Jerusalem24 – Yasser whimpers midsentence while holding his son’s deflated basketball and talking about how Rayyan made it a ritual to play with his ball every day after school.
Yasser displays Rayyan’s belongings on the sofa. From his school backpack, he pulls out a collection of books, which he places next to Rayyan’s beloved basketball.
The Suliman family home is very simple. There are no framed photographs on the walls. In lieu of family photos, Rayyan’s backpack now hangs above a door frame.
On 29 September, Rayyan Yasser Suliman, who would have turned seven on 21 October, was pronounced dead after resuscitation attempts failed at Beit Jala governmental hospital in Bethlehem.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Rayyan was in cardiac arrest when he arrived at the hospital.
The exact circumstances surrounding Rayyan’s death, who was reportedly in good health, remain unclear; the Palestinian prosecutor’s office has not yet released the autopsy examination results. The Israeli army, whose soldiers were pursuing schoolchildren at the moment Rayyan died, were quick to deny any responsibility in the death of the child.
“He kissed me on my forehead”
“Rayyan was different from the rest of his brothers,” says Rayyan’s mother Khadija. “He was very special.”
The morning of Rayyan’s death went slightly differently from how he usually spends the first couple of hours of his day.
Rayyan – who never has breakfast before leaving for school – asked his mother that day to prepare some for him. “He said he was hungry, he asked for whatever. So I made him qalayat bandoura [cooked tomatoes] and prepared some jam.” She smiles. “He never drinks a full cup of tea, but that morning, he did. I thought to myself he wasn’t his usual self.”
That morning, Khadija went with him to school and spent half an hour with him in class while everyone shared a special breakfast together. “I’m relieved that I got to at least see him on his last day of school.”
“He asked me that morning for more than the allowance he usually gets. I gave it to him at school.”
“Before he left, he playfully tapped on my face and then kissed me on my forehead.”Yasser comes back from checking the front door after someone knocks, holding Rayyan’s deflated basketball and a Fatah flag. Rayyan used to love them, he says, and especially his kuffiyeh: “He had it in his school backpack all the time.”
“They were surprised and started running”
On Thursday 29 September, the last day of the school week, a group of children were coming home from school and playing by throwing their water bottles, a neighbor of the Suliman family told Jerusalem24. Three Israeli soldiers who were stationed in a regular spot on the main street where three of the town’s schools are located (the Boys Secondary School, and Al-Khansaa and Al-Jarmaq elementary schools) then started pursuing the children on foot.
Videos published by the town’s municipality show students from Taqu’ Boys Secondary School throwing stones at Israeli soldiers stationed in the proximity of the three schools.
Jerusalem24 was able to determine that the soldiers in the videos are not the same who pursued the elementary school students further down the road and ended up entering the Suliman family home. Several small groups of Israeli soldiers usually station at three or four locations on the main road that runs across the town.
“There was no stone-throwing at the time. All of them [the schoolchildren] were surprised and started running,” according to the neighbor.
Palestinians know it is common practice in the occupied West Bank for soldiers to look to detain children after incidents of stone-throwing, even if the children in question were not the ones involved.
“It’s like he knew”
On the night of 28 September, 6-year-old Rayyan went to his father and told him there was talk of a possible general strike in the town. When Yasser asked him why, Rayyan answered that four Palestinians had been killed in Jenin.
“He said, ‘May God be with their mothers, that’s too much to handle,’” recounts Yasser.
Rayyan was mature and bright beyond his years, and also well aware – as any child of Taqu’ attending school – of the dangers lurking just around the corner.
Due to the schools’ proximity to the main road, as well as illegal Israeli settlements, the schoolchildren of Taqu’ regularly face harassment from both settlers and the soldiers always stationed nearby.
“The Israeli soldiers intensify their presence near the schools especially at recess and when school is out,” a teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Jerusalem24. “They tend to hide between the olive trees opposite the schools and scare the kids.”
The military have also prevented – on more than one occasion – school staff from painting a zebra crossing for the schoolchildren on the busy main road.
A week before his death, Rayyan had told his parents of an incident that left him terrified, according to Yasser. A female Israeli soldier stationed in front of the schoolyard had motioned to him to remove a black cap he was wearing with a drawing of a rifle on it. The soldier then proceeded to gesture him a “you wait and see” signal by bringing her hand to her chin (a gesture in the Arab culture that means someone will pay).
“Rayyan was terrified by what happened and didn’t want to wear the cap the next day,” Yasser says. And from then on, Rayyan was scared.
“It’s like he knew that they would come and get him.”
“I could never say no to him”
Khadija and Yasser seem to intermittently forget that Rayyan is no longer here. With each story they share, a smile forms and floats on their lips.
Khadija asserts again and again that Rayyan is her favorite child.
“Two days before he left us,” she says, “he brought the Quran to me and his father and asked us to swear on it that we wouldn’t have any more kids after him.”
“Rayyan wanted to stay the youngest of his siblings and to be the most spoiled,” Yasser interrupts. “He told me that the situation is not great, prices keep going up, and that these times we live in are different from my father’s time.”
“Sometimes, it felt like I was talking to an adult,” Yasser sighs.
Khadija says Rayyan used to order his two older brothers Ali and Khaled to clean up after themselves and tidy up their beds. “Every time I would start wrapping dawali [stuffed grape-leaves] he would help, and refuse to let me make lunch or dinner on my own. He would even get his brothers in on it too.”
Carefully choosing their moment so they wouldn’t get caught by their father, Rayyan, Ali, and Khaled would splash some water on the floor until it got slippery and play around. “He would say, ‘Please let me do it, I promise I’ll clean everything afterwards,” says Khadija. “I could never say no to him.”
Khadija looks away. “He was my life… and he enjoyed life.”
Rayyan’s parents found his name written in Arabic at the exact spot Rayyan collapsed that Thursday afternoon and was found face on the ground. “I think he wrote his name there three days before,” Yasser says.
“I tried to wake him up”
The three soldiers knocked on several doors on the road, according to neighbors’ testimony, before eventually reaching the Suliman house shortly after 1pm on Thursday.
Yasser says the soldiers called him to come down while he was looking through an upstairs window. “They shouted at me that they wanted kids. Rayyan, his mother and two brothers were still upstairs, then came down while the soldiers were shouting at me.”
“At some point, it seems like Rayyan was terrified and wanted to leave through the back door.”
In the crucial minutes that followed, it is unknown what happened to Rayyan. But shortly after the previous scene unfolded and the soldiers left, a neighbor shouted from the backyard that Rayyan was lying face down.
“I ran so fast, shouting ‘Where’s Rayyan?'” remembers Yasser. “I found him on his face, tried to wake him up but no response… His mother tried to splash water on his face and still… nothing, he was dead.”
Yasser looks into the distance.
“While the two soldiers were at the front door, the third was walking back and forth,” recalls Yasser. “Now I know he scared Rayyan… My son was terrified by the soldiers’ presence.”
“He used to grin at me”
Taqu’ has been the site of confrontations between local youth and Israeli forces, as well as night-time military raids, ever since Rayyan’s death.
Many of the town’s 13,000 residents have postponed weddings and social gatherings in the aftermath of the tragedy, and have taken it in turns to offer condolences and stay by the Suliman family’s side.
Rayyan’s death has also taken a heavy toll on his friends and cousins. Khadija says that they still ask about him even after saying their farewell at the mosque on Friday, the day after Rayyan died.
“Rayyan’s cousin, who is in his class as well, he can’t believe it. He keeps telling his parents that they’re lying and that Rayyan will be back soon, that the Israeli soldiers took him away but he’ll be back. The kids of the neighborhood are shocked.”
But through this outpouring of communal grief, Khadija and Yasser have learned things about their son even they didn’t know. At not yet seven years of age, Rayyan was a very social child. Taqu’ residents have been enumerating their own surprising stories about Rayyan and the interactions he shared with everyone.
A 17-year-old cousin of Rayyan’s, currently in the twelfth grade, said he would tell her good morning every day, and recite words of affirmation to encourage her to do her best in the tawjihi exams.
A former school principal, who regularly goes through the neighborhood to visit her son, told Yasser and Khadija that Rayyan would always be playing with his ball when she drove by and that she always tried to stress that he shouldn’t do so in the street. He would just greet her with a wide smile.
“She said that he used to grin at her which would make her smile,” says Khadija.
Yasser affirms the Israeli soldiers “know well” that they are the ones behind his son’s death.
Immediately after finding Rayyan, Yasser and his younger cousin rushed to the car to drive him to the town clinic.
Yasser suddenly asked his cousin to stop the car: they were passing by the soldiers who had been in their home. “I looked at the one who scared Rayyan and told him, ‘This is your doing!’ He looked stressed and shouted at me that he didn’t have anything to do with it, and then pointed his weapon at us.”
When the town clinic decided to transfer Rayyan to Beit Jala Hospital, an ambulance rushed both father and son on their way while Yasser held Rayyan between his arms.
Yasser then recalls, in a tone of steely determination, how the ambulance passed by the three same soldiers as they were about to embark in a military jeep. “I remember their faces and his face so well. I looked him in the eye the moment we passed, and he turned his face away. We both knew what happened.”
Khadija says eight soldiers came to the Suliman house shortly after Yasser had left with Rayyan, and checked the spot where Rayyan was found motionless.
“We’re waiting for the results of the autopsy, we’re going to the courts,” says Khadija. “Nothing matters now. We’ve lost our son.”
Nothing can alleviate the heartbreak of the Suliman family. And for the wider Taqu’ community, it will take a long time to recover from this particular loss. But looking back on their son’s last week with them, Yasser and Khadija both seem to share the feeling that Rayyan had some kind of prescience of the events of that fateful Thursday afternoon.
“It’s like these were signs of his last time with us,” muses Khadija.