For days bodies filled the morgues. Only since guns fell silent have volunteers come to dig graves in the sand in Rafah, Gaza’s “town of martyrs”, devastated by Israeli bombardment.
For three days the strategic southern town went through hell.
“The tanks came,” says Mohammed Abu Luli, 50, who fled his home after the bombardment started.
“There were strikes from air, land and sea. The bombs rained down everywhere. I have never seen anything like it in all my life,” he added.
In neighbourhoods, houses lie flattened or ripped open by shelling. Asphalt on the road has been ripped up by the weight of Israeli tanks.
At the end of one field of rubble lies a strange, gaping hole: a tunnel used by Hamas fighters.
Rafah experienced some of the worst fighting during the month-long war between Israel and Hamas.
The bombardment intensified when an August 1 truce between both sides unravelled in just 90 minutes after Hamas ambushed an Israeli unit, killing two soldiers and sparking suspicion of capturing a third.
The army shot back with a bloody and prolonged assault on Rafah, under which ran a network of tunnels that Hamas used to smuggle weapons and supplies from Egypt.
Israel initially said Lieutenant Hadar Goldin had probably been snatched by Hamas fighters.
The last Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas, Gilad Shalit, was held hostage five years before being freed in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
On Sunday, Israel eventually confirmed Goldin’s death after DNA tests on body parts found in a tunnel.
Israel sustained some of its worst losses from Hamas fighters who burst out of their carefully built tunnels to ambushed stunned soldiers.
– Morgues overflowed –
This was how Hamas attacked Goldin and his unit.
“Our fighters came out behind the tanks and sprayed them with bullets and rockets,” one fighter told AFP in Rafah on Tuesday before running off.
On Wednesday at dawn, a digger churned up and dumped sand on top of the tunnel under close gaze of militants clearly hostile to the presence of cameras, demanding that footage be wiped.
Mohammed’s brother Mahmud Abu Luli was sheltering in a UN school in the centre of Rafah.
“But there was an Israeli bombardment just outside the school, in the street. I saw everything, there was a pool of blood on the ground,” he said behind his bushy white beard.
“Rafah is a town of martyrs!” he adds as men standing by nod in a agreement and children collect pieces of shell and mortar from the ground.
Combat was so intense that local residents were trapped inside, unable to bury their dead on the same day or even the next, as Muslim tradition requires.
It was not until after Israel and Hamas agreed to a 72-hour truce, begun on Tuesday, that residents in Rafah could start to come out and bury the dead, kept until then in chock-a-block morgues.
Even morgues overflowed.
“We had to use all the places in the hospital and neighbours’ houses and rental refrigerators for vegetables and put the bodies in them. The situation was a tragedy,” said Mohammed al-Masri, director of the small Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah.
In a cemetery just 100 metres (yards) from the Egyptian border, men dig trenches in the sand and put in cement blocks to form small tomb-like rectangles. Each body is placed in a rectangle, then the whole space covered up into a mass grave.
Thirty little anonymous mounds quickly form in the sand. Outside the cemetery a group of relatives mourn the death of Sumaya Abid Duhair, a nurse killed in an air strike on her house.
“We have to keep working because other bodies will be buried here,” says Nidal Shalagel, a volunteer in his 30s. “That’s enough. We need peace. No one likes death.”