Editor’s Note: The following story includes graphic material. Audience discretion is advised.
The scene inside the Al-Nasr hospital ICU ward is chilling. The tiny bodies of babies, several still attached to wires and tubes that were meant to keep them alive, decomposing in their hospital beds. Milk bottles and spare diapers still next to them on the sheets.
The video inside the hospital was filmed on November 27 by Mohamed Baalousha, a Gaza reporter for UAE-based news outlet Al Mashhad. He shared an unblurred version with CNN, which shows the remains of at least four infants.
Three of them appear to be still connected to hospital machines. The bodies of the babies appear to be darkening and disintegrating from decay, with little more than skeletons left in some of the beds. Flies and maggots are visibly crawling across the skin of one child.
The circumstances around one of the most horrifying videos to emerge from the war in Gaza remain unclear, but after days of piecing together available information, using interviews, published statements and video, a chaotic scene can been painted of hospital staff trying to protect their most vulnerable patients, caught in the middle of a raging battle – waiting for help that never arrived.
Here is what CNN found
CNN geolocated the video to Al-Nasr hospital in northern Gaza. This area has been largely unreachable to journalists in recent weeks due to the intensity of fighting but during the seven-day truce Baalousha says he was able to access the hospital to film what was left there.
From early November, the Al-Nasr and Al-Rantisi children’s hospitals, which form part of the same complex, had become the frontline of fighting between Israeli and Hamas forces.
In public statements and interviews, several medical staff and health officials from Al-Nasr said they had to hurriedly evacuate the hospital on November 10, under the direction of Israeli forces.
Medical staff described having to leave young children behind in the ICU because they had no means to safely move them.
A doctor associated with the hospital, who did not want to be named, told CNN that two of the children – a two-year-old and a nine-month-old baby – had died shortly before the evacuation but that three children were left alive still connected to respirators. One of those left alive was two months old. Several of the infants on the ICU had been suffering from genetic disorders, according to the doctor.
The condition of those left behind alive – both at the time the fighting reached the hospital and when the evacuation took place – remains unclear.
In a video on November 9, the head of Al-Nasr and Al-Rantisi pediatric hospitals, Dr. Mustafa al-Kahlout, said Al-Nasr hospital had been “struck twice” sustaining “a lot of damage.”
Kahlout warned oxygen to the ICU “was cut off” and reported at least one patient had died as a result, with others facing the risk of death.
It’s unclear whether oxygen cylinders, seen next to some of the beds in the video from the hospital, were functioning or whether supplies had run out.
“The situation is really bad, we are surrounded… ambulances cannot reach the hospital, and ambulances that tried to reach Al-Nasr were targeted,” Kahlout said, calling on international organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to intervene and save the medical staff and patients who remained in the ICU.
Video shared on social media on November 9, which CNN verified, was filmed from inside Al-Nasr hospital and appears to show the aftermath of the building being hit.
Another from November 10 showed an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tank outside Al-Nasr, indicating the IDF was operating in the area. Another video from the same date showed civilians holding up makeshift white flags attempting to flee the hospital amid gunfire, then being forced to run back inside. It is not possible to tell from the video who is shooting.
Satellite imagery reviewed by CNN from November 11 shows large craters around the hospital complex, indicating the area had been under bombardment, making evacuation difficult.
But, in an audio recording of a conversation between a senior official at Al-Rantisi hospital and an officer from COGAT, which coordinates the Israeli government’s activities in the Palestinian territories and Gaza, it appears Israeli forces instructed hospital patients and staff to evacuate.
In the recording, released by the IDF on November 11, the Israeli officer assures the hospital official that ambulances will be arranged.
The hospital official tells the COGAT officer that ambulances cannot reach the hospital, and the officer replies: “I’ll arrange coordination with the primary aid center. Don’t worry, I’m near the army, it will be okay.”
“Will the ambulances take the patients and the medical staff?” the hospital official asks.
“No problem,” the COGAT officer responds, in the recording.
The hospital official then confirms that the COGAT officer is aware that people will be evacuating both Al-Nasr and Al-Rantisi hospitals, and the COGAT officer says “yes, yes.”
But hospital officials say the ambulances never arrived.
“Many of the patients were carried out by their families, ambulances couldn’t reach the hospital,” Kahlout said in a news conference on November 14, following the evacuation.
Three children were left in the ICU attached to hospital machines but without oxygen, Kahlout said.
In an audio recording from November 10 released by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) a nurse who the organization said was volunteering in a personal capacity, said the hospital had been shelled, hitting multiple floors, water tanks, and electricity and oxygen stations.
The nurse – who CNN is not identifying for security reasons – said Al-Nasr staff were given 30 minutes to evacuate by the IDF, adding no ambulances were able to reach the hospital.
“We walked out a little bit there was shooting around us,” he said in the recording. Then he said someone from the IDF told him “I’ll give you safe passage, you have from 1130am until 12 noon.”
“So, we walked out with our hands up in the air carrying white flags and carrying families and children,” the nurse said in the recording.
He said he managed to carry one baby with him as he escaped and handed it to an ambulance headed for the Al-Shifa hospital. But four children were left behind in the ICU according to the nurse, in a discrepancy from the number given by Kahlout.
“To leave my patient dying in front of my eyes is the hardest thing I have ever experienced, it’s indescribable, they broke our hearts, we couldn’t help them, we couldn’t take them, we barely left ourselves with our children, we are civilians, we are a medical crew, we are displaced civilians,” he said in the recording.
Over the past week, CNN has tried to speak to medical staff and hospital officials from Al-Nasr, but all have either said they are too afraid to speak or cannot be reached.
The director of Gaza’s hospitals at the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health, Dr. Mohammad Zaqout, told CNN that people in the hospital were forced to leave by the IDF.
“We were forced to leave them behind to die because we didn’t have a safe medical evacuation… we informed them that these children were on beds and couldn’t be evacuated. We held other children in our arms while being forced to evacuate,” Zaqout said.
The IDF has strongly denied responsibility for the deaths of the children in Al-Nasr ICU. “Given that the IDF did not operate inside the Al-Nasr hospital, these allegations are not only false but also a perverse exploitation of innocent lives, used as tools to spread dangerous misinformation,” the IDF said in a statement to CNN.
Asked repeatedly by CNN why it hadn’t provided ambulances for the evacuation, as the COGAT officer had promised in the recorded conversation with the hospital official, and if they were aware of the presence of children left in the ICU, as Zaqout alleged, the IDF did not directly respond.
During an online Q&A for journalists Saturday, IDF spokesman Doron Spielman dismissed the story as merely a “rumor.”
“There were no premature babies that decomposed because of the IDF. There were probably no babies that decomposed whatsoever,” Spielman said. “But Hamas is in charge of Nasr hospital, we are not occupying Nasr hospital.”
Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using hospitals as command centers and even as places to hold hostages.
Zaqout denies the allegation and has repeatedly called for “neutral entities, human rights organizations, and media outlets to enter the hospitals and verify for themselves that they are used solely for civilian and humanitarian purposes.”
CNN cannot independently confirm what state the children were in when they were left at the hospital. But Stefan Schmitt, a forensic scientist at Florida International University reviewed the video for CNN and said the level of decomposition of the infants was advanced.
Schmitt said he believed the room had not been disturbed since the children were left. “Those remains decomposed in situ, meaning they decomposed there on those beds,” he said. “You can see that from the bodily fluids that have leaked out over the time of decomposition.”
Schmitt also said one of the corpses appeared to be wrapped in fabric, possibly a shroud, noting there was no medical equipment attached to the body, suggesting the body may already have been dead or severely injured. The room appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry, Schmitt continued, noting the infant car seat and what appears to be a bag packed for one of the children next to its bed.
A statement from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health issued in response to the video of the babies’ remains said Al-Nasr nursing staff were ordered to leave by the IDF, who told them the ICRC was coming to evacuate the patients.
“Instead, their decomposed bodies were found in their beds,” reads the statement. “These babies drew their last breaths alone and died alone.”
The ICRC told CNN it received “several requests” for evacuation from hospitals in the north of Gaza, but due to the “security situation” it was “not involved in any operations or evacuations, nor did teams commit to doing so.” The ICRC added the footage of the deceased children was an “unspeakable tragedy.”
CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore, Nic Robertson, Celine Alkhadi, Katie Polglase, Mostafa Salem and Sahar Akbarzai contributed to this report