The charred remains were so disfigured that at first they did not realise it was two people.
But when pathologists gently began to examine, they could see the bodies were those of an adult and a child. And they were hugging tightly.
That is how it had ended for them, trapped in a room as Hamas terrorists set fire to their home. As the horror of burning to death came to them, the adult had nothing left to offer but to hold that terrified child in their arms.
And as unbearable as that is, it is by no means an isolated case here at Israel’s National Centre of Forensic Medicine, where the bodies of the victims of the Hamas attack are being identified. Scientists charged with this grim task told me it is common to have to carefully separate the fused remains of two helpless people who, in their final moments, had found all they could do was embrace in death.
No wonder several professional pathologists broke down in tears yesterday as they tried to explain their vital work to me.
Israeli ministry of health and foreign affairs allow press to view where bodies of those who where murdered are being examined and identified
When pathologists gently began to examine, they could see the bodies were those of an adult and a child. And they were hugging tightly
Of the 959 bodies so far brought to the Shura military base, the ones that are hardest to identify are taken to the forensics centre here in Tel Aviv, where teams of scientists are working around the clock to find out who they are
This is the real-life version of Silent Witness, the television drama about pathology experts piecing together forensic clues to solve a case.
Of the 959 bodies so far brought to the Shura military base, the ones that are hardest to identify are taken to the forensics centre here in Tel Aviv, where teams of scientists are working around the clock to find out who they are.
They are acutely aware that the tormented families of the missing are beyond desperate – they just need to know.
The work itself could scarcely be more upsetting. Some victims were shot then set on fire, others trussed up with wire cords and condemned to a burning hell.
As of yesterday, there were 297 bodies so hideously brutalised as to be unrecognisable to anyone. It is the wretched job of these pathologists to try to work it out.
Sometimes, all they have to go on are a few fragments of bone. That is literally all that is left of someone.
Chen Kugel, director of the centre, showed me a pile of bones. ‘There are several people in there,’ he said. ‘Just parts of a skull. A cheek bone. This is all that remains of them. Their bodies are gone.’
He showed me photographs of a man shot from behind. ‘You can see from his wrist marks that he was handcuffed behind his back. And then executed.’
And then came the utterly unbearable. Dr Kugel wept as he described how they had received remains so disfigured they had to perform a CT scan to understand there were two bodies. One big, one small.
Showing me the scan, he said: ‘You can tell from the shapes of their spines that it is an adult and a child, and they are sitting together and they are hugging tightly together.
‘In their final moments. They were burnt to death like this. Cremated alive in their own home, clutching one another.’
Dr Kugel, a forensic pathologist for 31 years, kept pausing for deep breaths but could not stop his tears flowing.
‘This is heart-wrenching and difficult to see, even for people like me who have been doing this for so many years,’ he said.
Everywhere I looked as I toured this morgue yesterday was a vision of hell. The sights are too distressing to describe and the putrid stench of death will stay with me for days. Many of the slaughtered innocents have gunshot wounds through their hands, as they tried in vain to defend themselves from the bullets.
Dr Kugel said: ‘It is horrific. It’s so big. And there are so many containers – it is like a shipping port – and they are all full of bodies. It is so terrible. So many … it is the magnitude of the cruelty.’
His team’s job is to try to identify the victims so their anguished families can be informed as soon as possible, and establish how they died.
Dr Nurit BuBlil as she shows a child’s mattress, stained with blood at the lab where bodies are being identified
Pictured is the head of a DNA lab Dr Nurit BuBlil as she is comforted by a colleague while holding a blood-stained mattress
Kibbutz Be’eri which is 4km from the Gaza border and was attacked last Saturday, October 7 by Hamas militants – pictured is reporter Sam Greenhill at the scene
This is the real-life version of Silent Witness, the television drama about pathology experts piecing together forensic clues to solve a case
Staff at the morgue stand over the body of a person that is being carried on a stretcher
Dr BuBlil cries while with a colleague as she shows the mattress of a killed child
Health workers in scrubs pull a trolley with a body on it as they look to identify people
He said soot in a person’s windpipe indicated they had been alive and breathing in smoke – perishing from fire rather than a gun.
‘We do CT scans, biopsies, we check DNA and fingerprints – if there are any fingers left – and any clues we can find,’ he said.
‘But we are now dealing with the very hardest of the cases to solve. I am afraid that there will be some people we will never identify. People have to be prepared for this.’
In each room I visited, exhausted teams were doing their utmost with blackened bodies, fragments of bone and whatever else they could find. The victims range from the very old to the very young. In one corridor I passed three body bags that were a third the size of the adult ones.
What about beheaded babies? Yes, said Dr Kugel, it was true.
Amid horrors that defy belief, the past week has seen an extraordinary debate about whether Hamas savages had decapitated defenceless babies, or had merely shot them dead. Reports of beheadings have been furiously attacked as fake news by some high-profile doubters.
It seems grotesque that we are even trying to get to the bottom of the method by which a baby was decapitated.
But there are some who refuse to believe that even the terror group’s most sadistic fanatics would have stooped to such evil.
On Saturday, I spoke to a colonel who told me that he had not only seen a beheaded baby, but had held it in his arms as he recovered the child from a slaughter site in kibbutz Be’eri. Yesterday, with a heavy heart, I asked Dr Kugel, perhaps the most senior pathologist in Israel, if he had seen any babies without heads. He replied: ‘Yes. Yes, I have seen that.’
He did not know the reason they had no heads, and could not state whether they had been cut off with a knife or blown off by an exploding grenade. He said: ‘I cannot say. I can say that I saw people without heads.’
However it happened, the toll on the scientists whose quest for the facts means they cannot avert their eyes from such unspeakable horror is all too plain to see.
During a much-needed break for fresh air outside, Dr Kugel told me: ‘We are working in the world of the dead in there. But when I come out here, to the living world, and I talk with you and the sun is shining, it’s like normal… except it is not.’
Dr BuBlil sobs as she is comforted in the lab where bodies are being identified
Staff stand by a stretcher which has the body of a person murdered on it
Staff stand by a stretcher which has the body of a person murdered on it
A sea of corpses is seen as stretchers stack up waiting for the bodies to be identified
A line of stretchers is seen, with the bodies of deceased people on each one
Somewhere in each fragment of charred and twisted body part lies a vital forensic clue that might bring some sort of grim closure to a family caught in the hellish limbo of not knowing if their loved one is dead, kidnapped or wandering around lost and injured. Dr Ricardo Nachman, head of forensics at the centre, said: ‘In one body bag, we found three left feet and one right foot. So we know it was at least three people who died together.’ Elsewhere they might find one person – in more than one bag.
Upstairs in the DNA lab, they are scrutinising the tiniest fragments to identify its owner.
Head of the lab Dr Nurit Bublil told me: ‘We do everything we can. With heavily burnt samples, it can take days to achieve a genetic profile. We know the families are waiting. Hopefully we will be able to get each and every one back home.
‘Many people are working day and night. We want to get the answers to their families. They want to have the funerals, but they also want to know what happened and how their loved one died. The investigation takes time. We have the professionalism to do it. And we want to do it.’
She said the Hamas terrorists ‘went into Israel and they enjoyed slaughtering civilians. This was an unhuman act’. Her job, she explained, was ‘working and crying, at the same time’. She wasn’t wrong. Dr Bublil was talking to me beside a small, blood-soaked mattress. She picked it up to show me: ‘This is a mattress from a baby’s bed. You can see the size of this blood stain – which means this baby was bleeding on top of this bed.’
There were no more words. She kept trying, but there was nothing else to say. Dazed and desolate, Dr Bublil shuffled across her lab to her colleague, and burst into tears.
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