents told the same thing to their children. Over the years Palestine had became dear to me, especially Gaza. As Anne mentioned, people's thirst for life and freedom is hard to resist, as well as their hospitality, caring and openness. We worked together with Anne during the most hectic and chaotic of times. She has been tireless, her commitment to people of Gaza being the driving force. And extremely respectful towards the people she photographed. Even during the Israeli offensives she maintained her way, never forgetting to say “good morning”, “thank you” or “are you okay with being photographed?”. After that summer, I thought I was leaving Palestine for good. I was exhausted. But instead, I started to come back for short visits and eventually – returned to Gaza for few months to collect the materials for our project.
The project started during the summer 2014 when we realized that every day entire families were bombed – in their homes or while fleeing – and we could not keep count. A whole family disappears, is wiped out, and so is their story. War was often too chaotic and hectic even to collect all the names of those killed.
Anne went back in September 2014, soon after the ceasefire, and started meeting with the survivors and relatives of the families killed. Ala joined her the following year. We started with a handful of families, but the project grew much bigger with the support of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, whose team helped us connect with other survivors. Over the course of the following year, we went back to Gaza Strip several times and visited over 50 families.
Why a web documentary?
The number of testimonies and the immense visual documentation was so compelling that we looked for a more innovative format to tell those stories. Web docs are an interactive way of storytelling, combining in-depth reportage with photos and videos, so as to keep the viewers engaged. The Obliterated Families web documentary focuses on 10 families, the story of each constituting one chapter of the web doc. It will also include a “Library” section, with different resources and a photo exhibition that people who want to engage more with the subject can download and share with their communities. The web doc will be in French and English.
Each chapter, which focuses on one family, consists of text, photos, and videos. It was important for us to go beyond the moment of the attack and to recount stories of family members’ lives from before the offensive. Some families shared with us their history, going back to their expulsion in 1948, others let us in on their journey to rebuild their lives - inviting us to their weddings, day trips, lunches and countless cups of coffee.
Video: Wedding of Ala Balata in September 2015
We understood that some of the families could be tired of reporters and NGO workers asking the same difficult questions again and again and we tried to be sensitive to this. We spent time getting to know each other. We hope that we managed to portray each family in a respectful, intimate, personal, and sensitive way, a documentation that will stand out from the usual reports.
Our plan is to release the web documentary in stages, around the time of the second anniversary of the 2014 Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, between July and August 2016. First, we plan to release stories of five families. The remaining five chapters will be released on the exact dates of the attacks that shattered their lives.
This will give their stories more exposure. Two years after the ceasefire, it is high time the international community was reminded of the plight of the survivors who still wait for justice and answers as to why their loved ones were killed, and live in fear of the next war.
Talal Majdalawi ,13, lost his two brothers and a niece and a cousin. They grew up in the same house and were like siblings. He was seriously injured in an airstrike that targeted his home. He is traumatized, has chronic headaches and trouble sleeping.
Who We Are
Anne Paq: I am an award-winning French photographer and videgrapher, and a member of the photo collective Activestills. I have spent more than a decade covering stories from Palestine. I have visited the Gaza Strip many times since 2010. My work appeared in the NY Times Lens, Paris Match, le Nouvel Obs, Stern, Al Jazeera English, Haaretz newspaper and the Guardian. I have co-directed the short film “Bethlehem checkpoint, 4 am” (2007) and co-produced the award-winning documentary “Flying Paper” (2013). Activestills is a collective of Israeli, Palestinian, and international photographers, united by a conviction that photography is a vehicle for political and social change
I have been leading this project together with Ala Qandil, a Palestinian-Polish journalist, a former correspondent of the Polish Press Agency, who also documented the previous two Israeli military offensives in the Gaza Strip. Ala has worked with various international and Polish media, including Al Jazeera English and the Middle East Eye, number of weekly magazines and she often appeared as a guest commentator on Polish radio and TV. She produced and co-directed a short documentary about food resistance in Palestine "Resistance Recipes". Ala is a co-founder of Reporters' Collective, an initiative of Polish writers based in Middle East, Africa and Asia, whose goal is to bring quality, in-depth foreign reporting on global issues to Polish audience.
We are pleased to announce that the French NGO ACAT- l'Action des Chrétiens pour l'Abolition de la Torture, has agreed to support our work. This guarantees more exposure for the project.
Why is it important?
It is the most extensive visual documentation of the families who had several members killed during the Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip. The topic is sensitive. Mainstream media, so eager to cover the attacks, are almost silent now. The stories of the trauma and struggle in the aftermath of war are not sensational enough. Without interest from the media, we have to turn to the audience to fund our project.
We have only two months left before the 2nd anniversary of the Israeli offensive, and much work remains to be done. Without the funding, we risk not meeting this deadline. After almost two years of hard work, we want to be sure to have the means to finalize the web documentary in the best possible way.